BIG 5/GAME DRIVE EXPERIENCE
With the Drakensberg Mountains’ top 12 peaks either just under, or over, an hour’s drive from Nambiti, Cheetah Ridge lodge guests enjoy a getaway experience that combines the best of both berg and bush.
One of South Africa’s most exquisite treasures, extending across the borders of four provinces, the rugged Drakensberg / uKhahlamba escarpment, known in Afrikaans as “The Dragon Mountain” and in Zulu as “The Barrier of Spears”, forms the border between KwaZulu Natal and the Kingdom of Lesotho.
Covering over 250 000 hectares of KwaZulu-Natal’s landscape, the imposing Drakensberg mountains are the province’s most iconic landmark and a must-see destination for avid hikers, climbers, campers, birdwatchers, mountain bikers, and fly-fishermen.
Its striking buttresses, towering basalt peaks and cascading waterfalls plummeting into lush green valleys, along with panoramic vistas of sweeping grasslands and forested glades on the lower reaches combine to make the majestic Drakensberg one of South Africa’s most dramatic, breath-taking landscapes.
Split into three distinct sections – the Northern, Central and Southern Berg – the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park contains South Africa’s three highest mountain peaks – Mafadi (3 451m), Njesuthi (3 410m) and Champagne Castle (3 377m) – which all within easy reach of Cheetah Ridge Lodge.
Incorporating both the foothills known as the ‘Little Berg’ and the escarpment or ‘High Berg’, many of KwaZulu Natal’s rivers have their headwaters in the national park.
The Drakensberg Mountains closest to Nambiti fall into four valleys, beginning with Giants Castle, through to the Champagne Castle, Cathedral Peak and Didima Valleys in the Central Berg, followed by the Amphitheatre and Middledale Pass Valleys in the Northern Berg.
Formed some 180 million years ago by volcanic eruptions, the Drakensberg’s basalt cliffs cover four diverse sedimentary formations, all of which can be seen from different locations on the mountains.
Due to its composition, the Drakensberg is said to erode by 1.5 metres each year with the ‘Little Berg’ having already lost its dolerite capping.
The ‘Little Berg’ foothills lie below 2 000 metres and consist largely of undulating grassy slopes, valleys and gorges, cut by numerous cold mountain streams and rivers.
The Drakensberg Mountains have a sandstone base, which has been eroded over millennia to form numerous caves and overhangs.
Other imposing landmarks in the Cathedral Peak wilderness area, behind (west of) Cathedral Peak, include the very distinctive The Bell (2 928m), first scaled by Hans and Else Wongtschowski on Monday, January 17 1944; the Outer and Inner Horns (both 3 005m), the Chessmen, the Ntonjelane Needle, the Mitre (3 023m), and the Twins (2 899m).
Beyond the Bell peak lies Cleft Peak, at 3 281m (10 764 ft), the second highest peak in the northern section of the Cathedral Peak range (after Mount aux Sources, just one metre higher). The highest point between Mont-aux-Sources and Champagne Castle, Cleft Peak offers spectacular views in all directions.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 63min (63km)
Cathkin Peak was named after the nearby farm of a Scottish immigrant, David Gray, a Lanarkshire weaver, who settled in Natal in 1849, and named the land he had acquired in the Drakensberg after Cathkin Braes, a hill near Glasgow, in Braes, Scotland. In due course, the name attached itself to the nearby 3 183m peak overlooking the farm.
As a tree-climbing specialist, it has cryptic plumage, with intricate patterning of greys and browns. Its head, back and throat is coloured brown while the bill is coloured grey and legs olive.
