The soaring pinnacle of Cathedral Peak is one of the finest summits in the Drakensberg and acts as the perfect backdrop to this beautiful valley. Here's what to do in this special part of South Africa.


The Drakensberg mountains extend from the high plateau of Lesotho to the plains of South Africa. The top forms a long continuous escarpment which drops steeply. In a few places, free-standing summits have been left behind by the eroding rock face.

Cathedral Peak is the best of them.

At 3,004m high, the spire-like peak is the focal point for a rugged and beautiful part of South Africa. It’s the place to come if you love the great outdoors and sweeping natural vistas; getting energetic or enjoying quality South African wines.

We spent several days discovering great things to do in the Cathedral Peak area. Evenings watching the sun go down as the braai sizzled in the background. Early mornings waiting for the first rays of light to hit the high peaks. Long days discovering a garden of Eden landscape with hidden waterfalls, mountain vistas and grassy rolling hills. Afternoons relaxing on our balcony with views you’d pay a small fortune for in other countries.

To help discover the best of the area, here are our favourite things to do in Cathedral Peak, along with recommendations for where to stay, how to get here and when to visit.

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WHAT IS CATHEDRAL PEAK?

Cathedral Peak is an area of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal to the northeast of Lesotho. As one of the few free-standing peaks in the area, it’s something of an iconic symbol of the region.

Surrounded by wilderness areas, Cathedral Peak is the ideal place for unwinding in superb nature. There are excellent hiking trails through dramatic scenery with beautiful waterfalls; mountain biking trails and a host of other outdoor activities. It’s similar to the stunning Tugela Gorge, but with more open expanses of rolling hills.

But, if you’re feeling less adventurous, you can relax in perfectly located accommodation, indulge in a massage or visit the local Cathedral Peak winery for a long boozy lunch. To understand the local culture, there’s also a rock art centre which is a bit hit and miss but worth a visit.

With a variety of accommodation options across the luxury/backpacker scale and limited internet, it’s the ideal place to unwind and recharge.

Here are some of our favourite things to do at Cathedral Peak.

WHAT TO DO IN CATHEDRAL PEAK, DRAKENSBERG


1 / Hike to the stunning Rainbow Gorge

2 / Take in stunning views at Tarn Hill

3 / Scale the top of Cathedral Peak

4 / Mountain bike up Mike’s Pass

5 / Understand rock art the San Rock Art Interpretative Centre

6 / Indulge at the Cathedral Peak Wine Estate

7 / Golf, quad biking & horse riding

8 / Enjoy a massage or laze by the pool

WHAT TO DO IN CATHEDRAL PEAK, DRAKENSBERG


1 / Hike to the stunning Rainbow Gorge

2 / Take in stunning views at Tarn Hill

3 / Scale the top of Cathedral Peak

4 / Mountain bike up Mike’s Pass

5 / Understand rock art the San Rock Art Interpretative Centre

6 / Indulge at the Cathedral Peak Wine Estate

7 / Golf, quad biking & horse riding

8 / Enjoy a massage or laze by the pool

1 / HIKE TO THE STUNNING RAINBOW GORGE

This excellent hike leaves Didima Camp and ambles slowly uphill before offering spectacular views of the Ndumeni River. It then drops through an indigenous forest (containing rare species of bird-life) and descends to the valley floor where it undulates above a stream with great views of the vertical gorge.

At this point you can return the way you came or continue deeper into the gorge, crossing back and forth across the stream and climbing over large boulders wedged between the canyon walls. In dry conditions, you may be able to get quite a long way, but if water levels are high it will be hard to make much progress.

It’s as hard and as adventurous as you want to make it. You could simply stroll to the gorge and back, or wade up the river and scale boulders to get further in.

Either way, it’s an excellent and relatively easy walk and one of the most attractive parts of Cathedral Peak.


Distance: 11 kilometres round trip | Time: 4 hours | Elevation: 200 metres ascent and descent | Difficulty: Easy – Medium

2 / TAKE IN STUNNING VIEWS AT TARN HILL

With Cathedral Peak towering behind you and gorges and valleys beneath your feet, this excellent hike explores the foothills of the Lower Berg that connect the two.

