This guide to hiking the Drakensberg is by our friend Rebecca, who got restless after spending a couple weeks with us in the Western Cape and explored the mystical dragon mountains all by herself. Here's what she discovered.
As a scientist, (and a lover of maximizing time & efficiency), I take my research seriously, so I found it frustrating to plan my trip to go hiking in the Drakensberg.
I couldn’t find the answers I was after online, especially on some big questions like:
- Would I be safe hiking solo? If yes, where should I do these solo hikes?
- Do I need a guide?
- Who can take me up to Cathedral Peak?
- How problematic is it that I’m not prepared for serious hiking?
- Would the Drakensberg mountains live up to the hype?
So I was uneasy about going…
But since I really wanted to experience hiking in the Drakensberg, I went anyway. And on my solo, budget trip I found all the answers:
- Yes. All over.
- Missed my chance. (Ugh.)
- No big deal.
Here's how my three-days of hiking in the Drakensberg went, plus all the tips I learned along the way.
The majority of South Africans I spoke to said hiking alone in South Africa is a bad idea. But none could specifically comment on the safety of hiking popular routes through the Drakensberg alone.
Through my research, I didn’t get much reassurance that it would be okay hiking through the Drakensberg Mountains as a solo female. But at the same time, I didn’t read any warnings about not doing it.
So I went for it.
✓ Safety Tips
- Get a local SIM card with heaps of data.
- Get Maps.Me (or equivalent) for way-finding.
- Share your daily hiking plans and time estimates with the local park rangers and, ideally, a South African friend.
My level of hiking preparedness was low at best: running shoes, no real rain jacket, and about 6 band-aids and some Gravol as a “first aid kit."
Sorry mom, you did raise me better
Be more prepared than I was. Running shoes are okay on the routes I did if you have stable ankles. A rain jacket/poncho would be useful. So would a real first aid kit, emergency blanket, and snacks, just in case.
Transport and Accommodation
As I was flying into Durban and out from Joburg and wanted to do day hikes on well-traveled routes, it seemed the Northern Drakensberg area was the best option.
Most important to me was to be flexible, so I rented a car from Around About (as per Chris and Kim's South Africa road trip tips, though you could avoid renting and take the BazBus instead) and only booked one night of accommodation at a time at hostels (though camping is a super viable, cheaper, and likely very fun option).
✓ Transportation Tips:
- The Drakensberg mountain range is huge and can be accessed from a few directions. It is therefore easy to fit into your trip any which way!
- Do not expect to get prompt (or any) answers via email in South Africa. WhatsApp is more reliable but still not great.
- Having a car and booking accommodation only one night at a time helps with flexibility should something go awry.
Getting to The Drakensberg from Durban
Durban is one of the two major access points to the Northern Drakensberg.
I flew into King Shaka airport mid-afternoon, picked up my car, and spent the night at Airport Beach Backpackers.
Airport Beach was a solid backpackers with friendly staff. It's close to the airport and a few restaurants. I ate delicious, cheap veggie curry at Morgan’s Bar and Grill because Spice Restaurant (which came highly recommended) was unfortunately closed.
- Don't drive in the dark even if you will be awake long after the sun sets.
- Avoid central Durban if, like me, you are only there to regroup before taking off the next morning for the Drakensberg.
- Learn how to drive on the left side of the road. For fellow right-side-of-the-road drivers, a warm-up drive (or two) is a good idea to figure out driving standard on the opposite side of the road!
Day 1: Cathedral Peak National Park
Durban to the Drakensberg
I had big hiking plans for the day and knew it would get dark by 5 p.m. so I was on the road by 7 a.m.
Stop #1: Terbodore Coffee Roastery for breakfast and coffee grounds.
- Breakfast deals. Many places have some sort of scrambled eggs on toast and coffee deal. Ask about it!
- Get pressed. To save precious morning time and money, acquire French press coffee grounds for your road trip! In South Africa, French press rules the non-espresso-based-coffee world and every form of accommodation will have a press you can use.
- Terbodore has a sister roastery and restaurant in Franschhoek, which is worth your time and money to visit and enjoy!
Stop #2: Country Diner Ultrastop, a great padstal with very clean bathrooms (read the reviews yourself!) and delicious pies.
✓ More Tips:
- Don't go hungry. Freshly made pies make an excellent, super affordable, protein-filled mid-hike lunch.
