Hiking trails of the Champagne Valley area of the Central Drakensberg
The Central Drakensberg’s Champagne Valley offers a great variety of Drakensberg hiking trails to suit most hiking enthusiasts from short beginner ambles to the more adventurous overnight trails. The Champagne Valley is a unique area in the Drakensberg as the valley itself is some 1200 meters above sea level with a moderate climate and yet is surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Drakensberg range of which Champagne Castle is one of the highest at 3377 meters. This vast contrast between gentle valleys surrounding towering peaks results in spectacular mountain scenery. The Valley is also the most developed in the Drakensberg with several fine hotels, golf courses, restaurants, and various types of accommodation, to suit all budgets and yet close by one can enter the uKhahlamba Park, a world heritage site, where one can escape into the wilderness and feel almost alone in the vastness of nature. This is an area of spectacular natural beauty with gentle gurgling streams of crystal water, thundering waterfalls and an abundance of flora and fauna.
There are numerous Drakensberg hiking trails in the area some of which are on private property and others which enter the World Heritage site. When you enter the World Heritage site remember that the entrance fee must be paid, so if not entering from the main gate arrangements must be made with the Nature Conservation services who can be contacted on 036 4691103. Rhino cards are also acceptable. The entrance fee not only provides funds to maintain the park but in the unfortunate event of an accident it will cover the cost of rescue.
An easy way to get into hiking in the area is to join the Champagne Valley walking club for one of their Tuesday hikes (weather permitting). Hikes are generally moderate and if longer a shorter option is usually available. In the summer months, they commence at 7.00 am and in the winter months 8.00 am. All welcome. See below for program. This activity has become a firm favorite of the local residents but all are welcome and holiday makers are always made to feel a part of the group..
St Augustine remarked “solvitur ambulando”, “As we walk we stretch our minds and our souls”
Tuesday Walking program.
Due to the COVID 19 restrictions the walking club is still not officially open but some of our members are still walking on Tuesdays. This Tuesday 6 October 2020 we will meet at Drakensberg Sun hotel and walk up the valley to Barry’s grave and the Blue Grotto.
Do’s & don’ts of hiking in the Drakensberg.
- Do wear well worn in hiking boots particularly on longer hikes.
- Do use sun block and a hat (The mountain sun is unforgiving even on overcast days)
- Do make sure you have a good map. This applies particularly to longer hikes as you can easily get lost.
- Do fill in the mountain register if going on an overnight or longer hike.
- Do take a cell phone and make sure you have emergency phone numbers.
- Do take a warm waterproof jacket even in summer as the weather can change very quickly.
- Do take a water bottle with at least 1 liter of fluid. You usually can fill up on route from one of the many streams, but this is not guaranteed.Check with locals beforehand who should be able to advise you on water availability.
- Do not drink water from the river if there is development upstream as it could be contaminated.
- Do take food for an extra day if you camping out, just in case.
- Do take a first aid kit if going on a longer hike.
- Don’t go off the designated path. Baboon and game trails can often deceive you and you could end up on a cliff edge and need rescue
- Don’t make fires. This is strictly prohibited and can result in runaway fires. (in a recent case an environmentally conscious person set alight some toilet paper and started a fire that burnt out a large tract of land).
- Don’t split up from your group unless you have a pre-determined meeting point further along the path.
- Don’t leave litter.
- Don’t tamper with the flora and fauna.
- Don’t feed the baboons. If left alone they will pose no danger.
The most dangerous part of your trip will probably be driving to your destination. However, it is advisable to be aware of the possible (if unlikely) dangers.
Know your capabilities. Some of the routes can be dangerous to inexperienced hikers. In the case of a fall call for help. The Conservation services are well experienced in rescue and if the need arises can co-opt the help of local helicopters operators, the air force, and the mountain club.
Luckily the only venomous snakes you are likely (or unlikely) to encounter are the Rinkhals, Night Adder, Puff Adder, and Berg Adder. Sightings are rare so do not be overly concerned. If encountering a snake keep still, as they are movement sensitive and allow then to move on. Do not Kill them. You are entering their territory and they form an important part of the ecological balance.
The Rinkhals is a cobra type snake (but not a Cobra) which will usually get out of your way. It can spit venom in your eyes and in the case wash the eyes out immediately with liquid. It is also known to “Play Dead” so never approach a “ dead” snake. The venom is neurotoxic and will affect the breathing. Fatalities are virtually unheard of.
