The Southern Drakensberg “Dragons Mountain”

Story by: Leah Daley     Date: 16 March 2022    Image by: Canva | Waldemar Wellmann

6 minutes reading time South Africa

Trail at Cobham Nature reserve leading to a magical waterfall

Trail at Cobham Nature reserve leading to a magical waterfall | Image by: Leah Daley

Drakensberg; “A name originating from Dutch, meaning “Dragons Mountain.”

Standing in the midst of the ancient Drakensberg Mountains can seem almost mystical- like the timeless giants hold some eternal secret from all the years of history to which they have borne witness.

A three-hour drive inland from Durban’s King Shaka International Airport, a small town named Underberg can be found nestled in the rolling foothills of the Southern Drakensberg- the section of the highest mountain range in South Africa that borders South Africa and Lesotho. Underberg is a homey farming village, filled with down-to-earth people. It is the place where I spent the first half of my childhood, running through fields of corn, riding motorcycles, jumping off waterfalls, having snow fights, and tubing down the Mzimkhulu River, tumbling faster than I could control.

This one-street town is the closest town to the mountains above, and the broader area surrounding it has a vast number of offerings.

A trail at Cobham Nature Reserve, Southern Drakensberg

A trail at Cobham Nature Reserve, Southern Drakensberg | Image by: Leah Daley

Exquisite Natural Beauty

The first thing I think about when considering the Southern Drakensberg is taking my first breath as I wake up in the morning. The air is cold and fresh. It feels pure in my lungs- as if the deep inhale contains pure oxygen.

Next, is the sight of a vast array of interesting peaks transforming before my eyes, shapeshifting as the sun moves along its trajectory. They almost seem alive, with each new perspective, or each change in the weather causing a whole new picture to materialize. This is a view that you don’t get used to.

The view from Thamathu Cave, Southern Drakensberg

The view from Thamathu Cave, Southern Drakensberg | Image by: Tristan Daley

Camping and Hiking

Camping and Hiking at the nature reserves are two of the main attractions in the area. They get you into the mountains as opposed to just looking at them. The beauty of it is that unlike many other places in the world, you get to experience being completely alone if you wish, yet completely safe. The campsites are not in the middle of the wilderness, but it is not far away if you want to get there. There are many trails, suited to every skill level- whether you are looking for a light stroll or an extreme climb, or anything in between- one can find waterfalls and caves, and undiscovered places.

There are even many hikes, like the famous Giants Cup Trail or Rhino Peak hike, which last several days, and involve sleeping over in the caves! The rivers and streams that you pass along the way are so close to their source that the water within is cleaner than the water in your faucets at home. So clean that you can drink it! (And it tastes magical).

The Giants Cup from Cobham Nature Reserve, Southern Drakensberg

The Giants Cup from Cobham Nature Reserve, Southern Drakensberg | Image by: Leah Daley

The Mzimkhulu River

The icy Mzimkhulu is the main river flowing through the area. A fast-flowing conduit supplied by the underground springs many miles above. It races through many of the nature reserves and resorts in the area. Here, one can swim in freezing water, go tubing, rafting, and paddling- But beware, it is important to be a strong swimmer if you decide to brave the torrent.

Otherwise, the riverside is a tranquil place to take your picnic basket and enjoy a relaxing day, sunbathing, eating snacks, and dipping your toes in the water.

A picnic spot along the banks of Pholele River

A picnic spot along the banks of Pholele River | Image by: Leah Daley

Sani Pass- The Roof of Africa

Guided tours up Sani pass are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sani Pass is a steep, long pass going up into the mountains and into Lesotho. At the top, you’ll find a panoramic view of the Southern Drakensberg and all that lies beneath. It is also the site of the highest pub in Africa! (10 000 feet above sea level). A great place to stop off, take some photos, share some tales and connect with other like-minded travelers before descending again. If hiking for days is not your forte, there are tour guide operators who can take you up the pass in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

UNESCO World Heritage Site
Bushman Paintings- A Cultural Treasure

The Southern Drakensberg is home to the largest and most concentrated group of bushman paintings in Africa. The paintings were left by the San people over two thousand years ago! They can be found in hundreds of caves, with thousands of different paintings depicting the San’s day-to-day lives and spiritual beliefs, giving us invaluable insight into their way of life.

Many of these rock paintings are not difficult to get to, and you’ll find that there are lots of friendly staff at the reserves who are knowledgeable and willing to share what they know with you. As an added extra, neither the camping, the hiking, nor viewing the rock paintings cost an arm and a leg. It is either free to do many of these things or has a low fee.

Rich Biodiversity

As one of the few places on earth where unfenced game and big cats can be found, with over 170 known species of bird, several endangered species of bird, and a large number of endemic plants, the area is uniquely suitable for wildlife lovers, birding, and botany enthusiasts.

Exceptionally Bright Stars

Stargazing in the Southern Drakensberg is unlike anything else I have seen. Almost no light pollution allows for many stars that are not usually visible, to shine very brightly. Especially in winter (June-August), the Milky Way looks like a smear of incandescent glitter across a silk black sky. It truly is noteworthy. A perfect stage for photographing star trails.

Sketching the view at Birches Cottage, Underberg

Sketching the view at Birches Cottage, Underberg | Image by: Tristan Daley

For Travelling Love Birds, Families and the Young and Free

Wedding Venues and Honeymoon destinations are in no shortage in the Southern Drakensberg. From Shimmering lakes with outdoor arches perched on the end of the jetty’s to forests and fields stretching across the land, each with the towering escarpment as a backdrop. Luxury resorts, cosey log cabin cottages, or 5-star rustic options are all part and parcel of this magnificent place. Affordable options as well as high-end options.

These establishments even offer other fun activities for the romantic couple or the whole family- Paintball, idyllic golf, spas, horse riding, mountain biking, fly fishing, mini-golf, and bass fishing- just to mention just a few. Lastly, for the young and free, the family of five or the couple in love, there is also Splashy Fen; an annual outdoor music festival experience that takes place in a natural amphitheater near Underberg, where people gather to eat great food and listen to great live music.
The Southern Drakensberg, however, offers more than just scenic wonders, and eclectic experiences.

There is an incredibly unique quality that cannot quite be put into words. A humbling and intangible comprehension of the majesty before you that brings a feeling of comfort in the unknown. This is a feeling that cannot quite be understood until you go there and experience it yourself.

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