It begins at Cathedral Peak Hotel and meanders up a charming valley before clambering majestically along narrow ledges and over rocky faces to an attractive waterfall. The last bit is steep so it’s worth taking the short detour to cool off in the shady base of the Ribbon Falls.

The path then rises onto the top of the lower berg (1800m to 1900m in altitude) where it zig-zags and undulates across the grassy plateau. The constantly changing angles provide excellent views of the near-vertical escarpment, the craggy flanks of Cathedral Peak and many other imposing summits.

The path now drops steeply back to the camp, visiting the strange formation of Mushroom rock on the way. It’s not as spectacular as the Tugela Falls hike, but the scenery is beautiful.


Distance: 14 kilometre round trip | Time: 5 hours | Elevation: 650 metres ascent and descent | Difficulty: Medium

3 / SCALE THE TOP OF CATHEDRAL PEAK

Getting from the bottom of the Drakensberg Mountains to the top is not easy. The sheer-sided cliff face makes most hiking routes impossible. But this sensational hike to the summit of 3,004m Cathedral Peak can be done as a walk without any climbing equipment. Although, it’s not an easy one.

Considered ‘non-technical’ the return day trip is 19 kilometres, ascends 1600 metres and takes 9 to 10 hours. However, it’s not just the length that’s tricky, the final section up to the summit is a challenging scramble on exposed edges using fixed aids.

The rewards, however, are magnificent views across the surrounding landscape and a lot of self-satisfaction. First-timers should take a guide (which can be arranged at your accommodation). Although it’s considered a hiking peak rather than a climbing peak, many guides take ropes for extra safety.

For those that make it, it’s one of the great adventures in the Drakensberg.


Distance: 19 kilometre round trip | Time: 9 to 10 hours | Elevation: 1600 metres ascent and descent | Difficulty: Very challenging

4 / MOUNTAIN BIKE UP MIKE’S PASS

If you like your scenery to come with some pedalling rather than hiking, then Mike’s Pass is a great option. This 35-kilometre gravel track winds its way from Didima Camp up onto the Lower Berg and performs a loop while rising to a height of 1930 metres. Passing under sandstone rock and along grassy ridges, it has truly magnificent views of the Cathedral Peak area for almost the entire journey.

The track is in decent condition and straight forward to cycle (except when descending in wet conditions), although at 1:6 maximum gradient it requires quite a bit of work. Bikes can be hired at the Cathedral Peak Hotel and if you want to skip the hard ascent and descent, they can drop you at the Arendsig car park nearer the top.

You used to be able to drive up Mike’s Pass in a 4×4 (or 4×2 with differential lock). Sadly, the road has not been open for a few years. Hopefully, that will be rectified soon. Please let us know in the comments below if it’s open when you visit.

5 / VISIT THE SAN ROCK ART INTERPRETATIVE CENTRE

South Africa’s original people San (or Bushmen), inhabited the Drakensberg Mountains for thousands of years before practically disappearing in the late 1800s. Fortunately, they left behind a fragile legacy: stone-age rock art.

There are over 600 rock-art sites and tens of thousands of paintings spread across the Drakensbergs and you can learn more about the San, their history and their art in the Didima San Rock Art Interpretative Centre.

The exhibits are well put together and informative but rather sadly, most of the lighting in the building was broken on our visit. They compensated us by giving us free entry, however, I think I would have preferred to see a bit more.

Use the torch on your phone to make it an eerie half-hour exploration of San rock art.

6 / INDULGE AT THE CATHEDRAL PEAK WINE ESTATE

When you have had enough of adventure, or rain is on its way, then this is the perfect place for a long boozy lunch. The Cathedral Peak Wine Estate opened in 2008 and out of respect for the region in which they are based, their finest wines are named UNESCO 985 – the identification number for the Drakensberg Mountains successful UNESCO application in 2000.

