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About the Drakensberg

Here's an interactive map of the Drakensberg to make your visit more rewarding. It shows the famous mountains, other peaks, hiking trails, parks and nature reserves, as well as the San rock art sites which are open to the public. It includes photos, Google reviews, links to websites and directions. Scan the QR code to get it on your phone - it's an online browser app that requires no downloads or permissions. 

You can also download our Drakensberg tourist guide (PDF  - 8.6mb) to use as an offline reference on your phone or computer. It contains just about everything you'd ever want to know about the Drakensberg, with links to useful websites:

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Hiking the Drakensberg: a tale of peaks and painted skies

Drakensberg hike

Hiking in the Drakensberg is an adventure that transcends mere physical exertion. As you lace up your boots and step onto its storied trails, you’re embarking on a journey that reveals both the well-known and lesser-explored wonders. Let’s delve into this majestic mountain range, uncovering unique insights that elude the well-trodden paths.

The Drakensberg: a geological marvel

The term “Drakensberg” evokes images of soaring cliffs, stone pinnacles, and sheer escarpments. But beyond its dramatic facade lies a geological saga. Hundreds of millions of years ago, volcanic activity spewed forth lava, which solidified over time. Subsequent uplifts and erosions sculpted the Drakensberg we know today—a natural masterpiece that defies invasion. Aptly named “uKhahlamba” by the Zulu people and "Quathlamba" by the Sotho people, meaning “Barrier of Up-Pointed Spears,” it stands as a testament to Earth’s ancient forces.

The Amphitheatre: a grand spectacle

The Amphitheatre, the most recognizable and dramatically imposing feature of the Drakensberg, commands attention. This World Heritage Site rises over 1,000 meters from the Tugela Valley to the Lesotho plateau, nearly 3,000 meters above sea level. Its near-perfect symmetry extends as a sheer wall of rock for approximately 5 kilometers from the Eastern Buttress to Sentinel Peak. The Tugela Falls, officially the world’s second tallest falls (but according to measurements using the latest technology, the world's highest), plunges 948 meters over the basalt face of the Amphitheatre, down to Royal Natal National Park below. The highest point on the escarpment is the Mont-Aux-Sources at 3,283 meters. For those seeking an awe-inspiring experience, the Amphitheatre Slackpacking Trail offers a chance to reach the summit without camping overnight. Over 3 days and 3 nights, accompanied by an experienced trail guide, you can stand on “top of the world” and savor the same sense of accomplishment as seasoned hikers. The views along the way will be worth every drop of sweat!

Golden Gate Highlands National Park: where the Drakensberg meets the Maluti Mountains

Adjacent to Lesotho in the Free State province, Golden Gate Highlands National Park shares its border with the Maluti Mountains. The park derives its name from the brilliant colors created when the sun reflects off enormous sandstone cliffs. Wildlife enthusiasts flock here to witness wildebeests, blesboks, duikers, elands, springboks, and a myriad of birds. Like other South African parks, Golden Gate Highlands boasts incredible flora, wildflowers, and unique plant types. In summer, the heat can be intense, while winter occasionally blankets the landscape in snow. There are miles of walking trails in the park, but there are also driving loops. For day-hikers, the Echo Ravine Trail offers a short but rewarding hike with breathtaking views. Walking along fresh streams, watching water fall from hundreds of meters above the rock face, and witnessing the green blanket of vegetation covering the hills—all contribute to an unforgettable experience.

Packing wisdom

Pack light but pack smart. Beyond essentials, consider:

  • Layers: Weather shifts rapidly; be prepared.

  • Sturdy Footwear: Rough trails demand robust shoes.

  • Camera: Capture fleeting moments—the Drakensberg is a photographer’s dream.

  • Respect for Nature: Leave no trace; tread gently.

Navigating the unknown

The Drakensberg tests resilience. Storms brew, trails vanish, and solitude envelops you. Yet, within this wilderness lies transformation. Trust your instincts, heed local advice, and embrace the unknown.

Flora and Fauna of the Drakensberg

Flora of the Drakensberg Mountains:

  1. Montane Grasslands: The lower slopes of the Drakensberg are adorned with vast expanses of montane grasslands, characterized by a variety of grass species such as Red Grass (Themeda triandra) and Natal Red Top (Melinis nerviglumis). These grasslands provide vital habitat for grazing animals like eland and mountain reedbuck.

