A Guide to Hiking the Drakensberg Grand Traverse
The Drakensberg Grand Traverse, or DGT, is an epic and unmarked journey along the edge of the massive escarpment that demarcates the border between South Africa and Lesotho.
The DGT, unlike many of the world’s best hikes, has no officially recognized route.
For the heroes attempting the DGT speed record, which is a serious hobby for a handful of South Africans (Ryno Sandes, Linda Dokes), the officially recognized checkpoints begin at the Sentinel car park, ends at the KZN Bushman’s Nek Wildlife Office in the Mkhomazi Wilderness area, and crosses eight checkpoints in between.
Even those eight checkpoints are negotiable for ordinary, run-of-the-mill backcountry thru-hikers. Just start at the Sentinel car park and end at Bushman’s Nek. Everything else in between is up to you.
It’s the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure hike.
Maps and Guidebooks
A set of six 1:50,000 scale maps covers the entire Drakensberg Grand Traverse. The maps are available at outdoors stores in major South African cities, although I found that most stores were unlikely to have the entire set in stock at once. In my opinion, Drifters has the best selection of maps and gear, along with the most helpful and knowledgeable staff.
The maps cost 75 ZAR and cover the following sections:
1: Drakensberg Mountains: Royal Natal – Rugged Glen – Mweni
2: Drakensberg Mountains: Cathedral Peak – Culfargie – Monk’s Cowl
3: Drakensberg Mountains: Giant’s Castle – Injisuthi
4: Drakensberg Mountains: Highmoor – Giant’s Castle – Kamberg – Mkhomazi
5: Drakensberg Mountains: Cobham North – Loteni – Vergelegen
6: Drakensberg Mountains: Garden Castle – Cobham South – Bushman’s Nek
I advise bringing a GPS device, even though GPS not necessary if you are appropriately skilled with map and compass. Most modern smart phones are sufficient for this task once you’ve downloaded the appropriate apps and maps. TopoMaps+, by Glacier Peak, works quite well. (Note: To download the South African maps for the Drakensbergs you may need to switch to the OpenStreetMaps set. The American version of the app is set by default to download the USGS and Canada map set).
For those using GPS devices (e.g., Garmin), several useful sets of GPS sets are available online. They are available at Ramsey Reid’s Drakensberg Grand Traverse blog and at Vertical Endeavor (the coordinate sets are here and here. You will need to become a member to download the .grb files).
I am not aware of a detailed hiking guide for the Grand Traverse specifically, which makes sense given that the hike has no officially recognized route.
The two websites I mentioned above, however, provide good information on the hike. Vertical Endeavor is an excellent resource for general trail information. Once you become a member, the site also offers the opportunity to interact with local who are familiar with the region. The Drakensberg Grand Traverse blog provides a fairly detailed description of a winter crossing of the DGT.
Fees, Permits and Registration
South African national parks require both entry fees and overnight permits. The entry fee for Royal Natal and Giant’s Castle is 40 ZAR. Overnight permits cost 60 ZAR per night. A typical 12-day DGT itinerary would require 4 nights in the KZN parks, for a total of 240 ZAR. Obtain the permit from Royal Natal National Park.
DGT hikers should also complete the Mountain Rescue Register, a form that gives the KZN Wild Office information about the planned hike, such as the members of the hiking party, their experience and contact information, and the proposed itinerary.
Don’t be put off if clerk at reception isn’t aware of the Mountain Rescue Register, or confuses it with the hiking register used by day hikers. For your safety, insist on completing the Mountain Rescue Register form. If need be, ask for a manager. They’ll eventually figure out what you’re asking for.
Neither South Africa nor Lesotho require visas for U.S. citizens. Check with your Ministry of State of you are not an American.
When to Go
This is a tricky one that I’m not fully equipped to answer. The research I did prior to my hike led me to believe that October-December would be the prime hiking months for the DGT.
I landed in South Africa in early October intending to hit the trail soon after I arrived. I found South Africa and Lesotho in the midst of a serious drought. I delayed several weeks hoping that the rains might replenish water levels and bring back the lush grasses and flowers that can add to the stark beauty along the escarpment.
The rains still hadn’t arrived in full force when I hit the trail in mid-November. Water remained quite scarce along the edge of the escarpment, but there was serious weather aplenty. I had multiple nights with sub-freezing temperatures and many days were a grinding mix of heavy fog, biting winds and baking sun.
