Mountains, cliffs, forests, grasslands, flowers, clear streams and waterfalls, the Drakensberg has all that and more to delight and sometimes challenge a hiker.
On our first day hike we had this view of the massive face of Cathkin Peak with Sterkhorn to the right, both capped in cloud. The smaller peaks of the Tower (or Turret) and the Amphlett are clearly visible further to the right against the skyline
In early May we stayed for a few days in the area known as Cathkin Park or Champagne Valley – both names referencing two of the tallest mountains in the region: Cathkin Peak (3148 m) and Champagne Castle (3377 m). During our stay we did two short day hikes of a few kilometres each, with both involving a bit of climbing up and down steps cut in the steep sections of the mostly well-maintained footpaths. Both hikes involved walking through forest patches along streams gushing at full strength after heavy rains and through grasslands with views up to the sandstone cliffs of the Little Berg and up to the main Drakensberg Mountains.
In deep shade, only two flowers of this everlasting (Helichrysum sp.) caught the morning sunshine
Our destination was Nandi Falls, cascading over a lip of rock in a forested kloof (steep-sided ravine) in the Little Berg. ‘Nandi’ is Zulu for ‘beautiful’ – the forest is beautiful too
The falls were unusually full after the prolific rain in recent weeks
Falling water to the left of the photo merges with fronds of grass seemingly mimicking water as they hang down on the damp cliff face next to the falls
A rainbow at the bottom of the falls (photo by my spouse)
On our return from the falls we stopped and perched on a large boulder next to the footpath to eat our sandwiches. This was our view. The orange flowers, familiar from our garden, are Wild Dagga (Leonotis leonurus)
Looking up at the sandstone cliffs of the Little Berg
Recent cold weather had dried off the grasses even though the ground is very wet and in many places muddy. The grasses are brightened by wild flowers including these yellow Helichrysums
A resplendent yellow flowers visited by a species of tiny beetles (photo by my spouse)
We returned the way we had come to our accommodation (in one of two cabins for couples), which are concealed in a patch of forest. Above the forest the ground rises steeply to a band of sandstone cliffs. The prominent rock named the Sphinx can be seen in approximately the middle of the horizon. The high koppie on the right is named Verkykerskop
This is a section of Breakfast Stream that flows through the forest patch not far from the cabins
The next morning, our walk would take us up to the Sphinx, but on a roundabout route via Crystal Falls. Much of the footpath consists of steps secured with logs fixed to the ground with metal bars to prevent erosion
Further up, Breakfast Stream, surrounded by lush vegetation, was flowing fast. The water is perfectly clear and what a pleasure to be able to drink mountain water straight from the stream
Tiny flowers of Lobelia vanreenensis show up bright white amongst a jumble of foliage on a damp and shady bank near the stream. The plant is named for Van Reenen’s Pass
Another view of the stream rushing and gurgling to the edge of a slab of rock to cascade down a few metres before continuing on its way
By now we have climbed a little higher and we look back at the forest on either side of the two streams that fall over the sandstone cliffs to combine together into the continuation of Breakfast Stream
And as our path takes us higher still, we look back to see the mountains coming into sight above the nearby promontory. Part of Cathkin Peak is only just visible, next is Sterkhorn, and to the right the Tower (or Turret) and the Amphlett. The trees in the foreground are a species of Protea
Just before the path curves around a hillside where we lose sight of the mountains, we look back to see Cathkin Peak more clearly. Cathkin Peak rises to a height of 3,148 m (about 10,330 feet). Its name comes from Scottish settlers who arrived in the region in the mid 1800s
On an easier and more level part of the hike I took more notice of the flowers including yet another unidentified species of Helichrysum, this one hosting an assassin bug
There are 244 species of Helichrysum in South Africa, and I have not observed carefully enough the characteristics of the flowers as well as the leaves to be able to distinguish them with any degree of accuracy. The genus name Helichrysum, derives from the Greek helios meaning sun and chrysos meaning gold. Most Helichrysum flowers are golden yellow in colour.
Another yellow flower that peeks out from amongst the grasses is this species of Sebaea
A fresh flush of leaves on this shrubby Protea glow red in the sunlight
Yet another species of everlasting Helichrysum, this one with a golden centre to the flower that is visited by a rather decorative fly
These Helichrysums grow in small clumps on silver rather hairy stems. The back of the petals are edged in delicate pink
These Helichrysums are a much richer and rosier pink, especially on the backs of the petals
Very tiny Oxalis flowers growing on the path, and somehow not stepped on as yet
A bit overwhelmed by the sunlight is this long-stalked Nerine. I forgot to note any leaves (it was protruding through dense grasses and bracken not far from a stream) but it is possibly Nerine bowdenii, known as the Large Pink Nerine
Me, negotiating a slippery section on the path through a forest patch near a stream
The stream well below Crystal Falls – a small torrent disappearing over the edge of a layer of rock, with forest on the one side and a grassy slope on the other
And then it was a long and strenuous climb up to the sandstone cliffs. Parts of the path were a bit crumbled and some of the wooden steps had been partially burnt away in a fire. Some sections had steep drop-aways close to the path to the right, which not having a head for heights I tried to ignore
Finally up near the cliffs and a short section of level pathway
The long narrow ribbon of water forming Crystal Falls. We took a break in the cool damp of the forest watching the water and listening to its small roar
After leaving the falls we followed the Bridle Path and doubled-back towards the Sphinx. And here we are at the Sphinx with a different view of Cathkin Peak. From this higher vantage point we catch a glimpse of Champagne Castle peeping up over the shoulder of ridge to the left of Cathkin Peak. To the right is Sterkhorn
From this angle Cathkin Peak massively dominates the skyline. The Zulu name for the peak is ‘Mdedelelo’, which means ‘make room for him’ or ‘the bully’ because, detached from the main wall of the Drakensberg escarpment, it looms so large and dominates the range. In fact Champagne Castle is higher, and is the second highest peak in South Africa (there are higher peaks in Lesotho), but from this angle its size and height cannot be appreciated.
With its massive basalt cliffs, Cathkin Peak is difficult to climb. An attempt to climb it in 1888 was defeated by the last precipitous 150 metres. It was successfully climbed only in 1912. Subsequent climbs, some up different routes, have resulted in summiting the peak, although several climbers lost their lives in the process.
The smaller Sterkhorn at 2973 m (9754 ft) is much easier – especially ascending the slightly lower peak. Summiting that peak does not involve any real climbing and it is really more of a challenging hike, but the last section is very steep. In fact about 20 years ago my spouse and I joined a group that did climb it, although I did not do the last rocky section, not having a head for heights, but perhaps that hike is a story for another day.
Near the Sphinx delicate-blue Wahlenbergia flowers with surprising blue stamens were nodding in the breeze
And then it was down again – mercifully some sections of the path zigzagged to spare the old knees, but other sections were quite steep. This is a view away from the mountains down towards the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal
Back down at the stream we admired this fern the fronds of which forked into two as it grew. Perhaps this is Gleichenia umbraculifera (possibly renamed Sticherus umbraculiferus). It is a most striking plant whatever the name
Back into the forest to enjoy the streams, and then back to the cabin before the temperature dropped as the sun dipped behind the mountains
Bristow, David. 1988. Drakensberg Walks: 120 Graded Hikes and Trails in the ‘Berg. Cape Town: Struik.
Pooley, Elsa. 2003 (2013). Mountain Flowers: A Field Guide to the Flora of the Drakensberg and Lesotho. Durban: The Flora Publications Trust.
Posted by Carol