How to plan an overnight hike in the Drakensberg mountains

This blog post is a little different from our previous posts. Rather than being about a specific adventure, it is about a place that we hold very close to our hearts: South Africa's Drakensberg mountains. It’s possibly our favourite place in South Africa.

Looking into Lesotho from the top of Giant's Castle Pass

Looking into Lesotho from the top of Giant's Castle Pass

There are two sides to the Drakensberg, the Midlands and the high Drakensberg. In this two-part series, we will describe exploring this mountainous world in Kwa-Zulu Natal, between Johannesburg and Durban. Part 1 will look at how to plan your own hiking adventure into the high Drakensberg and part 2 will look at exploring the Midlands and little Berg in a car and on foot.

Planning a multi-day hike into the Drakensberg can feel intimidating at first. It feels like you need loads of kit, need to be super fit and have lots of hiking experience. We hope this post will show you that it’s more manageable than you think and inspire you.

To reach the high Drakensberg (which are passes that lead up to the Lesotho border) typically requires a day of strenuous hiking. So, before you start planning you need to be fit. Not superhuman, Ironman fit but able to carry a pack and walk uphill for 8 hours (and then sleep in a cave or tent).

When first exploring the idea of hiking in the Berg the first thing that overwhelmed me was the seemingly endless route options. In time, I learnt to embrace this as part of the beauty of the Berg. Because it is such a vast wilderness and there are so many different routes it is unlikely that you will see more than a couple of people while you are out hiking.

The first overnight hike I did was with my dad up the infamous chain ladders, to the top of the Amphitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park and then across to the Ifidi Cave. We drove down from Johannesburg on a Friday after work and stayed at the Witieshoek Mountain Lodge before setting off on our hike early Saturday morning. I learnt a lot on this first hike, mainly about navigation and water. 

Buy hiking maps

Above the clouds 

Above the clouds 

The best way to start planning your route is to buy the hiking maps for the Berg. They are available at Maps4Africa in Johannesburg and Takealot. In London, you can buy them at Stanfords. We also use the forum comments on Vertical Endeavour to give us an idea of route conditions and hiking times.

If you can get your hands on a copy of David Bristow’s book, Best Walks of the Drakensberg, that will also help you understand the different routes. There is a fair degree of poetic license in the book (especially around distances and travel times). So, take everything in it with a pinch of salt.

Don’t over commit

Be careful of planning too much driving and hiking in one day. Driving to the Berg from Joburg takes about 4 hours, depending on where you are going. Planning to hike 6 to 8 hours on the same day can be very hard.

The same goes for the way back. If you are Joburg based, the best thing to do is take a half day on a Friday and drive down to the Berg. Stay at the Parks Board accommodation or hike for an hour into the mountains (if you are brave this can be done in the dark). Hike all day on Saturday and then aim to be back at your car by latest 3 pm on Sunday.

Book your cave & pack your tent

When hiking in the Berg you will either sleep in a cave or in a hiking tent on the mountain. Good caves offer fantastic shelter and often mind-blowing views. Detailed information on the condition and shelter offered by the numerous caves can be found on Vertical Endeavor and caves are all marked on the maps. Some caves need to be booked in advanced through Ezemvelo Wildlife.

My advice is to find a cave that you would like to sleep in and then plan your trip around getting to that cave. Always bring a tent - even if you don’t plan on using it – as things may not go to plan. Hikes often take longer than you anticipate or the weather could close in. Caves are few and far between at the top of the escarpment and this is where tents can save you.

Download Gaia GPS

Injisuthi

Injisuthi

Hiking in the Berg is not like hiking in Europe or North America, where there are typically well-marked trails and often sign posted. Most hikes in the Berg start on a well-marked trail from an Ezemvelo Parks Board Office, and then as you get deeper into the mountains the paths normally disappear or often lead in multiple different directions, which are not marked on the map.

