Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park

A dam with the Drakensberg Mountains forming an amphitheater in the background.

The majestic Drakensberg Mountains stretch for 1000km across South Africa.

Length:
+/-  1000 km
Province:
KwaZulu-Natal
Elevation:
3,482 m
Highest peak:
Thabana Ntlenyana (3,482m)
UNESCO Listing:
2001

Introduction

The Drakensberg (dragon mountain), with its high peaks, grassy valleys and crystal-clear streams, is an area of breathtaking beauty. The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park was declared a World Heritage Site in 2001, and consists of almost the whole range of the Drakensberg Mountains, an area of 243 000 ha. It is located in the green midlands of KwaZulu-Natal on the eastern border of Lesotho and South Africa. The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park is made up of a number of conservation areas, including the Royal Natal National Park, the Cathedral Peak State Forest, Monks Cowl State Forest as well as Giant's Castle Nature Reserve.

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park is one of South Africa's prime eco-tourism destinations because it is of natural and cultural importance. Peaks are often covered with snow in winter and some are over 3000m high. Some of the highest peaks include Champagne Castle (3376m) and Giant's Castle (3313m). The Sani Pass, a 4x4 track, is the only road in this region to cross the escarpment and provides entrance to the 'Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho'. The conservation of wetlands is one of the important aims of this park, and therefore the park has also been declared a Ramsar Site.

Activities such as hiking, fly fishing, rock climbing, mountain biking and bird watching are recommended. Explore the caves to find ancient San rock art - among the world's most precious heritage sites. Accommodation in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park varies from luxurious to comfortable at places such as Giant's Castle, Royal Natal's Thendele, Didima, Injisuthi, Kamberg and Lotheni.

Reasons to Visit

1

Dragons and Spears

The mountain range has been called various names, of which 'uKhahlamba-Drakensberg' and just 'Drakensberg' are best known. 'uKhahlambe', the Zulu name, means ‘barrier of spears’, and the Afrikaans name 'Drakensberg' means ‘the dragon mountains’. You’ll understand why this is so appropriate when you see it - it is, quite simply put, epic.

2

Rock Paintings

The Drakensberg Mountains are home to the world’s largest collection of rock art. Taking a walk with experienced field rangers to rediscover the remote areas where, centuries before people narrated their lives with astounding detail and in an array of colors, is like finding a treasure chest of incomprehensible worth.

3

Natural Beauty

The Drakensberg Mountains have inspired many with their immense beauty. Rivers cascade down the mountains and rush through the valleys, and with escarpments poetically named Champagne Castle, the Amphitheater Valley, Cathedral Peak and Giants Castle, it’s hard to resist visiting, and even harder to leave once you do.

Useful Info

Getting There
Plane

By Air

Your journey to the Drakensberg will start at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, where you will be welcomed and assisted with connecting flights if required. Flights to Durban from Johannesburg, Cape Town International and Port Elizabeth Airport are available daily, which make it a great destination to combine with others planned for your South African expedition.

Car

By Road

The Drakensberg Mountains are situated approximately 2 hours from Durban and 4 hours from Johannesburg. Your departure point will vary depending on your tour itinerary. You will be transported in an air-conditioned, private vehicle, from either the airport or a previous stop as part of your trip itinerary.

Weather & Best Time To Visit

The Drakensberg is a year-round destination, depending on your traveling preferences. The region experiences summer rainfall, and winters are usually dry. The rainy spring and summer (October to March) turn the mountainsides a lush green, and the budding flowers sprinkle the escarpments with color. Weather extremes do occur and can occur rapidly, however, especially late afternoon storms.

During early autumn and winter (April to August), snow can be seen on the mountaintops from as early as April, but daytime temperatures averaging 15-20 degrees Celsius create extremely comfortable conditions for hiking. During the evenings, temperatures often fall below freezing point and it can become extremely cold.

History

The Drakensberg so named due to the Afrikaans farmers of Dutch origin that thought that it looked like the back of the mythological European dragons. In Afrikaans, 'Drakensberg' literally means ‘the dragon mountain.’ In Zulu, the mountain is known as 'uKhahlambe', and 'Maluti' in Sotho, both which mean 'barrier of up-pointed spears'. These jagged edges of the mountain have their origins 180 million years ago when they were deposited as the last part of the Karoo-Supergroup. The Drakensberg lavas capped the Karoo-Supergroup, and they are some of the youngest geological layers in South Africa, as all the overlaying layers have been eroded away countrywide.

Even before the Zulu, Boers and British fought bloody battles in this area, it was home to the Stone Age era Bushmen also known as the San hunter-gatherers. Their rock art paintings on the smooth rock faces of the Drakensberg are testament to this. The highest number of Bushman rock paintings in the world can be found in the Drakensberg; more than 35 000 paintings can be observed. It is very hard to accurately date the age of the paintings, but judging from the stone tools in the area and the style of similar paintings that have been dated, the paintings can be as old as 3 000 years or more. Some of the youngest rock art is also found here, depicting ox wagons of the Afrikaans farmers that underwent the ‘Great Trek’, and date back approximately 180 years ago.