Night Adders, Puff Adders, and Berg Adders. The main danger from these snakes is that they are sluggish and can be stepped on, in which case they will strike with lightening speed. They favor warm rocks and paths so be aware even in winter. The Night Adder and Berg Adder are not particularly venomous and, therefore, are not considered life threatening but bites should be treated seriously. The Puff Adder is very dangerous and the venom is cell destroying and can cause death. The venom is, however, slow acting so does allow time to get to a medical facility.
You may also encounter the Natal Green snake, particularly near rivers and streams. These are not the dreaded Green Mamba, which does not occur in the area and are harmless.
The Red Herald snake also occurs in the area. This snake is the same coloring as the dreaded Black Mamba but only reaches a length of 450 mm ( although I have come across a specimen which was at least a meter long) and has a red marking on the side of it’s head.It is harmless.
Snakebite prevention and treatment. It is always advisable to wear long trousers, which will not only provide some protection from bites but also protect your legs from bramble thorns, and ankle covering boots. Most bites are reported to be to the lower limbs
Do not apply a tourniquet or cut the wound. The correct procedure is to apply a tight pressure bandage over the bite area (from well above to well below the wound). If you do not have a pressure bandage tear up a T-shirt. Use a splint to immobilize the limb. Keep the patient (and the attendants for that matter) calm in order to lower heartbeat and call for help.
In the dryer winter months, fires do occur. These may be due to controlled burning by the conservation authorities and will pose no danger. However, runaway fires can occur and hikers must be wary of this danger as fatalities have occurred. Generally, high winds will increase the risk. If an uncontrolled fire is approaching remember that fires travel rapidly uphill. Therefore move downwards away from the fire and into a vegetated river bed or other protected areas. In the case of smoke cover your mouth and keep down low. Finally, if a fire is approaching and you have no escape route you can back burn by starting your own fire in the path of the approaching fire and move into the burnt out area. If all else fails, choose a spot and run through the fire into a burnt area.
In the summer months, a characteristic of the Berg is the violent lightning storms. These are usually in the afternoon so avoid walking if a storm is approaching. If caught in a storm get out of open areas. Do not hide under a lone tree. Rather choose river valleys or rock outcrops and wait until the storm has passed.
Champagne Valley Hiking Trails
This is a great 3-hour moderate walk through an indigenous forest onto a magnificent grotto with waterfall and pool. The hike starts from in front of the Drakensberg Sun Time Share Units past the Timeshare swimming pool. It is a well-trodden path very suitable for the novice hiker but nevertheless offering one of the most magnificent routes in the area.
Barry’s Grave. A short way from the Blue Grotto, you can visit the grave of Dick Barry. He was one of the early mountaineering pioneers of the area and fell to his death off Monks Cowl in 1938 at the tender age of 22.Take the path from the right side of the Blue Grotto. Climb the hill and at the top of the hill on the left, you will find the grave. You can carry on down the road back to Drak Sun via the site of the old Cathkin Hotel. (now the staff quarters for Drak Sun).
Van Dames Cascades via the Blue Grotto
5 Hour fairly strenuous. Follow the Blue Grotto route and just before the Blue Grotto take the steep path to the left. You will wind upwards to a plateau and then the path will veer right and you will then reach the fence of the World Heritage Site. Go through the access point and winds upwards for a very steep and strenuous climb. When reaching the top take the right path to Van Damms Cascades. The Path goes onto Jacobs Ladder (not a ladder but a winding steep path) and the top of the Little Berg. The Left path can also be taken for to the Steilberg access route where when reaching the Steilberg path, you will have the option of turning left to the top of the Bergview cottages and back to Drakensberg Sun, or carrying on straight to Monks Cowl gate (a long walk) or going up the Steilberg to the top of the Little Berg.
A slightly longer but gentler option would be to start from the top of Bergview cottages, take the path up to the World Heritage site fence get onto the lower path that runs in a northerly direction past Elephant Rock, which then meets up with the path from the Blue Grotto. It cuts out all of the uphill slog from the Blue Grotto.
Five hours + moderate. This secluded and beautiful valley lies on the southern side of the Champagne Valley and is accessed from the R 600 either starting at the road bend just below Champagne Castle Hotel or just above the S Bends slightly above Falcon Ridge. This is private property although access is allowed to the public. If starting from Champagne Castle area follow the path from the top of the bend in the road and follow the contour footpath along the Heritage Site fence. After a long walk, you will reach the valley and you will see one or 2 secluded cottages.