It’s easy to get lost. Download the Gaia GPS app on your phone. It’s a peer-sourced hiking map. Most of the main routes in the Berg are marked on it. Then visit Vertical Endeavour, a forum with invaluable information on hiking in the Berg. It has GPS routes and waypoints you can download onto the Gaia app. So, you simply have to follow the line marked on the GPS.

Despite the best technology things can go wrong. While doing the Bell Traverse in April this year with two friends I accidentally knelt on my iPhone whilst rummaging around my hiking tent trying to find a head torch. The screen broke and we had no GPS. Fortunately, we had paper maps and a rough idea of where to go. We eventually managed to download the app on one of my hiking partner’s phone when we found cell phone reception. (The friend was from the UK and we used his work phone. He was told he was only allowed to turn data roaming on for emergencies – we thought this counted as one.)

Water, water, water

Giant's castle

Giant's castle

Water can often be an issue when hiking in the Berg towards the end of the year, after a long dry winter. On the Ifidi Cave hike, we had to ration our water carefully and still ended up very dehydrated by the end. We went in November, which is at the end of the dry season.

During the Bell Traverse hike, the campsite (marked by a couple of stones in the ground) had no water source. With tents up, I went with one of my hiking partners up the valley in search of water. In the dark, we eventually located a spring in the mountain by listening for water. I have also done hikes in the Berg where there are waterfalls around every corner and you never have to worry about water at all.

Collect water whenever you find it. If you are sleeping in a cave research where the nearest water source is. Make sure you fill up with more than you need and drink what you can when you are at the water source. I don’t purify water in the Berg, as surely it must be some of the cleanest water in the world. I have never had a problem. A Life Straw is a good option if you’re squeamish.

Pack lightly  

Indigenous forest at Injisuthi

Indigenous forest at Injisuthi

In terms of kit, there is lots and lots of stuff you can buy for hiking. But travelling as light as possible is one of the most crucial factors for a successful hike. Good hiking boots, a warm jacket and the weather are other important factors. Hiking poles help a great deal also. We use the Outdoor Warehouse hiking checklist when packing for a hike. You can decide what you think is important or not (see the end of this post for a list of resources).

Packing enough food can be a challenge. I try to avoid freeze-dried hiking food - it is lightweight but doesn’t taste great or have that many calories. Pre-made frozen stews are ideal for the first night and then a pasta and sauce for night two works nicely for me.

Take care of yourself

Sadly, there are very infrequent security incidents in the Berg between hikers and semi-nomadic Basotho herdsmen, who live in Lesotho but occasionally they venture down mountain passes into South Africa. This is frequently associated with smuggling.

We have never had any security incidents in the Berg. I have encountered Basotho and they have all been incredibly friendly. The best advice is to check the Vertical Endeavour security incident page, don’t pitch your tent next to major paths at the top of the escarpment or in the middle of mountain passes.

It is essential that you sign in and out of the mountain register at the Parks Board office before and after every hike. Also, tell a family member or friend where you plan to hike and when you expect to return. If you don’t they can raise the alarm.

The raw wilderness, epic views and peace of the Berg make it an extra special place that will forever be in our hearts. I hope you can enjoy it too. Good luck and take lots of photos.

Taking the long way round: Joburg to Cape Town

Many people quickly dismiss the 1,500 km drive from Joburg to Cape Town, which crosses the Great Karoo in the centre of South Africa, as too long and arduous to bother with. Why spend 30 hours on the road when you can pick up a round-trip flight for around R2500? I differ - I love the freedom of the open road, the changing scenery and the ability to explore places off the beaten track.

In February, Kate and I stayed with my parents in a beach house in idyllic Churchaven, situated inside the West Coast National. As we are based in Joburg and had a wedding in Cape Town the weekend before we were due to rent the house, I saw this as an opportunity to explore the lesser known parts of South Africa by road. And as a bonus, my Mum asked to tag along.