Distribution and habitat
Known to the Zulus as ‘Mdedele’ – a name often given to a bully that means “make room for him”, “one which must be left alone”, “leave him in peace”, referring to the dominant masculine aspect of the peak, or “the mountain that should be shunned” for its exposed position, which creates the impression that it dominates the range – it was not until 1912 when it was discovered that it was not the highest peak in the Drakensberg as had originally been believed. There had been many vain attempts to climb Cathkin before G.T. Amphlett, Tom Casement, W.C. West and Fr. Kelly finally scaled its summit on Thursday, September 12 1912. The Cathkin Park Resort was founded on Gray’s original farm.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 19min (93km) via R600
Reaching a spectacular 3 377m (11 079 ft) at its highest point, Champagne Castle is the third highest peak in South Africa and one of the “Big 5” peak hikes that includes the 1 995m-high Matterhorn, the 2 408m Gatberg (also known as Intunja, or “Eye of the Needle”, for the aperture through its base), the 2 620m-high Amphlett, and the 2 973m Sterkhorn.
In the heart of the Drakensberg, it contains a series of adjoining peaks, amongst them, Cathkin Peak (3 149m), Sterkhorn (2 620m), Monk’s Cowl (3 234m) and Dragon’s Back (formerly known as Cigar Ridge), a jagged ridge of four flat-topped buttresses, which descends from the escarpment in a series of peaklets (the first three of which are attached to the escarpment, but the fourth is freestanding) to end at iNtunja. It is said that when two intrepid mountaineers, David Gray and Major Grantham, ascended the peak, they were about to celebrate their long haul by popping a bottle of bubbly but as fate would have it, their guide accidentally dropped the bottle on a rock – and in that moment Champagne Castle was christened.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 21min (96.7km) via R600
Lying at the southern end of the central Drakensberg, the 3 315m (10 876 ft) Giant’s Castle gets its name from the outline of the peaks and escarpment that combine to resemble the profile of a sleeping giant. Essentially a grassy plateau that nestles among the deep valleys of this part of the Drakensberg, it was so named in 1835 by Captain Allen F Gardiner because it resembled Edinburgh Castle from one or two points. The name was transferred to its present position in May 1865 by Surveyor-General Dr Peter Sutherland, who named the original Giant’s Castle Garden Castle, after his mother, whose maiden name was Garden.
Boasting in excess of 25 walks, the 285km-long (177 mile) network of trails in the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve includes 3-30km (1.9-19 mile) hikes, spanning from one hour to overnight. A highlight is Main Caves, one of the best known rock-art sites in South Africa, which is easy to access on the Bushman’s River Trail. Points of interest along this route include Sandstone View and the historic Rock 75, where a cook from the 75th Foot Regiment carved the figure 75 into a boulder during the 1874 Langalibalele rebellion.
Home to eland and the bearded vulture, the reserve currently has 14 recognised escarpment passes, including (listed north to south) Corner Pass, Around the Corner Pass (a variation route on Corner Pass with alternative summit), Judge Pass, Gypaetus Pass (opened in September 2012), Bannerman Pass, Thumb Pass (opened in 1997), North Hlubi Pass, South Hlubi Pass, Langalibalele Pass, Bond Pass (opened in 2014), the North, Central and South Jarding/Jarateng Passes, and Giant’s Castle Pass.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 26min (103km) via N3
Nestled among the peaks of Giant’s Castle Game Reserve, in the central section of the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, iNjesuthi Peak is cradled between the iNjesuthi (or Little Thukela) and Cowl Fork Rivers at the head of the iNjesuthi Valley. At 3 410m (11 183 ft) above sea level, iNjesuthi (also spelt as iNjisuthi or Njesuthi) is the third highest peak within the South African side of the Drakensberg mountain range, on the border between Lesotho and South Africa.
