Known in South Africa simply as the Drakensberg, the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountain range is part of the Great Escarpment and renowned as the highest in the country. Its stunning peaks soar to a dizzying 11,400 feet/ 3,475 meters, and its verdant valleys plunge down towards shallow creeks running clear and cold over time-worn rocks. The Drakensberg is a place of infinite beauty, where nature reigns supreme under the arc of an unpolluted sky ruled by the rare bearded vulture. It is a place that inspires the soul - and one that acts as the perfect playground for enthusiastic hikers.
The range's official name combines two different languages - the Zulu word uKhahlamba, which translates as "barrier of spears", and the Dutch word Drakensberg, which translates as "dragon mountains". Although the region's native Zulu tribes and early Cape Dutch settlers undoubtedly found the mountains formidable, today they are one of KwaZulu-Natal's greatest tourist attractions. Hiking here is as challenging as you want it to be, with some trails lasting just a few hours, and others taking several days to complete.
In this article, we take a look at three of the best short hikes in the Drakensberg. Those with the time or inclination to tackle longer routes should read the sequels to this article: Best Medium Hikes in the Drakensberg Mountains and Best Long Hikes in the Drakensberg Mountains. Please note that even on short hikes, it's important to pack basic survival supplies, including water, food, sun protection, a cell phone and a small first aid kit. All trails can be steep in places, so suitable footwear is essential.
Located in the Royal Natal Park, which is in turn part of the larger uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, the Ploughman's Kop trail is a short, sharp up-and-down affair. Measuring 4.3 miles/ 7 kilometers in length, the trail takes approximately three hours to complete, with the main purpose being a visit to the beautiful Ploughman's Kop rock pools. The trek begins at picturesque Mahai Campsite, whose stunning views of the mighty Amphitheatre escarpment evoke images of Yosemite's world-famous cliff El Capitan. It ascends steeply up head-shaped Ploughman's Kop mountain, passing several scenic plunge pools perfect for a refreshing dip. Pack your swimming costume and a picnic, and make a day of it.
This trail starts at the car park just below luxury Thendele Camp, also located in the Royal Natal Park. It is approximately 8.6 miles/ 14 kilometers there and back, and takes at least half a day to complete. The first six kilometers are easy going, along a relatively flat path that contours above the mighty Tugela River. After that, the trail descends to the river and into the Tugela Gorge, where large boulders form natural stepping stones past a series of crystalline pools to the upper gorge or tunnel. When the water is low, it's possible to wade through the tunnel; otherwise, use the chain ladders provided to bypass it. At the top, magnificent views of the Amphitheatre and Tugela Falls await. These falls are the highest in Africa.
Located in the Cathedral Peak region of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, the Rainbow Gorge trail is an easy 6.8 miles/ 11 kilometers, and is suitable for families with small children. The trail starts from the car park at Didima Camp, then wends its way uphill to give you spectacular views of the Ndumeni River. It soon desends downwards through indigenous forest filled with magnificent birdlife; before following the river upstream to a narrow gorge flanked by high sandstone walls. At the right time of day, the water dripping down these towering walls creates a mirage of sparkling rainbows, while two large boulders caught between the two seem to defy the rules of gravity. This is a particularly great trail for photographers.