  2. Fynbos and Proteas: As elevation increases, fynbos vegetation dominates, showcasing a remarkable array of plant species adapted to the harsh mountain environment. Among these are the iconic proteas, including the King Protea (Protea cynaroides), South Africa's national flower, which adds bursts of color to the landscape.

  3. Alpine Flora: As hikers ascend higher into the Drakensberg, they encounter alpine zones characterized by hardy plants specially adapted to extreme cold and harsh winds. Here, species like the Giant Lobelia (Lobelia pinifolia) and the Drakensberg Rock Lily (Cyrtanthus montanus) cling to rocky outcrops, their resilience a testament to the harsh conditions they endure.

  4. Endemic Species: The Drakensberg Mountains harbor a wealth of endemic plant species found nowhere else on Earth. These include the Drakensberg Conebush (Leucospermum hypophyllocarpodendron) and the Drakensberg Heath (Erica turgida), which underscore the region's importance as a biodiversity hotspot.

Fauna of the Drakensberg Mountains:

  1. Birdlife: The Drakensberg Mountains are a paradise for birdwatchers, boasting an impressive diversity of avian species. Raptors such as the majestic Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) and the endangered Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) soar high above the cliffs, while endemic species like the Drakensberg Siskin (Serinus symonsi) flit among the alpine vegetation.

  2. Mammals: Drakensberg hikes offer the chance to encounter a variety of mammalian residents, from the elusive Leopard (Panthera pardus) to the agile Klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus), which navigates the rocky terrain with ease. Other notable species include the Chacma Baboon (Papio ursinus) and the Grey Rhebok (Pelea capreolus), each adapted to its unique niche within the mountain ecosystem.

  3. Amphibians and Reptiles: Despite the harsh conditions, the Drakensberg Mountains are home to a diverse array of amphibians and reptiles. Frogs such as the Drakensberg River Frog (Amietia dracomontana) inhabit mountain streams, while reptiles like the Drakensberg Crag Lizard (Pseudocordylus transvaalensis) bask on sun-warmed rocks, showcasing their remarkable adaptations to mountain life.

  4. Invertebrates: From colorful butterflies to intricate spiders, the Drakensberg Mountains harbor a hidden world of invertebrate life. Endemic species like the Drakensberg Copper (Aloeides drakensbergensis) flutter among the alpine flowers, while beetles and ants scuttle among the rocky crevices, playing essential roles in the mountain ecosystem's intricate web of life.


Conservation Challenges and Initiatives:

Despite its ecological significance, the Drakensberg Mountains face various conservation challenges, including habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change. Efforts are underway to address these threats through initiatives such as habitat restoration, invasive species control, and community-based conservation projects aimed at preserving the unique biodiversity of the region for future generations.

Being a responsible hiker or backpacker

As hikers traverse the trails of the Drakensberg Mountains, they become immersed in a world of natural beauty and biodiversity. From the vibrant hues of alpine flowers to the majestic presence of soaring raptors, each encounter serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving these pristine landscapes. Through responsible tourism practices and conservation efforts, we can ensure that future generations continue to marvel at the wonders of the Drakensberg, long heralded as one of Africa's most iconic mountain ranges. As you tread these sacred lands, honour the San artists, the sleeping dragons, and the spirits that linger. Be a steward of nature, leaving footprints of reverence. Hiking in the Drakensberg transcends physical steps—it’s a pilgrimage to the heart of Earth’s grandeur. So, embark on your Drakensberg hikes, breathe in the mountain air, and let the ancient rocks whisper their secrets.

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San rock art of the Drakensberg: a window into ancient culture