iNjesuthi, the Zulu name for the greater and lesser iNjesuthi buttresses and 3 379m iNjesuthi Dome, takes its name from the Zulu description for the Little Thukela, a tributary of the Thukela River, and Is a reference to the river when swollen by rains, which calls to mind a dog that has eaten to capacity. The word is a blend of nja (“dog”) and sutha (“full”), meaning “the saturated or satisfied dog”, as in “well fed”. Less than 1.5km away on the border is the taller Mafadi peak at 3 450m (11 319 ft). The reserve is flanked by two streams (Old Woman and Delmhlwazini), which injects a rich sense of biodiversity to the mix.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 57min (115.4km) via R600
Situated in the iNjesuthi area, behind the 3 136m-high iNjesuthi Triplets – awesome turrets of rock that stand out from the 3 354m-high Trojan Wall on the border between South Africa and Lesotho – lies South Africa’s highest peak. Topping out at 3 451m (11 321 ft) above sea level, Mafadi, is officially South Africa’s highest mountain, but 31m lower than Southern Africa’s highest point, the 3 482m (11 424 ft) Thabana Ntlenyana, located just 10km inside the Lesotho border. Mafadi’s name (which literally means “Mother of Fadi”) is under dispute – its original Sotho name Ntheledi (which means “makes me slip”, referring to the nearby stream) is considered by some to be more relevant and correct.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 10min (94.5km) via N3
First scaled in 1942, the 3 234m-high Monks Cowl takes its name from the distinctive peak sandwiched between Champagne Castle and Cathedral Peak. Part of the 260 000ha Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, Monks Cowl marks the gateway to the Mlambonja (named after the Mlambonja River, or “River of the Dog”, which flows along the southern slopes of the Ridge of Horns in the Cathedral Peak area where, in 1936, Philip van der Riet bought a farm, “Inhoek”, which his son developed into a hostel in 1939, now Cathedral Peak Hotel) and Mdedelo (meaning “make room for him”, “make way for” or “get out of the way of”, an allusion to nearby Cathkin Peak pushing aside other peaks to make room for itself) mountain wilderness areas.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 57min (77.9km) via R600
Located on the watershed that forms the border between South Africa and Lesotho, 3 331m-high Popple Peak is the fourth highest peak in South Africa and is visible from as far away as Estcourt and Ladysmith. Set a little behind the escarpment in the north of the Giant’s Castle area, the peak was named by Barry Anderson in 1946 after John Poppleton, who climbed the peak with him and Des Watkins. On arrival at the summit a thunderstorm threatened, and Poppleton was concerned for his safety causing him to leave the summit. Anderson later sent the survey of the peak to the South African surveyor general with the height and name “Popple Peak”. Nearby, to the north, is the 3 197m-high outcrop known as The Judge, with Njesuthi (3 410m), Mafadi (3 451m), and Giant’s Castle (3 315m) 4.9km, 5.4km and 13.8km to the south, respectively.
Drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 57min (115.4km) via R600
Previously called Mount Memory, Sterkhorn is the name given to two peaks in the Cathkin mountain range, topping out at 2 973m at its highest point. The northern peak was first summited by A.H. and F.R. Stocker on Thursday, May 24 1888 and the southern peak by the same pair on Sunday, August 19 1888.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 19min (93km) via R600
The largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in sub-Saharan Africa, the Drakensberg’s rock art is outstanding in both quality and diversity of subject.
Over 20 000 individual rock paintings in some 500 caves and overhang sites between Royal Natal National Park and Bushman’s Neck in the Drakensberg are now protected as a World Heritage Site.
Through the centuries South Africa’s original inhabitants, the San Bushmen, inhabited many of these and left behind a priceless legacy of rock art. The most outstanding rock art sites are those in the Main Caves at Giant’s Castle and in the magnificent Game Pass Shelter at Kamberg.
Located between the Royal Natal National Park (Amphitheatre) and Cathedral Peak range, with areas that rise up to form the boundary between Lesotho and South Africa, is a remote and rugged area known as Mnweni, which is controlled by the amaNgwane Tribal Authority. Its name is derived from the Zulu word mweni, meaning “fingers”, and refers to a 3 355m high peak south of Mont-aux-Sources, known as Mnweni Castle, or “The Castle of Fingers”, first climbed by A H and F R Stockers on Wednesday, June 20 1888.
