Escape To The Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa

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Drakensberg Mountains In South Africa

The Drakensberg mountains in South Africa are a destination not to be missed. They can be found in all sorts of nature documentaries and travel books about Africa. Dramatic, weathered, and mysterious the Drakensberg conjures up the imagination. They culminate at their highest with the Drakensberg Amphitheater. One of the most photogenic natural landmarks in the world. For us, traveling to them became a necessity as we drove through South Africa. What lay ahead of us in the Drakensberg region was Lesotho, country lodges, national parks, and small towns to steal our hearts away. The region is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination. We spent two weeks in the Drakensberg and Lesotho and felt that it was not nearly enough time for this part of the world. Maybe we’re just mountain people, then again the Mozambican beaches still beckon us to return. 

{Read more about our time in Mozambique...}
Drakensberg Mountains

Where are the Drakensberg Mountains?

The Drakensberg mountains primarily refer to the Northeastern section of the Drakensberg escarpment. A long range of mountains that mark the beginning of a plateau that becomes the vast plains of South Africa. Here the mountain peaks soar up towards the sky and drop in dramatic cliff faces. It is one of the most notable features of Africa and both a cultural and natural world heritage site declared by UNESCO. However, the most popular section of the range refers to its northeasterly section. This Northeastern section borders and stretches into Lesotho, a landlocked nation within South Africa, that lies almost entirely within the Drakensberg Mountain Range. Here you can find the highest peaks, the Drakensberg Amphitheater, and the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

The Mountain Range formed around 200 million years ago during the separation of the supercontinent Gondwana. {We also visited and Eco camp at Gondwana Game Reserve}. Here the beginnings of the Atlantic and Indian oceans formed which deposited soft rock and sediment at the bases of the mountains. Over millions of years, the mountains with no volcanic or seismic activity the bases of the mountains slowly eroded away leaving high plateaus on the mountain tops.

{Read more about the formation of the Drakensberg formation here…}

Mysterious, Grand, and Dramatic

The mountains have two names. The Drakensberg mountain’s name comes from the first Voortrekkers Afrikaans settlers to the region, in reference to the image of sleeping dragons the mountains gave off. While, the Zulu referred to them as the uKhuhlamba or a barrier of spears. When standing at the base of these monsters it is not hard to understand where the names come from. The journey up to the base of the mountains is a series of rolling plains. From the plains rise the peaks and valleys of the Drakensberg. Sheer cliffs rising from straight out of the earth up towards the sky for a 1200m. It is here the largest cliff face in the world exists, at three times the size of the famous El Capitan. It is an unparalleled formation on the face of the earth.

Cameron Walking Montusi

Where to take in the views?

We used three bases to explore the Drakensberg allowing us to gain access to both the eastern and western sides of the mountain range. With a crowning feature such as the Amphitheater we knew we’d need to stay in a place with views of the landmark and good access. We came across the perfect mountain retreat, a four-star property to explore this section of the world called Montusi Mountain Lodge.

A B&B at one of South Africa’s finest small towns, Clarens. A charming town filled local art, made for a base to snowboard and explore the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Add to that a cultural journey into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho and we had the makings of a memorable mountain experience in South Africa.

Read More: {How You Can Save on Accommodation


Montusi Mountain Lodge

Montusi Mountain Lodge is a four-star lodge built to take in the beauty of the region. When we checked into Montusi it met every expectation we had in mind for a proper mountain getaway. The lodge is set on a hill that provides uninterrupted views of the Drakensberg from almost anywhere on the grounds. It is a mountain lodge from our dreams with horses roaming freely, rolling fields, beautiful grounds, flyfishing, hiking trails, and wildlife. Arrival here is often done by one of the family members, as it is a property that has been passed down through generations. The family management allows for a personal touch that is clearly evident upon arrival. There is no cold formulaic welcome at Montusi. We spent three nights at Montusi and never even ventured off the property due to its beauty, staff, and a plethora of activities.

dji_0466

The main building consists of a reception, dining room, terrace, bar, lounge, and even a massage treatment room. Here we could play a game of pool, read a new book by the fireplace, or have a beer and take in the mountains. All of which, we took full advantage of including an attempt at a round of tennis on their personal courts. A stay at Montusi also includes dinner and breakfast. The lodge offers wonderful dining with tasty local cuisine in the form of a three-course meal. A personal favorite of mine was the kudu for dinner one night. The personal chalets offered at Montusi have views of the amphitheater from the bed, a heated bathroom floor, patio, and a fireplace. Each room is free standing allowing for complete privacy to relax in the tranquil atmosphere. It’s the sort of room that was difficult to leave, and that we could even live in. A perfect place to make a fresh cup of coffee and take in the Drakensberg Mountains.

