Why South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains should be on every adventure lover’s bucket list
A local South African guide explains why KwaZulu Natal is the perfect place for outdoor lovers to visit.
While honeymooning in the Drakensberg Mountains 27 years ago, James Seymour and his wife decided that they would like to settle there one day. The family’s dream finally came true three years ago, when they upped sticks and moved to their new home in the majestic area of Cathkin Valley in KwaZulu Natal.
James is a registered nature conservation guide and has over 23 years of experience in the tourism industry in South Africa. He has a deep knowledge of the Drakensberg area and his passion and love for the wilderness is almost contagious. After spending some time talking to him, you can’t help but feel like a great South African adventure is calling your name.
As well as admiring its beauty, visitors can really immerse themselves in the area by getting involved in some adventure actives while they are there.
“This area is renowned for its adventure tourism. It has the largest concentration of hiking trails in South Africa and is famous for rock climbing, mountaineering, white-water rafting and hot air ballooning. It really is a centre for adventure.”
He explains that there are many once in a lifetime moments for travellers to enjoy, “things like ziplining through indigenous forests, standing under magnificent waterfalls and swimming in deep crystal pools.”
However, one activity stands out amongst the rest.
“The most popular pursuit in this area is hiking. People just love to hike.”
James advises that for those who love to hike, there are certain things to consider in advance of hiking the Drakensburg.
“I would always recommend if you are trying to do a hike to the high-altitude areas of the Drakensberg, that’s when it’s worth having a qualified guide to guide you. To hike at 3,400m, you must be cautious and take it slowly. It’s really about following certain guidelines which are always provided to you when you visit areas like the Drakensberg.”
As well as considering taking a guide on your hikes, James also recommends being prepared for all sorts of weather conditions.
“The Drakensberg is a strange area. It can get extremely hot in the summer months but at the same time, if a storm were to come across from the Indian Ocean it could snow the next day. In winter, during the day it’s pleasant but at night it does get cold. From a weather perspective, it’s very difficult to predict, especially at high altitude.”
“There are a number of valleys in the Drakensburg. It’s an escarpment of about 340km long and it’s the only World Heritage site of its kind. These are mountains that have basically eroded back from the Durban area over the millennia. Due to the geology, it’s one of the world’s most important forms of an erosional mountains.”
“The key attraction of this area is the beauty of those mountains. The peeks are so rugged that the Zulu refer to it as Ukhahlamba which means “Barrier of Spears”. It’s the Dutch settlers in this area who called it the Drakensberg, which is Dutch for the Dragon’s mountains.”
James explains that the beauty of the mountains has inspired writers and travellers from all over the world.
“JRR Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, got a lot of his inspiration for those books from the Drakensberg mountains because they’re just so rugged. One of the most beautiful valleys in this area is an area is called the Amphitheatre. It has the second highest waterfall in the world. People climb a chain ladder to get to the top, and then walk across to the source of what is known as the Thukela falls which has a drop of about a kilometre. It’s quite spectacular.”
The immense landscape means that the Drakensberg is home to an array of plants and wildlife.
“There are certain animals and plants that are only found in this area. One of the examples being the lammergeyer, or in English the bearded vulture. There’s a particular species of that bird which is only found in these mountains. The area is also famous for huge antelope such as the eland. It’s a massive creature and there are vast herds of the elands in these mountains.”
There are lots of other exotic animals to be found, however James assures us that the area is very safe for hikers and visitors alike.
“We also have leopards and baboons. The leopards, unfortunately, are quite scarce and they live extremely deep in the mountains. They normally only come out at night, are very shy creatures and they tend to avoid humans. When tourists come to our famous national parks for safari and to try to see the big five, the one animal which they really struggle to see is the leopard because you normally only see them at night.”
You can’t visit South Africa without trying some of the local cuisine. Food is another major part of the culture in KwaZulu Natal and there are plenty of tasty options on offer.
“There are wonderful resorts in this area, about 15-20 kilometres from where the trails start in to the mountains. They have wonderful restaurants that serve South African and global forms of cuisine.”
“We are known for our barbeques in South Africa and for our love of meaty dishes like stews and stake and a sausage known as Boerewors, which is very much South African. We have a way of preparing food called Potjiekos where food is prepared in a big steel pot and stewed for a few hours over wood coals – it’s really, really tasty. You could have it in vegetarian form, or else we use chicken, beef or lamb. It’s very popular.
When it comes to dining alfresco, the South Africans know how to make the most of their stunning surrounding.
“South Africa is famous for what are called ‘bush dinners’. When you visit a game reserve and go on an evening game drive, they will often surprise you by turning a corner and there in the bush, they will have paraffin lanterns hanging from trees, and tables laid out with white linen tablecloths. You get served dinner in the bush and it’s such a wonderful experience.”
Wine lovers can also rest assured knowing they can also have a great wine experience in this region.
“The Cathedral Peek wine state is also in this area. People tend to associate wine with the Cape in South Africa, but this estate produces wine in the Boudreaux tradition. It’s quite a specialised way of producing wine and it’s excellent. We also have our own craft brewery in the area which even produces a wonderful Irish red beer.”
Regardless of who you are or what your travel interests may be, South Africa has something for everyone, and James is witnessing that first hand as a guide.
“There is tremendous interest in South Africa at the moment with what I call the ‘Wanderlusters’, young couples who rent a car in Johannesburg and then spend about three weeks travelling throughout South Africa.”
“We had a couple who came here to spent one night recently. They then decided they were going to stay for three nights and after the third night they decided they were going to get married! They got married in one of our chapels in the valley. That was wonderful. They couldn’t believe how beautiful these mountains were, they just felt it was the perfect place to get married.”
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