I consider myself quite fit, but three-quarters up Cathedral Peak, in South Africa’s Drakensberg Range, I was an oxygen-starved, foul-mouthed mess. I had long given up trying to keep pace with my guide, Daniel, a man of few words who must have been a mountain goat in a previous life.
Cathedral Peak (3005 m) is a strenuous but popular Drakensberg hike. From the trailhead at Cathedral Peak Hotel it is approximately 20 km round trip (8-10 hours), with an elevation gain of about 1665 m. It’s a long, steep climb, with some exposed sections. The final ascent involves a few scrambles and a chain ladder.
We had just checked in at the Cathedral Peak Hotel and I was thrilled to find out there was a free guided hike to Cathedral Peak the next day. After weeks of car travel through South Africa’s game parks, I was ready for some exercise.
It was a glorious winter day in the Drakensberg—clear, crisp, and wind still. As we set out from the hotel in the early morning, the dry rolling hills and distant peaks were cast in splendid orange hues. Daniel set a brisk pace and I was determined to keep up with him.
Swine Hill, a long incline, was my first test. I was feeling good but pushing myself beyond my normal pace. Could my sea level lungs and pain-prone achilles keep this up?
At the top of the “hill” (we had gained about 500 m), the narrow ridgeline path provided a scenic breather and is quite pleasant provided you can keep your nerves at bay— it’s a very long roll down to the valley floor.
All too soon, I was huffing and puffing up a steep gully named Orange Peel Gap. So much for keeping up with Daniel. As I dragged myself to the top of the gully, Daniel, barely breaking a sweat, sat on a boulder waiting. “How are you?” he asked. “Great, just great,” I mustered. He jumped up to continue, as I tried to regulate my breathing while cursing my misplaced pride.
The next stretch, a few kilometers along a beautiful, undulating ridgeline, was my favourite part of the hike with splendid views of the peaks, and our ultimate goal, which still looked like a long way up.
And, indeed it was. The aptly named Bugger Gulley is an arduous ascent. The distance between Daniel and me kept growing. I cursed the whole way up, mostly mad at myself that I could barely go 10 m without a break. But at that point, I was determined to make it up the bloody peak.
Surprisingly, the five or six scramble sections below the summit offered a bit of a cardio relief, maybe because I was concentrating on not plummeting to my death after I’d come this far. At the metal chain ladder, mounting a near vertical wall, I even managed to crack a smile for Daniel as I looked down for a photo. A few more zigzags, a final scramble, and I made it to the top.
Exhausted and elated, I stood admiring the view of the central and northern Drakensberg range and the snow-capped peaks of neighbouring Lesotho.
I was loath to leave the summit for the knee knackering return journey. On the way down, I gladly let Daniel go ahead as I spent time admiring the landscape. My legs were wobbly from fatigue, and the final stretch, with the hotel in sight, seemed to take forever. I finally staggered onto its beautiful grounds, completely depleted, happy it was over, and ecstatic that I had made it.
Cathedral Peak Hotel and Hiking Tips
- There are many accommodation options in the Drakensberg, but Cathedral Peak Hotel has a prime location for hiking with numerous trails right from the doorstep.
- The hotel offers free, guided Cathedral Peak hike twice a week, weather dependent. Go with a guide if you do not have previous experience with this hike.
- Bring comfortable hiking boots, a day pack that can hold several liters of water, and sunscreen. The hotel can supply a packed lunch. Dress in layers, especially in winter. Hiking poles are useful on the way down.
- Don’t underestimate the difficulty of Cathedral Peak. Make sure you can handle 10 hours of hiking with significant elevation gain. Prepare to be sore! Despite the pain, I highly recommend this hike.