In search of the Dragon: Hiking the Drakensberg

Waiting five hours doing absolutely nothing might not sound like a great way to while away the morning. But if it means going to the Drakensberg Mountain Range for a five day holiday of adventure, relaxation and backpacking leisure. Well, then I think it’s safe to say it’s a sacrifice most would willingly do.

Finally Jesse, our Baz bus driver, had arrived. He was slightly agitated, in a hurry and Indian. He was in part a living template to life in Durban but to be fair Jesse took pride in what he did. And he loved facts especially if it had anything to do with Kwa-Zulu Natal. So I had to ask; “Jesse why is it called Dragon Mountain?” To which he replied, “you’re going right? So I’m sure you’ll figure it out on your own.” It had to be the one thing I was just aching to know that he didn’t have an answer to.

Fast forward past a daunting roadblock (honestly one of the biggest we had ever been through), a few backpacker pickups, and a long ass drive and you’re here. The Amphitheatre, a set of sweeping cliffs rising to the left and right of us pierced down the middle by the mighty Tugela Falls. It had to be one of Mothers Natures greatest creations. And nestled at her foothills, the aptly named Amphitheatre backpackers, our home for the next week, was awaiting us.

We had arrived on New Years Eve and unsurprisingly a music festival had just kicked off called the Smoking Dragon. Apparently the mist that sits atop the mountain is considered by some to be smoke emanating from a sleeping dragon the festivals namesake. As I let this scene sink deep into my conscience Zack, one of our Baz bus-backpacking buddies was adamant we join in on the festivities. So after hastily setting up our tent we soon found ourselves partying up a storm like most do on New Years Eve.

Amphis Exterior

The next morning the feeling of a heavy night out was soon washed away by the excitement of our first activity; climbing the mountain. Amphi’s (the  local name for the backpackers) is great in that it hosts an array of fun outdoor adventures such as hiking, climbing, shuttles to Royal Natal Park (for self guided tours) and day trips to our landlocked neighbour Lesotho. We were on a little bit of a budget and had decided on activities relative to my idea of finding the truth to this mystical dragon.

And if ever there was a person who knew how to find a dragon then Siya our Zulu born guide, was the man capable of teaching us how. Siya had been a guide at Amphi’s for little over a year and had practically hiked up the range everyday. A living legend if there ever was one I just took to him like a mosquito to exposed skin. It was probably due to his well-versed knowledge of the Drakensberg mountain range and his love of local politics. Siya had said that this mountain, much like South African politics, was steeped in mysticism and folklore. And this coupled with the freedom of being in the great outdoors practically everyday is what brought him back here and ultimately brought us here.

Zack had partied too much to join us, but it did give us the chance to become familiar with another two interesting characters. Frank from France and Tian from China, a duo so mismatched it just worked. It could’ve been the fact that they were both teachers or that Frank had a tendency to just wander off while Tian had the arduous task of having to go find him. But for what its worth the two of them would prove to be an indispensable addition to our dragon hunting party.

The drive did feel in part like a school field trip. Picture it Siya the all-knowing guide reciting tales of the mountain while Frank snapped his camera at every moving thing. As Tian hung out the window waving at random while bug just dosed off. Until finally we had arrived at “base camp”, an outpost of sorts a few hundred metres on the slopes of the mountain.

Starting at an altitude of 600m the Tugela Falls hike was roughly 14 Km long but the terrain made it feel a lot longer. It was gruelling involving numerous spirals, zigzagging paths and the occasional scrambling over loose rocks and boulders. The reward; mountain top plateaus that looked like they went on forever. The weather though was forever changing due to the winds shifting the clouds overhead and away again. One minute it was a beautiful sunny day the next it was raining cats and dogs. It would seem that dragons are easily roused, and if this brutal thunderstorm was anything to go on, we had just awoken a sleeping giant.

Horsey Badlands

Siya had mentioned that we should’ve sought shelter in a cave but guessed the storm would be gone as fast as it had appeared. He was right as it all came to a sudden stop while we scrambled down the plateau. In the distance there was the ruins of a mountain climbing club’s cabin. The cabin, along with the wild and domestic horses running free across the plateau and the occasional goat and/ or cowherd grazing in a meadow, did equate to a feeling of being on some kind of wild frontier. Coupled with the echoed bark of the patriarch of a baboon troop only added to this sentiment. The place names of some of the crags, gulleys and peaks we had passed such as the three witches, devils tooth and our starting point the sentinel, made me wonder what exactly people experienced up here centuries before. Siya had told us to take note of the ridges along the top of the range protruding like spines out of the back of a sleeping giant. It was then that I realised we were being enveloped in the alleged dragon smoke.

Once the smoke had cleared we found ourselves standing near the top of the Tugela Falls, the second highest (disputed) waterfall in the world after Angel falls in Venezuela. The thundering water thrashing down over the lip of the cliff and into the abyss below was Mother Nature at her most powerful. The brave few among us stole a quick look over the edge, and as much as I tried my vertigo always managed to get the better of me. Even more so when I had to scale the steel ladder that hung down the side of the falls. If not for the uninterrupted view of the falls, that for a moment helped me forget about my fear of heights, I probably would’ve plummeted to my death. Siya just had to laugh when he realised I was the girl in the relationship.

The Falls

Back at camp while reclining into a hammock on the balcony of the backpackers, I knew we had only just scratched the surface of this place. It had to be somewhere I mused while our view of the amphitheatre was crowned by what looked like an atomic bomb mushroom cloud. The slow setting sun now well into it’s decent soon to disappear behind the Drakensberg mountain range suddenly put things into a fresh new perspective. Perhaps when seen from a different perch we might just find what we are looking for…

Watch this space for the second instalment of our Drakensberg Trilogy entitled:

“In search of the Dragon: Going it alone”

By Slippery Joe Lyzard © 

Photography: Nomadic Bug © 

Nomadic Existence 2016 ©

 Explore. Conserve. Discover.

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