Where is the Drakensberg? The World Heritage Site you've never heard of
Somewhere is a land of spectacular natural beauty; an extraordinary mountain range of huge peaks, towering basalt cliffs, massive sandstone outcrops, deep gorges and crystal-clear mountain streams. This strange land offers a good chance of seeing a variety of antelope and the area has a regular bird list of well over 200 species.
Add to this the fascinating history exemplified by the Bushman rock paintings spread widely across the whole area, together with its unique geological structure, and you can understand why it has been designated a World Heritage Site. But almost nobody has heard about it. And even fewer go walking there.
So where is the Drakensberg?
The Drakensberg is an area with massive potential for walking and is South Africa’s most popular walking area. The Maloti-Drakensberg Park forms a crescent-shaped area 200km long, perched on the eastern border of Lesotho and stretching from the Royal Natal National Park (RNNP) in the north to the Sehlathebe NP of Lesotho in the south.
The highest point is the peak called Thaba Ntlenyama, lying inside Lesotho and, at 3482m, the highest point in Africa south of Kilimanjaro. There are many sheer rock walls of 500m or more. The line of sandstone cliffs and outcrops that runs the entire length of the Drakensberg is a conspicuous feature and makes for some excellent walking.
Walking in the Drakensberg sounds tough
The Cicerone guidebook is aimed specifically at those who wish to do day walks. The walks are not all difficult and in fact there is something here for families with small children, as well as intermediate walks and some much tougher challenges.
How do you get to the Drakensberg?
Access to South Africa by air is currently almost entirely through Johannesburg. Most European long-haul carriers fly there directly (including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow) as does South African Airways. The routes have become quite competitive and it is well worth using an agent or the Internet to seek out the best fare, even if it means a change of flight in a European city. From the United States there are non-stop flights to Johannesburg with Delta (Atlanta) and South African Airways (JFK, New York) plus a direct flight with South African (IAD, Washington) with a refuelling stop in Accra.
There is no public transport to carry you into the Drakensberg so self-drive is the only reasonable possibility. There are many car hire companies located in the airports. The equivalent to motorways are the ‘N’ roads and, although they have central barriers and slip-road exits, there are important differences. Pedestrians are frequently seen, there is some hitchhiking, livestock may wander onto the road and petrol stations can be relatively long distances apart. Many by-roads are unsurfaced, can be very rough and in wet weather may make for challenging driving conditions. Even surfaced roads may have huge potholes. But it's all part of the adventure!
Do I need a visa for the Drakensberg?
Visitors from the EU and Switzerland do not require a visa to enter South Africa. Residents of other countries should check at www.home-affairs.gov.za.
So, what's stopping you?
A word on snakes
There are a lot of snakes in Africa, some 170 species in southern Africa alone. However, tourists rarely see one and, if they do, it is unlikely to be venomous. More people in South Africa are killed by lightning than by snakes. Although don't let that give you a fear of lightning.
There is no risk of malaria in the Drakensberg.
Sadly, at the time of writing South Africa carries a reputation for increasing lawlessness. Car-jacking is relatively common and mugging, as in the UK, frequently reported in urban areas. However, most tourists never experience any security problems and preventative measures are broadly similar to those that many take in their own country.
More information on walking in the Drakensberg
The Cicerone guidebook by Jeff Williams contains 75 day walks in the Maloti-Drakensberg Park as well as plenty of further information to help you plan your trip to the area.
After a short commission in the Army, Jeff Williams trained in paediatric medicine and worked as a consultant paediatrician in North Wales for 30 years. During that time he wrote walking and climbing guides for the Stubai, Silvretta and Ötztal Alps, as well as Cicerone's 'Walking in the Drakensberg'. Jeff also trained as a safari guide in South Africa and currently teaches new guides and lectures in North Wales on safari guiding and walking.View Articles and Books by Jeff Williams