Northern Traverse - 5 Day Drakensberg Hike
Ukhakhlmba is the Zulu name for what we know as the Draknensberg, It translates to “barrier of spears”.
Arguably the most challenging hike Mama Cat has embarked on to date! The challenge is created by many factors, some of which you may experience on other hikes, but in this hike, we had all of them in one go. Extreme weather, challenging terrain, insufficient gear (which turned out to be sufficient when reconfigured), more extreme weather, heavy packs, tired legs, surprise late night encounters which turned out to be friendly. The reason we were able to persevere on this trip was because of our wonderful guide, Bonga. He knew the area so well, spoke fluent Sesotho and always found us a good camp spot, a good swimming spot and the perfect view spots. Oh, and a crew who were always able to find the silver lining, crack a joke and keep the snacks coming.
There is one region in South Africa where I feel a guide is a must, and this is it. There are so many things which can go wrong, and having someone who can lead your group to safety is very calming and makes the trip so much more enjoyable!
Map: We had a guide, but did check Maps.Me from time to time.
Time of Year: March 2023
Management & Bookings: Our guide managed all of the permits and booked our shuttle for us.
Guide Details: Bonga Samson Miya | +27 76 474 7930
Getting there: We headed from Johannesburg to Cathedral Peak Hotel where we left our cars. From there we took a shuttle to Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge where we spent the night before we started hiking. At the end of the hike we collected our cars and stayed at Didima Lodge.
Check In: You need to check in at Witsieshoek for the shuttle, and then you will sign in at Sentinel Car Park. They will ask you if you have an extra day’s worth of food, we certainly did!
Parking: Cathedral Peak charges a fee to park your car in their lot. Our car was safe - just consider where you park, if there is a lot of rain you could get stuck in the mud, quite a few cars did.
Facilities: We wild camped, there is the odd cave and hut, but reports are that the huts are not cleaned. Make sure you know how many people a cave can sleep, some can only fit 2-3 people! We stayed in Twin Cave, which could sleep about 20, in tents.
Cost: R3750 per person, this includes guide and permits. This price will fluctuate depending on your group size.
Length: 5 Days (you can extend this if you want a more relaxed time)
Distance: 82km (give or take)
Weather: Yikes! We had four hailstorms on night one. The second of which shredded the old flysheet of the tent we were all huddling in. The next morning it was still raining at 10am and we decided to turn back to Witsieshoek, I was so sad about this decision but it was the right one as we were wet, there were no signs of it getting better and we didn’t know what lay ahead. As we were putting our packs on, the skies parted and the sun started shining. We made a split second decision to continue! Make sure you have a spare set of clothes, good shoes that provide some level of water protection, and a really good poncho!
Water: Because of the rain, there was water everywhere. Apart from the last night in the cave where there was no water close by, we had enough water on the trail. We did have capacity for 2-3 liters each but it wasn’t necessary. We tried to eat lunch close to water where possible.
Difficulty: Between the weather, not making much distance on the first day so having to play catch up, and the final descent, this is the most challenging hike I have done. The Maira Valley in Italy was very challenging as we did 2000m ascent/descent but we didn’t have bad weather and hike 18-22km consistently per day.
Notes: Be prepared! Make sure you are fit, you have food gear, warm clothes and a good group of friends to keep the spirits high!
Day One: 10km | Sentinel to Tugela Falls
This was a gorgeous day. The first and only major ascent on the hike is on Day 1, getting up to the plateau. You get your first taste of the beautiful mountain range, the barrier of spears towering over you. The path up to the ladders is mostly paved brick, so it’s easy walking. We had a little rest at the foot of the first set of ladders, and some snacks to encourage us up this scary section. As we started mist came over and we couldn’t see the top of the ladder, we moved very slowly, one rung at a time. The ladders with the “wheels” are easier to climb as they give you enough distance away from the mountain so you can get your boots onto each rung.
We arrived at the falls, had a long lunch and a swim, and every now and then got a glimpse of the falls through the mist. Just after lunch, about 30 minutes into our hike to our camp for the night, we found ourselves in the middle of a lightning storm. As it was not easing up, and it can be very dangerous to be out in a field hiking, our guide suggested we set up camp to get dry and safe. This was one of four lighting storms that night. The pair responsible for cooking that night (whose flysheet was shredded) very bravely emerged between storms and cooked us a delicious meal. Standing around in the hail stones we ate quickly and got into bed nice and early.
On the menu:
Breakfast: Breakfast at Witsieshoek
Lunch: Beetroot Hummus, tomatoes and cucumber on crackers.
Dinner: Asian noodle broth with bean curd - Jakobs Recipe.
Day Two: 18 km | Mount Emery to Stimela Ridge
At 10am the sun came out and we continued on our hike. The terrain was very water logged, and there were streams everywhere so we had plenty of keep-your-boots-dry navigating to do. This day was a gorgeous walk into Lesotho, we hiked alongside a shepherd on a donkey with his five dogs which was very special. Bonga, our guide, found us a beautiful waterfall to have lunch near, and there was a gorgeous view point a short walk up the hill which we visited after lunch. We pushed as far as we could and then settled in for the night, out of the wind with a river below us and a stream next to us. The sun was still shining so we continued to dry our clothes and started preparing dinner. On the ridge-line above our camp there were more beautiful views so we took up some snacks and had sun downers looking over the valley. We came back to a delicious Nasi Goreng dinner and then straight to bed.