Hiking in the Drakensberg is not only about walking, it is also an exquisite experience of art and culture. As backpackers traverse the rugged terrain, they tread upon a canvas that holds secrets dating back thousands of years. The Drakensberg, a majestic mountain range in South Africa, harbors a treasure trove of ancient art: the San rock paintings. These enigmatic artworks, etched onto the rocky canvas of the Drakensberg’s sheltered caves, offer a glimpse into the spiritual and cultural lives of the San people (also known as the Bushmen). The Landscape and Preservation The Drakensberg, with its soaring peaks and lush valleys, has been the historic homeland of the Southern Bushmen. First brought to global attention in 1915 through Scientific American, the Drakensberg’s rock art sites are among the best-preserved in southern Africa. Over 20,000 individual rock paintings adorn approximately 500 caves and overhang sites between Royal Natal National Park and Bushman’s Neck. These precious artworks are now protected as a World Heritage Site. The Eland: Symbolism and Mastery Among the myriad motifs depicted in the Drakensberg’s rock art, the eland stands out. This magnificent antelope, Africa’s largest, holds immense significance for the San people. The eland is not merely a subject; it is a powerful and evocative symbol. San artists lavished meticulous care upon their eland paintings, capturing them in various postures and perspectives. The finest details adorned these images, reflecting the reverence the San held for this majestic creature. The Shaman’s Dance and the Spirit Realm San rock art was more than mere communication; it was a conduit to the supernatural. The healing or trance dance, central to San rituals, remains practiced among San groups in the Kalahari even today. During these dances, shamans stomp in circles around campfires, women clap rhythms, and powerful songs fill the air. As dancers slip into altered states of consciousness, they describe journeys to the spirit realm. The paintings mirror these mystical travels. Shamans, who harness supernatural potency, play a vital role. Up to 40% of a San group may be practicing shamans. The healing dance, performed to find and cast out sickness, begins at night and continues until dawn. The dancers are believed to be attended by grotesque spirits of the dead. Special medicine songs, containing n/om (a cosmic potency), resonate during these rituals. The eland, along with other large animals, features prominently in these songs and dances. Layers of History The rock faces of the Drakensberg shelters reveal a palimpsest of art. Thousands of individual paintings, spanning animals, humans, and inanimate objects, are superimposed upon one another. Black, white, red, orange, and yellow hues merge to tell stories of ancient lives, beliefs, and connections to the spirit world. Some of these paintings are over 3,000 years old, while others are more recent, created by San artists who continued this tradition until the 19th century. Conclusion The San rock art of the Drakensberg is a testament to human creativity, spirituality, and endurance. As we gaze upon these ancient masterpieces, we honor the San people and their profound connection to hiking in the Drakensberg, the eland, and the unseen realms beyond. Backpackers exploring these rugged mountains tread in the footsteps of those who once painted their dreams and visions on these sacred walls.

Night Sky with Stars

Stunning stargazing opportunities

Drakensberg night sky

The Drakensberg Mountains offer exceptional night skies to hikers, due to their remote location and minimal light pollution. Backpackers from the northern hemisphere can witness a mindboggling array of stars, planets, and celestial phenomena that they would not see at home, making for an experience that is both romantic and scientific. Here are some constellations and celestial objects you can observe in the Drakensberg: ​The Southern Cross is a famous asterism, or shape formed by stars. It consists of the Crux constellation's brightest stars. In astronomical terms, it is an extremely important formation, as it points the way to the South Pole and has been used as a navigational aid for tens of thousands of years. In the words of the song, when you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you'll understand now why you came this way. Coal Sack nebula: Part of the Crux constellation, the Coal Sack is what is known as a dark nebula - it consists of stardust and gas which obscure objects behind it. It looks like an irregular, sack-like shape covering part of the Milky Way. The Jewel Box: Also in the Crux constellation, this is a young star cluster. It can be seen with the naked eye as a bright, misty object, but when viewed through binoculars, it looks like a collection of blue diamonds. Octans: While it is very dim and looks unremarkable, Octans plays a crucial role. It’s home to the Southern Celestial Pole, serving as the southern counterpart to Polaris in the north. Finding Octans involves following Crux’s lead, as there’s no convenient “South Star” to guide observers. Knowing its location helps orient all other celestial observations. Musca (The Fly): A small constellation near Crux, resembling a fly. It’s not as famous as Crux but adds to the southern sky’s charm. ​Centaurus: A prominent constellation with two bright stars, Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri. These are part of the closest star system to our Sun. Centaurus also hosts the Centaurus A galaxy, a powerful radio source and an active galaxy. Carina (The Keel): Home to the stunning Eta Carinae, one of the most massive binary star systems known. The Carina Nebula within this constellation is a vast star-forming region, rich in young stars and intricate structures. Pavo (The Peacock): Pavo features the beautiful Peacock Cluster (NGC 6752), a globular cluster visible to the naked eye. Look for the Peacock’s tail, formed by several bright stars. Tucana (The Toucan): Tucana contains the Small Magellanic Cloud, one of our neighboring galaxies. Also, explore the 47 Tucanae globular cluster, another impressive sight.

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