weekend away - The Drakensberg
Written by Lucy Corne, Illustration by Vesa Sammalisto
It's a picky traveller who can't find something to adore about South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains, a collection of 3,000 m-high peaks forming a natural border around landlocked Lesotho.
The area is best known for its hiking trails, which range from gentle hour-long strolls to strenuous, multi-day treks. But the mountains have more to offer than walking. While not in the same league as some of South Africa's other national parks, the Drakensberg does feature wildlife-watching opportunities. Antelope, from the diminutive klipspringer to the enormous eland, roam freely, and there's nothing quite like glimpsing them on foot, rather than from a safari vehicle.
It's also a bird-watcher's dream, with enthusiasts booking months in advance to score a spot at the Lammergeyer Hide, where sightings of the rare bearded vulture are common.
The mountains are home to hundreds of other species too, and harbour a sanctuary for South Africa's national bird, the Blue Crane.
The Drakensberg also delivers an anthropological encounter with South Africa's earliest inhabitants, the San. This is one of the best places in the country to view San rock paintings, with the ochre and amber figures decorating caves and overhangs throughout the mountains. Some sites, including caves at Royal Natal, Giants Castle, and Kamberg, are easily accessible, with guides on hand to decipher the friezes.
And then, of course, there's the scenery. It's difficult to describe the Drakensberg without resorting to clichés. Phrases like 'soaring peaks', 'cascading waterfalls', 'emerald-hued hills', and 'star-studded night skies' are often thrown around, but in the case of the Drakensberg, they're all true. This breathtaking slice of South Africa really is the perfect place for picnickers, photographers, those out for a picturesque drive, or anyone looking for scenery and silence in equal measures.
Hiking the heights
There are hundreds of hikes within the mountains, most starting from a base within the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. If you're tackling a multi-day walk, you'll need hiking experience, a good map (or a local guide), tents, and cooking equipment. A popular day walk visits the awe-inspiring Amphitheatre and Tugela Falls – the second highest in the world.
Where to stay
National park accommodation is excellent and includes the fabulous Thendele Camp within the Royal Natal National Park, whose chalets and cottages boast panoramic mountain vistas.
For something equally scenic but easier on the wallet, Inkosana Lodge comprises thatched rooms, manicured lawns, and expert hiking advice.