Montusi Mountain Lodge

A Good Morning View To Die For

After a good nights rest on the peaceful grounds, guests wake up to stunning views of the Drakensberg Amphitheater. Making use of the french press guests can set out to enjoy the view with a cup of coffee and one of Montusi’s comfy robes. Seriously, their robes are the best we’ve had in a hotel room.  Little touches like new magazine copies of Getaway, a new favorite of ours, are sitting in the lounge of the room and are perfect some light morning reading.

Drakensberg Mountains Good Morning Montusi

Did we mention the comfy bathrobes?

Mountain Serenity

There are plenty of hikes and activities to keep active, but we made sure to relax with a good book. A place like Montusi is the perfect place to do nothing at all. Guests can relax poolside, sit by the fire, or chose from any number of places with a view.

cameron-book-montusi

Hikes and Horseback in the Drakensberg

With an estate the size of Montusi, it provides some nice luxuries to explore the plains leading up to the Drakensberg. They have a number of hiking trails on the property and offer an awesome hiking map at the lodge that proves as a nice guide for those looking to explore on their own. A guided hike is also offered every day at 9:30 a.m. We set out one day to find some of the famous Bushmen paintings that can be found throughout southern Africa. Bushmen, or San people, were some of the earliest inhabitants of Southern Africa and can still be found today in small pockets.  Just a hop away from the guest rooms is a cave that is home to three known bushmen paintings, and it was the first ones we had come to find in South Africa.

Bushmen Paintings Drakensberg

River Stream Drakensberg Mountains

A major highlight of Montusi is their stable of horses. They are one of the few lodges in the area with stables offering horseback rides for various levels of riders to explore their grounds while taking in views of the Drakensberg. Ever since visiting Cappadocia in Turkey, Tasha had been itching to go on a horseback ride. We found the only other place in the world that could compete with Cappadocia for surreal beauty are the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa.

horseback-riding-drakensberg

From on top of a horse the landscapes natural beauty only improves. The horses also allow the ability to wander the grounds in a less intrusive way, we easily approached a herd of eland, who seemed to pay us no mind. It was one of our favorite experiences of our tour of South Africa and something we can heartily recommend to anyone in the area.

{Check the rates for Montusi here!}

Montusi Mountain Lodge

All Out Adventure

On the property adjacent to Montusi is more or less it’s “sister” company. A company started by one of the daughters and her husband. They offer a wide variety of adventure activities to explore the area. So, if doing nothing isn’t your cup of tea then this will be the place to head. At All Out Adventure you can play paintball, ride a quad, try your hand at the trapeze, brave the trails on bike, or zipline through the air.

Climbing the Amphitheater From Sentinel Car Park

Climbing to the top of the Amphitheater was high on our list of things to do. The peak, Mont-aux-Sources, is the source of the Tugela River and the lies at 3,282 above sea level. The hike is strenuous and not for the faint of heart. It moves over some challenging terrain and finishes with two chain ladders to reach the plateau on top of the amphitheater. You can see some of our photos and video below to get an idea of the hike up. The car park involves a 7km dirt road, that at the time of trip was under construction and may one day be drivable by a car; but for now, it requires a vehicle with decent clearance. We braved the journey by ourselves, but the Montusi Mountain Lodge can arrange a hike up. There are many other operators in the area who will also arrange a guided hike up the mountain. The parking lot is managed by a local lodge, and they can arrange for a drive up to the car park from their reception should your vehicle not be up to par.

Drakensberg Amphitheater Edge

Scariest seat I’ve ever sat in.


The final ascent up to the top of mountain plateau involves two chain ladders up the mountain face. It is nerve-racking, but ultimately worth the effort (just hang on). Once at the top you can relax and take in the view, which might take your breath away again. All together the hike takes about five to six hours, so plan and pack accordingly. It’s best to start the hike in the morning, there is a serious danger in descending at night here.

Drakensberg Chain Ladder

This is where many will turn around.


Tugela Falls

From the peak, you can walk along the plateau towards its center most point to find the Tugela Falls. It is here the modest beginnings of the Tugela river come crashing down 948m to the base of the amphitheater. It is arguably the tallest single falls in the world, but for now, we’ll say it’s number two behind Angel Falls in Venezuela. You can catch some glimpses of the falls in our video.

tasha-sentinel-peak

It’s flat up top!

Clarens: The Best Small Town In South Africa

We’d read in a guide that Clarens was one of the best small towns in South Africa and we set our sights on it. Clarens, nicknamed “The Jewel Of The Free State,” is a small town next to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. It is a busy tourism hub for the region. Its center square is dotted with restaurants, unique shops, art galleries, a brewery, and coffee shop. Its charm is apparent when you first drive down the central drag. Filled with guesthouses and one Protea Hotel {Check Rates Here!} the town retains its atmosphere despite being a hub for tourism. It’s proximity to the park is certain to draw crowds, looking for the perfect base to explore the unique national park.

clarens-in-drakensberg

Where to eat in Clarens:
  • The Courtyard Cafe: A big outdoor seating area and a small shop serving up some local artisan products from South Africa make for the perfect breakfast spot or lunch. A bakery with good baked products, sandwiches, charcuterie, and coffee.
  • Highland Coffee Roastery: What would be the perfect art town without a great coffee shop? We loved the coffee menu here and even bought some of the coffee they roast in the shop.
  • Clementines: Clementines is set just off the main street, but is more or less the restaurant to have a meal out when in Clarens.
  • Clarens Brewery: That’s right, even in a small South African mountain town you can now find a craft brewery. We enjoyed a cold beer here on a warm afternoon. Perfect end to a day of hiking – they do close early (around 7 pm) though so don’t wait.
Accommodation in Clarens:
  • Protea Hotel Clarens: A well run modern hotel with all of the necessities for any style of traveler. {Check Rates Here!}
  • Eddies Guest House: We spent two lovely nights with Eddie. A small well run guesthouse offering everything you could ask for. Views from the room, kitchenette, heated blankets, and a fireplace were big sells for us. We stayed in the Santa room. {Check Rates Here!}

Golden Gate National Park

The rolling hills and brilliant colors given off by the Maluti Mountains in Golden Gate Highlands National Park are sure to wow. The park specializes in some of the most brilliant hikes, drives, and sunsets in South Africa. There is no big game in this national park and visitors are able to roam around freely partaking in all sorts of outdoor sports such as hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and canoeing. {Find out more about the park here.}

Golden Gate Park Drakensberg

{Read more about a great small town we visited, Zakopane, Poland…}

The Kingdom in the Sky

Lesotho was a country that many seem to give a skip, but we found ourselves wishing for more time. The country is staggeringly gorgeous and a remote destination. Here you won’t find tour buses of people, large hotels, lodges, or really much of any infrastructure. However, the infrastructure in the capital is improving and the lack of the other is all the more appealing. Here it is just the visitor and the unspoiled Basotho culture. The Basotho are the predominant culture of Lesotho and were driven up into their remote mountain hamlet by the Zulu. Here, they brave the harsh winters and mountain conditions. Lesotho is a fierce country, but fiercely beautiful and immensely rewarding.

Lesotho Drakensberg


Lesotho Drakensberg

Snowboarding and Skiing in Africa at Afriski

That’s right! You can ski and snowboard in Africa! The Afriski resort in Lesotho is one of the few places you can take a lift up and ski down some fresh powder in Africa. It’s very well run resort with a full bar, restaurant, shop, snow tubing, and ski school that will make you feel like you’re in Switzerland. They offer a number of chalets, a hotel, and even a backpackers hostel for accommodation. However, the season is short and space can go quick, so make sure to book well in advance. We had a blast tearing it up on the slopes for a day. The resort also runs year round making a great base for hiking and mountain biking. Learn more about Afriski here!

Afriski Lesotho Drakensberg

Maletsunyane Falls

We specifically traveled back into Lesotho in order to see these falls. It cost us a few days of driving, but we’d do it again in a heartbeat. Up until recently, they were seldom traveled, despite their beauty. It was only until recently the Chinese repaved the roads going in the direction of the falls, making them more accessible. We spent an entire day venturing out to this spot. Upon our arrival, we found absolutely no one asides from a few boys minding a herd of sheep and ponies.

Lesotho Sheep Herder Drakensberg

Waterfalls in Lesotho - maletsunyane fall

Lost in the Drakensberg

We found this region of the world to be so unique. We could have spent months here. Wandering through more quaint towns, dining at local watering holes, and shopping in lovely art galleries are just a few ways to pass time. Or we could have spent more time mountain serenity taking in the views from a comfortable distance at Montusi Mountain Lodge. Or trekking along single lane tracks that hug dangerous cliffs. Or catching our thrills from horseback, on a snowboard, or a quad. The Drakensberg mountains in South Africa and Lesotho are a place that take quality time with an endless amount of activities.


Plan Your Trip to South Africa

We rely on a few trusted websites that help save us money and time when booking hotels, flights, and car rentals. Check out some of our preferred partners below:


Accommodation in South Africa: We like to use Hotelscombined to compare various booking engines and make sure we are getting the best possible deal. To feel more at home in South Africa we use Airbnb. Here is a coupon for your first stay! Here are the most popular destinations in South Africa: Cape TownJohannesburgKnysna, and Stellenbosch.

Flights to South Africa: Compare airlines, dates and prices all in one place with Skyscanner.

Car Rental in South Africa: Auto Europe is a car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.

Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. We ALWAYS travel with travel insurance. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!

Water: We found the water in South Africa fine to drink, if you want extra assurance then we love traveling with our Lifestraw Go Waterbottle

Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights.


Thank you to Montusi Mountain Lodge for hosting our stay, as always all opinions are our own. 


Looking for more advice on the Drakensberg Mountains? Leave a comment below!

 

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