North Drakensberg Traverse
Drakensberg, South Africa
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
South Africa’s thrilling and magnificent Drakensberg look like mountains from the plains of Kwazulu-Natal, but are in fact a vast escarpment forming the edge, at around 3,000 m, of the high Lesotho plateau. Volcanic basalt was forced up some 180 million years ago and spread to form a layer more than a kilometre thick over older sandstone. The eastern end has eroded into a line of tremendous cliffs over 200km long, forming the effective border between South Africa and Lesotho. Here you will gaze on famous and fantastical formations - Cathedral Peak, The Sentinel, Champagne Peak – above long, grassy ridges and gorges descending into the plains some 1,800m (6,000ft) below.
The sandstone foothills – the Little Berg – are very special in their own right, a maze of canyons and rocky ridges. Their lush, flowery greenness for much of the year will surprise many travellers expecting desert and dry rock. The scale here is deceptive: you have to concentrate to appreciate the vastness of the cliffs – drops of 1,000 metres are not unusual.
Behind the escarpment is a broken, treeless plateau of rough grass and low alpine shrubs which is reminiscent - down to the heather and thistles - of Scotland, or parts of Mongolia. Meeting the sudden jagged edge of the escarpment as you tramp across this beautiful but seemingly regular landscape never ceases to amaze.
Lesotho is a small, dirt poor kingdom trapped within South Africa. Here on the high plateau, you may meet the Sotho herdsmen living in rough little kraals in summer. They are tough, and have been seen wearing nothing but a blanket and wellies on a bitter autumnal evening. We saw no-one for four days, when we were there in late March (i.e., Autumn).
The border follows the watershed, which for much of the time is close to the cliff edge: the plateau slopes westward, down from its famous escarpment. A bit like the Cotswolds, in fact.
Drakensberg means “Dragon’s Mountains” in Afrikaans; they are the Barrier of Spears to the Zulus, whose kraals are scattered up the valleys of the Lower Berg, their herds grazing complacently on the lower slopes.
Many caves here contain paintings, some very fine, left by the bushmen, the area’s earliest inhabitants, who were annihilated in the great tribal movements that marked the rise of the Zulu kingdom.
There are few real tracks here: much of the time you are crossing rough ground, sometimes on tenuous animal trails. That said, much of it is surprisingly easy going – not like trying to traverse a Scottish heather hillside, for instance.
The walk along the northern end of the escarpment arguably passes through the most dramatic - and remotest - scenery of all.
We leave the Cavern hotel at 6am, for the beautiful 2½ hour drive to the trailhead below the famous free-standing tower, The Sentinel. We cross lush, grassy foothills, the drama of the escarpment an ever-present backdrop, then ascend the long Western Buttress ridge to the roadhead, at 2,300m.
The trail is a delight - and a lot easier than we had expected - winding round the contours of the ridge, then zigzagging up to our first stupendous view on the western rim of the Amphitheatre, immediately below. The Sentinel’s thousand-foot red basalt cliffs 4km away are the towers of the Eastern Buttress, including that improbable needle, the Devil's Tooth. Between is a line of vast cliffs, down which the Tugela Falls, at 947m the world's second highest (in total drop), thread their way in five cascades.
We contour round to the back of The Sentinel, then on to the infamous chain ladders in a cleft in the escarpment. The views are extraordinary: vertiginous ridges and gulleys, bright emerald when we were there, dropping to the colourful sandstone cliffs and buttes of the Little Berg, the plains of Kwazulu-Natal slumbering in the far distance.
The two stretches of chain ladder (the term does them an injustice - they are very solidly constructed) climb 100ft of cliff to the escarpment top. I found them mildly uncomfortable, but exhilarating: they would be impossible for the vertigo sufferer. There is a long, very steep and rocky gulley behind The Sentinel as an alternative.
We are now at around 2,900m (a bit under 10,000ft). The top of the escarpment is a revelation. I expected broken plateau, but am staggered to find myself in the Scottish Borders: rocky hillsides rising from shallow, grassy glens, thistles and even heather eking out a living amid the tussocks.
We round the hills behind The Sentinel, to the top of the Tugela Falls, where we have lunch and intoxicate ourselves with the wondrous view out from the middle of the Amphitheatre. Even lying by the cliff-edge makes me queasy here. The falls disappear from view: I know that the top flight - the only bit I can fully see - is a small component of the total drop, but it is already a long way down. I feel like I am viewing the gorge at the bottom through the wrong end of a telescope.
We climb the ridge to the south, circuit a bog in a wide valley and cross a low saddle into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.
Steady walking gets us to our campsite on some roughish ground above a river. Our experienced guide, Ian Shooter, and his Zulu assistant and porters, are concerned about whether any Sotho herders are about, and scan the terrain from the saddle. The herders can harass and even rob travellers, so we will turn away if the kraal ahead is in use. It is not - we turn out to meet no-one, as they have already departed for lower pastures as Autumn deepens.
