The best way to explore the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa while traveling on a budget.
Ask any South African what areas of their country they recommend to travelers, and they will almost always mention the Drakensberg.
Located in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa, the Drakensberg Mountains boast some of the most breathtaking views in the country. Any travelers that love hiking and exploring nature simply cannot skip over the Drakensberg while visiting South Africa.
Once the wise decision has been made to visit these mountains, the question then becomes: “How do I do it affordably?”
Luckily, visiting the Drakensberg on a budget is easy. There is at least one good budget accommodation option in each part of the mountains, all of which have self-catering kitchens and cheap guided tours on offer. Most of the hikes are do-able on your own without a guide as well, if you have a 4×4 vehicle.
With this article, I’ll summarize all the aspects of visiting the Drakensberg, like accommodation, transportation, and hiking, and I’ll explain how to accomplish it all on a budget. Because frankly if it couldn’t be done on a budget, I probably wouldn’t have gone at all.
How To Get To The Drakensberg?
I recommend having a rental car when traveling through the Drakensberg. It allows you to have a more flexible schedule and go exactly where you want to.
Most of the roads are paved and you can easily reach accommodation with any sort of car, but getting way up into the mountains definitely requires a sturdy 4×4 vehicle.
I used rentalcars.com to find a cheap car in South Africa and it was really useful and affordable.
Baz Bus travels to the most popular destinations in the Drakensberg, so if you’re a budget traveler without a rental car you can use this popular multi-stop tourist bus for your trip.
Usually travelers buy a Baz Bus ticket to last the whole length of their trip so they can hop on and off at different places around the country, so the price of the ticket depends on your whole trip.
These are pretty much the only two budget options available, but they are both reliable and cheap. A rental car gives you flexibility, and Baz Bus is great for solo travelers who want to meet new friends on the road.
Where To Go In The Drakensberg?
This was the most confusing question for me when planning my Drakensberg adventure. In my own research, I found this website to be the most helpful because it broke down the mountain range into three sections: North, Central, and South. After reading it I still wasn’t sure where was the BEST place to go, but I at least knew some good options.
After conversing with a few locals and actually visiting the area myself, I will just flat out say that the best place to visit in the Drakensberg is the NORTH. If you only have a couple days and can only see ONE part of the mountains, go to the north. If you have more time, visit the other areas but make the north a priority.
I visited for one week and was able to see the North, the South, and a little bit of the Central, so I’d say one week is the ideal time frame (maybe even more if you want to explore the Central Drakensberg more).
Here is a bit more detail about the different regions and where you should actually go. For each region I’ll list the most worthy sights and activities, as well as where to stay.
The Northern Drakensberg
Where To Stay: Ampitheatre Backpackers Lodge.
Cost: 220 Rand per night for a dorm room ($15 USD).
This hostel is set on a huge property that’s kind of in the middle of nowhere but it’s very beautiful and peaceful. There is a nicely stocked kitchen, a pool, bar, restaurant, small rock climbing wall, ping pong table, and walking trails. The closest shop is about 20 minutes away, so if you don’t have a car and plan on cooking make sure you stock up on food beforehand. (Cooking yourself is the best way to save money while traveling in the Drakensberg, or anywhere.)
Best Hike: The Ampitheatre
The Ampitheatre is the most famous and most gorgeous place in the North, located in Royal Natal National Park. If you’re only going to do one hike in the North, do this one.
Ampitheatre Backpackers Lodge offers a guided day hike for 750 Rand ($50 USD). You leave at 7am, drive for 1.5 hours, then reach the starting point of the hike at 2,000m above sea level. The hike is pretty easy and not very steep, but the altitude makes you a bit out of breath. There is a 250m scramble up a rocky gorge to reach the top, but that’s the hardest part.
Upon reaching the summit at 3,100m above sea level, you can see some insane, dramatic views of the rugged mountains and valleys. You can also walk along the plateau to the top of Tugela Falls (the highest waterfall in Africa). During dry season (April – October) there is no water so you can stand on the spot where the waterfall normally rushes off the cliff.The other 6 months of the year, you can see the waterfall in its prime.
On the way back down you have to climb down some really steep ladders but it’s easy if you aren’t scared of heights and the ladders are very secure.
The whole hike takes about 5-6 hours, with lots of time for relaxing and eating lunch at the top.
You can do this hike on your own, without a guide, and it’s way more affordable that way. But you HAVE to have a 4×4 vehicle, as the last stretch of driving is on extremely rocky track. If you do the hike on your own, you just have to pay 90 Rand for the park entrance fee, and of course supply your own food. But there is only one trail to follow so you won’t get lost doing the trail on your own.
Other Activities in the North: If you have more time after doing the Ampitheatre Hike, you can go horse-back riding or do another tour that leads into Lesotho. For those who don’t know, Lesotho is a small country in the mountains, completely surrounded by South Africa. So remember, it is a DIFFERENT COUNTRY and you’ll need to bring a passport if you do any tours or hikes that enter Lesotho.
