Northern Drakensberg - December 2020
July 07, 2021

Northern Drakensberg - December 2020

The Drakensberg holds a very special spot in our hearts. Growing up in Durban, the “berg” was always a convenient spot to holiday at - being just a few hours from the coast. Many a holiday was spent hiking the mountains, swimming in the crystal rivers and fly fishing for rainbow trout.


Nowadays we take every opportunity that we can to visit the berg, and it’s become a bit of an annual tradition in the last decade to spend a week in the northern berg every December.


This year we set off from Johannesburg late on the 17th December - we were intending to leave early on the 16th but unfortunately a run in with a faulty electric gate resulted in a visit to the panel beaters who weren’t able to return the FJ back in time for the holiday. One and a half days holiday time lost - we put the setback behind us and hit the road.


Visitors to the Berg are spoiled for choice when it comes to venues. There’s something for every one here from camping, to self catering chalets on golf resorts and even a few 5 star boutique resorts. As usual, we’ll be camping, our favourite “go-to” is Mahai, a beautiful scenic campground run by Ezemvelo KZN wildlife within the Royal Natal National Park. Mahai, named after the Mahai River along which the camp is situated is one of the more popular campsites under the Ezemvelo umbrella. It’s long standing history, combined with flat grassy campsites, clean ablutions and lots of fun activities for the kids have cemented this camp as a family favourite over the decades. 


The drive from Johannesburg towing a trailer is about 3 1/2 hours, at Harrismith we take the N5 west towards Clarens and then onto the R74 South towards Bergville down Oliviershoek Pass which is beautiful scenic drive worth driving just for the view over Sterkfontein Dam and down onto the rolling green hills of KZN from the top of the pass.


Its late evening as we arrive in camp, which is way busier than we had expected - we manage to find a relatively flat camp site and set up camp in the dark.  A fire is lit, beers are opened and feet are up-we are now on holiday. 

mahai campsite 

Sleeping-in at Mahai isn’t very easy - in summer the sun is up early, and recently Ezemvelo and the honorary rangers have been removing the old alien pine trees in camp. There isn’t much shade left unfortunately. Clearing of the trees is unfortunately necessary and has been quite a polarising issue. The pines were planted many years ago when the camp was built, many visitors were very fond of them and personally I feel the place has lost some of its character now, I remember the camp full of old pines, they also grew along the Mahai River, laying a beautiful bed of needles along the river banks, I can still remember taking the path along the river to the tuck shop as a kid to buy some chappies and the wonderful smell off the pine resin in the air. But the trees were old and started die and slowly rot away and dropping branches, sooner or later an injury was bound to occur. They’re also thirsty and absorb much more water than indigenous trees. In their place Yellowwoods have been planted - these will take years to mature though, until then the grounds will remain a bit bare.

mahal river 

Today we’re going to chill, our to-do list involves a packed lunch by the river with a few cold beers, an amble around the dam and not really much else. We have a favourite spot down the river closer to the reception side of the grounds. Theres a big boulder alongside a nice deep pool that one can jump off without risking hitting the bottom of the pool. Its nice and private and we normally have the place to ourselves as its off the beaten path (in this case the cascades falls above the camp is much more popular - though very scenic we tend to avoid cascades to keep away from the crowds). Swimming in a clean, crisp, fresh Berg river is highly recommended. The water will always be nice and cool-even in the heat of summer. The Mahai River is still in pristine condition. Crabs abound in the shallows, bright iridescent orange and blue dragon flies hover above the rapids, and the tell tale signs of otters are everywhere. If you’re lucky you may spot a rainbow trout slowly riding the current in the shadows close to the river banks. This place is a gem. 


