Hiking in Winter
The winter months are a great time to hike the Drakensberg so long as you are prepared and have the correct gear. Below are some basic tips to ensure you have a successful winter hike.
Never go alone
Dress like an onion - in layers.
The temperature will vary at the bottom of the trail and on the summit of the mountain. Having layers will help you regulate your body temperature and stay comfortable.
Avoid cotton (it holds moisture and will make you cold when wet) and rather use wool or synthetics for your base layer. A fleece is the ideal mid-layer and a waterproof and breathable shell jacket will protect you from bad weather.
On your legs use thermals, then walking pants and waterproof pants on top.
Frostbite is a real danger and is most likely to affect your fingers, toes and face so covering the extremities is vital. Consider two pairs of gloves, a warm liner and a waterproof outer pair. A good quality hat, a beanie and a buff or balaclava will help keep you warm.
Think about your feet
Your lightweight summer hiking boots will not work. A boot with a sturdy sole, designed for tougher conditions, is recommended. Always wear thick, winter-weight socks (Merino wool is a good choice) since your toes are the first place you’ll feel cold.
Always pack more water and food than you think you’ll need so you have enough in case of an emergency. Hot drinks like soup and hot chocolate will help to keep you warm.
Be prepared to turn around.
The mountains have been here for a long time, and they'll be here for a long time still.
Don’t hesitate to turn around if weather conditions change and look dangerous. Reaching your destination is only half of the hike, you must have time and energy left over for the return.
Start early and finish early
Sunlight hours are a lot less in winter so hike when the sun is rising so you can make best use of the available daylight and be realistic about what you can achieve in a day. Ice and snow make trails much slower than normal.
Use walking poles
If you’ve never used walking poles now’s the time to start. The extra contact points help your balance and are useful for finding snow banks and holes in the path that become hidden.
Take eye protection
Sunglasses with UV protection or goggles are essential for winter hiking as the glare from the snow can make it impossible to see. If the wind picks up you won’t be able to keep your eyes open and will get into trouble very quickly. The use lip balm to protect your lips from wind chill is essential.
Be wary of natural hazards
Frozen rivers covered with snow and ice can be very dangerous. Always be on the lookout for potential dangerous areas and use your walking poles to test the ground ahead when unsure of whats below the snow.
Learn how to use an ice axe if you intend to hike in areas with snow
An ice axe is very useful when hiking in winter and can be used for support whilst ascending, cutting steps into hard packed snow and ice with the back of the axe or arresting your descent should you fall.
Learn how to ascend and descend in snow
Going uphill, take short steps and “kick in” to the snow bank. Do not to use old kicked steps from previous hikers as they may be icy. If traversing a slope, make sure you have your ice axe on the rise side for support.
Going downhill, learn a technique known as plunge stepping. This is a gravity assisted step down, not forward. Don’t lock out your leg otherwise you may end up jarring your knee. Keep your ice axe angled in front of you for self-arresting if you lose your footing.
Game Pass Shelter
If you have never seen bushman paintings this short hike suitable for the whole family is the one for you. One of the Drakensberg's greatest treasures is cultural. Some 40 000 individual rock paintings have been recorded at 600 different cave and overhang sites between Royal Natal and Bushman's Neck.
This three-hour guided trail starts at the Kamberg Rock Art centre, where you can watch a 20-minute DVD on the art and history of this famous rock-art site. As you walk, take heed of the poignant verse that is found on all the marketing brochures: "No more do we Bushmen hunt in these hills. The fire is cold. Our songs are quiet. But listen carefully. You will hear us in the water. Look carefully, you will see us in the rock." And you will.
Leaving the centre, the trail heads south, then, after crossing a small stream, gradually meanders up the hill under the spray coming off the Waterfall Shelter. Shortly after this overhang, the path crosses a small river and then it’s a bit of a slog up a zigzagging path until, about 40 minutes from the start, you reach the gate of the shelter.
Most of the paintings in the shelter are complex polychrome images and the first ones you’ll see as you enter are imposing therianthropic figures (mythological creatures that are part human, part animal) clad in long black karosses. The most frequently depicted animal is the eland, the largest antelope in the Drakensberg. Apart from providing meat, fat and skins, eland had symbolic importance to the San, who believed they had supernatural powers. Archaeologists studying these paintings uncovered a vital key to understanding the symbolism of San rock art(how hunters gained power from the animals they killed) so, in a sense, they "cracked the code" – hence, the site is commonly referred to as the "Rosetta Stone".
It’s then downhill all the way back to the centre, which has a few books, posters and videos, as well as limited snacks, tea and coffee for sale.
Walks are limited to groups of 10 people and leave from the centre at 9am, 11am and 12.30pm or by special arrangement with community guides based at the centre.