Cape Town to the Drakensberg: A 12 Day Road Trip

Cathedral Peak mountains in the sunshine, Drakensberg, South Africa
Cathedral Peak mountains in the sunshine, Drakensberg, South Africa

A beautiful road trip to the Drakensberg via Karoo National Park (NP), along the scenic Maloti Route to Golden Gate Highlands NP for some gorgeous hiking. Then south along the Drakensberg Mountains, visiting Royal Natal NP for two half-day hikes – Plowman’s Kop Loop and the spectacular Amphitheatre Hike. Then further south to the Cathedral Peak and Giant’s Castle areas for two overnight hikes, and Garden Castle to climb Rhino Peak. Finally, we returned to Cape Town around the southern edge of the escarpment via the historic town of Graaff-Reinet and Camdeboo NP.

Golden grass, Garden Castle, Drakensberg, South Africa

Summary of Road Trip

In May 2019 we did a ~3500 km, 12-day road trip in my little Chico Golf from Cape Town to the Drakensberg and back, driving only on paved roads. We mainly camped and did a lot of hiking – from 1-hour hikes to two-day overnight hikes. Read our trip report below to find out more! If you’d like to read about a separate 2-month road trip around South Africa in 2020, find out more here.

Tips

  • We did this trip in May, a perfect time to visit – clear blue skies almost everyday and very few other visitors in the Drakensberg. Autumn and Spring are recommended.
  • In Summer (Dec-Feb) the days are longer and the nights warmer, though clouds can obscure the mountain range for days at a time and there are thunderstorms most afternoons meaning you have to seek shelter by around 3 pm. The rest camps are also busy during this time.
  • In Winter (Jun-Sep) the weather can be very nice, but the days are short and cold. Snow and ice can make hiking more difficult and dangerous.
  • We used the Cicerone hiking guideWalking in the Drakensberg*, to plan our hikes.
  • We also relied on the KZN Wildlife maps for hiking, of which there are six covering the range. These are available at some KZN restcamps, bookstores and outdoor shops throughout South Africa though you can never guarentee if they will be in stock. We ordered ours online at Mountain Mail Order and picked them up from their shop in Cape Town. If you live abroad, you can order them for an inflated price from Stanfords*.
  • We found this Drakensberg Hikes website to be another useful resource.

Day 1: Cape Town to Karoo National Park

Summary: Cape Town to Karoo NP is a 460 km, five-hour drive. The historic hamlet of Matjiesfontein, halfway along the route, is an interesting place for lunch or a coffee, and even an overnight stay.

We set off Friday lunchtime in late April 2019, had a pleasant five-hour drive along the N1 to camp overnight in Karoo National Park. It was surprisingly busy at the campsite, and we were glad to have booked.

Shell petrol station near Worcester, South Africa
Scenic Shell Petrol Station just over an hour from Cape Town

There is a very scenic Shell Petrol Station (map↑) just over an hour from Cape Town, a few minutes before Worcester. There’s a little Spar, a coffee shop and some fast food joints, perfect for a quick break and to relax after leaving the hustle and bustle of the city.

N1 wine farms, South Africa
Through the mountains
Karoo Desert from the N1 highway, South Africa
Into the Karoo

Another great stop, 2.5 hours from Cape Town and halfway to Karoo NP, is Matjiesfontein. This is a small hamlet built in 1884 and preserved in time in the middle of the wild Karoo. It’s dominated by the Lord Milner Hotel*, a lovely looking building, which along with everything else is on the main street. Olive Schreiner, the famous writer and author of The Story of an African Farm*, lived here for a few years and if you spend much time in the Karoo, I’d recommend reading her book (see my reviews of other South African books for other reading ideas).

Old house and palm trees, Matjiesfontein, Karoo, South Africa
Along the Main Street
The Coffee House outside seats, Matjiesfontein, Karoo, South Africa
At The Coffee House
Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein, Karoo, South Africa
Lord Milner Hotel

We ate lunch in The Coffee House, which was delicious but we ate too much and I was too full to drive afterwards. After another 2.5 hours, we arrived in Karoo NP just before sunset and set up our tent.

