General Information

Copyright: MCSA-KZN 1998 ©


The Drakensberg forms the border between the "Mountain Kingdom" of Lesotho in the west and lower lying province of KwaZulu-Natal in the east. The range runs more or less north - south for about 180 km and consists of a deeply incised escarpment with an average altitude of about 3000 m. The name Drakensberg derives from the Dutch name the Mountain of Dragons. The Zulu people call these mountains Quathlamba - the Barrier of Spears.

Note : The Drakensberg provides a remote and often dramatic mountain environment. Please read the section on Hazards carefully before venturing into these mountains.

Information for International Climbers

Before your trip, do the usual thing and buy a copy of the "Lonely Planet" guide to South Africa from your local bookshop! This guide contains most of the general information that you will need to know about visiting South Africa and it will not be repeated here.

If you are planning to climb in the Drakensberg then Durban will be the most practical starting point. If you have flown into the country via Cape Town or Johannesburg International Airports, then you will need to catch a connecting flight to Durban. Reliable public transport between and within major cities is adequate, but is virtually non-existent in the rural areas. Because of this visiting climbers would be advised to try and link up with local climbers in order to facilitate their transport needs. Alternatively it will be necessary to hire a car to get from Durban to the 'Berg. Hitch hiking is neither practical nor safe. Regular hikes and climbs in the 'Berg are organised by the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) and visitors are generally welcome. Climbers who venture onto the escarpment beyond the watershed must bear in mind that they are crossing the international boundary between South Africa and Lesotho and should carry a passport.

Climbing in the Drakensberg

It must be said, first of all, that climbing in the Drakensberg is different! Walk-ins range from as little as two hours to as much as one and a half days. Even after reaching base camp, a further couple of hours of slogging up steep grass slopes is often necessary in order to reach the start of the climb. Climbs are typically 4 to 6 pitches long but some involve only a single pitch whilst others involve over a dozen pitches. Stories about the poor quality of 'Berg rock are partly true, but are greatly exaggerated and there are many excellent routes. Many routes consist of climbing a succession of rock pitches that are separated a series of grassy ledges. These grassy ledges may vary enormously in size. There is a type of wiry "Berg grass" that grows in cracks in the rock. This grass is remarkable strong and provides useful and sometimes vital handholds. 

Protection

You can never be quite sure what to expect, so a full set of nuts and a full set of cams should be regarded as essential. A small selection of knife-blade pegs can often save the day. The quick-draws used in sport climbing are adequate, but a selection of medium and longer slings is useful in order to facilitate good rope management. A pair 9 mm x 50 m ropes is usually used. This accommodates the meandering nature of many routes and facilitates the 40+ m abseils that are often required. It is sometimes necessary to abseil down to the start of a route. Clearly a set of prussik loops (or something similar) will be necessary for the return trip. In any event, climbers should carry prussik loops at all times.

Abseiling

Most Berg abseil points are from large chock stones or blocks and occasionally from pegs. Bear in mind that some of these pegs date back to the nineteen forties, so inspect them carefully. It is a good idea to carry a selection of pegs on climbs if only for this reason. Climbers often underestimate the amount of ab cord that is required and end up having to sacrifice slings and prussik loops.

Weather

The Drakensberg lies in a summer rainfall area - October to March. During this time thunderstorms, accompanied by hail and lightening are common. These are quite unpredictable and often very localised. Torrential rain may be falling in one valley whilst the sun is blazing over the ridge in the next valley. Thunderstorms are normally preceded by a small, fluffy cloud build-up at high altitude during the morning. By midday, the storm is usually fully developed and lasts until mid-afternoon. When climbing in summer, making an early start will increase the chances of being able to complete a climb before a possible storm breaks. During November through to February it is normally possible to begin walking to the start of climbs before 5 a.m.

During spring (September and October) the weather is generally unpredictable but during autumn (March and April) climbing conditions are usually ideal. Climbing is also good during the winter (May to August) with long spells of mild, stable weather. These fine periods are periodically broken by cold fronts moving in from the south west of the country, bringing rain and often snow. It usually takes about three days for a front to move up from the Western Cape to the Drakensberg. As a result, the arrival of these fronts is often predictable, provided that you have checked the latest weather forecast. A five day forecast for the 'Berg may be obtained phoning 082 231 1602. The impending arrival of a cold front is usually heralded by high, wispy cirrus clouds moving in from the south west. These clouds become thicker and lower as the front advances. Although the snowfalls are usually light, heavy snowfalls are fairly common and blizzard conditions are not unknown.