We planned to do the drive over two days, with a shorter first day and a longer second. We set off from home at midday and headed south, crossing the Vaal River, entering the wide-open spaces of the Free State. Here we left the national highway and headed on side roads through a thunderstorm to the small forgotten Karoo town of Philipolis.

The road to Die Groenhuis in Philipolis

The road to Die Groenhuis in Philipolis

Philipolis was a former mission station founded in 1823 for the local Khoi people in the then-British held Orange River Colony, making it one of the oldest settlements in the Free State. A once prosperous agricultural town, it used the be on the main road from Joburg to Cape Town. When the national highway was constructed in the 1960s it just missed the tiny speck on the map, passing 60km west of the town and taking much of the trade and industry away.

It feels like the pause button was pressed when the highway was built, creating a quiet and haunting traditional South African “dorp”.

We stayed at Die Groenhuis, a series of renovated Karoo Cottages set along a dirt road that leads out of town overlooking cattle fields. We were welcomed by Jens, who remembered me from when I passed through in 2013, when doing the same journey. He had lots of stories to tell about the delights of the small town and its history, which I think were the same stories he told me when I last visited.

We took a walk around the town when we arrived to stretch our legs. We got chatting to a local about the town and its history. He very proudly told us that "no white women had ever been raped in Philipolis" and we were completely safe. We didn’t really have an answer to that.

Restaurants in Philipolis are few and far between. Jens gave us the contact details for Elwina (+27 73 878 6820) who runs a small café, Sielskos. She does excellent dinners for travellers – strictly by appointment only – at her small café on the main street. We enjoyed a chicken pie and lamb, while we enjoyed a few drinks and listened to the nearby stream running in full flood after the storms

We ate in the courtyard of the café, which is also a monument to Laurens Van Der Post. Philipolis is the birthplace of the famous writer and conservationist. Coincidentally as part of his colourful life, he was also a dairy farmer near to where I grew up in the English countryside.

"I came to live my life not by conscious plan or pre-arranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird." - Laurens van der Post

"I came to live my life not by conscious plan or pre-arranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird." - Laurens van der Post

The next morning, we had a quick coffee overlooking the wetland at the back of the cottages and hit the road. We re-joined the highway at Colesberg, where we stopped for the obligatory Wimpy bacon sandwich.

After Colesberg the Great Karoo opened up before us, with its vast spaces and imposing mountains. In colonial times, the Karoo formed an almost impenetrable barrier to the interior from Cape Town due to the hostility of the environment, extreme heat, lack of water and shade.

Today, it’s a magnificent drive through a desert landscape that has been largely unchanged for thousands of years. If we had more time an overnight stay at one of the many Karoo farms offering accommodation or at the Karoo National Park would be well worth it.

Nearer the end of the drive, we stopped for lunch at Matjiesfontein, a storybook town set in one of the driest parts of the Karoo.

The village is situated along the main railway line from the diamond fields of Kimberley to Cape Town and is just off the main highway. It’s a great place to stop for lunch and admire the Victorian architecture.

Matjiesfontein was founded by an entrepreneurial Scot, John Molteno, who created a Victorian health resort, based around the Lord Milner Hotel and the Karoo’s clean air. Again, a night at the quirky Lord Milner and a few beers at its pub is recommended, if you have the time.

Unfortunately, we had to press on with Cape Town in our sites. We left the Karoo behind us, crossing the Cape fold mountains via the dramatic Hex River Valley. In the space of two hours, we drove through vast open desert, jagged mountains and vineyards.

We eventually arrived in Cape Town glad that we hadn’t flown but had driven savouring South Africa’s landscapes.

The way back

On the way back, a week later, I was solo and went a different way. I headed back via the N12 and Kimberley, rather than the N1 and Bloemfontein.

This time round I could enjoy the peace and solitude of driving alone through the desert. The quieter N12 allowed me to relax and enjoy the view, rather than having to worry about constantly overtaking trucks.