If starting from above the S Bends follow the path until you reach an unmanned locked gate to Cathkin Estates. Here you will have to take a detour to the right around a small waterfall, up the hill and past an African kraal. Follow the Road past the kraal on to Wonder Valley. There is a rock art site close to the kraal (Black Ox shelter) but it can only be visited accompanied by an AMAFA registered guide.
You can go further into the valley along the river course and will find numerous pools in the river. The south side of the valley up near the sandstone cliff face is also a little-known rock art site. It is hard to find and may only be visited with an AMAFA registered guide.
Heritage Walk, Kaybars cave and Cleo’s pool.
This walk has recently been upgraded by the KZN wildlife assisted by the honorary rangers and now offers a circular route that can either be started at the Oaks supermarket ( adjacent to Dragon Peaks resort) or from the top of Berg View chalets ( Above Drakensberg Sun hotel ). As one is entering the world heritage site entrance fees must be paid at the Monks Cowl office of KZN wildlife and tickets are also available from the reception at Drakensberg Sun Resort . If the full circular walk is done it will be a strenuous walk but can also be done from one point to the other provided transport is arranged on the other side or as a shorter walk into the Bush reserve from the Oaks and back. The walk goes through Bush reserve 2 which forms part of the Ukhahlamba World Heritage site and is of archaeological importance as you will pass Voortrekker saw pits which are 150 to 200 years old and were dug by the early loggers to assist in planking large Yellowwood trees. A large Yellowwood tree still remains estimated to be at least 600 years. The path goes past Kaybar’s cave, with a burial site where the bodies were buried in a seated position and then stones placed on top. The remains were removed by the archaeological department of Wits University and found to be of Nguni and bushman admixture somewhat disproving the theory that the bushmen just moved on but rather were absorbed into the local tribes. The remains also showed signs of cannibalism. Adjacent to Kaybar’s cave is Cleo’s pool a natural swimming pool in the river and slightly further on is a tire ladder that needs to be climbed. In all the full walk is about 5 hours and is largely in the natural indigenous forest. There are also tire ladders in two places so expect some climbing.
Hikes in the World Heritage Site
This moderate walk starts at the Monks Cowl entrance. Take the well-marked path down to the falls. 1 to 2 hours.
Robin Hood forest on to Crystal Falls. Take The Sphinx path. After a short walk, you will come to the turn-off the forest and the fern forest. The Sphinx path continues on to Crystal Falls. 2 to 3 hours.
Round Trip to Sterkspruit Falls, onto Nandies Falls and Back to the Entrance. 3 to 4 hours. Take the path to Sterkspruit falls. Before the falls turn up the river and follow the signs to Nandies Falls. Spend some time at the rock pools on the way.
The Sphinx and onto Breakfast stream back via Kirtland’s Pass. Moderate to Strenuous. + 6hours. This oft walked path takes you on to the top of the Little Berg (Breakfast Stream) . If you like you can then go on to Blind Mans corner and the contour path. However, unless you want to access the contour path for further hikes there is no point in going all the way to the contour path and a preferred option would be to turn off right before Blind Mans Corner and return via Kirtland’s Pass. This less used path offers a real wilderness experience winding down through a secluded valley.
A strenuous day hike of 8 hours plus. The best way to do this hike is in 2 teams one starting at Injasuti and the other at Monks Cowl and exchange car keys on the way. The other way is to be dropped off at Injasuti or arrange to be picked up there after the hike. From the Monks Cowl side take the path to Blind Mans Corner turning left at the contour path. Follow the path to Eland fence and follow the fence down. The Injasuti access is on the right side of the Plateau. If you miss the point and go on straight you will go on to Wonder Valley which is not a good returning option, and you will probably get lost and could have a rather strenuous hike back to the starting point. A good map is suggested. The path from the Injasuti camp side is well marked and starts from the mountain side of the camp to the right.
This moderate to strenuous hike starts at the Champagne Castle hotel and goes to the top of the Little berg and on into the World Heritage site.This path has recently been upgraded and offers a good alternative to the Sphinx path. Once you are at the top you can enjoy a nice valley view from the top and you can take the path to the North which eventually meets the Breakfast stream/ Blind Mans corner path where you can take an alternative route down past the Sphinx and back to the hotel. Another option is to turn left at the top and follow a rather indistinct path south behind the Mattetrhorn and work your way down the ridge coming out near Wonder Valley. This route is not very well used but offers a good alternative for the more adventurous. The hike starts in private property so you will need the permission of the hotel to use this route and as you are entering the World heritage site you will need to pay the entrance fee at the Monks Cowl gate.