They offer a wine tasting for R10 per glass which can be accompanied with their excellent meat and cheese platter. Sit out on their open terrace overlooking the vines in the foreground and the mountains in the background and it’s the perfect lazy afternoon. They also have good WIFI if you need to catch up on current affairs.

Try the full-bodied Merlot in the Estate Range or the uniquely South African Pinotage. Just remember you need to drive home!

7 / GOLF, QUAD BIKING & HORSE RIDING

The Cathedral Peak Hotel is not only a top-class hotel, but it also offers residents and visitors a range of activities to help enjoy your stay in the area. Hire quad bikes to zip along mountain trails or take a horseback ride through the rolling green hills. They also offer mountain bikes to tackle the hotels very own 20-kilometre well-designed trail. With 121 species of bird, it’s also an excellent spot for a bit of twitching.

Rather bizarrely for such a mountainous region, you can also play a game of golf. Their 9-hole course meanders the lower reaches of the valley next to a lovely riverbed. With rocky outcrop and numerous water features, it must be one of the most scenically set courses in the world.

8 / HAVE A MASSAGE OR LAZE BY THE POOL

After a long day hiking the mountain trails or biking along bumpy dirt tracks around Cathedral Peak, a bit of pampering might be in order. Luckily, both Didima Camp and Cathedral Peak Hotel provide massages for both guests and non-guests.

While we wouldn’t generally bother to suggest having a massage, this is South Africa. Being used to UK prices we found it impossible to turn down the Swedish massage for a measly R300 (£15, €17, $19) at Didima Camp. The massage centre is just one room above the Rock Art Centre, but the service is very professional, and they also offer facials, manicures, waxing and other luxurious indulgences.

If massage is not your thing, both Didima Camp and Cathedral Peak Hotel have a pool with excellent views of the mountains. It’s the perfect way to relax after a long day in the mountains.

WHERE TO STAY IN CATHEDRAL PEAK, DRAKENSBERG

There are only two main choices for accommodation in the Cathedral Peak valley: Didima Camp and Cathedral Peak Hotel. Both are near to each other in an excellent location with fantastic views of the mountains. Being South Africa, the rates are very reasonable.

All other options are 45 kilometres away in Winterton or towards Champagne Castle to the south.

CATHEDRAL PEAK HOTEL

An excellent hotel right in the centre of the valley, it has all you would expect from a high-end hotel and more. It has 18 different signed walks and hikes, various mountain bike trails, a jogging route, horse rides, quad biking, and 9-hole golf course with 9 alternate tees. They can also organise helicopter sightseeing flights if you really want to see the Drakensbergs in style.

It all comes at a price, but with breakfast and dinner included it’s not as expensive as at first looks. The only downside is that it’s tucked under the sides of the valley. So, despite the excellent location, the views from the hotel itself are not as expansive as you might expect.

If you like a top class hotel with lots of facilities, then this is the option for you.

BOOKING.COMHOTELS.COM

DIDIMA CAMP - OUR PICK

This government run camp has had a few bad reviews recently. It’s certainly a little tired around the edges and there could be a little more attention to detail. But we had a very good stay here. The camp offers 2, 4 and 6 bed chalets, all of which have self-catering facilities including a braai. The chalets are perfectly positioned and the views down the valley and up to Cathedral Peak are truly staggering. Early morning, sat on the balcony with a coffee, watching the sun rise was a special moment.

If you don’t want to self-cater there is an onsite restaurant serving meals throughout the day and a bar. There’s an on-site shop with a few basics, but if you intend to self-cater you’ll need to bring your groceries with you from Winterton.

Tennis courts and swimming pool round out the facilities.

If you like great views from your balcony, don’t mind the odd thing not working and are happy to simply hike (rather than use lots of other facilities) then this might be for you.

DIDIMA

DRAKENSBERG BUSH LODGE AND BACKPACKERS

Situated on a farm with fine views this is a good value budget option with large rooms and well-equipped common kitchen. It may be a 40-minute drive to the walking trails of Cathedral Peak, but it’s a great location for exploring other sights in the region.

