The Dragon's Mountain in South Africa

Drakensberg means ‘the dragon’s mountain’, a wonderful part of North-Eastern South Africa where I recently enjoyed a few hikes and am going to introduce to my dear readers.

cacti blooms in the desert conditions

No need to fear, the dragon only refers to the appearance of pointed peaks which inspired the name to early European settlers, therefore only lizards or snakes would be the local green-skinned beasts to haunt the place. So, let us put on our hiking boots and bush hats and hit the trails.

top of the trail

We start in the Mont-Aux-Sources massif (yes, many French settlers here hence quite a few French names for places and people) with Sentinel Peak hike, also referred to as ‘chain ladder hike’, you will soon understand with an adrenalin rush where the name comes from…We first had to drive through the city of Phuthadijhaba where the total lack of signs or indications led to the picking of a local informal guide to help us find the right road, ending at the entrance gate to the Royal Natal National Park. A fee is due for the day, around Rands 50 per person, then we use a paved road snaking up to a hotel (Witsieshoek Resort). The hike itself starts at the Sentinel car park at 2560 meters in height, a four-by-four wheel drive is compulsory to reach it from the hotel (cost R.150) and the driver has to be fit! After half an hour of bumps, squeaks and groans the survivors set foot on the long-awaited park lot where another fee of R.80 has to be forked out to get on the trail.

yellow flower in first image and baboon in second

Sights along the Drakensburg Trail

The path slowly winds up the slopes, offering breath-taking views and of course a whole range of Alpine flora really worth kneeling down to be enjoyed as they are usually tiny and set on very short peduncles. Chacma baboons also known as Cape baboons (Papio ursinus) frolic around, they roam the area digging for edible roots and bulbs, insects, larvas, snails and whatever suits their appetites which can also be scorpions, birds and small mammals. They are rather large monkeys as an adult male can reach 1.5m from head to tail and weight 33kg, with a well developed muscular system and prominent canines, and are not really your shy poodle. They usually do not interfere unless you have food which may attract them. They actually can be a real problem as they do enter homes and storm through the refrigerator and in case one has been locked they would destroy the place in retaliation. Few birds fly by and even fewer butterflies or other insects in spite of the various flowers blooming. Just after a turn we bump into a whole gang of local workers busy setting small cinderblocks on the path. This theoretical improvement does not really suit us and is surprising, it seems like an awful lot of work to carry such items all the way up the mountain, feet are not that comfortable and balanced on them and it gives the trail a very artificial look. But obviously it brings some work to people of the area who suffer from unemployment and very low incomes.

climbing the ladders up the mountain

The Famous Chain Ladders of Drakensburg

After a couple hours we now reach the famous ominous ladders which will allow us to reach the upper plateau by climbing up an almost vertical part. They are made of strong (so do we hope!) iron chains on which iron bars have been welded across so they do not form classical fixed ladders but are more like an iron rope ladder, moving, cracking and rattling against the rock for some 40 meters. Once we have scrambled to the top and caught our breath we realize that there is a second chain ladder but somewhat shorter (only 20m this time!) which takes us to 2987m in elevation on the upper plateau. Then it is quite flat through grassland and rocks, along the Tugela River to reach the Tugela Falls which is the highest waterfall in Africa and the second largest in the world (after the Angel Falls in Venezuela) with 948m of vertical fall. But as this is dry season now, nothing very spectacular to enjoy except for the stunning view!

Tea at the Top of the Trail

Time for a nice cup of tea from the thermos jug and a few ginger cookies while relaxing on a flat stone. By the way this tea I am pouring for you is not the usual one made with leaves from Camelia sinensis but instead with leaves and twigs from Aspalathus linearis, a member of the Fabaceae family growing in a small mountainous area of Western Cape province. Commonly known as ‘rooibos’ or ‘bush tea’ it does not contain caffeine and helps digestion and sleep and is widely drunk through South Africa.

the hike is worth it for the view

If you now feel like moving again we can walk a little on the edge of the bluff which forms the ‘amphitheater’, a dramatic cliff face which runs for more than five kilometers in length, a very impressive sight from the valley. But I just heard a thunderbolt; storms can build up very fast in those mountains and get quite nasty so we might as well head back. The walk to the chain ladders is almost flat with mostly grass but keep your eyes peeled as there are some nice little flowers scattered here and there, do not step on them! And we are at the top of the ladders, I suggest the faint-hearted no to stare too long downward as they may feel very soon like not climbing down…We soon set feet on firm ground again and take the same trail back to the car park, the storm has decided not to build up so sun is back again (make sure to bring an effective hat plus sunscreen if you want to come back, African sun is fierce!). The way down usually seems easier but watch your steps, the path goes over wet slick rocks at times and you do not want to lose balance on those rather steep grasslands. Once at the park we wait for the 4WD shuttle to get back to the car and maybe enjoy a coffee or local beer at Witsieshoek’s. All in all the entire hike is 12km long and takes some four to six hours to complete depending on how fit you are and how long you spend kneeling in front of flowers. Do take enough food, water, rain-jacket as well as sun-hat; the weather can change dramatically from pleasant sunshine to harsh weather with strong wind and cold rain so stay alert! This hike can be made by yourself but you can also hire a guide if it makes it more comfortable for you.

birds on the mountain

Hope you had a pleasant walk today and are ready to follow me pretty soon in order to meet some animals easy to encounter in game reserves where our wheels are now taking us!