After a touristy week in the Cape, including a warm-up climb of Table Mountain, our group of adventurous Sole Sisters flew to Durban. Our journey to hike the mighty Drakensberg, or uKhahlamba (barrier of spears) as the Zulu call it, had begun.
From King Shaka Airport in Durban, we headed northwest through the green hills of KwaZulu-Natal to the Drakensberg Mountains and The Cavern, a lovely family resort hotel at the base of the Royal Natal National Park.
We arrived in time for lunch on the deck and a swim in the freshwater pool. We couldn’t get too comfortable though, as we were leaving the next morning for the highlight of our trip, the high traverse from the Sentinel to Cathedral Peak over six days.
With a long trek ahead of us, and heavy weather forecast, it was time to get serious. What to carry in the backpack? What to leave behind at the resort? Several hours of sorting and backpack-weighing later, we were ready to go but feeling jittery.
Our guide, Paul Roth, met us for pre-dinner drinks, and we quickly realised that we’d be in safe hands. Even the photo he showed us of a helicopter crash he’d just survived while part of a mountain rescue operation didn’t deter us!
Day 1: The Sentinel and the Amphitheatre
Getting to the start of our walk the next morning was an adventure in itself. We picked up our four Zulu porters and drove for several hours around the edge of the national park and into the Free State.
The steep, rugged road to the Sentinel car park was a challenge for our packed minibus, despite our excellent driver’s best efforts. To lighten the load, we all got out and walked up many sections of it – a good warm-up but a little daunting as we started to realise just how high we were going and what was ahead of us.
Our plan was to ascend to the top of the Amphitheatre that day via the direct route up 35 metres of chain ladders, but sadly, the ladders were closed for maintenance just minutes before we arrived.
Our only option was the steep and narrow Gully, a more physical route to the top of Beacon Buttress. Scrambling up the rocks with our full packs was a challenge, but we still managed to pick up the pace when threatening thunderclouds started moving in.
We made it to the top and huddled together in a rock shelter until the storm passed, then set up our tents near the second highest waterfall in the world. The Tugela Falls plunge an astonishing 948 metres into the valley far below.
We had a lovely evening on the edge of the escarpment, looking down on creation, but we were happy to escape the cold wind in our tents as soon as night fell.
Day 2: To Mbundini Abbey
On day two, we walked out of South Africa and into Lesotho along the Kubedu River valley. We panted our way up and down the hills in the 3000m-high air, but fortunately no one felt any other symptoms of altitude sickness.
After leaving the Amphitheatre, we didn’t see any other walkers, but we passed many Basotho herdsmen with their flocks of sheep and goats. Most of them waved from a distance but a few walked down to meet us. It was a lovely day, with the sun shining and easy walking along the escarpment.
Our leisurely break for lunch included a hot cup of tea and entertainment by a lammergeier (bearded vulture) dropping bones from a great height onto the rocks below to smash open for the marrow for its own lunch.
We camped at Mbundini Abbey, a beautiful spot with sweeping views past Madonna and her Worshippers to the dramatic peaks and vertiginous slopes to the valley below.
Day 3: Rain, rain, rain
During the night, the weather changed and we woke to find the previously dry ground beneath our tents had become a swamp. The pouring rain didn’t let up all day as we trudged on through the mist toward the source of the Orange River. Walking in puddles, our socks and boots were wet, all clothing layers were damp, the rain dripped from our caps onto our faces, the mist closed in and the wind chilled us to the bone. If we stopped, we froze, so on we trudged.
We hurriedly set up camp in the mid-afternoon, stripped off and climbed into our sleeping bags in our tents to reheat our bodies. And there we stayed, eating whatever cold snack food we had, from 3pm until 7am the next day. It was a very long and frustrating night listening to the rain continuing to pour outside, while our tents turned into waterbeds.
Day 4: Descending Rockeries to “five star” Cave
When the sun rose, we peaked through the tent zips to see the clouds lifting briefly over the mountains. We decided that the best option was to cut our trek short and drop off the escarpment in the hopes of finding somewhere drier and warmer to camp, rather than staying high risking hypothermia walking on to Cathedral Peak.
While this was the safest option, it wasn’t the easiest one, however! We still had two days of walking and the Rockeries to descend, not to mention countless roaring streams to ford.
After a quick breakfast, we packed up our wet gear and set off into the rain and mist. The first river wade of the day was the Sengu (Orange), that rises here and flows west across South Africa to the Atlantic ocean. The descent of Rockeries was magnificent, surrounded by high waterfalls and saturated but positively glowing green hillsides.
Our plan was to spend the night in one of the many caves in the area. Fortunately, our Zulu porters knew the path to the cave and went on ahead. When we reached it, they had set up house for us, with a fire blazing and a soft bed of grass prepared in the corner kraal (usually an enclosure for sheep or cattle, but in this case, for women!). We thoroughly enjoyed our warm and dry evening.
Day 5: Mweni Valley
In the morning, the inside of the cave resembled a laundry, with all of our gear hanging up to dry, but the weather had cleared. We ate our breakfast squatting on the hillside like baboons, looking out at the stunning panorama. Though we were sad to leave our “five star” cave, we continued down into the valley.
It was mostly easy walking but we had one last hurdle to face – crossing the rain-swollen Thonyelana River. With a bit of teamwork, we managed to get everyone over.
We eventually reached a dirt road that wound its way through Zulu villages to the Mnweni Cultural & Hiking Centre. We had lots of snacks and sweets left over, and the children that we passed were only too happy to help us lighten our loads.
Return to The Cavern
It was a long, slow minibus ride back to The Cavern from the cultural centre, but the lovely staff had saved a late lunch for us, which we wolfed down with gusto. Though we’d ended our walk a day early, we weren’t too upset. We had a relaxing extra day at The Cavern to recover and clean ourselves up before we headed home to Sydney.
South Africa is stunningly beautiful, its people are warm and welcoming, and we’d love to go back for more walking in the Drakensberg area. But maybe next time we’ll ditch the tents and just walk cave to cave!
Many thanks to Angus Maclaren from Walks in Africa for putting together a wonderful itinerary for us, great guides and accommodation. A fantastic holiday.
If you are not a very experienced hiker, or have no local knowledge, take a guide when hiking in the Drakensberg. This track map is very approximate and should not be used for navigation.
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