I am fairly certain that 99% of South Africans would not be able to name the highest peak in their own country, let alone the three highest! Last week, a group of ten (seven of them South Africans belonging to the other 1%…) joined us on a five day hike to summit them all. Given that all but one of the group were novice hikers it was clear that from a guiding perspective a challenge was in the offing! Fortunately for me, a combination of superb weather and great attitude meant that this challenge was accepted and completed with relative ease by all.
The route we use for this hike is point-to-point, meaning that we needed to be dropped off at Monk’s Cowl Station to start the hike and be picked up five days later at Injisuthi Camp. This was handled with ease by Drakensberg Hiker’s fleet of Land Rovers. It was a rather warm slog up Keartland’s Pass before we enjoyed a brief lunch at Blindman’s Corner. Can anyone elaborate on the origins of this name? After one of the steeper climbs the ‘Little Berg’ has to offer, the group enjoyed the flat contour path that skirts the base of Cathkin Peak, Sterkhorn, Turret and Amphlett. These are all well known peaks to those who have visited the Champagne Valley.
The scale of what was in store for day two, however, soon became apparent as we headed up the Mhlwazini Valley towards Gray’s Pass – the steepest marked pass in the entire Drakensberg!
After enjoying a delicious lentil curry for dinner in the Drakensberghiker restaurant, it was with a sense of trepidation that we all turned in early in order to recharge our batteries to the fullest!
Following the contour path towards Gatberg.
With another beautiful day dawning, we started the trudge up the valley to the base of Gray’s Pass. This is the pass we use to summit the highest peaks in South Africa. With 1000m of vertical ascent on the cards for the day, I was doing my best to calm everyone’s nerves by pointing out that we had already climbed 12% of this just by getting to the base of the pass. Unimpressed with my statistics, the group began the slog upwards and after much sweat and colourful language, reached our camp next to the Nkosazana River at an altitude of 3150m.
Sauntering up Grays pass.
The sunrises on offer from the Drakensberg escarpment have to be some of the best in the world. I make a point of never missing one while hiking, and the morning of day three did not disappoint! We witnessed a magnificent scene from the ‘Dragon’s Back’ as the sun glowed orange behind the Cathkin Range. This produced a wonderful silhouette rising out of a cloud inversion in the valley below.
The incredible silhouette of from left to right, Amphlette, Turret, Sterkhorn, Monks cowl and Champagne castle.
Today was to be a big day. We were to summit the third-highest peak on our list, Champagne Castle. It is said that when two intrepid mountaineers, David Gray (sound familiar?) and Major Grantham, climbed the peaks directly in front of Cathkin they were about to celebrate their long haul by popping a bottle of champagne. But alas, the guide dropped the bottle on a rock. In that moment Champagne Castle in the heart of the Drakensberg was christened in the traditional manner.
Having broken the back of the altitude gains needed on this hike the day before, it was a relatively easy walk up the valley past Mhlwazini Peak to the summit cairn at an altitude of 3377m. We took the obligatory summit shots, and then headed on to our campsite at the top of Leslie’s Pass, marveling at the ‘Ship’s Prow’ along the way.
Posing on top of Champagne castle, the 3rd highest peak in SA at 3377m altitude.
The route followed on day four is a firm favorite of mine. We hike along a ridge from Leslie’s Pass all the way to our second target. Mafadi is the highest peak in South Africa. For five kilometers, one literally walks along the border, with Lesotho a step to the right and South Africa a step to the left. All while taking in fantastic views of the Injisuthi Buttress, the Injisuthi Triplets, the Trojan Wall, and the Red Wall Falls. These are all iconic components of the Injisuthi landscape.
The Lithobolong ridge leading from Mafadi with Scaly peak and the Greater Injasuthi buttress on the right.
Mafadi (at 3450m) literally means the ‘Mother of Fadi’. However I prefer its original Sotho name ‘Ntheledi’ (which means ‘Makes me Slip’). Surely this is a reference to the near-perennial puddles found on the large, flat summit?
After briefly celebrating being the loftiest beings in South Africa, we moved on to our nest summit, the Injisuthi Dome which is right next to Mafadi. An easy walk brought us to an altitude of 3410m, the second-highest peak in South Africa. It suddenly dawned on us that we had bagged all three peaks in 24 hours which felt rather satisfying!
It was literally all downhill from here as we made our way down Judge’s Pass to the last camp of the hike. It had been a long day and everyone went to bed at sunset and slept like logs until sunrise.
Our final day took us past the dilapidated Centenary Hut, down the notorious ‘Heartbreak Hill’ and along the beautiful Injisuthi valley to our finishing point at the camp. Our 65km hike had us climb over 2400m in total and, while bodies were tired, the satisfaction of having climbed the highest peaks in South Africa was evident on everyone’s faces!
Drakensberg Hiker was started and is owned by Ian Shooter. He knows and loves the Drakensberg mountains as well as meeting interesting people. So what better than to put into practice the philosophy of "do what you love and love what you do". And so, Drakensberghiker was born. We take people on hikes, treks or backpacking all over the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa; we do what we love and we love what we do!