On the menu:
Breakfast: Snacks, it was raining so we couldn’t make anything easily.
Lunch: Central African Peanut Stew
Dinner: Nasi Goreng made with our Mixed Dehydrated Vegetables
Day Three: 16.5km | Stimela Ridge to Rockeries Tower
Another glorious day trekking across the escarpment, The colours of the landscape changed from a rich green to a yellow orange as we went further inland. We did head towards “the edge”, as we came to call it, a couple times throughout the day’s hike to remind ourselves of the beautiful valley below. And then back in again, we had lunch on a ridge, no water in sight, watching the clouds threaten to grow and start raining on us. We ate faster and started the long and gradual descent to camp. Again, we didn’t get as far as we would have liked to as it started drizzling just as we approached a flat spot next to the river. We quickly set up our tents, and hopped inside with our fully packed bags just as the hail started. After this storm, we were lucky to be able to enjoy a calm, albeit cold, evening next to the river.
This evening’s dinner was so luxurious! Toasted naan bread with harissa hummus, homemade dukkah, followed by the famous Central African Peanut Stew with some more dukkah! We were ready to get into bed at about 6:30 as it was already quite dark, but after noticing the time we thought we better do some stretches and read a sonnet to stay awake till at least after 7pm.
On the menu:
Breakfast: Apple & Cinnamon Oats with a Almond & Cinnamon Nut Butter
Lunch: Leftover Nasi Goreng.
Dinner: Central African Peanut Stew with Naan Breads and Harissa Hummus for starters.
Day Four: 21 km | Rockeries Tower to Twins Cave
We decided we wanted a cave experience and Twins Cave is one of the few that can fit more than 6 people with their bags and tents. Because we wanted this experience, we had to push really hard to get there. We were blessed with a rain free day with many ridge summits and many opportunities to look over “the edge”. This day was also special because we walked through the Cape Vulture colony, a species which was recently upgraded from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable” At least 15 soared over our heads as we descended into a valley in Lesotho. We reached a wonderful river for lunch, where we had a swim, and enjoyed the sunshine.
As we reached the ridge where the cave was, we were engulfed in a cloud of mist and struggled to find the path down. This was the one and only time we relied on the map app for assistance. It was a treacherous descent to the cave (with a lot of water in our packs as there isn’t a source close to the cave). Naturally I was terrified of the descent, so Jono lent me one of his sticks. I am finally giving in to having to carry a stick on trails like this. We arrived at the cave, chose our camping spots and made some popcorn for our evening snack. We had all gone to bed around 7pm, only to be woken up by the sounds of shepherds coming into our cave around 10:30/11. I got the fought of my light! Luckily Bonga, and Jono, were out of their tent in seconds, and Bonga, in Sesotho communicated with the shepherds (who had a flock of about 30 sheep) to discover they were on their way to SA to sell their sheep and got caught in the weather.
On the menu:
Breakfast: Pear & Chocolate Oats with Chocolate Moondust Wazoogles.
Lunch: Vegan Bolognese (available at Outdoor Warehouse)
Dinner: Ethiopian Dhal
Day Five: km | Twins Cave to Cathedral Peak Hotel
We woke up early, as we were getting up the three shepherds and their flock were heading off (down a much more challenging pass) to sell their sheep. We packed our things and mentally prepared for the last day of hiking in this extraordinary place. The descent was very steep, it took us 2.5 hours to move 1km. A lot of scrambling, constantly crossing streams and a few boulder fields. Bonga was extremely helpful, using his hiking sticks as a ladder down one section where you either had to jump onto very uneven terrain or get his wonderful assistance. And then a number of river crossings where the current was strong and help was needed to cross.
The landscape on this day was the most beautiful. From the grassy upper slopes, to the tree ferns, to the sections of forest and the views of the valley, you really to experience the full spectrum of what this mountain range has to offer. We didn’t have a proper lunch on this day, but we had an amazing try-eat-all-the-left-over-snacks break under this incredible tree Bonga led us to. And then another plomp-down-in-the-middle-of-the-path snack break a couple of kilometres before the hotel.
As always, the last day is full of mixed emotions. Part of you has finally settled into this way of life, being fully immersed in nature. But another part of you can’t wait for that sparkling cooldrink and plate of hot chips at the end. It was a spectacular adventure!
On the menu:
Breakfast: Apple & Cinnamon Oats
Lunch: Snacks! Including some Beetroot Hummus on crackers.
I highly recommend exploring this region of our beautiful country. While it is very challenging, it is always well worth it. Support the local guides! It was fantastic having someone making the route decisions, knowing where to see the best views, where all the good lunch spots are, and keeping us safe from the elements and potential injuries.
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