In terms of remoteness, Mnweni is the most unspoilt wilderness found in the Drakensberg Mountains, with the Buttress and Abbey, Peak and Pinnacles, Icidi Buttress and Pass, the Fangs, Rwanqua Mnweni, the Rockeries, Ifidi and Mbundini Passes, and Ntonjelana River and Pass forming distinctive landmarks. The uMnweni Cultural and Hiking Centre, located at Mabhesini, a 42 minute (33.1 km) drive from Bergville via Kingsway Rd, is a recommended stop-over point for first-time visitors exploring the area.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 38min (102.3km) via N11 and R616
Wedged between the 3 165m-high Sentinel and 3 047m-high Eastern Buttress, the 3 282m-high Mont-aux-Sources peak is French for ‘mountain of river sources’. Known as “Photung” or “The Place of the Eland” by Basuto hunters because of the vast herd of eland there, It was so named in 1836 by two French Protestant missionaries T Arbousset and F Daumas because it’s the source of five rivers – the headwaters of the Orange (via the Khubedu, a tributary of the Orange), the Vaal (via the Elands, which veers west from here to begin its long journey to the Atlantic by way of the Vaal and the Orange Rivers) and the Thukela (Zulu for “sudden”) rivers all flow from here in different directions.
From its source on Mont-aux-Sources plateau, the Thukela Falls plummets 948m off the escarpment in five clear leaps, making it the world’s second highest waterfall. However, new measurements taken by a Czech scientific expedition in 2016 suggest that the combined total drop of its five free-leaping falls is 35m higher than its officially recognised height of 948m (3 110ft), making the falls 983m tall. The falls’ upper reaches occasionally freeze in winter to create dazzling columns of ice.
Drive time from Nambiti: 1hr 32min (115.1km) via R616 or 1hr 53min (149.3km) via R74
Mont-aux-Sources Summit Drive:
Besides hiking up to Mont-aux-Sources from the Royal Natal National Park, there is also a road route to its summit:
Follow the main Bergville road, turning left onto the Oliviershoek Pass / Harrismith Road. Continue over the pass and into Free State province. On reaching the Harrismith / Qwa Qwa Road, turn left. Continue on this road, turning left again at the Qwa Qwa turnoff. Follow this road to its end, passing a number of signs pointing the way to Witsieshoek Mountain Resort. Eventually a Y junction is reached, and on the left the mountain resort can be seen. Continue on the right-hand fork to the car park at the base of the Sentinel. Allow for a two-hour walk from the Sentinel car park to the chain ladders, several hours for exploring the summit and two hours for the return journey to the car park. The summit of Mont-aux-Sources can be reached by walking from the summit plateau and scaling a 100-rung chain ladder.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti: 2h 44min (177.5km) via N3 or 2hr 58min (200.3km) via R74
Perched between the 3 165m-high Sentinel and 3 047m-high Eastern Buttress, The Amphitheatre, a crescent-shaped massif of basalt cliff that extends for some five kilometres in length, forms a spectacular backdrop to the northern Drakensberg’s Royal Natal National Park. Dominated by Mont-aux-Sources, the largest of the domes rising from its relatively flat summit plateau, it’s here that the powerful uThukela River tumbles 948 metres down the escarpment in five clear leaps.
Other notable Amphitheatre geological landmarks include the Policeman’s Helmet and Ploughman’s Kop, a mountain in the shape of a head on the left arm of The Amphitheatre. The pinnacles and crags provide a home for raptors like the black eagle, Cape vulture and the rare Lammergeyer or bearded vulture. Among the numerous caves in its foothills, ‘Battle Cave’ is perhaps most notable for depicting a clash between two rival San tribes.
Estimated drive time from Nambiti (one-way): 1hr 31min (115.1km) via R616 or 1hr 53min (149.3km) via R74