For example, in just 10 minutes you can stock up on supplies in the town of Winterton. The excellent hiking trails at Monk’s Cowl and Champagne Castle are just 40 minutes away and the stunning Royal Natal National Park is just over 1 hour. Additionally, the battlefields route is just 45 minutes away at Ladysmith and Spioenkop.

If you want to explore the central and northern Drakensberg and not move accommodation too much, then this is a great value spot.

BUSH LODGE

BEST TIME TO VISIT CATHEDRAL PEAK

Summer rains (December through February) can be torrential and temperatures can reach into the mid-30s making activities tiring. In winter (June to August) the temperatures drop rapidly, and the higher altitudes can be very cold making walks a chilling experience.

The best time to visit Cathedral Peak is from March to May when the rains have subsided, the temperatures comfortable and the hills are still a lush green from the winter downpours. September to November are also good for walking but the hills will be a parched brown rather than a glittering green.

Whatever time of year you go try to start early each day. The early morning has the best light for photos, the clearest skies and less strong winds. In summer, make sure you are back by early afternoon. Torrential thunderstorms can appear from nowhere making conditions not only uncomfortable but the gorges outright dangerous.

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TIPS FOR VISITING CATHEDRAL PEAK, DRAKENSBERG

1 / There are no entrance fees to walk in the park, but R50 is charged for non-residents to use the car-park at the Cathedral Peak Hotel.

2 / There is a petrol station at the Cathedral Peak Hotel but apart from a rather useless curio shop at Didima Camp where you can get water and soft drinks, there are no other shops in the valley. Buy your supplies at Winterton before you arrive.

3 / If you plan on doing a lot of hiking then grab a copy of the excellent Walking in the Drakensberg book by Cicerone. It contains detailed descriptions of all the hikes listed here as well as many more throughout the Drakensberg.

4 / We also suggest you use the Map.me app. Before you leave for any hikes download the area containing the Cathedral Peak valley. All the paths detailed on the three walks are displayed on the app and since it works offline you can follow your progress and quickly spot when you go wrong. It takes all the stress of getting lost away!

HOW TO GET TO CATHEDRAL PEAK

Cathedral Peak is a remote part of South Africa and with public transport very limited the best option is to hire your own car. This will also give you the flexibility to see more of the area on your trip.

Cathedral Peak valley is a 3 hour 30 minute drive from King Shaka International Airport in Durban or 4 hours 30 minutes from Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

AUTO EUROPE


The best portal we’ve found for booking hire cars is AutoEurope. They have access to cars from all the major companies which are compared on a grid format that clearly displays the prices for different car sizes across each provider. Click below to check prices based on your home location.

USA CUSTOMERSEUROPE CUSTOMERS

AUTO EUROPE


The best portal we’ve found for booking hire cars is AutoEurope. They have access to cars from all the major companies which are compared on a grid format that clearly displays the prices for different car sizes across each provider. Click below to check prices based on your home location.

USA CUSTOMERSEUROPE CUSTOMERS

WHERE NEXT?

If you found this guide useful, please head over to Instagram and follow us to stay up to date with our adventures.

South Africa is a place we have visited many times over the years. With incredible scenery, great food and amazing wildlife opportunities, it’s one of our favourite places to visit.

Here are a few of our favourite South Africa articles.

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Choosing where to visit in the Drakensberg is tricky. Here’s a comprehensive guide to Cathedral Peak a stunning part of the Drakensber with hiking, outdoor activities and more / #cathedralpeak #drakensberg #visitkwazulunatal #visitsouthafrica

Choosing where to visit in the Drakensberg is tricky. Here’s a comprehensive guide to Cathedral Peak a stunning part of the Drakensberg with hiking, outdoor activities and more / #cathedralpeak #drakensberg #visitkwazulunatal #visitsouthafrica

Choosing where to visit in the Drakensberg is tricky. Here’s a comprehensive guide to Cathedral Peak a stunning part of the Drakensber with hiking, outdoor activities and more / #cathedralpeak #drakensberg #visitkwazulunatal #visitsouthafrica
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