- You, unlike Cape Town, might run out of water. You need multiple liters of water per day while hiking so have enough vessels (and please reuse & recycle).
- Get yourself some padkos. South African for snacks, make sure you have plenty for hiking and in your car. Not only does driving hungry suck, but snacking whilst driving helps you stay awake. (For the critics out there, I acknowledge this is not the strongest evidence, but ask around and anecdotally it is very sound!)
Particulars about Cathedral Peak
It’s straightforward driving to Cathedral Peak Park until you turn off onto R394 which is a very windy, but beautiful road.
Pay attention to your speed and surroundings as the turns are tight, people like cruising along the middle of the road and you are sharing the road with the locals and their livestock. It’s also hard not to be distracted admiring the valley!
It’s 50R to enter the park, and they ask you to go to Didima Resort to register as a day hiker. The front desk here has maps. There is free parking for day hikers right outside the gate to Cathedral Peak Hotel. Alternately you can pay 20R to park within the hotel grounds.
Mushroom Rock Loop
I elected to do the same route as Kim & Chris (see their blog post), and was told it left directly from the day hikers parking lot. Though I had Maps.Me I couldn’t find the start of the trail so ended up walking up the steep boring driveway of the hotel.
You will not have this problem because on the way back I found the start for you:
The paper map from Didima can be tough to follow, so I've cobbled together some Maps.Me screenshots to show you the way. Click here to open it. Though not the most beautiful, this DIY map fits the DIY nature of the trip!
Follow the red arrows from the day visitor car park (yellow) around to Mushroom Rock (black M) and then along the plateau, looping back down by Ribbon Falls. The blue arrow highlights the short in & out trail to Doreen Falls. Then follow the magenta arrows to get back to your car.
I began my hike around 1pm, got to Mushroom Rock in a little more than an hour, enjoyed my lunch looking over the valley, went around the bigger loop, stopped at Doreen Falls for a swim, and made it back to my car by about 4pm.
It’s a big walk, about 14km.
I was told it was a “very strenuous” hike, but I would say the climb up to Mushroom Rock is a good workout, but not thaaat hard, and the rest is flat or downhill. I loved the hike, the views, and fresh mountain air!
✓ Triple Tips:
- Be aware of when the sun rises and sets, hiking by headlamp/flashlight/cell phone light is an option but doesn’t seem worth it
- Hiking purists may take issue with this, but I had pre-downloaded a bunch of music and podcasts to entertain myself and keep me motivated and I am glad I did so.
- Make sure you sign out after hiking around Cathedral Peak (though I don’t know what happens if you don’t…).
The Road Back Out
The drive to Amphitheatre Backpackers (my home for the night) was outstanding. I drove through a community that was alive with kids walking home from school, people hanging the washing or doing chores in their yards, and all the cows being walked home for the night.
It was a really interesting glimpse into what these people’s lives look like.
I was keen to do a tasting at Cathedral Peak Wines (the only wine farm in the Northern Drakensberg region), but was too late. Someone please go for me and report back!
And, of course, the sunset was beautiful.
Amphitheatre Backpackers is a great place to find yourself.
It’s huge, has a pool and hot tub, above-average wifi in the common areas, a helpful worker at the activity desk and a restaurant on site.
And the dorms have the most comfortable beds I’ve ever encountered in a backpackers!
✓ Amphitheatre Backpackers Tips:
- Self-cater. Value for money wise, cook your meals while here.
- BazBus. You can get directly to Amphitheatre by BazBus. There's also a discount coupon in the free Cape Town guide booklets if you're looking to save even more.
- Go with a group. Amphitheatre Backpackers organize group hiking trips every day for 750R per hike (and a discount if you do multiple) which can give you awesome access to the area without a vehicle.
Day 2: Royal Natal Park
A Leisurely Start
Let me reiterate that I woke up in the comfiest bed, so I took the opportunity to sleep in. An 8am departure allowed me to be the first customer at The Coffee Patch for coffee, food, and a freshly made quiche for my hiking lunch.
Rebecca's Loop in Royal Natal Park
I got to Royal Natal Park by 10am, paid the 40R entrance, picked up a map, chatted with various park rangers to nail down a route and parked in the day hiker lot (well marked and guarded).
I was told my original route was “impossible” to do and was instead instructed to do the route in the direction I’ve indicated below (see map 2).
Note: In this case “impossible” (as indicated by the magenta arrow with purple hashes) actually means an aggressive uphill.