Day 2: Karoo National Park to Gariep Dam

Summary: Karoo NP to Gariep Dam is a 400 km, 4.5-hour drive. After a full morning and lunch in Karoo NP we set off on the empty road, not stopping anywhere in particular.

During our morning in Karoo NP we went on a short run around the rest camp area, drove up to Klipspringer’s Pass to a beautiful viewpoint, walked the Fossil Trail and drove the Lammertjiesleegte Loop with a stop to swim and eat lunch at Bulkraal Picnic Spot. For more details read our Guide to Karoo National Park.

Mountains from the N1 road in the Karoo, South Africa, heading to the Drakensberg
The empty N1 in the Karoo

After lunch we headed out of the park and continued our drive towards the Drakensberg, aiming for Morning Glory Cottages* near Gariep Dam. The drive took just over 4 hours, mainly on the N1. We turned off about 40 minutes before the end, through beautiful scenery – there is a big reservoir here (Gariep Dam), and quite a lot of game grazing near the edges.

Beautiful black horse, Morning Glory Cottages Stud Farm, Karoo
Horses in the dusty sunset, Morning Glory Cottages Stud Farm, Karoo
A brown and a white young horse, Morning Glory Cottages Stud Farm, Karoo

Morning Glory Cottages* was a great place to stay. The Cottages are on a horse stud farm, so they had many beautiful horses which you can go and look at. They also had a nice braai area just outside our cottage. We hadn’t got much food ourselves so ordered the ‘braai pack’, which contained plenty of lekker food and everything else you need for a braai. Breakfast was included and very substantial, we had a lot of bread left over which we packed for later.

Accommodation, Morning Glory Cottages Stud Farm, Karoo, South Africa
Braai area at accommodation, Morning Glory Cottages, Karoo, South Africa

Day 3: Gariep Dam to Golden Gate Highlands NP

Summary: Gariep Dam to Golden Gate Highlands NP is a 450-510 km, 5- to 6-hour drive. We spent most of the day on the scenic Maloti Route drive, stopping for lunch and arriving in the late afternoon before a short hike and setting up our tent.

Gariep Dam view, Karoo, South Africa
A Beautiful Drive around Gariep Dam Reservoir

This was a long driving day. On Google’s recommended route, unknown to us, the ~80 km section of road on the R701 between Smithfield and Wepener was unpaved. We drove a few hundred meters along it but it was quite corrugated and in our little car we couldn’t go more than 20-30 kph. We turned back and went the long way around, via Rouxville. This should have added an extra 30 minutes according to Google, but we were stuck by a lot of roadworks so it took a lot longer.

Once we reached Wepener, we were on the ‘Maloti Route’, and it was all tarred and a nice road from there. It is very scenic, with the mountains of Lesotho continuously on your right-hand side and several farmstalls en route.

Eating lunch at the cabin farmstall, Clocolan, Maloti Route, South Africa
Lunch at The Cabin Farmstall, Clocolan

After stopping at The Cabin Farmstall (by the side of the road between Ladybrand and Ficksburg) for a nice lunch, it was getting a bit late already.

Road and mountains on Maloti Route, Drakensberg Road Trip, South Africa
Along the Maloti Route

Almost There

We had read that Clarens was a nice town, but didn’t have time to stop, and continued to our camping in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, at the northern end of the Drakensberg Mountains. The main part of our Drakensberg Road Trip started here. We had booked, but the campsite was very empty. When we visited, check-in was actually at the Golden Gate Hotel* nearby. Since we were at the trailhead, we decided to do the short (1 hour) Holkrans Hike, which was a great decision as it was super beautiful.

Golden Gate Highlands Campsite - a frosty morning in South Africa
Golden Gate Highlands Campsite – a frosty morning

It was cold by the time we set up our tent and remained cold during the night. There was even frost, which wasn’t so surprising when we realised we were already 2000 m high. Luckily there was a small kitchen building, which sheltered us while we cooked dinner on our little stove.

Day 4: Golden Gate Highlands NP to Royal Natal NP

Summary: Golden Gate Highlands NP to Royal Natal NP is a 120 km, 2- to 2.5-hour drive. After a long half-day hike we visited the interesting Basotho Cultural Village on the way to Mahai Campsite in Royal Natal NP, arriving late afternoon.

In the morning we hiked the wonderful half-day Wodehouse Peak Trail, a circular loop to the top of a small mountain and back, seeing lots of buck and wildebeest, and a nice overview of the geology of the Drakensberg region. We arrived back from our hike around 2 pm, then set off to Royal Natal National Park. This isn’t a SAN Park, but a KZN Wildlife Ezemvelo park, so the booking website is different.

Basotho Cultural Village nestled at the foot of golden cliffs on a Drakensberg Road Trip through South Africa
Basotho Cultural Village nestled at the foot of golden cliffs

On the Drive

On the way, we visited the Basotho Cultural Village, which is an outdoor living museum about Basotho culture over the centuries (and you can even stay here). Like everywhere we went, there were no other tourists there, probably because it was early May. A few minutes after our arrival, we started a guided tour. Our guide showed us around the village to visit the chief, try the strange beer, see how the architecture and decor have changed over the years, try on costumes and listen to traditional music. It was slightly awkward, but also very interesting. The entire visit, including the slight detour from the main road, took about 1.5 hours.

Road trip through grass and hills near Golden Gate Highlands NP, northern Drakensberg, South Africa
Leaving Golden Gate Highlands NP
Amphitheatre of Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg on a road trip with the afternoon light, South Africa
Approaching Royal Natal NP

The drive from Golden Gate Highlands NP to Royal Natal NP took at least two hours (excluding the Cultural Village). Google seemed to underestimate by about 25% for all our drives in this region; once you head towards the Drakensberg, the roads pass through many villages with bumps, children and livestock that you always have to slow down for. It was a super beautiful drive as we approached closer to the high mountains and the amphitheatre appeared before us.

Beautifully located Mahai Campsite at Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg Mountains, accommodation on a road trip
Beautifully located Mahai Campsite at Royal Natal NP

We camped in an almost-deserted huge campsite. From this point on we made no reservations in advance, which was totally fine since it was low season. However, many places fill up quickly in summer and holidays, especially on weekends. The campsite was pretty, and they had immediate boiling water in the outdoor kitchens, which sped up making tea and porridge. It was also significantly warmer than the previous night, being almost 700 meters lower.

Driving Tips for a Drakensberg Road Trip

Driving conditions on a Drakensberg Road Trip, with cows on the road, South Africa
  • Once in the Drakensberg Region, allow about 25% longer than Google Maps suggested times.
  • Google Maps doesn’t warn you about unpaved roads and assumes you can drive 80 kph along them. If it’s a long way and like us you only have a little car so would have to drive slowly, this can significantly increase journey times.
  • We avoided all unpaved roads on this trip and chose the sections of the Drakensberg to visit based on the fact we didn’t have to use unpaved roads.
  • The unpaved roads are completely fine in a 4×4, and you could make it in a little car but it would just be quite slow.
  • The N3 is a very slow road – the paved backroads are often lovely and fast.
  • Our Walking in the Drakensberg* book had a map in the front showing which roads were paved. The useful Tracks4Africa Maps also show this (check out our Best Road Map for South Africa article).
  • Don’t drive in the dark.

Day 5: Royal Natal NP to Cathedral Peak

Summary: Royal Natal NP to Cathedral Peak area is a 75-100 km, 2- to 2.5-hour drive. We got up early and did two half-day hikes before driving to Cathedral Peak Hotel.

After getting up early, and helped by the availability of immediate boiling water, we managed to hit the trails at 8 am after stopping a few times for photo opportunities on the short drive to the trailhead. We did the Tugela Gorge and Amphitheatre Hike, apparently very popular, which is 12 km out and back. If you didn’t want to do the whole thing, you could walk just a few km, then turn back, and still get very good views of the mountains.

Cathedral Peak Area, Drakensberg road trip with mountains and rondavels, South Africa
Cathedral Peak Area

We had a quick lunch back at the campsite kitchen, where we realized we had become South African since we were eating rusks and droewors and drinking rooibos tea. Then we set off on an afternoon hike, the Plowman’s Kop Loop, which started by going up to a popular viewpoint, then continued onto trails that were less used, though so beautiful, and everything was just filled with golden light.

