The rolling sandstone cliffs of the Drakensberg mountains are eternally appealing to hikers and avid nature lovers, where Mother Earth can be embraced in all her fresh and dewy glory. And what better way to shake off the shackles of urbanity than by spending a night in a natural cave, just as our ancestors did hundreds of years ago?
What makes the Drakensberg so special?
The Drakensberg mountain range falls within the greater Maloti-Drakensberg World Heritage Site, one of the largest and most commercially inaccessible conservation areas in South Africa, filled with gorges, cliffs that rise towards the heavens, beautiful valleys, and, of course, numerous sandstone caves. Wildlife in the area includes rhino, wildebeest, and various grazers, while the impressive list of plant species features many rare and endemic species.
Prep properly for a night in a cave
There are literally scores of overnight caves to choose from in the Drakensberg, and they vary in size and views. While many must be booked in advance, some operate on a first come, first served basis, but these are generally smaller and further off the beaten track. To reach any of the caves requires a hike, and don’t expect any housekeeping services. Do, however, be equipped with all the necessary camping gear you will need for your stay, as well as enough food and water.
It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with cave camping etiquette. Luckily, this list is not too complicated, with the bottom line being to leave nothing but your footprints behind. Campers are expected to remove all their litter, except that which is biodegradable and can be buried. Human waste should also be left well under the ground (note to pack a small shovel!) and the lighting of fires is prohibited. Besides the obvious danger of starting a bush blaze, fires smoke out caves and coat their walls with soot, making them uninhabitable for the many little creatures that live in their crevices.
There are also many caves within the Drakensberg area that house ancient San rock art. Camping is forbidden in these.
You’ve got options
One of the most popular and easiest to reach overnight caves in the Drakensberg is Sherman’s Cave. The path begins just below the Cathedral Peak Hotel leading across the river and up the steep slopes towards a peak of the same name. Pass a lovely wooded gorge with a natural pool. Within about two hours you will have reached your overnight accommodation, where you can sleep like a baby, wrapped in the arms of the Earth. The deep cave has a low overhang that easily sleeps 10 hikers, as most of the floor is level. The roof is low, so be prepared to stoop, but the views of the surrounding mountain scenery are spectacular.
Further hiking and accommodation information is available from Drakensberg Hikes, a comprehensive resource guide to all the caves in the Drakensberg.
Unexpected luxury under a rock
If you’re not the kind that can get comfy on a camping mattress, but still want to experience sleeping in a cave in luxury, then do consider Antbear Lodge, with a gorgeous accommodation unit built under a rock. Glass doors open onto a wooden deck with hammock chairs and a spectacular view of the Drakensberg mountains, while inside the cave is cozy and decadent, with a spa bath, a fireplace, and even rock art painted on its walls.
The lodge supports sustainable and responsible tourism, with meals being made from organic ingredients and cooked from scratch. The artistic and inspiring furnishings were all handmade at the lodge itself. This is the ultimate in luxury caveman living, where you can spoil yourself with a private candle-lit dining experience, on the deck of your cave under the stars.
The Drakensberg and Natal Midlands are butterfly hotspots. In the Drakensberg, look out for small butterflies around midday. Because conditions are usually windy, they often fly low and find shelter in the grass. Larger, more conspicuous butterflies are found in the gardens of resorts. The best butterfly season is between November and June.
Leopards Lair Lodge near to Giants Castle offers butterfly tours. Like the beautiful and serene butterfly, our butterfly tour seeks to introduce visitors to the lush and peaceful Midlands countryside and Drakensberg foothills. Their butterfly tours are led by a local guide who is keen to share his extensive knowledge about local rarities like the Midlands Widow, Estcourt Blue, The King Blue and the Mooi River Opal which are endemic and only found within a few km radius. We also talk about our local communities, its people, and traditions. Visitors will have the opportunity to encounter and experience farm life at a comfortable pace, away from the usual tourist hotspots.
A common butterfly at the Drakensberg is the Garden Acraea. It is small, mostly dull orange with a few black spots, and with conspicuously transparent fore-wings. It flutters weakly around its favourite plant, Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach tree). This is where it lays its eggs, so the caterpillars have the right food. Nearly every plant-eating insect specialises on the single species that it can digest (all plants produce defensive chemicals to keep the ravening hordes at bay). Acraea caterpillars are small, black and hairy, and are the main food of cuckoos. The caterpillars hatch in such numbers that they can eat every leaf on the tree. With no food left they must pupate. Now the tree grows a new set of leaves, recovering completely.
That silly idea I’ve always had about one blog per country unless I live there is becoming untenable. Finally the Drakensberg has done it. After three trips to South Africa I finally made it to the Drakensberg Mountains and if I would have known how stunning it is I would have been here sooner.Our favourite type of exploring involves mountains so in South Africa that had to involve the Drakensberg. The dilemma was whether to go on a couple of multiday hikes or numerous single day hikes. Multiday hikes would take us well off the beaten path but would mean taking camping and cooking equipment so lugging large bags – not just on the hikes but also for the rest of our time in the country.
