Hugging the border with Lesotho, South Africa’s premier mountain wilderness is mostly a vast national park officially known as the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park. The tallest range in Southern Africa, the “Dragon Mountains” (or, in Zulu, the “barrier of spears”) reach their highest peaks along the border with Lesotho. The range is actually an escarpment separating a high interior plateau from the coastal lowlands of KwaZulu-Natal. Although this is a continuation of the same escarpment that divides the Mpumalanga highveld from the game-rich lowveld of the Kruger National Park and continues into the northern section of the Eastern Cape, when people talk of the Berg, they invariably mean the range in KwaZulu-Natal.
For elating scenery – massive spires, rock buttresses, wide grasslands, glorious waterfalls, rivers, pools and fern-carpeted forests – the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg is unrivalled. Wild and unpopulated, it’s a paradise for hiking. One of the richest San rock-art repositories in the world, the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg is also a World Heritage Site, with more than six hundred recorded sites hidden all over the mountains (three easily accessible ones are at Giant’s Castle, Injisuthi and Kamberg), featuring more than 22,000 individual paintings by the original inhabitants of the area.
The park is hemmed in by rural African areas – former “homeland” territory, unsignposted and unnamed on many maps, but interesting to drive through for a slice of traditional Zulu life complete with beehive-shaped huts. Visitors to the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg can stay either in the self-catering and camping options provided by KZN Wildlife, or in hotels or backpacker hostels outside the park (the most feasible option if you don’t have your own transport). As for the weather, summers are warm but wet; expect both dramatic thunderstorms and misty days that block out the views. Winters tend to be dry, sunny and chilly, with freezing nights and, on the high peaks, occasional snow. The best times for hiking are spring and autumn. As the weather can change rapidly at any time of year, always take sufficient clothing and food.