When we got back, we drove about 2 hours 15 mins to Cathedral Peak Hotel*. There are two route options. The first is shorter but slightly slower, more scenic and closer to the mountains via Hoffenthal. The second is longer and via Bergville. The former contains 20 km of unpaved road and even the paved roads in this area are quite slow, so we chose the longer but probably much quicker route via Bergville.

Flowers in the ground of Cathedral Peak Hotel in the Drakensberg Mountains, accommodation on our Road Trip
Flowers in the ground of Cathedral Peak Hotel
A rather tame bushbuck at Cathedral Peak Hotel in the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa, accommodation on our Road Trip
A rather tame bushbuck at Cathedral Peak Hotel

Accommodation Options

We hadn’t actually planned on staying at the Hotel because it was a bit expensive. We decided on the way once we realized they had a May Special discount. Their prices included a buffet dinner and breakfast which we certainly took full advantage of. At this time of year (May) the hotel isn’t busy, but at other times you need to book in advance.

From the internet, it looked like the campsite in this area was closed, and it also seemed closed in reality. The only other option may have been the KZN Wildlife Didima Resort which has 2-, 4- and 6-bed chalets but their website was not working and it wouldn’t have been much cheaper than the Hotel. Apparently, their chalets sell out during holidays and summer weekends. so book in advance if visiting in high-season.

Day 6: Cathedral Peak Wild Camping

Summary: We didn’t drive anywhere, but started a two-day overnight hike into the mountains of the Cathedral Peak area and camped in the mountains.

Views of rocky Drakensberg Mountains in the sunshine, from the Contour Path near Cathedral Peak
Views from the Contour Path near Cathedral Peak

After getting a permit for our overnight hike from KZN Didima Reception, we started on our two-day Cathedral Peak Overnight Hike into the mountains. This included going up Organ Pipes Pass to stand on top of the escarpment. If you don’t want to do such a long hike, there are many lovely shorter walks in the area. There are also opportunities to go horse riding. If you want to climb Cathedral Peak itself, you should hire a guide unless you are experienced at bouldering/climbing and have done the route before: the way near the top is unclear, steep, rocky and technical.

Day 7: Cathedral Peak Hotel

Summary: We didn’t drive anywhere, but finished our overnight hike and stayed again at Cathedral Peak Hotel.

Views from the Escarpment of the Drakensberg on a road trip
Views from the top of the Escarpment, at Organ Pipes Pass

We arrived back as the sun was setting, and again stayed at the Hotel. We were a bit obsessed with the breakfast muffins. These are extremely tasty, and never as tasty as when you eat them on the mountains in the middle of a long hike. We took a lot of extra muffins from the breakfast buffet. But still we regretted not taking more and had to ration them.

Day 8: Cathedral Peak to Giants Castle

Summary: Cathedral Peak to Giants Castle area is a 120-145 km, 2.5- to 3-hour drive. We arrived in Giants Castle around lunchtime, went on the Main Caves Tour and started hiking into the mountains, camping out overnight.

Main Caves in Giants Castle in the Drakensberg Mountains
On the gentle walk to the Main Caves
Giants Castle Rest Camp in the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa
Giant’s Castle Rest Camp

After a comfy night, we drove to Giant’s Castle Rest Camp, about 2 hours 45 mins away. Again there are two route options – one shorter and closer to the mountains via Loskop and one longer via Winterton and the outskirts of Estcourt. The former contains some sections of unpaved road so we chose the longer but entirely paved route. It was probably slightly quicker than the shorter route.

Cave paintings in the Main Caves at Giants Castle, South Africa
Main Caves at Giants Castle

At the Rest Camp, we got a permit for our Giants Castle Overnight Hike, and also tickets for the Main Caves Tour (45 Rand per person), which are on the hour between 9 and 4. The Main Caves are a 30-minute hike from the rest camp. They contain cave paintings, some very old and some as recent as a few hundred years. Instead of returning on the loop back to the rest camp, we continued into the mountains after our tour.