From my experience, as well as conversations I’ve had with South African locals, I assume that weather in Drakensberg is intense year-round and that hikers should be prepared for extreme weather at any time of year.
For the solo hiker, transportation is one of the biggest challenges in completing the hike. Few transportation options exist between the cities located in the underberg, and there are even fewer offerings to get you from those cities to and from the trail head.
Getting to the Drakensberg region is fairly easy from the major cities, including Joburg and Durban. Buses (Greyhound, Intercape, and BazBus) and combis (the small white vans that are sometimes called taxis) head to the major cities daily. From Joburg, the easiest option is to take a combi from Park Station to one of the large towns located east of the Drakensberg on the N3 (the major highway in the region), such as Bergville, Winterton or Estcourt.
Things get much more difficult from there. The easiest option is Golf Got You, a private shuttle company based in Winterton that serves the underberg. Although convenient, Golf Got You is exorbitantly expensive for trekkers hoping to complete their hike on a budget. For example, I looked into a ride with Golf Got You from Giant’s Castle (where I delivered my food drop) to the Sentinel car park where the hike begins. I received a quote of 2,750 ZAR for two people.
The alternative is to use a combination of combis and hitchhiking to move around the underberg. This option is much cheaper, but takes significantly more time and effort and may leave you feeling exhausted before you even reach the trail.
Following our food drop at Giant’s Castle, my friend Chris and I needed seven hours, two hitches and two combi rides to get to Royal Natal National Park, which is still a half day’s hike or a 2.5 hour drive from the entry trailhead at the Sentinel. For reference, our combi rides cost 15 ZAR from Winterton to Bergville, and 23 ZAR from Bergville to the Royal Natal gates. (Pro Tip: When you’re at the taxi stand in Bergville, ask for a taxi going to “National Park.” Almost no one I spoke to recognized the name “Royal Natal.”)
Finally an easy one. The Sentinel car park has almost no place to camp but there are several beds available in the attached bungalows for 130ZAR. I’ve read that parking at the Sentinel Car park costs 120ZAR but, not having a car when we arrived, I can’t attest to that.
I recommend spending the night before in Royal Natal National Park, where camping is readily available. The Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge offers a slightly higher-end option for lodging near the trail head.
If you have a long travel day and are looking for a stopover before heading into the Drakensberg, I recommend a stay at the Amphitheatre Backpackers, which is located mid-way between Bergvillle and the Royal Natal. The Backpackers (camp sites for 650 ZAR; dorms for 1350) has a great atmosphere and is filled with people heading into the Drakensbergs for adventure.
On the other end of the trail, the Silver Streams caravan park is located just a few meters past the Bushman’s Nek Wildlife Office. Reception for the campground is located at the trading post, which is another 600 meters down the road, over the bridge and just after the antique tractor.
Gear and Equipment
This is a serious trek with significant off-trail sections and extreme weather, from searing heat to freezing cold, fog and rain. You’ll need a sturdy pair of shoes (my Merrell Trail Gloves performed like champs) and a full complement of weather-protective clothing. For a summer hike like mine, a 0 degree sleeping bag will keep you comfortable.
Safety and Security
The DGT is not a popular trek. That doesn’t mean you won’t see anyone on the hike. The Lesotho highlands are home to a number of Basutho herders. In fact, I found that my route often followed the well-worn trails of the herders’ goats, sheep, cows and horses.
I heard from several people that there have been problems in the past between hikers and the Basutho. I had nearly a dozen interactions with the Basutho, though, they were all friendly, although most involved the Basutho asking for food or cigarettes.
Other than that, the biggest security risk is moving through the small towns along the edge of the escarpment. If you take the combis, you’ll be spending significant amounts of time among local populations that tend to be fairly poor. You’ll draw a lot of attention parading an expensive backpack and other pricey gear around town.
Again, I spent a lot of time on the combis and in the communities and never ran into trouble. But your results may vary.
The other point of concern is wildlife. The Drakensberg has no major predators, but boasts three species of highly venomous snakes – Berg Adders, Puff Adders, and Rinkhals. Wildlife, including snakes, is much more common in the lower Berg before you ascend to the top of the escarpment, but it still pays to be aware. Each species has its own characteristics (for example, the rinkhals can spit venom up to 2.5 meters), so do your research and know how to deal with these guys if you run into them.
That should be it. Enjoy what is sure to be an amazing hike!