We decided on choosing a few bases to do day hikes from, which also meant hiring a car would be more cost effective and we wouldn’t have problems of parking it in one place then somehow getting back to it after a multiday A to B trek.
There are a lot of potential hiking destinations in the Drakensberg and we chose three based on things like Google Images searches, an ancient Lonely Planet and reviews of places to stay. The accommodation inside the national parks can be really expensive whereas some of the other places to stay advertised as being in the Drakensberg are actually quite far away. The original plan was for one destination in the South African Drakensberg and the rest of the time in Lesotho but that had to change when we found out at the last minute that we needed a visa.Royal Natal National Park
Rather than stay down in the national park, we stayed up on the ridge at Witsieshoek. This was definitely a good idea. The views were great in all directions and especially across to the Amphitheatre. There are lots of hikes that could be done directly from the lodge without having to drive. However, we mostly chose it for its proximity to the Sentinel car park which was about 20-minutes away up a sometimes terrible dirt road (though we managed it in a little hire car). The Sentinel car park is the start of the lovely then scary then lovely hike up onto the top of the Amphitheatre and is reputed to be the easiest way up onto the High Berg plateau. The scary bit I’m talking about is the infamous chain ladders. I’d read about these and was looking forward to a bit of a via-ferrata style climb to add some excitement. However, they were higher, longer and wobblier than I expected. It never crossed our minds to not climb them, especially seeing as a very large group of teenagers with big rucksacks had recently passed us who must have come down them and because we had read they get easier as you get higher, but I occasionally had a bit of a shake going on in my hands and knees. Up on the top was a different world from the lush green gorges and high cliffs that we’d been walking among and looking down on. Above the ladders, it is a fairly flat rocky plateau with little vegetation. There should have been a great view off the Amphitheatre escarpment, including of Tugela Falls, the second highest in the world at 948 m, however, we could see precisely nowt. The clouds were blowing up the valley and sitting just off the escarpment, occasionally blowing over the top reducing visibility to just metres. Our plan was to hike up to Mont-aux-Sources and when the clouds came in we followed a compass bearing, when they cleared we realised we had done a pretty big loop and gone up the mountain the long way round. Although, our route was much prettier than the shorter and direct route down. Going back down the chain ladders was again a little leg wobbly especially as there was a bit of a queue including several hysterical people who wouldn’t get onto the ladders. They may well be still up there… This ended up being the only hike we did in the Drakensberg when we actually saw any people. The following day we set off in thick fog towards Surprise Ridge and Cannibal Cave. When the fog eventually cleared, it was beautiful and we only saw three shepherds all day who tried to sell us some unidentifiable meat! I will point out that our map and route descriptions talked about paths down into the Royal Natal National Park valley from the ridge we hiked along somewhere near Cannibal Cave but we couldn’t find them. Every time we looked over the edge where the path should be there were just vertical drops so bear that in mind if you are out that way.
Monk’s Cowl National Park
Unexpectedly the photos from Monk’s Cowl have turned out to be the most dramatic and, although it’s not that we didn’t appreciate
it at the time, there were parts of this hike that were a bit boring but looking back it appears to have been entirely spectacular. Monk’s Cowl has lots of short loops that are well marked and last a few hours each that could be pieced together into a lovely day. We decided to get up above the marked routes onto the lesser frequented paths. Unfortunately, these turned out to be much less frequented paths so, while easy to follow, they were a bit overgrown and scratchy on the legs. We saw a couple of people at the very beginning and a couple at the very end, otherwise nobody all day.
It might look close to Monk’s Cowl, it is close to Monk’s Cowl, but the road in is a shocker. If I would have known it was that bad I wouldn’t have taken the little hire car in. But we made it, albeit going extremely slowly for the final 10 or so km weaving around boulders and stubborn cows. The setting is stunning and the hike up to Battle Cave was a nice change from our previous days’ hikes. There were no serious climbs, just little ups and downs along a river valley with a few stream-crossings thrown in though along a surprisingly overgrown path.
We’d been in a few caves while in the Drakensberg to look for the San rock art and Battle Cave was by far the best we saw. The San Bushman are the earliest still-in-existence inhabitants of Africa, who used to inhabit these parts before being pushed out to continue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle now mostly in the Kalahari Desert. Their cave paintings are anything from a few hundred to a few thousand years old. Battle Cave is so called as, in addition to the cattle, rhinos, giraffes, and other animals as depicted elsewhere, there are a lot of people with bows and arrows seemingly having a big fight – though some reckon this is symbolism for something rather than representing an actual battle. Saw 5 people all day.
Our final Drakensberg hike was up the pass from Sani Top so over the border in Lesotho. See the next blog for a tale of climbing Thabana Ntlenyana; Lesotho and Southern Africa’s highest mountain. Saw one person all day.
