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South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains are rarely found on Western trekkers’ bucket lists but as Matt Westby discovers, they are home to some of the world’s most rugged and rewarding walking trails

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Our guide’s booming voice penetrates through the searching wind from tent to tent and jolts me awake. “Rise and shine!” he yells. “Don’t miss the sunrise.”

It’s not yet 6am and the prospect of swapping the sanctuary of my sleeping bag for buffeting sub-zero gusts is not an appealing one. Autumn is now well into its stride here in eastern South Africa and night-time temperatures have begun to fall below freezing for the first time.

But then I recall being told by several people about the sublime daybreaks in the Drakensberg Mountains and decide to see if the hype is justified.

I pull on my down jacket, hat and head torch and venture out into the last of the night, taking meticulous care with every step. We have camped on the edge of the escarpment that forms the spine of the range and one bad foot placement could send me over the side and tumbling down for more than a kilometre.

DSC 0280No sooner have I zipped my furiously flapping tent shut, than the sun peers over the horizon and immediately I understand the fuss. Deep-orange rays dash across the lowlands in the east and turn the Amphitheatre, a 5km-wide crescent-shaped cliff that is arguably the single most beautiful stretch of the escarpment, a striking shade of terracotta.

The light still hasn’t dipped down to the rolling hills of the KwaZulu-Natal province far below, but I can nevertheless make out summits poking through a puffy duvet of low-lying cloud.

The Amphitheatre, the edge of which I’m now standing on, changes colour with every passing second until it reaches its default vibrant green when the sun finally breaks clear of land, its warmth at last taking the edge off the wind.

Feeling humbled and with expectations handsomely met, I wander back towards our food tent to happily find steam piping out of the camp kettle and pancake mix sizzling in a pan. Some of my fellow hikers are comparing photos, while others are stuffing clothes and sun cream into their packs ready for the walk ahead.

This is the start of our second day of a six-day trek in the northern end of the Drakensberg, a rugged yet pristine range stretching for more than 1,000km from KwaZulu-Natal in the east of South Africa to the Eastern Cape in the south. The section we are visiting also sits half and half in Lesotho, the tiny but beautiful mountain kingdom boasting the highest low point of any country in the world, at 1,400m.

Drakensberg means Dragon Mountains in Afrikaans and although I’ve seen only a fraction of this enchanting landscape so far, it’s not difficult to see why. To the west, the high plateau rolls gently from hill to hill, but to the east, serrated ridges made up of ever-smaller peaks sweep down from the escarpment edge and into the valleys below like a dragon’s back and tail.

Strangely, the Drakensberg are rarely found on the bucket lists of Western trekkers, who instead flock en masse to the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, Rockies or Kilimanjaro just a few hours away. But for those who do decide to come here, the ignorance of others is bliss, because waiting for them is a wonderfully quiet and untouched environment free from crowds, litter, tea houses and mules.

It would be tempting to describe the range as off the beaten track, but the truth is the trekking here is so raw that, for the most part, there is no track to wander off. Only about 20 per cent of the trek I am about to do is on trails, with the rest being over broken terrain that is not too friendly on the ankles but more than compensates by making you feel like you’re one of the first people ever to set foot on it.

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With that comes a feeling of liberation from busy lives back home and a sense of solitude broken only by the other trekkers in our group and the odd shepherd climbing up with his flock from the villages back down in the valleys of Lesotho.

The trek crosses the border between Lesotho and South Africa several times over its 65km course. It goes without saying that there are no frontier posts or passport-control points, but you almost always know which country you are in by using the mountain rivers and streams as a guide: if they are flowing east you’re in South Africa; west and you’re in Lesotho.

The walking itself is of moderate difficulty, with each day covering 10 to 15 kilometres at altitudes ranging from 2,500m to 3,300m. Climbs and descents are never so long as to hurt your back or knees, but equally, there is barely a flat patch of ground in the whole range, the most vivid evidence of which can be found at the campsites, almost all of which are pitched at an angle.

The high altitude drops temperatures well below what they are back down in the nearby cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban, but the sun still blazes brightly in all seasons and any exposed skin is ruthlessly frazzled.

The first day of our trek was actually a half, with the morning having been taken up by a scenic drive to a car park just below the vertical faces of Sentinel Peak, a basalt monolith that marks the northern end of the Amphitheatre like a turret on a prison wall.

After signing in at a ranger station, we made our way around the base of Sentinel Peak and then up two sets of loosely hanging but perfectly safe chain ladders offering access to the edge of the escarpment, from where we walked along to the top of Tugela Falls, the world’s second-tallest waterfall.

In summer the flow is strong and in winter the water freezes into a pillar of ice, but in the dry of autumn it is just a trickle, so we moved swiftly on towards camp, which had already been set up by our efficient and friendly team of porters.