- Coming in from Bergville, get your map at the Visitor Centre (yellow) and park in the Day Visitor Car Park (also yellow).
- I hiked as directed by the red arrows.
- At the blue junction, I went up and back to see Gudu Falls.
- Once you are finished the big loop either go back to the parking lot the way you came or extend your hike via the magenta arrows.
Gudu Falls is an easy, short climb. The falls were quite shady in the morning.
I looped around The Crack which involved climbing various ladders on the way up and then traversing a beautiful plateau! The trail isn’t super well marked so keep an eye on your digital map. Though officially “off the path” I scrambled down to the top of the waterfall where there is a beautiful little calm pool where I ate my lunch and swam.
The descent down involves loads of chains and ladders, some of which are slightly questionable. Be careful! Go slowly! And maybe skip that route if it’s a wet day, or has recently been raining…
I decided I had enough energy left to carry on, so I looped over to Lookout Rock and walked down to the Cascades which was another beautiful, sunny spot to swim. It’s a really pleasant, short walk from the parking lot to the falls so you will very likely encounter lots of other people.
I made it back to my car by 3pm and had covered about 15km. So it was a big walk, but overall not too strenuous (less so than day one) and was spectacular. Having said that, this is the day I would skip if I only had two days.
You may encounter baboons. If so, I was told the proper response is to stand your ground and look intimidating.
Karma Backpackers (and Luxurious Hot Water Bottles)
That night I had booked to stay at Karma Backpackers, which was another beautiful drive. (Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve is stunning to drive by as the sun sets! I regret not stopping to take photos.)
I ate dinner at the Kestell Hotel as it was the only place open. But I would advise against it!
I met Vera on arrival and she immediately settled me in, made me tea and planned my entire next day (a.k.a. she’s EXACTLY who you need to meet).
I can’t remember the last time I slept with a hot water bottle in my bed, but Vera handed me one as I said goodnight and now I’m hooked.
✓ Day 2 Tips:
- The dinner options in Kestell are very poor, so self-cater! Or, eat in Harristown which isn't a huge detour.
- Ask Vera for advice and listen.
- Accept the hot water bottle she hands you. If it is not offered, ask for one!
Day 3: The Amphitheatre
Without Vera’s outstanding instruction, this day would have gone completely
Here is my summary of the Karma Backpackers guide to the Amphitheatre Hike:
- Wear long pants/layers/warm clothes as it can get super windy on the top of the Amphitheatre (a generally good idea when hiking, but especially for this hike)
- As it currently stands, you cannot drive straight to Sentinel Car Park yourself (unless you are brave, patient and have a monster 4WD). Instead, drive to Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge (beware the giant speed bumps in Phuthaditjhaba). From the lodge, you catch a “shuttle” (large 4WD truck) to the start of the hike. The first shuttle apparently leaves around 8am and then it’s a bit random (but pretty frequent) after that. While you wait, enjoy the free coffee/tea/wifi in the lovely sunny breakfast room! Make sure you get the shuttle drivers number before you exit the car so you can alert them when to collect you after the hike!
- It costs 70R to enter the park, 150R to take the shuttle and then an additional 90R to do the hike.
- TIP: you can pay the shuttle & hiking fee by card at the hotel!
- Route Tips: Vera (and now I) would suggest the way to do is hike is to stop at the Amphitheatre viewpoint first (mostly so you don’t miss it on the way down and you get a peek at what’s coming!), take the gorge track up.
- Note: When I was there, there was no sign marking this path so pay attention to your digital map!), admire the view (it is truly incredible, Kim & Chris missed out), and then go back down via the ladders (see map 3). This makes it a loop, which for efficiency-minded people (like me) is of high value! Plus you avoid doing the ladders twice (this was an issue for some hikers I met on the trail), you get to the top quicker and I would argue the scramble up the Gorge is more fun and a better workout (since overall it’s not too strenuous of a hike)
- Skip going to the hut at the top, but do walk along the edge from either side of the Tugela falls to truly appreciate it’s awesomeness (it’s the second tallest waterfall in the world!). And the water at the top is potable!
Amphitheatre Route Map
- You will get dropped off at the yellow star.
- Follow the red arrows out to the viewpoint, up the gorge and to the spectacular views atop the Amphitheatre!
- On the way back down you can retrace your steps or take the ladders.
- Do not forget to call Witsiehoek Lodge for your shuttle back when you get to the zigzags (purple)!
