North Drakensberg Traverse, South Africa/Lesotho, uKhahlamba/ Drakensberg Park

Photograph by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Alamy
Photograph by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Alamy

Best For: This is a big, long backcountry hike with no true trail that requires both outdoor skills and some familiarity with travel in Africa. Many travelers here book guides.

Round-Trip: 40 miles, from Mont-aux-Sources to Cathedral Peak

The Zulus call these peaks uKhahlamba, “barrier of spears.” A vertiginous escarpment of volcanic basalt bursting from ancient sedimentary rocks, the Drakensberg is the highest mountain range in South Africa, crowned by the Amphitheater, a three-mile-long, up-to-3,280-foot-high wall of rock. The range forms the border between South Africa and eastern Lesotho and the uKhalhlamba/Drakensberg Park is protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, as well as by various local designations.

A trek across this epic landscape begins by ascending chain ladders to reach the top of this barrier and the plateau of Mount-aux-Sources, where the Tugela River plunges 3,110 feet off the top in a series of five cascades that make for the second highest waterfall in the world. From here, the trek crosses the high plateau—broken by rock formations, views out across the cliffs, and the huts of Sotho herdsman—before it works its way down past more waterfalls and river crossings before meeting up with the welcome civilization of the Cathedral Peak Hotel.

The Drakensberg is also filled with caves. Some, like the aptly named Rat Hole Cave, are claustrophobic. Others are massive, like the infamous Cannibal Cave, which sheltered San who were persecuted by Zulus and white settlers. They left behind an artistic legacy of cave paintings that illustrates their connection with these unique mountains and makes the Drakensberg one of the most important archaeological sites on the continent. Emerge from one of the caves and look out over the land and you will feel the true timelessness of this place.

When to Go: Late summer and fall (March to May)

Shortcuts: The 12-mile Mont-aux-Sources, which requires clambering on chain ladders, is the first section of the full trek and a worthy day trip. The long day hike to Tugela Falls covers 13 miles to reach the world’s second highest waterfall. Cathedral Peak can be hiked and scrambled on a six-mile jaunt from the Cathedral Peak Hotel.

Insider Tip: The most popular campsites can be targets for petty crime, so set up tent a bit off the beaten path or stay at a hut or hostel. It’s not a good idea to hike alone.