The Drakensberg Grand Traverse is one of those great hikes that is talked about with awe and longing. Its a huge hike of approximately 230km that is if you dont get lost and add a few extra km to the hiking trail. Infact most hikers of the Grand Traverse add an extra 30 km though minor navigation glitches. The Drakensberg Grand Traverse starts at Witsieshoek and follows the Drakensberg escarpment all the way through to Bushmans Nek. Its a hike of unrelenting backpacking in regions of the Drakensberg that are remote and pristine. Six are summited peaks along the way. Other than that you are free to choose your own route. There are no paths or signposts and you need to rely on your own navigational skills.
The grand traverse hugs the escarpment and meanders over hills and down valleys offering magnificent views of the major features of the Drakensberg. But there is not one easy kilometre on this hike!. Don’t assume the top of the Drakensberg to be flat. Perpendicular to the escarpment, there are over 32 ridges with their corresponding valleys that need to be crossed. No technical skill is required, the “climbs” are essentially just steep ascents. But the total ascent, the elevation gain, during the whole hike is in excess of 9000 metres (which is higher than Everest!).
From the start at the Sentinal Car Park, the trail leads up the zig-zags to the well known chain ladders that take you to the top of the escarpment near Mont Aux Sources and the Tugela Falls. Mont-aux-Sources (at 3,282 m above sea level), is the first of the six obligatory peaks. After Mont-aux-Sources comes Cleft Peak (3,281 m), and then it’s Champagne Castle (3,377 m). The fourth peak, Mafadi (3,450 m), is also South Africa’s highest point. The fifth, Giant’s Castle (3,314 m), is the most dramatic: set out from the escarpment like a watchtower.The final peak on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse is Thabana Ntlenyana at 3,482 m, the highest point on the route. From Thabana Ntlenyana Thomathu Pass must be used to descend to Bushman’s Nek border post to finish the Drakensberg grand traverse.
This route is the only commonly accepted essence of the Drakensberg Grand Travers. From there, opinions and personal choice influence each trip. Some insist the GT must be unsupported, others see it as a race and yet others choose to take a longer route in order to experience the beauty of the Drakensberg that much better. In any case, there is no authority governing your movements, and so the hike becomes exactly what you would like it to be. Except maybe comfortable or easy.
The hike can be done as a fully unsupported activity, but that adds a lot to this already tough expedition. And carrying food for 12 days can be a difficult feat. It is quite common for hikers to be supported by friends who carry up additional supplies at the 6 day halfway mark, top of Bannermans Pass or Langalibalele Pass, and perhaps at around the 9 day mark at the top of Sani Pass.
Most hikers attempt the Drakensberg Grand Traverse in either April-May or September-November, hoping to avoid the winter snows and summer thunderstorms. The weather in the Drakensberg can be very unpredictable and hikers need to be prepared for the worst weather regardless of season selected.
Due to the duration and undulating terrain, the Grand Traverse requires not only an above average physical fitness but, most importantly, mental strength and determination. But it is certainly achievable!