Wild camping on a Drakensberg Road Trip in Giants Castle, South Africa
Wild Camping in Giants Castle

The hike we did could have been done as a day hike, but we set off after lunchtime and camped halfway. We returned the next day by lunchtime, leaving us time that afternoon to drive to Garden Castle, our next stop.

Articles about National Parks and Hikes

On a different trip we visited Injisuthi Rest Camp in the central/northern Drakensberg. This requires some driving on unpaved roads, but they weren’t too bad or long. It’s another beautiful area.

Day 9: Giants Castle to Garden Castle & Rhino Peak

Summary: Giants Castle to Garden Castle area is a 165-265 km, 4- to 4.5-hour drive. We returned from our overnight hike around lunchtime before driving to Garden Castle where we arrived late afternoon at Hermits Wood Campsite.

It was a gorgeous hike. We got back in good time to drive the 4.5 hours to Garden Castle, at the southern end of the Drakensberg. The fastest route that Google suggests takes you on many unpaved roads – fine in a 4×4 – but we drove out to the N3, then took the R617 back in towards the mountains to remain on tar.

We stopped off at Bistro on 30 Degrees East in Mooi River, just off the N3, for lunch (open 07:30-16:30). There was plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, and everything from baked treats to more substantial meals. There’s a Biltong shop just opposite where we stocked up on droewors. We also got more supplies at Elands Rest Convenience Store just before Garden Castle.

Approaching Garden Castle on a road trip through the Drakensberg, South Africa
Approaching Garden Castle

Garden Castle

The final approach to Garden Castle is slightly strange; you have to drive through a hotel complex, then across a golf course. The road becomes more and more potholed, and finally you arrive at the KZN Wildlife offices and Hermits Wood Campsite.

Garden Castle Campsite in the evening light with a car, South Africa
Hermits Wood Campsite
Garden Castle in the southern Drakensberg Mountains, in the evening light, South Africa
Morning views from the Campsite

The KZN office was closed when we arrived just before 4 pm (it closed at 3:30). We continued to the campsite and there were a few spots available. However, this campsite is very popular and has only 10 sites so book in advance in high season or at weekends. It’s a lovely campsite.

Other accommodation options include the hotel complex we’d just driven through or other smaller places we passed along the approach road. Alternatively, you can overnight in caves – these have to be booked in advance through the KZN website and also get busy in the high season.

Day 10: Garden Castle to Maclear

Summary: Garden Castle to Maclear is a 275-320 km, 4- to 6-hour drive. After a fairly quick hike up Rhino Peak, we set off at 2 pm on the long drive to Maclear (renamed Nqanqarhu in 2021), arriving in the dark.

Rhino Peak, Giants Castle, Drakensberg, South Africa
Rhino Peak

The next morning we were up early before the KZN office was open, so we filled out the mountain register and paid when we got back. We set off on our day hike up Rhino Peak, 23 km and 1500 m climb, which our hiking book (Walking in the Drakensberg*) said would take 9-10 hours, but we managed it in 7 because we’d been in training for a week and hiked fast. There are other lovely shorter hikes in the area, for example an 8.5 km hike out and back to Pillar Cave (where you can stay overnight), or similar length hikes around the fantastic geological formations in the foothills.

Golden grass and a river in Giants Castle, Drakensberg, South Africa

Driving Route

We drove off at 2 pm, beginning the long drive back to Cape Town. The main part of our Drakensberg Road Trip was now over. We stayed the night at Maclear Manor* in Maclear (renamed Nqanqarhu in 2021), which according to Google was a ~4-hour drive. But, the more direct road between Swartberg and the R56 that Google suggested was unpaved, so we went via Kokstad (and the supermarket here). Since we were there, we decided to take the N2 rather than the R56, which was a great error.

We thought the N2 would be quicker since it was a bigger road. However, there was a lot of traffic, including many slow trucks that were hard to overtake on the one-lane highway. The landscape was very undulating, so lots of ups and downs, and it seemed to take forever. We were also slowed down by thick fog between the N2 and Maclear. We were glad to arrive at Maclear Manor*, which was very pleasant and included a tasty breakfast.

