Drakensberg Grand Traverse
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Drakensberg Grand Traverse
South Africa

Drakensberg Grand Traverse is a challenging trek, beginning in the Royal Natal National Park, Phuthaditjhaba, South Africa.

The hike mostly travels along the Drakensberg escarpment, a towering cliff face of majestic proportions.

The path follows the escarpment, which forms the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Much of it is around 3000 metres elevation.

The top is not a flat plateau, the hiker must negotiate over 30 steep ridges and valleys to get to the finish at Bushman’s Nek.

At over 200 kilometres from start to finish, the Drakensberg Grand Traverse presents a challenge to those who want to test their hiking abilities.

The total elevation gain, when added throughout the whole trek, is around 9000 meters, exceeding the height of Everest!

Highlights
  • Pristine alpine environment
  • Tugela Falls, the highest waterfall in Africa
  • Drakensberg Amphitheatre, a curving cliff face that is 5 kilometres in length
  • Nature reserves
  • Wilderness and solitude
  • Wild camping
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About the route

Unlike many long-distance treks, there is no official marked route for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse.

The route begins at the Sentinel car park, Witsieshoek, and finishes at the KZN Bushman’s Nek Wildlife Office in the Mkhomazi Wilderness area.

In between, there are eight official checkpoints:

  1. The Chain Ladders – this is how you climb on to the escarpment.
  2. Mont-aux-Sources summit – 3282 metres
  3. Cleft Peak summit – 3277 metres
  4. Champagne Castle summit – 3377 metres
  5. Mafadi summit – 3451 metres
  6. Giant’s Castle summit – 3314 metres
  7. Thabana Ntlenyana summit – 3482 metres
  8. Thomathu Pass must be used to descend to Bushman’s Nek

If you like peaceful, quiet trails where you can immerse yourself in your surroundings, the Drakensberg Grand Traverse has enough remote wilderness to suite the most intrepid hikers. The only people you are likely to see on the trail are Basotho herdsmen and the odd hiker.

This route can be hiked from either direction. It takes approximately 14 days if you hike an average of 15 kilometres per day. But, this is tough terrain and 15 kilometres may take a long time when you are exerting yourself on strenuous climbs. Allow extra days to your trek for you to rest and hike shorter distances if needed.

It is possible to walk the Drakensberg Grand Travers in stages, but getting to different parts of the trail is tricky due to the remoteness. There are some dirt roads that go to the trail, but arranging transport may not be easy and would take planning.

  • Travel

The nearest airport to eth Drakensberg area is Pietermaritzburg, however better connections can be made from Johannesburg and Durban;

Traveling to the Drakensberg region is easy from major cities like Johannesburg and Durban, and there are regular bus services to nearby towns and cities.

One popular town to head for is Harristown, about an hour’s drive from the trailhead at Sentinel car park.

Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is a hotel close to the trailhead at Sentinel car park, and is the ideal place to spend the night before you begin your trek.

Being a route over 200 kilometres long, you will need to arrange transportation and lodging at the end of the route.

The town of Underberg is less than an hour’s drive from the southern trailhead, where you will find many accommodation options plus transportation to airports.

  • Length

The Drakensberg Grand Traverse is approximately 200 kilometres long. Allow a minimum of 12 days if you want to complete the route.

  • Grade and difficulty of the walk

This trek is graded 4-5.

The terrain is moderate to tough. You need good levels of fitness to cope with the daily demands of the terrain.

While no technical climbing skills are required, the ascents and descents are very steep in some places.

Another difficulty of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse is the lack of a clear route. You will find yourself following small paths made by herding animals as you find your way from checkpoint to checkpoint. Expect to make mistakes in direction a few times!

  • Experience

You do need to be an experienced hiker to trek the Drakensberg Grand Traverse.

There are no way-markers or signposts. You need to rely on your own navigational skills. Compass and map reading skills are a must.

Having experience of multiday hikes and hill walking is beneficial to the enjoyment of this trek. You should be in good physical shape to hike the terrain, and you will also need to carry camping and food supplies. You can arrange food drops to help lower the weight of you backpack.

Along the route you will be summiting six mountains. Until you are acclimatised to the altitude, hiking can feel strenuous.

  • Permits

A permit is required to hike the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, and you will also need overnight fees. This can be arranged from the Royal Natal National Park.

It is also recommended that hikers register with Mountain Rescue, with information about expected itinerary.

  • Guided or Self-Guided

There are guided hikes available if you prefer hiking in groups. You can also have your bags carried to the next overnight stay, and all cooking and camping equipment and supplies are taken care of.

If you are an experienced hiker, you may prefer to hike self-guided. You might like to arrange to have dome food supplies dropped halfway, either at the top of Bannermans Pass or Langalibalele Pass, so you don’t have to carry all you need for 12-16 day hike.

best time to walk

The weather in this area is unpredictable all year round.

Most hikers attempt the trail from April to May, or September to November, as this is when the weather is at its steadiest.

In summer there can be thunderstorms, and cold temperatures and snow in winter.

Whatever time of year you hike, make sure you are prepared for cold nights, hot sunshine, strong winds and rain.

A typical itinerary would be:

Because there is no formal route for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, there is no set itinerary. Here is a general overview of where you should be during a 14 day trek.

Day 1:
Sentinel Car Park/Chain Ladders.

Day 2-5:
Northern Drakensberg – Amphitheatre to Cathedral Peak area.

Day 6-10:
Central Drakensberg – Didima to Giants Castle area.

Day 11-14:
Southern Drakensberg – The Tent to Bushmans Nek. Descent is via Thamathu Pass.

Accommodation

The majority of accommodation along the trail is wild camping. There are campsites with facilities at other places in the national park.

Some accommodation may be found at resorts just off the trail, such as at Cathedral Peak.

Accommodation can be found at the northern trailhead a White Mountain Lodge, as well as at the southern trailhead at Bushman’s Nek.

What to do

With scenery of such magnitude, you will constantly be in awe of your surroundings. The different parts of the day show the landscape in different colours, while the lack of light pollution at night make the stars shine. Take lots of photos!

Look out for different species of plants, as well as wildlife.

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At a glance
Skills RequiredHiking, Walking
Difficulty 4/5 - 5/5
Starts at Royal Natal National Park, Phuthaditjhaba
Finishes at Bushman's Nek Pass, Mkhomazi Wilderness area, South Africa
Length of route 200 Km
Average time to complete 12 - 16 Days
Possible to complete sub-sectionsYes
Highest point 3482 metres
Permit requiredYes
Equipment neededCamping equipment, food supplies, Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots, Water Supplies
Countries visited South Africa

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