Ian has walked here getting on for 100 times, and is fanatical about these mountains. He is full of learning lightly worn, and is the most considerate and interesting of guides. And he turns out, unusually for a South African male, to be a keen cook. Chicken rice is magiced up. I am asleep at 8, but wake with a start at 9 and have to read until I finally fall away. Ali says I snore like a train. Must be the altitude.
Awoken with a "where am I?" start by my alarm at 6am. An efficient rise, pack and breakfast has us leaving at 8am.
A grey sky breaks into diminutive clouds, their shadows scurrying across the sparkling hillsides. We trek steadily down the Kubedu valley, removing our boots to ford the river, which, after a cold night, causes yelps of pain. As we reboot, a trio of rare Bearded Vultures (Lammergeier) swoop across us on their vast wings.
We pass a deserted kraal, the roof of its hut gone completely. Despite the best ministrations of the weather, it still smells of shepherds' wellies.
Crossing the ridge above, we contour round another lovely valley to the flat rocks at the top of a torrent. Here we rest and enjoy the view down the widening Kubedu valley. After traversing its upper slopes, below a broken cliff, we turn into another valley arrowing due east to the escarpment edge 5km away.
We gradually drop to the stream, then turn south again, passing another deserted two-hut kraal with a cow’s stripped-clean skeleton. A long trudge – panting a bit with the altitude - up to a valley-head brings us to long views over the ranked ridges of Lesotho. We cross a bowl where White Storks are poking around in a marsh. And then, a bit after noon, we cross another ridge and sink gratefully down for lunch and the leisurely contemplation of an enthralling view. Across a new, deep, valley in which our tents will later be pitched on a patch of immaculate turf by the stream, the hills rise steadily to their sudden, brutal termination at the escarpment edge. Behind the relative order and reason of the plateau hillsides, all is crazed anarchy: violent spikes and broken buttresses appear and then vanish again amid shreds of rising cloud.
We plod down to our campsite in the warm valley bottom. With a long, sunny afternoon ahead, I decide to walk up beside the winding stream toward the valley head and the unseen cliffs behind the gently curved skyline to the north of Mbundini Abbey.
On the Abbey's slopes, to my right, is a troupe of Baboons. I am slightly nervous, but no need: they are truly wild, and see me as neither a threat nor an opportunity. They browse slowly away up the hillside, their calls so human that to my ignorant ear they could be particularly exotic tribesmen.
I traverse the back of the Abbey, peering through the cleft to its south at a profile of Madonna and bits of her Worshippers. I get back to camp just in time before a shower rattles through.
A relaxed time writing and reading while a serious storm tips down outside, another delicious supper, and bed.
A beautiful morning of bright sun and cool shadow in our perfect Scottish glen. After a breakfast of porridge (what else?), we head off up the grassy gulley behind the campsite back to the watershed ("Welcome to South Africa") just behind and below the high cliffside crags. Madonna and her Worshippers come and go through drifting mist.
We turn south and scramble up a rough low hill, descending again to the slightly sinister head of Fangs Pass. With low cloud covering Kwazulu-Natal, and quiet Chinese mist feeling its way up the cliff faces, it feels like we are floating.
Up another hillside, we follow a long ridge, with fine views westward across the hills and glens of Lesotho, returning to the escarpment above the Pins and the Mweni Needles. Although the mist swirling around these spires is poetically mysterious, we do hanker slightly for the Big Unencumbered View. We eat nuts and raisins, huddled from the ridge-top breeze.
Another steady swing below the high ridge takes us across another saddle ("Welcome to South Africa") to the Hanging Valleys which spill, perhaps a kilometre a way, into the great hole that is the Mnweni Cutback. Fabulous spires come and go through the gauzy mist that rises, sensuously, around them, then vanishes as it meets the wind at the escarpment edge: the Twelve Apostles and the definitely “previous era” Eeny, Meeny, Miny and Mo.
Another half hour's contouring the valleys' upper reaches gets us to a delightful lunch spot in the lee of a large rock. A further trudge up to a high saddle takes us back into Lesotho and a fine view down a glen to a vivid green marsh and, beyond it, the infant Orange River beginning its 2,200 km journey west toward the Atlantic.
A long descent across a rough hillside brings sharp pangs to the ankles ("Bring on the Brufen"). Behind this fairly regular slope are the cracked formations we have been gazing on. Wierd. We splosh round the edge of the swamp as the threatened rain beings. At the Orange stream, we fill every conceivable water container - none to be had up high where we will sleep - then start the tough 45 minute climb to the top of Mponjwane, now in driving rain. Foolishly, we do not don our overtrousersand our bottom halves are soon soaked. From the top, we clamber down some steep rocks, round a corner, and into the welcome shelter of the Mponjwane Cave. The berg is full of these caves - more wind-scoured overhangs, really - but this one is special, large enough to sleep 12, beneath a peak right on the escarpment edge, looking straight out onto the huge, free-standing Mponjwane Tower, across lower spikes down to the sensuous green ridges and gorges of the Little Berg far below. Almost inevitably, the rain desists the moment we enter the cave, leaving a clear if thick-aired view far out to the lower plains.