Peace, tranquility, spectacular mountains, romance and dreamy views! what more could you ask for on Valentine’s Day? All you need to do is make sure you come with that special someone.
If you are someone who likes to cook and spoil your loved one there are hords of self catering options. My suggestion is to fill out this request for Drakensberg suggestions and let these guys do all the work for you. Whats more they will probably save you money as the have a great grip on the Drakensberg Valentine Specials available.
But I am not one for cooking and of course I want something that is really different. Well I know just the place and its called Antbear Lodge near to Giants Castle. They even have a luxury Cave that comes with a Jacuzzi spa bath and fireplace. Top tip is to ask them for a private dining experience on the deck or veranda of your accommodation unit. Somehow dining under the stars by candle light just makes for the perfect intimate atmosphere. This is also the place for a honeymoon, a wedding anniversary or location to get engaged. Seriously if he wont say yes here he is just not going to say it.
Cathedral Peak Hotel offers a special Romantic Candlelit Dinner for 2 on a 2 night valentines package where they include a couples full body Swedish massage and a luxury Picnic Basket for 2 – a picnic set up in a perfect setting with a basket filled with cheese and biscuits & champagne which will make Valentines a celebration never to be forgotten!
And if you really like the valentines idea of a spa when the Fourdon Hotel and Spa is the place to be. They even include an arrival drink, Valentines Chocolates, Rasul, Back, Neck, Shoulder Massage, Foot Massage, and Lunch
Make this Drakensberg Valentines trip even more special by arranging for a hot air balloon flight. Granted its and early morning thing and that does take the shine off sleeping in but its super worth it. It is expensive but ultimately its priceless and the memory will stay with you forever.
If you are feeling really flush consider dining out at Hartford House or Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse. That is sure to impress your partner with some of the best prepared food they will have ever eaten.
If this sounds like the perfect getaway to spoil your loved one, or spread the love in your family get in touch with us now to secure your booking for a special Valentines’ holiday.
Most parts of South Africa are well suited to solo travel. Locals are very friendly, and will often go out of their way to make single travelers feel at home. The Drakensberg in particular is suited to those who relish hiking trails, spectacular views, raw wilderness and the great out doors. Private accommodation options are better suited to single travelers than the national parks and larger hotels, since they tend to offer a more hands-on personalised service.
The Drakensberg is a must for solo travelers, and a lodge like Antbear Lodge it is a good base for exploring the gorgeous mountains . Some solo travellers prefer not to self-drive, which makes it difficult to explore areas that are off the beaten track unless you join an organised tour. Amphitheater Backpackers caters for this niche very well. Private game reserves such as Zulu Waters and Nambiti are particularly well-suited to solo travelers.
An excellent way for single travellers to explore South Africa and the Drakensberg is by using the combination of the Baz Bus and the many backpacker hostels that are scattered around its cities and other main sites of interest. The Baz Bus is an affordable hop-on, hop-off bus service that connects Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and several other popular places of interest, and its clientele is dominated by single travellers who are receptive to making new friends and meeting like-minded travel companions on the road. Likewise, most backpacker hostels have lively communal areas where it is easy to meet other travellers, and they usually also offer affordable group tours to local sites of interest, as well as overnight tours further afield.
At a more luxurious level, most private reserves operate group game drives and many also encourage guests to dine together, which makes it easy for solo travelers to mingle.
In the middle range, solo travelers seeking personalised attention should consider booking into small B&Bs and other owner-managed lodges rather than larger and more institutional hotels.
There are no risks specific to solo travel in South Africa, but apply the usual common sense precautions.
Tranquility and beauty of nature
As a World Heritage site the Northern Drakensberg are very understated, they don’t offer hip entertainment, however the raw majestic beauty reminds one that it is a privilege to be on this planet and enjoy the sheer tranquility of Mother Nature.
A place to take in the fresh air and scenery and on a cloudless night the majestic starry heavens are breathtaking. A place to walk and refresh ones mind. There are loads of self catering as well as hotels in the Champagne valley. Just over three hours from Durban and four hours by car from Johannesburg, if you love nature spoil yourself and your family, the evenings have time to bond and day time share a walk or an adventure together as a family. We have been regular visitors for the last 20 years and never tire of coming back to have peace on earth, far from the noise of life. Three night here is like three weeks holiday at a coastal resort.
Peter MansfieldJohannesburg, South Africa
After being on my bucket list for quite some time my family and I visited Central Drakensberg. The majestic mountains and the host of activities in the area was beyond our expectations. We look forward to our next visit.
SuriahCape Town, South Africa
This, from my perspective, is the most beautiful part of South Africa, don’t miss it.
Here I visited the Nambiti Wildlife Preserve, The Champagne Valley Area with the amazing Drakensberg Boys Choir School, The Reptile Farm and The Valley Bakery, The San Rock Art and Vulture Hide at the Giants Castle Park and the Phe (hilltop) Zulu Cultural Center near Durban. Great Adventure.
Molly BosinMelrose, UK
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