I spent the night camping at Mokala National Park, South Africa’s newest park. I camped at Motswedi campsite, which overlooks a waterhole. There are only six sites at the camp which is set amongst camel thorn trees. Each has its own kitchen, shower and loo block, giving each camp some luxury and privacy.

The camp has a true wilderness feel. There is only an ankle high electric fence to keep buffalo out and the other member of the Big Five that call the reserve home.

I arrived at the camp, via flooded sand roads, in the pouring rain. I struggled as I put my new tent up getting soaked and cursing myself for not being more sensible and opting for a chalet at the main camp.

Home for the night at the Motswedi campsite. 

Home for the night at the Motswedi campsite. 

I retreated to the kitchen block to wait out the storm and then hopped in a hot shower thanks to the solar geyser. Eventually the rain stopped and I lit a fire. I sat on a picnic bench listening to the chorus of frogs where I enjoyed an entire borewors for myself, happy I had not chickened out and opted for a chalet.

Despite the rain, the inside of my tent was dry and the only thing to wake me in the night was a hippo munching on the green grass around my tent.

I woke up on the morning of my 29th birthday and drove through the park taking 4x4 roads, eventually heading out the park via the Lilydale Gate.

On my game drive, I saw Oryx, Springbok, Tsessebbe, Red Hartebeest, Eland, Kudu and Zebra, as well as plenty of unusual birds. I left Mokala feeling that it needs more exploring as part of another adventure. Perhaps some fly-fishing in the Riet River?

After leaving I headed north to Kimberley and then on to Joburg through driving rain, along flooded back roads of various quality and through endless fields of tall green mielie and forgotten farming towns.

Road trip reading list:

Marakele National Park: An easy bush getaway

 

Marakele National Park, near Thabazimbi, in Limpopo, has a variety of landscapes from mountains, grassy plains, valleys and forest. The most unique part of the park is a winding mountain pass that takes you to the top of Kransberg Mountain, where you might get the opportunity to spot a Cape Griffon Vulture. The park contains the largest Griffon Vulture population in the world. 

Marakele is an easy weekend away from Joburg, as it is only three hour drive on good roads. So even if you struggle to get out of work on time, like we did, you can still get there before 7pm when the main gate closes. The park has a variety of accommodation options on offer, including camping and self-catering.  

We got out of work late and struggled up the N1 through the usual Friday afternoon traffic, but once we got to the other side of Pretoria it felt good to be out on the open road and we started to feel that unique sense of freedom and relief that only a weekend out of the city can offer. We got off the N1 at Bela-Bela and started heading west towards Thabazimbi and the park. Late afternoon sunshine shone golden on the bush, which was thinning out after a relatively dry summer. 

We arrived at the park entrance 15 minutes before closing time. We weren’t the only ones who were getting there late after the drive up from Joburg 

We checked in with the friendly park staff and drove the short gravel road to Bontle rest camp. In the fast fading light we managed to find a quiet campsite set in the Mopane forest away from the other campers and with privacy. We set up camp using Jolene’s headlights and started the braai. Despite the late start we both couldn’t stop smiling as we sat around the fire sipping our beers admiring the stars. There is nowhere else in the world we would rather be. 

The camp has excellent toilet facilities. Showers are hot and have good pressure.  

The next morning, we got up a little later than we would have liked and took our time getting ready for a morning game drive. We left too late for the game. We drove to a hide near the campsite, and although we didn’t see any signs of life, it was beautiful just sitting taking in the site and sounds of the bush. After getting slightly lost on a 4x4 track we were probably not meant to be on, we returned to camp for a mid-morning siesta and a picnic lunch. 

In the mid-afternoon we set off again for a drive to the summit of Kransberg. It is a spectacular winding mountain road that takes you through the various biomes of the park. It took us over an hour to reach the top, but the drive is well worth the effort (4x4 not required). The view at the top is stunning and the grassland there, which is not dissimilar to the type of vegetation found nearly 1000km away in the Drakensberg, waves in the breeze giving the summit an almost surreal feel as you look down on the bush below. We walked around the top for nearly two hours and enjoyed a bottle of champagne.  