We pull off of our wet clothes and pile on the warm stuff. We then have a leisurely discussion of the day's wonders while we sip lan’s tea and enjoy the views. Ian produces a wonderful bowl of sausages and mash at 6pm.
Darkness falls and our temperatures drop; we retreat to our tent "inner" (not really needed, as the cave is very sheltered and we could have slept "out") and read until sleep overtakes us.
We wake at 6:20 again, but are in no hurry: a leisurely rising and loquacious breakfast, gazing on the natural glory below us. Yesterday's rain has given way to high, hazy cloud and low mist in the plains. A group of ten Cape Vultures swoop languidly on the thermals around the magnificent Mponjwane Tower.
Rising cloud triggers a hasty departure, and we clamber to the top of Mponjwane to drink in the view before it disappears: to the south-east, the Saddle and Cathedral Peak; to the north-west, trails of mist soaring elegantly over the vast cliffs of the Mnweni Cutback, to disappear in the breeze above. The sky is a paradigm of radiant blueness.
As we drop to the head of the Rockeries Pass for the great descent to the Little Berg, we are met by a great billow of rising cloud. At the pass-head, the first well-established trail we have seen since The Sentinel indicates the route of marijuana smuggles and rustlers. With a deep breath, we step out into the void.
Actually, to our surprise, it is a long but relatively straightforward scramble down a zigzagging mule track through the steep grassy slopes of this magnificent gorge. It is a great sadness that we are in thick cloud, as we only get intimations of the incredible spires and towers of The Rockeries above us.
Fairly suddenly, we fall out of the bottom of the cloud into a new and wondrous world: a vividly green gorge winding away amid tremendous cliffs and long tussocky slopes.
The trail is really quite easy now, and the walking a total delight amid increasingly sensuous ridges and huge hillsides; waterfalls tumble in on each side, and the vegetation seems to change with each bend in the trail: meadow flowers, small shrubs, then cycads and remarkable proteas, sadly just past flowering.
Lunch is a leisurely affair, with many topics discussed, in a clearing by the river. The afternoon's walk continues with the beauty and delight. We reach another fine campsite, in a small meadow of long grass above a 50ft riverside cliff. Sandstone cliffs break the hillsides on both sides of the valley. A lone herdsmen peers out of his cave at the high cliff - base across the river, and whistles his dogs back to base.
We sit on the grass and revel in the lushness and beauty around us. After Scotland atop the escarpment, this feels like Real Africa. Our tent is 3 metres from the cliff-edge, and I recite to myself to turn right not left when stumbling out for a pee at night. The sky darkens in a timely reminder of the cause of this lushness: summer rainfall (indeed, a lightening storm) and we retire to our tents for the evening.
We wake to a drenched morning of cloud and soft mist clinging to the hillsides. Huge raindrops sit complacently on our tent and the matted grass around it. The river is definitely noisier at the base of our cliff.
There is no hurry to leave, and Ian wants time for the tents to dry out a bit, so we snuggle back into our bags and read, enjoying the lack of bustle.
We eventually take to the path - somewhat shiny after the rain, and the subject of lament from Ian at its decline - at an amazing 9:15am.
It is a brilliantly fresh and lush valley we wander down, the grass almost getting longer as we watch. The valley meanders between cliffs and sexily curved slopes and ridges. It feels like a few minutes after The Creation. It is hard to imaging that this will all be a scorched brown - dryness and night cold, rather than heat - in a couple of months.
We wade the thigh-deep river three times - boots on: better grip, the trek is nearly done and we can't be bothered to take them off.
The valley gets wider and softer and we pass cattle, watched by what look like the planet's most indolent herdsmen - the detritus of the passing marijuana trade, perhaps? - and neat kraals of round, thatched huts (and some newer, square, glazed ones) among little fields of maize. Kraals nestle, up the slopes, beneath waterfalls that pour out over the upper cliffs.
Not many people about - we meet the valley’s children, fresh out of school, in a giggling, mocking gaggle downstream. We are reminded of how silly we look.
Behind us, tantalising glimpses of the huge pommel and cantle of the Saddle emerge from the high cloud. And then, after a 5km trudge along a dirt road, we reach the Mnweni Cultural Centre, a touching collection of huts amid luxuriant greenery, its gate manned by an old Zulu who exchanges hugs with Ian and laughs at the day he fell into this river – in spate - on a trek. Perhaps 10km away, a new aspect of the escarpment looms, in all its glory, at the head of a new, wide, valley. A fitting end to a truly outstanding walk.