Wildlife

The mighty Drakensberg Mountains provide sanctuary for a vast array of animals, despite consisting of steep and largely inaccessible terrain. Antelope such as klipspringer, mountain reedbuck, common reedbuck, grey rhebok, oribi, eland, and black wildebeest occur. On the lower, flatter slopes, where there is plentiful grass, one can even find one of the most endangered species of all - the white rhinoceros. The more secretive species found here include leopard, caracal, serval, aardwolf and aardvark. We know these animals are here because they have been caught on camera traps, tracks and droppings are plentiful, but to see one of them you would just have to be truly lucky!

Birders flock to the Drakensberg from the world over. To navigate the mountains and actually see the birds you are looking for can be quite a mission, but they are most certainly there. The rarest species enthusiasts go there to see are those that occur at high altitude, which are the bearded vulture, orange-breasted rockjumper, Drakensberg siskin, bald ibis and the Cape vulture. Most of the birds occur lower than 2 000 meters above sea level, and in total more than 300 species have been recorded. The mountain streams also provide a haven for frog species, some only to be found here, like the Maluti river frog, Drakensberg river frog and the Phofung river frog.

Vegetation & Terrain

The Drakensberg terrain can be divided into two main vegetation groups; the Drakensberg alti-montane grasslands and woodlands that occur higher up in the mountains from 2500m, and the Drakensberg montane grasslands, woodlands and forest that can mostly be found between 1800m and 2500m. The mountain range is also the source of various rivers, including the Tugela River and the Tugela Falls the occur within it - the second highest waterfall in the world at 947m. The Orange River, which is the longest in Southern Africa, also originates in the Drakensberg. The waters flowing from these mountains are a vital resource for South Africa and its various industries.

One of the most prominent and extraordinary features of the Drakensberg terrain is the San Bushmen rock art that adorns the various caves set within the escarpments. Thousands of paintings can be found all over the region. They depict various activities and animals, such as hunting kudu or traditional celebrations, and were painted with a mixture of ingredients such as ocher and blood. The caves also delivered various artifacts that enlightened researchers to the Bushman lifestyle and their ingenious approaches to life in the wilderness. It is also notable that these paintings are still viewable after thousands of years in a region that receives a large amount of rainfall.    

Activities

The Drakensberg region is known for its diverse range of hiking trails that encompass a variety of difficulty levels and areas. There is something for everyone - from hikes to fresh water pools ideal for swimming, to trails leading up high into the mountains, and short walks for the less physically capable. The area is also popular amongst horse lovers, and horse riding activities are available at various establishments. It is a great way to immerse yourself in the environment and also allows you to see more of the vast mountain strip. Game viewing activities are also available, and even the white rhinoceros can be found in some areas.    

Birding is extremely attractive in the Drakensberg, and hiking high up into the mountains to catch a glimpse of the bearded vulture is regarded as a must for specie enthusiasts. There are also various water-based activities, of which the most tantalizing is probably taking a well-deserved shower under one of the smaller waterfalls after a hike (please remember these are open to the public, so keep your clothes on). The area is also full of curio shops, museums, animal centers and historically significant places that can be visited to gain more knowledge of the area and its rich history. Golfing is another way to stay active whilst taking in the beautiful surrounds.

Experiences to be Savored

The Drakensberg Mountains seen from amidst the clouds.

Be Enchanted

Hiking to the Tugela Falls, or driving towards the view of the majestic Amphitheater from afar, or just simply watching the sun slide in behind the mountains and the moon silhouetting their shapes against the night sky, will make you believe in dragons again. It is magical.

Explore and rediscover

Taking a walk off the beaten track,and following in the footsteps of the San Bushmen through valleys and over streams, past caves and vegetation that have been around for hundreds of years, is an excursion you will never forget.

Hiker Heaven

The amount of trails and variation in settings that you will find in the Drakensberg Mountains are breathtaking. There is something for everyone, from causal hikes to fresh water pools where the children can swim, to intermediate trails leading up high into the mountains.

FAQ

Will we see snow on the mountains?
In the winter season (June – August) there is snow, and during those months, there is also a fully operational ski resort on the Lesotho side of the mountains.
What type of accommodation is available?
There are various types of accommodation, ranging from basic and adventurous to four star comfort.
What kind of dining options are available?
There are restaurants available (at the lodges, hotels and towns), coffee shops and a small bakery. There is also a market.
Are there any horse riding opportunities?
There are horse riding facilities available at some of the lodges and several independent operators that provide rides to view the natural landscape of the area.
Are there picnic sites available?
Yes, there are many picnic sites along the winding routes.
Can we hike in the mountains?
There are numerous hiking trails, ranging from those for beginner hikers to experienced hikers. There also overnight hiking accommodations available.
Are there spas in the area?
Yes, there are quite a few spas available for a relaxing time away.

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