The Southern Drakensberg is less well-known than the northern and central areas, but it’s a real gem that holds very strong appeal. Although this part of the escarpment contains fewer free-standing peaks that jut out from the main line, it is no less impressive in terms of scale. The mid-level mountain band containing the African Desert Sandstone Buttresses, the so-called Little ‘Berg (2000-2400m), is at its most interesting in this region and the valleys that incise these areas are some of the most sublime in the Drakensberg. Link all this with remote highland scenery in the least accessible corner of Lesotho, which has tremendous atmosphere and which feels prehistoric in places, and you’ll quickly understand the attraction of wilderness hiking in this beguiling area.
SOUTHERN DRAKENSBERG highlights
- The “Little ‘Berg” is at its best in the Southern Drakensberg
- Opportunities to see Bushman’s Paintings
- Many rock shelters in this area which can be slept in
- A sublime region with a different character to the Northern and Central Drakensberg
- Contains some of the best day hikes in the Drakensberg
- A gateway to the remote south-east corner of highland Lesotho
- Good choice of small-scale accommodation
- Flexible route planning – the topography lends itself well to both low-level and high-level circular routes
- Excellent guides in this area
The Southern Drakensberg truly has something for everyone; aside for the opportunities for multiday wilderness hiking, it is also home to some of the Drakensberg’s best day hikes and you can access several different valley systems easily whilst staying in comfortable, friendly, small-scale accommodation. Unlike the Northern and Central Drakensberg, there are no tribal lands abutting the park here – instead you’ll find idyllic rolling dairy farming country peppered with trout dams. However, this means that no porters live in the area and you must be prepared to self-carry when out on a multiday trek. The advantages are flexibility and a true sense of wilderness and achievement when trekking. If you do need support though, treks originating at Sani Top can, with careful planning, be supported by Basotho ponies along the top of the escarpment.
Hodgson’s Peaks (South Peak 3,257m) form a saddle referred to as the Giant’s Cup and are the most distinctive summits on the southern escarpment, dominating the skyline above Underberg and Himeville villages and the tranquil farmlands below the uKhahlamba park. This is a perfect trek for first time visitors to the Southern Drakensberg and you can opt to hike straight up and down over two days, or make a circular trek over four that affords the opportunity to camp up high in a lovely position beside the Pitsaneng river within Lesotho. Nights are either spent in tents or in natural rock shelters such as the San people would have used and you’ll pass through some of the most beautiful valleys in the region.
Situated in Lesotho, 4 kilometres behind the escarpment edge, Thaba nTlenyana (3482m) is the highest point in Southern Africa. The most interesting proposition for ascent is a 4 day trip originating and ending at Vergelegen, situated below the escarpment at the edge of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park within South Africa. For starters, it involves a proper climb and descent through some of the wildest and most remote areas of the Drakensberg (the terrain is relatively demanding), and you will really appreciate the spectacular views and unspoiled wilderness. Two nights are spent in natural rock shelters, and one night is spent in a high-altitude tented camp. However, if time is short, an alternative is to be driven up Sani Pass (an adventure in its own right), spend a night at Sani Mountain Lodge just within Lesotho and make an out-and-back hike over two days to bag the summit. This is still rewarding and not to be underestimated.
This beautiful traverse feels very different to its equivalent in the north, which is much better known and extensively written about. As with any traverse of the Drakensberg, much time is spent up on the Lesotho plateau, following or walking close to the escarpment edge, which falls away abruptly into South Africa on the eastern side. The highland plateau is particularly beautiful in this region, with unpopulated valleys falling away deep into the Lesotho interior, providing extensive views. Looking down into South Africa from the escarpment edge (very far down!), the approach foothills are punctuated by castle-like ridges with crenalated sandstone summits that have resisted erosion. 5 days are usually taken for the traverse when commencing from the Lesotho border post at the top of Sani Pass. Alternatively, start at the base of the uKhahlamba Park and ascend Hodgson’s peaks, where you turn south onto the high-level traverse line.
Rhino Peak is a prominent feature of the Southern Drakensberg and a fine objective for a 2-day trek (one day for very fit, early risers!). The main attraction of this summit is that it sits out about a kilometre and a half from the main Drakensberg escarpment, affording fine views of the escarpment line looking north and south, and out over the maze of the “Little ‘Berg” and the foothills and farmlands beyond. The approach to the base of the Mashai Pass, requiring 1½ to 2 hours, is particularly attractive and you’ll pass beneath towering sandstone buttresses flanking the river valley, and have the chance to nose into one or two cave shelters. Camping at the base of the pass saves having to carry camping gear and cooking equipment high, which would make this trek quite a bit tougher. From an overnight camping spot close to the river, the pass can be ascended in approximately 3 hours, following a sometimes oblique path which is steep at the top. Once on top, the ground opens out onto the vast, sweeping highland plateau of south-eastern Lesotho. From here you follow the edge of the escarpment northwards, which quickly turns into a relatively level spur leading out to Rhino Peak itself, another 45 minutes or so on. Having enjoyed the spectacular views, descend the Mashai to where you hid your camping kit (about 2½ hours), then exit to Garden Castle where you’ll rejoin your vehicle (another 1½ hours).
The Southern Drakensberg has a great choice of day-hikes that are accessible for people with a wide range of ambitions. It’s a great place to spend 3 or 4 nights in a small hotel or B&B and go out with a guide each day to a new location; you can access different valleys and trail heads by driving a short distance to the start.
The Gxalingenwa, Pholela and Mzimkulu river valleys run parallel to each other below Hodgson’s Peaks and are contained within the Mzimkulu Wilderness Area, which is a slice of heaven. Walks ranging from short ambles to whole days are all rewarding. Swim in crystal clear rock pools along the way and hike over flat-topped mountain outliers fortified with sandstone buttresses, some of which contain bushman paintings.
The Garden Castle area, located a little further south, also contains excellent half and full day hikes and you quickly get into striking sandstone scenery having set off from the trailhead.
Jeff Williams, who wrote the Cicerone Guide “Walking in the Drakensberg”, admitted that the Southern Drakensberg has some of the best day hikes that the range has to offer – we agree with him!
other things to do here
The Southern Drakensberg has the only entry point into eastern Lesotho by road, albeit a very twisty and precipitous one – the notorious Sani Pass, which is un-metalled on the upper reaches. This is a great day trip; ascend the pass in a 4×4 and enter Lesotho through the border post at the top. You can either join commercial trips or go with a private guide at your own pace. Return to South Africa having explored the small Basotho settlement across the border, soaked up the views and enjoyed a beer and perhaps lunch at Sani Mountain Lodge.
Extended trips into this remote corner of Lesotho can also be arranged, experiencing Basotho Culture and using homestays. Pony trekking between small Basotho settlements is also possible.
Back down in South Africa, the villages of Underberg and Himeville and the surrounding countryside are pleasant areas to explore at a gentle pace; take short walks and drives, swim in clear rivers and do a spot of trout fishing.