Hiking in the Central Drakensberg


I’m presently working as a volunteer at Ardmore Guest Farm in the Champagne Valley area of the Central Drakensberg, KZN, South Africa. I’ve been here a little over 2 weeks but I feel I’ve settled well. I am one of 4 volunteers,  the last of which only arrived today. More of that in another post!

I guess I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of the hospitality trade even though I can tell you it got my blood pressure up at times! Today has also been one of those days but it’s an exception to an otherwise pleasant stay. The landscape is incredibly scenic around here. At almost any time of day (poor weather notwithstanding) one can see a panoramic vista of the mighty ‘Berg from almost anywhere in the valley. Paul and Sue (the owners) have built a dozen or so chalets and bungalows, some mountain-facing, others garden-facing. You pay a premium to face the mountain of course but the prices are not unreasonable for a 3* establishment.

It took me two weeks to finally get a chance to walk along the mighty mountain range, oft talked of amongst those I’d met over the years, but never visited in my personal capacity. I remember my mum once talking up the possibility of a visit but sadly it never happened. Besides, in Zimbabwe we have magnificent mountain vistas and all that goes with it along the Eastern border with Mozambique. In part it’s a matter of home bias because all these places are unique. There is only one Nyanga, Bvumba or Chimanimani in Zimbabwe; likewise the Drakensberg of South Africa stands apart for its own sake. It extends over an impressive area towards the eastern seaboard  – I couldn’t tell you how much exactly – but I know that it encompasses the mountain nation of Lesotho and upland area of Kwazulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

So yesterday I had the good fortune to go walking from the Monk’s Cowl visitors centre into the Maloti Drakensberg National Park, actually designated a World Heritage Site. Paul dropped me off mid-morning around 9:30 and assured me that when I was done I wouldn’t struggle to find a lift back. If all else fails give the guest farm a call he added. Probably not an option I was thinking to myself, considering the lack of credit on my phone. However, it seemed a busy place and, not for the first time in my life, I put my faith in providence.

It had been a bit of a rush to get out off the far and as a result I forgot a few crucial elements – a water bottle and hat. Fortunately I had my wallet on me and was able to buy a plastic Powerade with its magic contents. If not for that… The choice of walks would have kept me procrastinating for a good while if it wasn’t for Paul. On his advice I set out on the walk to Blind Man’s Corner, a circular route of 12 kms and estimated walking time of 6 hours, give or take. The galleries record my progress.

The gallery at the beginning of the post shows the stunning view one can encounter within about 45 minutes of hiking. Also shown are the play of light in shadow in one of several of the mountain streams flowing down the mountain slopes and a species of Helichrysum (an everlasting). The next gallery shows the entrance to Monk’s Cowl curio shop and office complex and posing for the obligatory selfie near the turnaround point halfway through. Over my shoulder is the Cathkin Peak, one of the three highest in the range at over 3148m.

The next gallery is almost exclusively of mountain scenery, including the rather unusual one the Zulu people call Intunja, meaning “eye of the needle”. I don’t know why but it reminds me of an octopus head but I guess it’s really pretty subjective what you see! The two showing the gnarled and characteristic Protea trees are from the footpath through Keartland’s Pass which is an alternative route back to the car park and office.

There weren’t too many plants in flower but those that were didn’t disappoint. In the gallery above you can see the multiple yellow-flowering heads of a shrub that seems quite widespread in the Drakensberg here. There is also an old male flower head on a stunted Protea tree clinging to the hillside and a close-up of a pretty purple flowering plant eking out its existence in a crack in the sandstone. There is also a last look back at the Cathkin Peak and the Sterkhorn (2973m) to the right of it.

It is worth quickly noting the geology of the range, granted in a very generalised manner. I spent many year’s as an undergraduate studying geology and later as a tutor so I should know something at least! In short the Drakensberg consists of the upper groups of rock types that collectively constitute the Karoo Supergroup, predominantly sedimentary but with subordinate volcanics, sills and dykes. In fact the final event in Karoo deposition was the outpouring of large volumes of basalts (the Stormberg Group) which have given the mountain range a protective ‘cap’. This happened during the breakup of Gondwana well over 150 million years ago but through time, as the softer country rock was weathered and eroded, the peaks we see today stood out, capped proudly by these long-solidified volcanic strata. I have included a few ‘geo-shots’ in the gallery below.

Towards the end of the walk I have to say I was wilting. I’d forgotten my hat and even though it was supposedly heading into winter the African sun still maintained a certain ferocious intensity. Additionally, I only had a small ice-cream wafer on the way up and I felt my energy levels diminish. The Nandi and Sterkspruit Falls would have to wait for another day. A good reason to return!