With the sun getting low in the sky we made our way back to camp. About 15 minutes from the campsite, with the sun set, a hyena dashed across the road in front of us against the night sky. We felt extremely privileged to have experienced such a rare sighting. 

The same routine followed that evening, around the fire with cold drinks, meat, the sounds of the bush and stars. We also chatted with the honorary rangers staying in the camp who gave us some good tips for our game drive the next morning. Tip number 1 was get up early.  

We woke up before sun rise to head out on a game drive. Encouraged by our sittings the night before we headed out in Jolene with rusks and coffee in a flask. We were rewarded with sightings of rhino, elephant and an absolutely ginormous male lion, sitting in the clearing just off the road 

We returned to camp mid-morning packed up and headed home. This time avoiding the N1 and going via Brits. It is a more difficult road and not recommended for driving at night, but was marginally quicker.  

This post is part two of our two-part blog on our favourite places the in the Waterberg. Our first post about Jemisa can be found here.  

Jembisa: Palala River & Kingfisher Cottage

The Waterberg is a region north west of Johannesburg and consists of pristine bush and rugged mountains, which has made it a UNESCO biosphere. The best thing about is it is a relatively easy weekend getaway from Johannesburg. 

The two places that Kate and I like best are Palala River Cottages and Marakele National Park. 

The Palala River Cottages are in the Jembisa Private Reserve, which forms part of Lephalala Wilderness. This was the first weekend away Kate and I did when we moved up to Joburg from Cape Town 

It is a large bush estate with game but nothing that can eat you - so it is possible to hike throughout the 7000 ha unguided. Kate and I have been twice, both for birthday weekends. 

Whenever you go up north from Joburg and the M1/N1 for a weekend away it is important to leave work early. Early is way before 3pm.  

When we first went to Palala we left at 4.30pm and it took us 5 hours to get there and most of this time was spent fighting traffic to get out of Gauteng. It wasn't a great start to Kate's birthday weekend. 

Fortunately, we arrived at the cottage and the staff had left the lights on for us, making us feel welcome. The cottage is on its own in the bush and has its own entrance. It is set on the bank of the Palala River, away from prying eyes, apart from those of the crocs in the river. 

I always love waking up in a new place, which you arrived to the night before in the dark. The sound and smell of the bush in the morning is always breath-taking and at Jembisa it is even better because you are on your own and it feels like your own piece of heaven 

We spent the weekend exploring the reserve on foot, having picnics in the bush and just enjoying being outdoors. We saw Zebra, Wildebeest, Impala, Graffe, Warthog (plus many more) and variety of birds. You are also free to drive the reserve in your own vehicle, but a 4x4 is required.  

The cottage has one of the best braai spots I know, right on the bank of the river, where there is a resident crocodile (Kate: so there is something that can eat you!). More than enough wood was supplied so we could enjoy the clear sky and stars late into the night around a roaring fire.  

There is also a larger, three-bedroom cottage for rent at Jembisa, called Kingfisher Cottage. We returned a year later to Jembisa and stayed here with family and this time for my birthday.  

This cottage is at the other end of the reserve to the Palala Cottage, but is no less spectacular and even has its own pool. The braai spot is again in a brilliant set in a boma and shaded by enormous trees. 

We tried our luck fly-fishing in the river. Despite getting some tips from the farm manager we were unsuccessful. It may have had something to do with the hippo crashing in and out of the river in front of us. 

If you're looking for a good picnic spot ask the staff how to get to the big baobab tree in the reserve. We headed over one afternoon with sandwiches and beers and it was great. We were entertained by a large herd of wildebeest huffing and puffing at us about 300 metres away. 

Thank you to the team at Jembisa for a wonderful stay.  

More Information 

http://www.jembisa.com/palala/index.php  

Cost: From R470 Per Person Per Night 

Travel 

The route we took: http://goo.gl/LS2Z1E