Into Lesotho

The next day’s sunrise over and bellies full with pancakes, we break our first night’s camp shortly after 8am and head away from the Amphitheatre into Lesotho for the first time via a high plateau coated in dry, spiky grass.

Surrounded on all sides by South Africa, covering an area one and a half times the size of Wales and with a population of just over two million, Lesotho has been industrialised with mines and dams built by corporations looking to exploit its natural resources – diamonds high among them – but the country remains vastly underdeveloped and life in this remote far-eastern part feels like stepping back several hundred years in time.

A stone-and-straw hut built by shepherds belonging to Lesotho’s Basotho tribe illustrates this perfectly, and after resting against its walls mid-morning, we follow the shallow valley of the Kubedu River as it winds its way into South Africa once more and back to the edge of the escarpment, where we make camp next to a spectacular cut in the cliff known as Mbundini Abbey.

Throughout the day thin layers of stratus clouds float constantly above in formations almost as idyllic as the mountains, but now they become even more beautiful as the setting sun paints them a pinkish red.

On day three we skirt the cliff edge, stopping repeatedly to admire a row of jagged peaks called the Mnweni Needles, before descending away from the escarpment and across a grassy plain towards our next camp next to the Orange River.

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The air is still when we arrive in the late afternoon, so several members of the group take the opportunity to bathe in the shallow water, while others opt to sooth body and mind in a mix of sun, solitude and silence.

Yet the most peaceful part of the trip is still to come, because the next morning we stop at another cut in the cliff that is stunning enough in its own right, but which takes on a whole new lustre when bearded vultures emerge from the early-morning mist.

These huge mountain birds boast wingspans of up to three metres and are not much to look at up close, but once they take flight they become as majestic and as easy on the eye as anything in the skies.

The vultures nest on the cliff faces on the opposite side of the cut to where we are standing and are camouflaged so well that they are near-impossible to distinguish from rock, but then they leap off and float effortlessly up and around us with just a single flap of their great wings.

It is one of those spectacles you feel foolish to walk away from, but with much ground still to cover, we continue along the escarpment until we catch our first glimpse of a 4.5km-long ridge of mountains standing perpendicular to the cliff edge. That’s our challenge tomorrow, on a part of the trek known as the Bell Traverse.

We size it up from a spectacular lunch spot and then drop down to a river boasting a small pool that the thicker-skinned among us cannot resist stripping off and jumping into, before climbing gently to a campsite perched by the water’s edge further up the valley.


Storming ahead

We start along the Bell Traverse on our fifth morning and, for the most part, it is a straightforward hike around and between the peaks, but there are three sections of exposed scrambling that would no doubt constitute via ferrata if located in the Alps and several of us need a hand from our guide to get across.

The Bell Traverse must be tackled though, otherwise you can’t access the 3,005m Cathedral Peak, which, like the Amphitheatre, is one of the marquee attractions of the Drakensberg.

Although the climb involves several more sections of scrambling, it is a largely straightforward undertaking, but just as we leave the traverse, storm clouds gather above and by the time we reach Bugger’s Gully, a curiously named chute leading to the foot of Cathedral Peak, rain is pouring down in buckets.

With lightning also flashing in the distance, our guide holds us in the downpour for safety until the storm eases slightly, finally leading us up the lower slopes a good hour after we had planned.

The climb to the summit is usually a two-hour round trip but the scrambling sections are now dripping wet and our progress up them is slowed considerably.

Our guide has carried a climbing rope all week and he unclips it from his rucksack for the first time at the foot of a steep band of rock about 10 metres high. In the dry it would be climbable for almost all of us in the group, but the rain has made it as slick as glass and it takes all of our guide’s skill to get to the top and set up an anchor point from which to pull us up one by one.

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We later scramble up several rocky gullies and by the time we reach a chain ladder just short of the summit, rain still dripping off its rungs, I’m wondering if this climb had been such a good idea after all.

But then I catch sight of the most brilliant rainbow not 20m away and I’m suddenly reminded that there is beauty in the storm. Collecting myself I continue on to the top and am fully rewarded when I get there.

Cloud obscures the views over the surrounding mountains and valleys, but it doesn’t matter, because the rainbow has now grown to the most magical complete circle and stands so close that I’m convinced I could jump straight through it.

We descend off the summit far quicker than expected but it’s dark by the time we get back to camp anyway, the skies now clearing and our ‘waterproofs’ starting to dry out.

The sun dominates up above once again the next morning, allowing us to drink in our last views of the Drakensberg unobstructed as we make the half-day descent out of the range and back to our waiting transport, a challenging but enchanting trek sadly at an end.


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