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WWinter isn’t always enjoyed by South Africans. The summer months are when we are at our peak — spending our weekends braaing or at the pool or beach. When winter arrives, we tend to go into hibernation, even though there are still so many places to explore that come alive during winter. The Drakensberg and its surrounds are among such places.
Heading to the Drakensberg any time from May until around the end of August is the ideal way to embrace winter in South Africa. It’s cold, but it’s beautiful.
The Drakensberg mountain range forms the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, stretching over 1 000km. Formed with a sandstone base, with numerous caves, overhangs and valleys, this mountain range features stunning views and breath-taking landscapes.
The Amphitheatre is particularly glorious, located in the northern Drakensberg, where the powerful Tugela River falls 900m down the escarpment. This impressive waterfall is the second-highest in the world and home to Cape vultures, black eagles, and the rare Lammergeier vultures.
Did you know that the highest peak in the Drakensberg mountain range, Thabana Ntlenyana, reaches 3 482m — making it the highest in Southern Africa?
The northern, southern and central regions of the Drakensberg each have a unique appeal and attract outdoor lovers, birders and hikers from around the globe.
So why is it such a great idea to visit in winter?
SSo why is it such a great idea to visit in winter?
Winter offers perfect weather for hiking
The summer months can get extremely hot in the Drakensberg mountains, which isn’t ideal for hiking, trail running or mountain biking. Winter offers sunny and dry days, with cooler temperatures.
For the most part, the weather requires only a few extra layers. A warm jacket, good scarf, beanie and gloves will be enough to keep you warm. Most daytime temperatures will be around 20°C, but will then drop to below zero at night. Dress in layers to make it easier to take them off and put back on as the temperatures change.
HHiking trails in the Drakensberg range from gentle half-day hikes to more strenuous multi-day hikes. There are also more challenging hikes that require technical mountaineering.
Popular day hikes in the Drakensberg include Rainbow Gorge (a 5.5km trail starting at Didima Camp near Berville), Lower Injisuthi Cave (a 12km trail starting at Injisuthi Rest Camp) and Sugar Loaf (a four-hour hike starting at The Cavern). More challenging day trails include the Chain Ladders Hike in the northern Drakensberg (an 18km hike starting at Sentinel car park), Cathedral Peak (a 19km trail which is best done with a guide) and Ploughman’s Kop in Royal Natal Park (a tough 7km trail that starts from the Mahai campsite in the Royal Natal Park).
Multi-day hikes include the Mnweni Circuit in northern Drakensberg (two-day hike), the Giant’s Cup Trail in Ukhahlamba Park (five-day hike), Icidi Gorge (three-day hike) and the Bell Traverse (three-day hike).
Stay at cosy accommodation
Cuddle up on a couch with a cosy blanket and hot chocolate while a hearty meal is cooked in the kitchen and a fire crackles in the lounge. If this sounds like your ultimate experience, then a weekend in the Drakensberg in winter is just for you.
For a luxurious log cabin, check out Highlands Mountain Retreat (rates from R1 609 per night for a cottage, sleeps two) in the Golden Gate National Park or Green Fire Lodge (rates from R1 250 per person per night, full board) in the northern Drakensberg. For a family retreat check out Cathedral Peak (rates from R1 720 per person per night, full board) and The Cavern (rates from R1 400 per person per night, full board). Top Lodge (rates from R1 100 per night for a cottage, sleeps two) in Bergville offers a welcoming farm stay experience in the middle of nowhere along with Berghouse & cottages (rates from R545 per person per night for self-catering and R935 per person per night for dinner, bed and breakfast).
TThere’s a chance of seeing snow
Drakensberg is one of the few places in South Africa that sees snow (most years). For the best chances to see snow you need to head to Giants Castle in central Drakensberg, Highmoor (the highest Kwazulu-Natal wildlife camp), Underberg and Sani Pass (you will need a 4x4 to drive up Sani Pass), the Golden Gate National Park or Cathedral Peak.
The most likely time to see snow is between July to early August, though there have been years that it has snowed as early as April and carried on until September.
For a definite chance to see snow, as well as take part in some snow activities, head to the Afriski Mountain Resort located in Lesotho. The ski slopes are only operational in the winter months, so make sure to book ahead to get accommodation. It’s located 75km from the South African border (remember to pack your passport) in the north of Lesotho. Costs vary from R785 for a day pass to R3 600 for a premium three-day package. Gear and equipment are available for rent with varying accommodation options available.
Fun 4x4 adventures
Spending long durations in the car isn’t always fun in the summer. Car adventures are far more enjoyable on cool winter days.
For thrill-seekers who like to get their off-road vehicles dirty, the Drakensberg offers the perfect playground. Popular off-road routes and passes include Mike’s Pass in Bergville, Sani Pass in Himeville/Lesotho and the Thule Beacon Trail near St Bernard’s Peak. Note that all three of these routes are tough and require prior off-road experience.
The northern Drakensberg can be reached in a four-hour drive from Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Durban.
Underberg offers visitors a bustling farm-town welcome in the foothills of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg – a great base from which to explore this part of KwaZulu-Natal’s many outdoor attractions.
The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg region offers breath-taking mountain views and adventures of note: hiking, rock-climbing, paragliding, mountain-biking, abseiling, ice-climbing, horse-riding and more.
South Africa has amazing trail-running terrain for visiting athletes, including mountains, forests, bushveld, beaches, savannahs and deserts – as well as some competitive runs to consider.
The Freedom Trail is an exhilarating mountain-bike route from East Coast to West Coast in South Africa that runs through some of the most spectacular natural beauty the country has to offer.
A trans-border adventure from South Africa to Mozambique will take you from game viewing in the bush to idyllic Indian Ocean playgrounds, via the urban delights of Maputo: ‘the Havana of Africa’.
Sani Pass takes you from Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal over the Drakensberg into the neighbouring kingdom of Lesotho – a testing drive or hike that boast rare birds, skiing and the highest pub in Africa.
Rock climbers are spoilt for choice in South Africa – Western Cape, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape are all provinces blessed with plentiful mountains and myriad climbing routes.
Poplar Grove Farm offers an excellent hiking trail in KwaZulu-Natal, on which visitors can explore the rivers, waterfalls, forests, wildlife and brilliant views of the Southern Drakensberg.