During the summer months, an afternoon thunderstorm is almost a certainty. Dangerous to unprepared hikers but welcomed by us. We have the large 7x7m awning on our Conqueror trailer which provides plenty shelter from the driving rain. The clouds start to build up mid morning and by 14:00 an electric storm moves into the valley. We head back to camp just before it rolls in. It doesn’t rain too hard and there’s just a nice cool breeze amongst the flashing and thundering of the storm. We’re a bit tired after the morning in the sun and take the opportunity to have a nice afternoon nap, the rolling thunder echoing off the mountains rocks us to sleep. Not long after, the storm moves off and we get to enjoy the evening around the braai with a beautiful clear sky of stars stretching out above our heads. 

royal natal national park 

royal natal national parkThe alarm goes off at 5:15 - today we’re going hiking. One of our favourite summer hikes is the Tugela Gorge hike. This is one of the more challenging day hikes that RNNP has to offer. The hike is between 7-8 kms each way depending on how far up the gorge you go. We get to the parking lot just after 6:00 - we’re the first there. We’re leaving early to escape the worst of the mid day heat. The hike starts at the foot of the valley just below Thendele and gently ascends all the way up to the bottom of Tugela Falls at the end of the valley. Glorious green exposed stretches of summer grass are interrupted by thick, almost impenetrable indigenous yellowwood forests growing from each ravine. “Piet my vrou’s” love this thick bush. They’ve recently arrived from Northern Africa and their distinctive call echoes out from the forests and off the sandstone rocks. There’s a refreshing stream in each little thicket of bush, here you’ll hear the gurgling and bubbling of the water as it flows over the mossy rocks and drops down to the main Tugela River below. It takes us just over 2 hours to reach the main gorge. Over thousands of years the water has carved a magnificent gorge through the sandstone. The river flows powerfully over massive ancient rounded basalt boulders, the echo of the rapids bounces off the massive towering walls of the gorge. Picturesque deep blue and turquoise pools welcome sweaty sun-burnt hikers. We’re first to get here so we pick the best pool to cool off in, but a dip in deep pools is brief-this water is frigid! The Tugela flows from Mount Aux Sources-over 3000m above sea level, a plunge 900m off the Drakensberg escarpment to the foot of the falls does nothing to warm it up. We have lunch on a flat rock looking back up the magnificent Amphitheatre, this well photographed wall of rock needs to be seen in real life to really appreciate the scale of it. Its true spectacular! We pack up and head back down the valley, it’s mid afternoon by the time we get back to camp and we have covered 15km’s on foot today. Beer, braai, and then off to bed!

tutelage gorge  

The familiar clucking of guinea fowl wakes us up the next morning, they roam from campsite to campsite eating titbits thrown out to them from campers - they’ve found some morsels from our braai the previous evening and are happily picking them out from our ground sheet. They provide great “bush TV” while we enjoy a morning coffee and rusk. This morning we’re a bit stiff and chafed so we’re a bit apprehensive when we meet Sizwe our guide for the morning. Sizwe owns a local tour guide business and today he will be taking us to a nearby cave to show us some San Rock Art. The San lived here in the Drakensberg for thousands of years and depicted their daily lives, rituals and beliefs in the many sandstone overhangs which offer protection from the elements. There are over 30000 San Rock Art sites in the Drakensberg - an incredible number of sites! Sadly the San are no longer here, their art is all that remains of their primitive existence. Sizwe leads us along a short hike from the road up to a cave that faces back on to the Amphitheatre, he passionately explains the history of the San, the intricacies of the eco-system, how his tribe the Zulu Mkhize’s came to settle here and details how people were forced into cannibalism due to starvation. For two hours we are completely captivated and blown away by his local knowledge of flora and fauna and his epic stories, hanging onto each word he speaks. What a truly exceptional experience. One we’ll not forget for a very long time. We head back to camp for lunch, but spend the rest of the afternoon by the dam watching the weavers nesting off the branches of the willows above the water. The amphitheatre reflects off the glassy surface of the dam, every now and then a trout rises to break the surface. I spend a few hours tempting them with my fly, but have no luck. 

san rock art drakensberg royal natal national park

We enjoy our last night around the fire, its been a brief visit to this wonderful part of our country, but we’ll be leaving with some wonderful memories. 


The next morning we break camp and head to Durban, we have a few nights there to spend Christmas with the family and then we’re heading to Kosi Bay on Boxing Day. 

 royal natal national park

See you next time 


Liam and Toyah 

Read more