Sterkhorn (8 hours return. Strenuous and dangerous in places). Take the path to Blind Mans corner and turn left along the contour path. After a short distance, you will see the path veering off to the right to the Sterkhorn. Follow up to the top.
Keith Bush Camp and up Grey’s Path. (To Keith Bush Camp and back allow 1 night, if going up Champagne Castle allow 2 nights). Good map essential. Tents essential. To Keith Bush Camp.7 Hours. Moderate to strenuous. Take the path to Blind Mans corner and right along the contour path to Hlatikulu Neck. Follow the path left along the river valley. The path winds down into the river . Follow the path up the river course up until you reach the base of the Grey’s Pass path. Keith bush camp in close by on a small platform above the river.
The path up Grey’s pass is steep and eroded in places. Allow at least 8 hours to the top and back.
Moderate to strenuous. Overnight 7 hours. Can sleep in the cave but book at the Monks Cowl office. Good map essential. Take the path to Blind Mans corner and right along the contour path to Hlatikulu neck. Follow the path left along the river valley towards Keith Bush camp. On the way, you will see the Zulu cave path to the right. This is a longish walk with a beautiful cave to overnight in but generally quiet arduous as the last section down is fairly steep and one must come back the same way the next day.An alternative is to add an extra night and go down the valley past Cat cave and hike on down the Junction of the Dadima valley and overnight on the grassy patch next to the river. You will probably need a tent but for those more adventurous you can sleep in the open provided it is not the rainy season.The path down is fairly good but as it is used infrequently does disappear in places so does require a bit of Bundu bashing.From the junction it is an easy walk out to Brotherton store on the Cathedral Peak road.
One of the moderate to strenuous Drakensberg hiking trails that can be done in a day taking 7 to 9 hours but can also be an overnight- map essential. Can sleep in the cave book at the Monks Cowl office. There are 3 routes to this cave. The longest one starts from the Monks Cowl Entrance. Follow the route to Blind Man’s Corner turn right along the contour path to Hlatikulu neck. At Hlatikulu neck turn right and follow the path for a long walk to Zulu Cave.
The second route starts at the top of Bergview (the cottages above Drak Sun). Take the path up to the Steilberg. When getting there go on up the Steilberg for a steep and strenuous climb up to the top of the Little Berg and turn right. Follow the path to Stable Cave.
The Third route is Via the Grotto, Van Dams Cascades and Jacobs Ladder, up onto of the Little Berg turn right for a short walk to the cave.
Monks Cowl to Cathedral Peak
This is a strenuous 3 to 4 day hike which can either be started at Monks Cowl entrance to the World heritage site or from the other side starting at the bottom of Mike’s pass.Unfortunately Mike’s Pass is now closed to civilian cars which has added a day to the hike. A 4 day (3 night) hike is suggested as it will allow time to visit Eland cave, one of the best Rock art sites in the Drakensberg. In order to visit the cave, you need to be accompanied by an AMAFA registered guide. A good map is essential for this hike.
Starting from Monks Cowl take the Sphinx path and on to Blind Man’s corner. At this point turn right to Hlatikulu neck. At this point, the path splits but go on straight (left fork) for about 3 Km. where you will see a well-defined path (the contour path) to the right going down into the valley with the Gatburg in the distance. Follow this path which will take you into the Didima valley offering spectacular views. You can either follow the contour path above the valley coming out eventually at Phillip’s Folly following onto the top of Mike’s pass, or hike down along the top of the Didima valley and come down from the top of the little Berg down Junction Pass a steep and winding path. There is a painted cave halfway down this pass , on the left about 100 meters from the path. The paintings are however very faint and weathered. There is a nice place to pitch tents at the junction of the Dadima and Inkosana rivers offering a short 3 to 4 hour hike back to the main Cathedral peak road the next day. An alternative route down is to follow the path down to Leopard cave and carry on down to the bottom of Dadima valley. Leopard cave is one of the few caves that can be slept in as there is only one painting in an adjoining cave to view ( of a leopard chasing a bushman). As mentioned there are only a few caves that offer overnight sleeping opportunities as painted caves cannot be slept in so carrying tents is an added burden.