This breathtaking national park is a nature lover’s nirvana. Comprising South Africa’s greatest mountain wilderness, it is also a vast outdoor art gallery, housing thousands of ancient rock paintings.
t Prehistoric rock paintings by the San tribes that once inhabited the area
Extending over 2,350 sq km (907 sq miles), the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protects a dramatic and rugged escarpment that provides an awesome backdrop to the pastoral midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. A hiker’s paradise, this scenic range of secluded valleys, green highland meadows and dense mist-shrouded forests incorporates all of South Africa’s tallest peaks. Wildlife ranges from the massive eland antelope and vociferous Chacma baboon to majestically soaring raptors such as the jackal buzzard and bearded vulture. Elsewhere, the rock overhangs of the Drakensberg shelter some of the world’s most prolific and best-preserved prehistoric rock art.
The Drakensberg, “dragon mountains”, follow the border of Lesotho for 250 km (155 miles) – an escarpment that separates the high interior plateau from the subtropical coast of KwaZulu-Natal. The range is divided into the rocky High Berg and the pastoral Little Berg, both of which are superb areas for hiking.
t The spectacular peaks of the Drakensberg range
The provincial conservation authority Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has subdivided uKhahlamba-Drakensberg into individually administered wilderness and conservation areas. Several government rest camps and private hotels have been set up in the foothills as a base for exploring the middle and upper slopes on foot. Shorter hikes range from hour-long rambles to ancient rock art sites (many of which can be visited only on guided tours, to protect them from vandalism), to a demanding full-day hike to Cathedral Peak. Within the park, unequipped caves and camp sites cater to more intrepid mountaineers.
t A magnet for hikers and nature lovers
Gorge Trail, Royal Natal Park
This reasonably flat trail (8 km/5 miles; three hours in either direction) follows a pretty gorge to the Amphitheatre base and Thukela Falls, with natural swimming pools en route.
Rainbow Gorge, Didima
This route (5 km/3 miles; two hours in either direction) runs along a riverbank through pockets of riparian forest, to a narrow gorge adorned with waterfalls and swimming pools.
Battle Cave, Injisuthi
Tours of this guided trail (10-km/6-mile round trip; five hours) near Champagne Valley depart daily at 8:30am, leading to a spectacular rock art site comprising 700-plus paintings.
Nestling in the park's foothills, Kamberg is known for its trout-fishing. There are several small dams near the trout hatchery, and fishing gear can be hired from the reserve reception.
Walking trails in the area last from one hour to a full day. Game Pass Shelter cave has some superb San rock paintings and can be visited with a guide – the return walk takes about three hours.
t Exploring Royal Natal National Park on horseback
The Royal Natal National Park comprises some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Africa. One of its main features is an awe-inspiring natural Amphitheatre – a crescent-shaped basalt wall 6 km (4 miles) wide and 1,500 m (4,875 ft) high. Here, the Tugela River plunges 948 m (3,080 ft) into the valley below, making this the second-highest waterfall in the world. Chalets at the award-winning Thendele Resort, above the Tugela River, provide unrivalled views of the Amphitheatre and countryside below.
In the valleys, the Mahai campsite provides easy access to an extensive network of hiking trails that can be used to explore the 88-sq-km (34-sq-mile) reserve.
In 1903 a sanctuary was established here to protect some of the last surviving eland in South Africa. They now number around 2,000 – one of the largest populations in the country. The area is also home to an estimated 200 pairs of the endangered bearded vulture (lammergeyer), which can be viewed from a camouflaged hide.
The main camp overlooks the Bushman’s River, with Giant’s Castle dominating the skyline. A short walk away are the Main Caves, where 500 San rock paintings can be seen.
Champagne Castle, at 3,377 m (10,975 ft), is South Africa's second-highest peak. It juts out from the escarpment and dominates the delightful Champagne Valley, so-named for the cluster of luxury hotels and timeshare resorts that line the 31-km (19-mile) road from Winterton to Monk’s Cowl. Monk’s Cowl is the peak between Champagne Castle and Cathkin, where there is a campsite and hiking trails.
The Drakensberg is extremely remote, so even for a day hike be sure to pack water, food, sun protection, a mobile phone and first aid kit, and bear in mind that the weather can be highly changeable.
Some of the Drakensberg’s finest scenery is to be found in this region. The road from Winterton winds for 42 km (26 miles) through Zulu villages that are scattered across the gentle folds of the Mlambonja Valley, with the peaks of the Drakensberg as a spectacular backdrop.
The strenuous hike to the top of Cathedral Peak (3,004 m/9,855 ft) is one of the most exciting in the Drakensberg, and the views from the top are unforgettable. There are also guided drives to the top of Mike’s Pass, and the Rock Art Centre at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Didima Resort explains the complicated meaning of many of the San paintings.
t The majestic view of Cathedral Peak across the Mlambonja Valley