Photo essay: Hiking the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa

Planning a safari in South Africa? A word of advice: don’t limit yourself to wildlife. Round out your trip with a visit to the Drakensberg mountain range, home to the highest peaks in southern Africa and the second tallest waterfall in the world.

We hiked the Drakensberg Mountains during our round-the-world trip in 2009 and found it to be a thrilling experience. From crossing slippery boulders to climbing a chain ladder down a cliff, it was a hiking trip we won’t soon forget!

>> Read on for original photos and advice on visiting the Drakensberg Mountains

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Hiking up the mountain

The hike itself takes about 6 hours round-trip, and starts off with amazing views of rolling green fields located in the valley below.

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There were very few other hikers on the trail, although we came across a few locals making their way up the mountain.

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The hike began innocently enough, but quickly led to some slippery and sheer rock faces that we had to scramble across.  One girl in our group made the mistake of wearing flip flops and had to be virtually carried across each dangerous area. Make sure to wear good hiking shoes!

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After a few hours spent climbing through a steep, boulder-strewn gully, we found ourselves on a flat, treeless plain. We were high atop the mountains now, looking down at sheer cliffs spanning thousands of feet.

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We caught a glimpse of the Tugela Falls, billed as the world’s “second tallest” waterfall with a drop of over 3,100 feet.

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Unlike most other natural wonders, this one was refreshingly free of tourists. In fact,we were the only ones around.  Depending on your aversion to heights, you can walk as close to the edge of the falls as you want.

A ladder to nowhere

After reaching the waterfall we started to descend the mountain. At this point we faced one of the more nerve-wracking aspects of the hike: a climb down a sheer rock face via two simple chain ladders.

Peering over the edge of the cliff, we couldn’t even see where the ladder hit the ground. It seemed to magically disappear into the mountain!

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Several hikers in our group panicked at the sight of the ladders and had to be helped down by the guides. Leslie, acting on a tip she got at the lodge, conquered her fears by being among the first to descend.

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Adding to the sense of adventure was a strong wind whipping through our hair and the sound of the ladders scraping against the rock.

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With each ladder spanning perhaps several hundred feet, it’s best not to look down at the valley floor.

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The hike then came full-circle, bringing us back to the winding trail we took up and the same valley views.  The final loop can be done in reverse if you prefer, by taking the chain ladder up and the gully back down.

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Many tourists associate southern Africa with safaris, but the Drakensberg hikes are a must-see destination if you have a few extra days to explore the region. The Ampitheatre hike is an affordable– and thrilling– way to experience the South African countryside.

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Tour vs. self-guided hike

There are smaller hikes within the Drakensbergs that you can complete on your own; however, to see the most spectacular and highest peaks you should go with an organized group. The area is remote, the roads within the park are in some disrepair and four-wheel drive is recommended.  We opted for a trip to the Amphitheatre, purchased at the Ampitheatre Backpacker Lodge for roughly US$40 per person. (The website currently lists prices at around US$60).

The hike was led by two local guides, both of whom spoke halting English and stopped frequently for for cigarette breaks. We usually avoid organized group trips, but despite the limitations of our guides this one was worth the extra cost.

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Getting there

The Drakensberg mountains are a 4-hour drive from Johannesburg or a 2-hour drive from Durban, both cities with major airports, and can be reached by organized excursion or by renting a car.

If you are heading here independently, make sure you are a confident driver. The shuttle van took us over some very bumpy and uneven roads to arrive at the start of the trail, and the roads near the park entrance were strewn with boulders. The edge of the road faced massive drops down into the canyon.

To learn more about visiting South Africa, visit the South Africa Tourism website or Twitter page (@SouthAfrica).

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About Jake Semmel

I'm a blogger and round the world traveler. I'm always on the lookout for new places to scuba dive, hike and ski.