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TThe uKhahlamba-Drakensberg region in western KwaZulu-Natal is a prime South African eco-tourism destination. Framed by the Drakensberg Mountains and punctuated by yellowwood forests, indigenous grasslands and many rivers and streams, the region forms part of the 243 000-hectare uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (it also forms part of the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Park with neighbouring Lesotho).
The natural beauty is breath-taking, so it’s not surprising this mountainous region literally bursts at the seams with exhilarating adventure activities.
Hiking is a major Drakensberg attraction, with a vast network of trails – of varying lengths and difficulties – spanning the entire region. Hikers can opt for guided or self-guided trails, all of which take advantage of the spectacular views.
The Giant’s Cup Trail is a good all-round hike, while the Cathedral Peak Trail provides experienced hikers with access to this iconic 3 004m peak. The 12km hike to the top of Mont-aux-Sources (3 282m), complete with its 100-rung chain ladder, is a must for the experienced.
Rock-climbing and ice-climbing (in winter – June to August) are also sought-after uKhahlamba adventures, and Giant's Castle, Lotheni and Sani Pass offer excellent climbing conditions.
What goes up, must come down... and there are plenty of ways to do just that. Abseiling is available at sites throughout the region; try the popular Tugela Gorge or Maletsunyane Falls abseils, which see you descending hundreds of metres into picturesque gorges.
Or stay airborne and see the Drakensberg from up high: enjoy paragliding, hang-gliding and helicopter or gyrocopter flights for an invigorating bird’s-eye view of this ‘Barrier of Spears’ – that’s literally what the isiZulu word ‘ukhahlamba’ means.
There are also dozens of 4-wheel drive, mountain-bike and horse-riding trails that traverse the region, providing ample opportunity for more thorough explorations.
In summer (December to February) when the rains have come and the rivers are running high, kayaking, river tubing and swimming are favoured activities. Equipment is hired out by local companies in the area. As the mountains descend to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, you will also find numerous fly-fishing spots.
uKhahlamba is also renowned for its well-preserved San rock-art sites – memoirs of the history and spiritual beliefs of South Africa’s earliest indigenous inhabitants; enormously skilled hunter-gatherers who were once dismissed with the derogatory name ‘Bushmen’ by European settlers.
Of course, the region is filled with exceptional animal and bird life, too. Make sure you add San art and nature-viewing to your list for the ultimate Drakensberg adventure getaway.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)31 366 7500
How to get here
If you’re driving from Johannesburg, take the N3 south (towards Durban), then after passing Harrismith and descending Van Reenen’s Pass, take the signposted turn-off to Winterton, where you can start your exploration of the uKhahlamba region (or try the more scenic route to Winterton from Harrismith, via the Sterkfontein Dam and the Oliviershoek Pass).
Or fly directly to King Shaka International Airport near Durban and then take the N3 towards Jo’burg; depending on which part of the Drakensberg you’re visiting, you’ll turn off somewhere between Pietermaritzburg and Winterton. The mountain range is divided into the southern, central and northern Drakensberg for practicality.
Best time to visit
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is an all-year-round destination, as temperatures are relatively moderate. Winter (May to August) days are mild, but it can get very cold at night. Snow in the higher regions is common in June, July and August. Visit in winter if you’re looking to ice-climb and in spring/summer (September to March) if you’re looking to enjoy the mountain pools and wildflowers.
Around the area
Rock art at Cathedral Peak and Battle Cave, Marble Baths in the Giants Castle Game Reserve for a dip in the natural pools, Lammergeyer Hide – a vulture restaurant catering to local raptors – and Sani Pass, which takes you into Lesotho (but is best negotiated in a 4-wheel drive vehicle).
Tours to do
Canopy tours, 4-wheel drive trails, quad-biking, horse-riding and a tour of the Midlands Meander, which begins about an hour’s drive away in the Mooi River / Nottingham Road area.
There are many tour operators in the area, but self-drive is the best option if you want to explore at your own pace. Roads are good and normal sedan cars are fine for much of the region – but if you really want to get off the beaten track (or go up Sani Pass), hire a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Length of stay
Anything from a long weekend to 2 weeks, depending on how much you want to do and see.
What to pack
Always pack plenty of sunscreen and a hat, no matter what the weather. You will need warm clothing if visiting in winter, as it can get very cold in the evenings. Good walking shoes or hiking boots are also a must.
Where to stay
Accommodation options range from exclusive resorts to camping and caravan parks, B&Bs, hotels and lodges – there’s something to suit all budgets, so consult the listed websites.
Splashy Fen Music Festival near Himeville at Easter; Polar Bear Swim at Dragon’s Peak Dam at Estcourt in June; the Berg & Bush Descent (mountain-bike race) in October/November; Sani Stagger Endurance Race up Sani Pass in November.
Locally made art, curios and crafts, including superb beadwork and woven baskets, at shops and roadside stalls throughout the region.