During the winter snow may remain unmelted on south facing slopes for many weeks and may make some routes unclimbable. Snowfalls typically occur several times each winter, however, summer falls also occur occasionally and unpredictably. The bottom line is - irrespective of the time of year, or the anticipated weather conditions, you should be fully prepared for the worst. Remember that the short days of winter will limit the distances that you will be able to hike or climb relative to the longer daylight hours of summer.

Access

In general, the public can only gain access to the Drakensberg via one of the Nature Conservation Service (NCS) resorts that are scattered along the eastern margin of the wilderness area. Information about NCS resorts and facilities may be obtained by phoning the NCS headquarters in Pietermaritzburg at 033 - 845 1002. See the attached 'tourist map' to get a general idea of the location of the various access points. Map. To find your way to these access points, get hold of a Shell Road Atlas of Southern Africa. These are widely available from Shell Garages throughout the country.

The access points are listed below in order from north to south:

  • Witsieshoek. The Sentinel Car Park access point at Witsieshoek is controlled by the Free State NCS. This primitive outpost has no facilities other than a mountain rescue register, an over-night hut, cold running water, toilets and a secure car park. This is the usual point of access to routes on the Sentinel, Amphitheatre, Inner Tower, Mt Amery and Ifidi areas. To get there, take the R712 out of Harrismith then turn off left onto the R57 for Phuthaditjaba. Drive straight through this sprawling, squalid town and continue along a winding dirt road, past the Witsieshoek Resort turn-off and on to the car park at the end of the road.
  • Royal Natal National Park. This NCS tourist resort has an extensive range of facilities and is the usual point of access to the routes on Devil's Tooth and Eastern Buttress. To get there get onto the R74 between Bergville and Olivier's Hoek Pass. Turn off about 30 km WNW of Bergville and follow the road signs. Tel: 036-438 6310
  • Isandlwana Police Station. Access to the remote Mnweni area is via this outpost of the South African Police Services. There are no facilities whatsoever apart from the mountain rescue register, cold running water and a secure car park. Routes on Mponjwane, Rockeries and the Saddle are usually accessed from this point. To get there, take the R74 and, at Bergville take the turn-off to Woodstock Dam. After 7 km take the turn to the left and follow this road around the edge of the dam for 6 km. Just before the road crosses the dam by way of an impressive bridge, turn off to the left onto a dirt road that leads uphill. After 2 km turn off to the right and follow this dirt road for about 10 km until the turn-off to the police station is seen on the right.
  • Cathedral Peak. This NCS tourist resort has an extensive range of facilities and is the usual point of access to the routes on Cathedral, Bell, Horns, Mitre, Pyramid, Column and Cleft Peak. To get there take R74 . At Winterton turn onto the R600 and then within 1 km turn off to the right and follow the road signs. Tel: 036-488 1880
  • Monk's Cowl. This NCS tourist resort has an extensive range of facilities and is the usual point of access to the routes on Amphlett, Tower, Sterkhorn, Cathkin and Monk's Cowl. To get there follow the R600 (see above) to its end. Tel: 036-468 1103
  • Injasuti. This NCS tourist resort has a large range of facilities and is the usual point of access to the routes on the Old Woman, Spire, Injazacila, Triplets and Bannerman's Rib. To get there, turn off the N3 toll road at the "Estcourt North" fly-over and head for Loskop. About 24 km from the fly-over, turn off to the left and follow the road signs. Tel: 036-431 7848
  • Giant's Castle. This NCS tourist resort has a large range of facilities and is the usual point of access to the routes on Erskine, Potterill, Bond, Kambule and Giant's Castle. To get there, turn off the N3 at Mooi River and follow the roads signs through and then beyond the town. Tel: 036-353 3718
  • Highmoor, Kamberg, Loteni and Cobham. These NCS tourist resorts have a large range of facilities but no established climbing routes are conveniently accessible from these areas.
  • Garden Castle. This NCS tourist resort has a large range of facilities and is the usual point of access to the routes on the Rhino and Mashai Fangs. To get there take the N3 to the vicinity of Howick and then turn off onto the R617. Follow this to Underberg and continue straight through the town. After 4 km, just before crossing the Mzimkulu river, take the turn to the right and follow the dirt road to its end. Tel: 033-701 1823

Fees for hiking in the wilderness area are currently about R15 pp admission, plus R20 pppn.

Please remember to complete the mountain rescue register before setting out on a hike or climb.

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