Out of all the hikes I did, this was by far the most spectacular. If you have one day for hiking the Drakensberg, do this one!
The views right from the carpark were great and they only got exponentially better.
I spent at least 45 minutes at the top in absolute awe. I started hiking around 11:30am and got back to the carpark around 3:30pm, covering around 12km.
A Neat Post-Hike Fuel Stop.
Demelash Ethiopian Restaurant (coordinates S 28 52.5410’, E 28 81.6015’ since it will not otherwise appear on Google maps) makes for an outstanding, early dinner.
You will be the only foreigner there, but everyone is super friendly! You choose meat or vegetarian, should definitely have a coffee, and definitely add in the leafy sprig!
There are no prices posted anywhere but my vegetarian meal and coffee cost 85R.
Golden Gate National Park
After my post-hike meal, I had the perfect amount of time to zip over to Golden Gate National Park (free entry!) and drive through it as the sun set, which was so spectacular!
I did a driving circuit, was the only car in the park, saw some interesting animals (I guess they were Red Hartebeest and Blesbok). Then, I drove back to Karma Backpackers (where I had randomly been “upgraded” to a bigger room with a double bed!), grabbed my hot water bottle and climbed into bed.
Quick Tip: There are shorter, beautiful hiking options in the park as well!
Back to Johannesburg
Unfortunately, the drive from the Northern Drakensburg to Joburg is inevitably boring. Vera & Luca at Karma Backpackers suggest taking R57 & R34 as it is “more pleasant” (read still long and monotonous) and there are fewer tolls.
I highly recommend not returning your car mid-day in Johannesburg. Inner-city traffic is only meant to be endured by the most patient, competent drivers (not me, potentially not you either…).
Final Reflections and Things to Consider
This adventure was one of the highlights of my time in South Africa. (And I promise I don’t say that about every experience of my holiday!).
I got awesome advice, had the best possible weather and found the mountains to be every bit as magical as promised! And even though I ended up hiking alone most of the time, I felt completely safe.
I would 100% encourage you to go, and hopefully convinced you that it can be an awesome experience solo!
When to Go?
If you have the luxury of deciding when to be there, unfortunately I do not know what to recommend.
When I was there in late April/early May the days were fairly short, the trails and hostels were quite empty and the sun was shining and not super hot (the first two were less than ideal, the last one was nice). Kim & Chris had a different experience in late November.
How Fit Do You Have to Be?
I am in good, but not outstanding, shape. I do not understand the South African rating system for hikes, but I believe that all of these are quite doable for anyone in good health and reasonable shape, given the appropriate amount of time (with plenty of snacks & water too!). Any energetic enough kid would do excellently on any of the trails.
Go For Cathedral Peak
I was hoping to hike Cathedral Peak but it proved too tricky to organize last minute.
Since I want you to do it, let me give you a head start on your research.
Three options are:
- Hire a private guide, I got the contact info of a few from various hotel/backpackers, average cost 1400R.
- Cathedral Peak Hotel leads groups for 600R per person, email email@example.com to figure out the schedule.
- Amphitheatre Backpackers will also organize a trip for you if there are a minimum of 3 people, for 1100R per person. I gather you do not want to do this hike on your way.
What to Pack
In addition to your standard hiking kit, I always travel & hike with a spare battery pack for my phone (super important if it’s also doubling as your camera!) and wet wipes.
My Final Requests:
- Please be prepared! Not only in terms of equipment and organizing things in advance, but also in terms of whether- given who you are and your previous travel and hiking experience- you are comfortable with the risk of hiking through South Africa solo. Like Kim & Chris, I too believe that being outside of your comfort zone is important periodically, but this may not be the situation in which to do it if you truly feeling uncomfortable!
- Please ask questions below! Or share your advice or stories! Or let us know when you next get to adventure within these special mountains! We can’t wait to hear from you!
About the Author
Hi! I’m Rebecca. I am also from Vancouver, met Kim & Chris at the same Airbnb in Medellin, Colombia, and burpeed my way into their circle of friends.
I was lucky enough to visit them in South Africa and was bold enough to invite myself along for the Garden Route adventure. Thus began my true indoctrination to their approach to life and travel, which aligns well with my travel style.
Kim & Chris’ Hectic Route and their enthusiasm towards the intersection of physical activity & adventure inspired me to spend my last four days of holiday hiking in the Drakensberg mountains. Hopefully, this journal and tips have now inspired you!