How to visit 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 Mountains 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 Mountains 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 doable on your own without a guide if you have a 4×4 vehicle!
With this article, I’ll answer all the common questions about how to visit the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa.
I’ll include 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 Visit The Drakensberg Mountains On A Budget
Travel Insurance for South Africa
Before I get into the article, I just want to emphasize how important it is to buy travel insurance before a trip to South Africa (or any country).
Especially if you’ll be visiting remote areas and hiking in the mountains, you definitely want to be covered in case there’s an accident!
I used Squaremouth Insurance for my trip to South Africa and highly recommend them.
They have affordable plans and a really helpful live chat. Also, they reimbursed me 100% for my emergency medical expenses in South Africa. So I had a very positive experience with them.
How To Get To The Drakensberg Mountains?
Driving yourself or using Baz Bus are pretty much the only two budget options available. But they are both reliable and cheap.
A rental car gives you flexibility. But Baz Bus is great for solo travelers who want to meet new friends on the road.
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 all the most popular destinations in the Drakensberg.
So if you don’t have a rental car you can use this popular multi-stop tourist bus for your trip.
Visit the Baz Bus website for more info!
Usually, travelers buy a Baz Bus ticket to last the whole length of their trip so they can hop on and off all over the country. So the price of the ticket depends on your whole trip.
Where To Go In The Drakensberg Mountains?
The Drakensberg Mountains can be split into 3 sections: North, Central, and South.
After conversing with a few locals and visiting the area myself, I’ve concluded that the best place to visit in the Drakensberg is the NORTH.
If you only have time to 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.
Where Are The Drakensberg Mountains?
In the east of South Africa.
Johannesburg and Durban are the two closest major cities to the mountains.
So I recommend starting your journey there.
Johannesburg is closest to the Northern Drakensberg. Durban is closest to the South and Central Drakensberg.
How Long Do I Need In The Drakensberg Mountains?
I visited for one week and was able to see the North, the South, and a little bit of the Central. To explore the Central Drakensberg fully, I’d recommend a total of 10 days.
But you can easily stay for much longer. There is so much to do in the Drakensberg Mountains!
How To Visit The Drakensberg Mountains: North
Where To Stay: Ampitheatre Backpackers Lodge.
Cost: 295 Rand per night for a dorm room ($17.50 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, 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 7 am, 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 the 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.
Do I Have To Do A Guided Tour?
You can do this hike on your own, without a guide. It’s way more affordable that way.
But you HAVE to have a 4×4 vehicle, as the last stretch of driving is on an extremely rocky track.
If you do the hike on your own, you just have to pay 90 Rand for the park entrance fee.
But there is only one trail to follow so you won’t get lost doing the trail on your own.
Other Activities in the Northern Drakensberg
If you have more time after doing the Ampitheatre Hike, you can go horseback riding or do another tour that leads into Lesotho.
For those who don’t know, Lesotho is a small country in the mountains. It is 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.
How To Visit The Drakensberg Mountains: Central
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 day trip down to Cathedral Peak.
There used to be a good hostel called Drakensberg International Backpackers back in 2019 when I visited. But as I’m updating this post in 2023, there are no more hostels running in the Central Drakensberg.
There are accommodations of various prices listed on this website: Safari Now!
If you do want to stay overnight in this area instead of day-tripping from a hostel in the North or South, here is the best option:
Where To Stay: Cathedral Peak Hotel
Cost: $129 USD for a standard room, according to the Safari Now website I linked to earlier. On the Cathedral Peak Hotel website, it says to contact them for rates.
Cathedral Peak Hotel is centrally located for popular hikes like Giant’s Castle and Cathedral Peak. Many trails actually begin from right outside the hotel.
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
As I said, I only visited Cathedral Peak as a day trip from Ampitheatre Backpackers Lodge.
Our hostel provided us 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).
Click here for more information about hiking trails in Cathedral Peak.
Unfortunately, I had the flu while I was at Cathedral Peak and didn’t feel up to any of the challenging full-day hikes.
Instead, 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. There is also accommodation at Didima Camp!
Read next: How To Do An African Safari On A Budget
Best Historical Experience in Drakensberg: Giant’s Castle
Giant’s Castle is another area of the Central Drakensberg that is very popular among travelers.
It is famous for its cave paintings from the San People and the Bushmen that used to live in the area. They’re about 2,000 years old!
If you’re less interested in hiking and more interested in a leisurely exploration of the forest and seeing incredible remnants of African history, this is the place to go.
If you traveling without a car and would prefer to book a tour, there are a couple of highly rated tours that bring you to this part of the Drakensberg from Durban.
These tours are a bit pricier. But they’re worth it if you want to see the Drakensberg without all the hassle of planning your trip.
Check out these top tours on Get Your Guide:
- Drakensberg World Heritage Tour from Durban for $190 USD
- Drakensberg Cave Art Tour from Durban for $228 USD
How To Visit The Drakensberg Mountains: South
Where To Stay: Sani Lodge Backpackers.
Cost: 250 Rand per night for a dorm room ($15 USD).
This is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in!! It is surrounded by mountains and exudes an overwhelming sense of tranquility and coziness.
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.
Visit Hostelworld to browse other Drakensberg hostels!
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. This tour cost 820 Rand ($55 USD) when I visited in 2019, but prices may have changed since then. Enquire about prices on their website!
Many people who did this tour said it was a highlight of their time in South Africa. They said the views are magnificent and the culture of Lesotho is enlightening.
If you find comfort in booking a tour in advance, as many people do, you can book this Day Trip to Sani Pass Tour from Underberg, offered by Get Your Guide. It costs $57 USD and has 18 positive reviews.
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.
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So that summarizes how to visit the Drakensberg Mountains 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. Yet 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.
Visas for South Africa
If you’re traveling to South Africa, you may need a visa depending on your nationality. Visit iVisa.com to check visa requirements!
To read about some of my other adventures in South Africa, check out:
Volunteering in the Wild Coast
Volunteering on a Chicken Farm in East London, South Africa
Budget Travel Guide to Cape Town, South Africa
Learning Permaculture in the South African Forest
How To Do An African Safari On A Budget
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For my ultimate budget travel guide, check out:
50 Budget Travel Tips: How To Travel The World Cheaply
This post may contain affiliate links. Read more about this in my About Me page!