Hiking

Rock art, baboons and hiking in South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains

Ossie Khan

13th March 2024 4 min read

It’s 6am in the morning. I’m crammed into the back of a Toyota, rattling up a truly terrible unsealed road in blanket mist, about to begin one of the greatest walks of my life. The next few hours will also serve up mud, two chain ladders and, at times, a view that extends no further than the end of my arm. But in the Drakensberg mountains, special things lie in wait.

I’ve come on a hiking trip to the largest mountain range in South Africa, which can be found around four hours south of Johannesburg. It’s a grassy massif full of grand, muscular contours, almost 940sq miles of which are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ancient rock art decorates its caves, baboons caper in its valleys and footpaths thread over its buttresses.

On the afternoon I arrive here from the city, it feels something like deliverance. The foothills are a soft green, their slopes sketched with bracken. A herd of hartebeest appears at the roadside. Sunlight washes down onto villages of thatched rondavels (traditional round huts) and roaming hens. I drive past a ‘chameleon crossing’ sign, then weaver bird nests dangling from an acacia tree. The peaks on the horizon are tall and table-topped.

Drakensburg foothills

When I reach the Cavern Resort & Spa, a hill sanctuary where red-winged starlings swoop past tree ferns and the world’s best-exercised spaniels snooze in reception, Mike Mlangeni talks me through the following day’s trail. Mike is a hiking guide, a proud Zulu, a Liverpool fan and an early riser. “We leave at 4am,” he tells me. “When we get there, we’ll have to take a four-wheel drive transfer to the start. Bad road,” he says, fixing eye contact. “But worth it.”

This is how we come to be juddering up a track before breakfast, watching the dawn fog become thicker. We’re about to begin the Amphitheatre hike, a 7.5-mile circuit that culminates on an outlandishly beautiful escarpment. Or so I’m told. The first hour, in near-zero visibility, is slow going, and it’s not until a semi-view opens up, with rags of cloud settled in the clefts of a mighty mountainscape, that I feel my blood pumping. Then we reach the chain ladders.

“They’re simple,” says Mike, as we stand under a set of iron rungs disappearing up the rock face. “Just don’t look down.” Minutes later, we’ve negotiated both nerve-wracking ladders — around 78ft and 50ft respectively, although there’s a longer alternative route for those disinclined to climb them — and reached a grassy plateau. A malachite sunbird whizzes past, a blast of colour in the lingering mist. It’s at this point, after some 90 minutes of walking, that the sun breaks through and the scenery hurtles dizzily into focus.

We’ve reached an altitude of over 2,438m. A river is chuckling away from us across the plateau and, as we keep walking, I see that it’s flowing directly off the cliffside. My pulse quickens. A sign bolted to a rock reads ‘Tugela Falls — The Tallest Waterfall In The World — 983 metres (3,225ft)’. Seconds later, the view from the drop-off opens up and hits me physically: a dreamlike universe of plunging water, basalt precipices and miles-away mountains.

Cave paintings

The cave paintings in the Cathedral Peak area are thought to be 1,000 years old. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY TEAGAN CUNNIFFE

I walk south, dazed, rambling along the cliff edge and staring out, then turn and do the same heading north. There are butterflies at my feet and gorges in the distance. Somewhere far below, cloud-shadows are patching the valley floor. I can’t take it all in. “See,” says Mike smiling when I rejoin him. “Worth it.”

Two days later, I’m sitting under a sandstone overhang examining 1,000-year-old paintings of hunters and lions. I’ve driven further south in the range to reach the thunderously handsome area around Cathedral Peak Hotel, a resort here since 1939. I had thought, foolishly, that the Amphitheatre’s scenery wouldn’t be topped, but here the peaks are more clustered, more hewn, somehow even more thrilling in scale. Groves of flowering protea trees dot the hills and black cuckoos echo from slope to slope.

The human figures in the rock paintings, which are thought to have been created using antelope blood, are shown running with spears. “They were done by the San people,” says my guide Zweli Sithole, his sun hat floppy above his scarified cheeks. “They were here before us Zulus, but they’re long gone now.” Zweli is the perfect hiking companion, with a warm patience and a habit of singing his words. “One step at a time,” he chants softly as we make the steep ascent up to a natural arch known as Mushroom Rock. “One step at a time.”

He leads me on a 10.5-mile loop through the empty green hills. Before I set out, the route description had sounded routine, but the reality is anything but. Craggy pinnacles frame the sky while slopes and ridges ripple into the distance. On a far hillside, elands graze in the sunshine. The views seem colossal and in all directions at once: spin on your heel and every way’s a winner. Zweli points out a high mountain pass that leads into Lesotho, then crouches by a stream to show me a crunched pile of crab shell left by an otter. We finish with a swim in the natural pool beneath Doreen Falls.

We stop so often to just sit and stare that it takes us nearly seven hours to get ourselves back to the resort. My boots are dusty and my calves are sore, but I’m absolutely buzzing for the rest of the day. Drakensberg translates as ‘dragon mountains’, while the Zulu word for the range — uKhahlamba — means ‘barrier of spears’. Never, I’m left thinking, were such dramatic names more warranted.

ByBen Lerwill
Photographs ByTeagan Cunniffe
For more information and details : https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/hiking-in-south-africas-drakensberg-mountains

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