The R56 from Kokstad to Maclear is entirely paved. The next day we learnt that the R56 was actually an amazing road, with basically no other traffic or potholes. I would definitely recommend avoiding the N2 in this region and opting for the R56 instead.

Booking Accommodation on a Drakensberg Road Trip

We mainly camped and booked our accommodation a few days in advance, or not at all, because it was May so low season and there were hardly any visitors anywhere. In high season it is definitely recommended to book in advance. We stayed in the parks where we could as these were the most convenient for hiking.

Parks

Private

Day 11: Maclear to Graaff-Reinet & Camdeboo NP

Summary: Maclear to Graaff-Reinet is a 500 km, 5.5-hour drive. We started our day with the drive before visiting Camdeboo NP and staying overnight in a BnB in Graaff-Reinet.

The next day we headed for Camdeboo NP and Graaff-Reinet, a historic town surrounded by a National Park. The drive, on the R56 and then the N9, was very pleasant; nicely paved roads through flat but scenic countryside with hardly any other traffic.

Graff-Reinet view from Camdeboo National Park, South Africa
The historic town of Graaff-Reinet from Camdeboo NP

On arrival, we went first to the Valley of Desolation in Camdeboo NP. We didn’t see much game, but the Valley itself was impressive. There is a short hike along the rim which tells you about the local trees, and several viewpoints over the town and desert.

We stayed at Brighton Keep*, close to the centre of town. For more ideas, read our Guide to Camdeboo NP and Graaff-Reinet.

Day 12: Graaff-Reinet to Cape Town

Summary: Graaff-Reinet to Cape Town is a 670-740 km, 7- 8-hour drive. We spent the day driving, opting for the scenic Klein Karoo route. We stopped at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge for lunch before arriving that evening back in Cape Town.

Male nyala antelope at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge on a road trip, South Africa

The next day we drove back via the Klein Karoo (through Willowmore and then Oudtshoorn), rather than the N1. The scenery was great and it added about 1 hour to our journey. It was a beautiful drive, and we wished we had a few extra days to explore this region more. For lunch we went to Buffelsdrift Game Lodge*, a ten-minute drive north of Oudtshoorn. It was strange to sit on the beautiful wooden deck overlooking the hippo pool with buck walking about below us.

We almost got carried away thinking we would stay there the night and go on a few game drives… But actually we had to get back to Cape Town. A few hours after lunch we realized we’d both left our jumpers at lunch. Almost a disaster, but when we phoned they were very helpful and couriered them back to Cape Town.

After all the beautiful weather, it started raining more and more as we got closer to Cape Town, and it was bucketing down and dark when we arrived. We were glad to get home inside, though sad that our super amazing Drakensberg Road Trip was over.

Potential Extensions to a Drakensberg Road Trip

We could easily have spent an extra night everywhere we stayed.

On the Way There and the Way Back

  • We went back to the Karoo NP on a later trip because we hadn’t driven the main, unpaved route through the park and the landscape is very peaceful so an extra night could be added here.
  • We also later went on a weeks hiking trip through the Klein Karoo, the area we drove through on the last day back to Cape Town. Several days could be added in this area.
  • Mountain Zebra National Park by Cradock is a beautiful park that could be visited between the Drakensberg and Graaff-Reinet with minimal additional driving time.
  • An extra day in Camdeboo NP to explore more of the backroads would have been nice.
  • With an extra half-day, the cute town of Clarens near Golden Gate Highlands NP is meant to be worth a visit.

In the Drakensberg

  • We missed out on driving up to the top of the Amphitheatre and Tugela Falls, on the other side of Royal Natal NP from our campsite. It’s quite a detour to get to and would have required an extra 2 days to make it worth it. It is top of my list of where to visit next in the Drakensberg.
  • I’d have liked an extra day in Garden Castle to explore the ‘Hidden Valley’ and some of the routes through the fantastic geological formations there.
  • On a later trip we visited Injisuthi Rest Camp, another beautiful area of the Drakensberg, though it requires some unpaved driving.

Explore Further:

Road through the Klein Karoo, Western Cape, South Africa
Heading back to Cape Town at the end of our Drakensberg Road Trip

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