Below are photos of the Ampitheatre Hike, showing the trail, the views from the top, and my boyfriend and I standing on the dried up Tugela Falls. .
The two most popular places to go in the Central Drakensberg are Cathedral Peak and Giant’s Castle. I personally only went to Cathedral Peak, which is only an hour away from Ampitheatre Backpackers Lodge. So as for accommodation, I found it easier to just stay in the North and take a full day trip down to Cathedral Peak. For those who want to explore more of the central mountains, there is another budget accommodation option.
Where To Stay: Drakensberg International Backpackers.
Cost: 180 Rand for a dorm ($12 USD).
I found this place in the popular South African backpacker guide book, Coast To Coast.
Because this hostel is closer to the central mountains than the north, it’s better for visiting places like Giant’s Castle. Because I didn’t visit here myself, I’ll provide two websites that have more info about this part of the mountains: giantscastle.info and www.nature-reserve.co.za.
Best Hike: Cathedral Peak
Like I said, I only visited Cathedral Peak in one day from Ampitheatre Backpackers Lodge. The hostel provided me with a map of self-guided hikes in the area, most of which begin at Cathedral Peak Hotel. There is a hikers parking lot where you can begin most day hikes, and the park entrance fee is 40 Rand ($3 USD).
This website lists all the best hiking trails to do in Cathedral Peak. Most of them are doable on your own and I don’t think you need a 4×4 since the trails start at Cathedral Peak Hotel. Sorry I can’t be more certain, but I didn’t do the famous Cathedral Peak Summit myself and there is limited information on the internet (hence why I’m writing this article).
Unfortunately I had the flu while I was at Cathedral Peak and didn’t feel up to any of the challenging full day hikes, so I opted for the Rainbow Gorge Trail. This was a lovely 3 hour hike through the thick forest and it wasn’t too difficult so I recommend it to anyone who wants a smooth, enjoyable walk through a rejuvenating nature path.
Rainbow Gorge Hike actually starts at Didima Camp, which has an interesting rock art exhibit that you can visit for free after hiking.
Both Cathedral Peak Hotel and Didima Camp offer accommodation right in Cathedral Peak, but it’s more expensive than the hostels I listed. Just thought I’d mention this for anyone who feels like treating themselves in the Drakensberg.
The following photos show the views of Cathedral Peak at the start of the Rainbow Gorge Trail, as well as one of the natural pools we encountered on out hike through the forest.
Where To Stay: Sani Lodge Backpackers.
Cost: 190 Rand per night for a dorm room ($13 USD).
This hostel is surrounded by mountains and exudes an overwhelming sense of tranquility. Fresh air, chirping birds, and peace and quiet make for a very relaxing stay, though it is a hostel so there are often young backpackers jumping in the pool and having dinner together. The Giant’s Cup Cafe next door provides meals for sale and has free Wifi.
The hostel common room is super cozy and has a giant bulletin board full of detailed hiking information. Which brings me to…
Best Hike: Sani Pass
The famous Sani Pass hike includes the only road that leads over the Drakensberg Mountains and directly into Lesotho. Sani Pass is the best place for doing tours into Lesotho, as it’s close and affordable (you can also do Lesotho tours from Ampitheatre Backpackers).
Sani Lodge Backpackers offers a full day Sani Pass guided hike that passes through Lesotho. It costs 820 Rand ($55 USD) if there’s 3 or more people and 950 Rand ($64 USD) if there’s only 2 people on the tour. Many people who did this tour said it was a highlight of their time in South Africa, as the views are magnificent and the culture of Lesotho is enlightening.
On the bulletin board at Sani Lodge, you can also find many options for self-guided hikes. These hikes vary from 3 hours to 7 hours long, so there is something for everyone. Most of them begin at the lodge so you don’t need a car, and all you have to pay for is the park entrance fee which is 45 Rand ($3).
A nice easy hike is the Stromness Plateau, located right behind the hostel. It’s a bit steep climbing to the top but then it’s a flat walk along the top and you can admire the views of the valley.
Below is a photo of the comfy Sani Lodge common room, followed by some shots from the top of the Stromness Plateau.
So that summarizes how to visit the Drakensberg on a budget. It’s one of the more expensive areas of the country, simply because it’s so remote. Each hostel I mentioned is the only one in its area, and their prices are mere fractions of the other luxury hotels and lodges in the Drakensberg.
The entry permits are pretty cheap and even the guided tours aren’t too expensive. If you have a 4×4 vehicle you’ll save lots of money because you can do tours yourself.
You can also do multi-day treks and overnight journeys in the Drakensberg, but I didn’t mention them because I didn’t personally experience them and they tend to be pretty expensive. If you can afford multi-day guided treks, or if you have your own 4×4 AND you have camping equipment, then I’m sure that experience would be amazing.
To read about some of my other adventures in South Africa, check out:
For my ultimate budget travel guide, check out: