Cathedral Peak Overnight Hike

Camping in the Drakensberg near Cathedral Peak
Camping in the Drakensberg near Cathedral Peak, orange light in the sunrise.

From Cathedral Peak Hotel we spent an amazing two days hiking via the contour path up Organ Pipes Pass to the top of the Drakensberg Plateau and back down again.

Drakensberg Mountains in the sunshine, South Africa
Looking down on the contour path on the way up to Organ Pipes Pass

Location

This hike starts from Cathedral Peak Hotel in the Central Drakensberg. If you’re not staying here overnight, there is parking for day visitors at a charge of R50 per night. It’s about 3½ hours drive from Durban and 5 hours from Johannesburg. We drove here from Royal Natal National Park, 2 hours 15 mins away.

First sign the mountain register by the reception at the hotel. Then head out down the road and after a few hundred metres, at a sharp U-turn, head off towards the mountains.

Tips

  • Make sure to sign the mountain register at the hotel reception before you leave.
  • Make sure to sign it again when you get back!
  • We used the Cicerone hiking guide: Walking in the Drakensberg*, to plan this hike. It also suggests other hikes both here and elsewhere in the Drakensberg.
  • We stayed at Cathedral Peak Hotel (Website, Tripadvisor Reviews*). There is a buffet for both breakfast and dinner, which allows for filling up pre- and/or post-hike.
  • The only other nearby accommodation is the Didima Rest Camp which looked nice but was deserted when we were there in mid-May
  • In summer start hiking early to avoid the common summer afternoon thunderstorms, and in winter start early to use the day light.
  • Make sure to take warm clothes and a waterproof, weather can change quickly, and the peak is over 3000 m high, so much colder than down below.
  • Nighttime is also very cold outside of mid-summer so bring a sturdy tent, thick sleeping bag and thermal underwear.
  • We did this hike as part of our 12-Day Trip to the Drakensberg. We visited Royal Natal NP beforehand, and went on to hike in Giants Castle area.

The trail soon starts heading upwards and the beautiful sunny morning quickly took a turn for the worse. After 5 km and about 600 m climb we reached the contour path and entered thick mist.

Drakensberg Mountains and clouds, South Africa
Hiker on the way up Cathedral Peak in Drakensberg Mountains

The clouds stayed for most of the rest of the day, gradually getting worse. Despite its name, the contour path was not at all flat and we were always going up and down, up and down. There are deep valleys that you zigzag into, and the path here was sometimes quite overgrown and hard work.

Drakensberg Mountains and clouds
Views from the contour path
Peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains shrouded in clouds
High peaks remained slightly cloudy

We were a lot slower than expected hiking along the contour path. We had originally aimed to camp further along, but after 27 km the light was fading and we were exhausted, having just fought our way uphill through thick bushes.

Campsite

When we pitched our tent we couldn’t see a thing in the mist and soon darkness descended. After a hot dinner and cup of tea, we huddled into our sleeping bags and tried to stay warm.

Camping in the Drakensberg Mountains and sunrise, South Africa
Sunrise

The sunrise was amazing and more than made up for any struggles we’d had the day before. It turned out that we had an incredible view from our random campsite and the mountains glowed bright orange in the morning sun.

Sunrise from camp in the Drakensberg, South Africa
Sunrise and Cathedral Peak from camp in the Drakensberg, South Africa

The sun rose quickly, bringing with it needed warmth, and the orange colours faded to grey in the brilliant sunshine. After breakfast we packed up our tent and set off again along the (dreaded) contour path.

Camping in the Drakensberg Mountains and sunrise, South Africa
Our amazing campsite and surprise mist-free views

Contour Path to The Top

We hiked a fairly flat 7 km along the contour path to our turning upwards on a path heading the top of the escarpment, via the Organ Pipes Pass.

Heading up Organ Pipes Pass, South Africa
The path heading upwards
Cathedral Peak area of the Drakensberg, South Africa
And views back down below

From here to the top is a 5-km each way out-and-back with 1000 m of climb, so if you are really tired you could miss this extension out. Since we would be returning here we left one heavy rucksack hidden near this junction to save us carrying it up and down for no reason.

Drakensberg Mountains in the sun with a hiker, South Africa
Contemplating the long climb ahead

The scenery was magnificent as we climbed higher. The walking was initially uphill but on a nice path with no technical difficulties.

Organ Pipes in the Drakensberg, South Africa
The Organ Pipes as we climb higher
Views of mountains in Cathedral Peak area, Drakensberg, South Africa
And views back down below

There’s one place not too far from the top where you have to use your hands for an easy scramble up a narrow, rocky gully between two rock faces. There is only minor exposure, and there are good hand and footholds so it’s not very difficult.

On the way up Organ Pipes Pass, South Africa
On the way up Organ Pipes Pass, South Africa
On the way up Organ Pipes Pass, South Africa

After a little bit of a down and then a steep, rocky slope upwards we fell out onto the plateau at the top. We’d made it! Time to enjoy the views.

At the top of the Drakensberg escarpment, looking into Lesotho
At the top of the escarpment, looking into Lesotho

The top of the escarpment is surprisingly flat. Lesotho stretches out before you in one direction, with the cliffs and foothills that you passed up through now a long way below. It’s about 3000 m high here and can be quite chilly!

The Long Way Back Down

Views from the top of the Drakensberg escarpment

After a last look at the unending views, we started on the long way back down.

Mountains and grass in the Drakensberg, South Africa
More beautiful scenery

We collected our hidden rucksack at the junction with the contour path and continued straight downwards, hungry for the hotel buffet.

Hiking down Cathedral Peak area in the Drakensberg
Still heading down…
Cathedral Peak Hotel in a shady valley, Drakensberg
The sun leaves the valley as we sight the hotel

Our final destination gradually came closer though the sun was beginning to set by the time we entered the final valley towards the hotel.

We signed back in at the mountain register by the hotel reception before making a beeline for the buffet where we ate too much and recovered with a glorious sleep in a cosy rondavel.

Accommodation

We stayed at Cathedral Peak Hotel (Website, Tripadvisor Reviews*) both the night before we left and the night we got back. The best thing about this place is that a night’s stay includes all you can eat breakfast and dinner buffets which we definitely made full use of.

Cathedral Peak Hotel, Drakensberg
Cathedral Peak Hotel
Cathedral Peak Hotel, Drakensberg
View from our Rondavel

We stayed in a cute and cosy rondavel with lovely views of the mountains. The surrounding garden bloomed with colourful flowers, grazed on by a few tame bushbuck.

Bushbuck at Cathedral Peak Hotel
Sunbird at Cathedral Peak Hotel
Bushbuck at Cathedral Peak Hotel

Click to find out more about our 12-day Trip to the Drakensberg, Giants Castle where we went next or Royal Natal NP where we came from.

Drakensberg mountains and a muffin, South Africa
Delicious muffins from Cathedral Peak Hotel sustaining us on the hike

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