South Africa Highlands

Cathedral Peak
Trail Planner

Distance: You have a choice of roughly 120 km of footpaths in the Cathedral Peak State Forest and the Mlambonja Wilderness Area.

Reservations: The Forester, Cathedral Peak Forest Station, Private Bag X1, Winterton 3340, Telephone (036) 488 1880.

Maps: Go to overview map of Cathedral Peak Area.

The area is covered by map 2 in the Drakensberg Recreational Series, Drakensberg North— Cathedral Peak to Injasuti.

Facilities: A campsite with ablution facilities is situated a short way below the Cathedral Peak Forest Station. The following rock shelters can be reserved upon arrival Ndumeni, Barker's Chalet, Bell, Ribbon Falls, Schoongezicht, Xeni, Zunkels, Drip, Leopard, Sherman's and Outer Horn caves.

Relevant information:
• The mountain register point is at Mike's Pass Gate near the Cathedral Peak Forest Station.
• The Cathedral Peak Hotel is out of bounds to backpackers unless you have reserved accommodation.

How to get there: Approaching from Bergville, turn right onto the road signposted Cathedral Peak shortly after crossing the Tugela River, east of Bergville. About 14 km (8.7 miles) further, turn right again, continuing for about 30 km (18.5 miles) to the Cathedral Peak Forest Station and campsite.


The Cathedral range, with its numerous free standing peaks and magnificent mountain scenery, is one of the most favoured parts of the Berg for backpacking and rock climbing. Bordered in the north and northwest by the Upper Tugela Location and in the south by the Mdedelelo Wilderness, the area is dominated by the spire like Cathedral Peak after which it is named. Popular routes include Cathedral Peak itself, the Organ Pipes and Ndedema Gorge with its wealth of rock paintings.

(Go to overview map of Cathedral Peak Area.)

The scenery of this area is dominated by the massive Cathedral range, also known as the Ridge of the Horns. This 4 km long row of freestanding peaks includes some of the most spectacular peaks in South Africa such as Cathedral Peak (3,004 m/9,853'), Bell (2,930 m/1,817'), Outer Horn (3,005 m/9,856'), Inner Horn (3,005 m/9,856') and the Chessmen. Two other well known spectacular free standing peaks, the Column (2,926 m/9,597') and Pyramid (2,914 m/1,807') are situated south west of Cathedral Peak Forest Station.

The peaks of the escarpment here are all over 3,000 meters/10,000 feet, and include names like Ndumeni Dome (3,206 m/10,516'), Castle Buttress (3,053 m/10,014'), Cleft Peak (3,281 m/10,762'), Cockade (3,161 m/10,368'), Elephant (3,109 m/10,198') and Mlambonja Buttress (3,007 m/9,863'). Access to the escarpment is along any of a number of passes, the more popular being the Organ Pipes, the Camel and the Thuthumi passes.

One of the most popular excursions in this part of the Berg is an ascent of Cathedral Peak Approximately eight to nine hours should be allowed for this fairly strenuous round trip of about 18 km (11 miles). The final section involves a C grade scramble and is, therefore, not recommended for inexperienced backpackers. On a clear day the view from the summit is magnificent with Cathkin Peak in the south and Eastern Buttress in the north clearly visible. Immediately below you, to the south east, the scenery is dominated by the deep valley carved by the Mlambonja River.

Cathedral Peak is the only Berg area where you can drive to the top of the Little Berg, bringing you much closer to the escarpment. Access to the Little Berg is via Mike's Pass, a 10.5 km (6.5 miles) long jeep track which was built between 1947 and 1949 by an Italian road engineer, G. R. Monzali. The pass, which climbs some 500 m (1,640'), ends at the Arendsig gate and was named after Mike de Villiers, the forestry research officer at the time who played a major role in establishing the Cathedral Peak research station and having the pass built. The Arendsig Gate is the starting point of routes to the renowned Ndedema Gorge, the Organ Pipes and the escarpment.

The head of the Ndedema Valley is about 10 km (6 miles) from the Arendsig Gate along easy terrain. The gorge has been described by the international authority on rock art, the late Harald Pager, as the richest rock art area in the world. During his survey of the area, Pager recorded over 3,900 individual rock paintings in 17 shelters and published his research findings and lifelike tracings in the classical work Ndedema.

Sebayeni Gave is the first shelter in the sandstone band on the southern side of the valley. It is the largest of the painted shelters in the gorge, containing more than 1,100 individual paintings, a large number of which have unfortunately faded. The site was first discovered by the Frobenius expedition in 1929 but was"lost" for a number of years before it was "rediscovered" by the late Alex Willcox, an authority on the rock art of South Africa.

One of the most interesting scenes in the shelter is that of 30 antelope headed figures. It was initially suggested that they represented "foreigners" from the Mediterranean, but it is now believed that these paintings depicted the visions of medicine people, or shamans in trance. Several hundred human figures are also depicted, including running figures, most of them with bows, a white animal superimposed on a row of women and two strange beings with animal ears.

Ndedema means "place of reverberations", a likely reference to the thundering noise caused by the river when in flood. A footpath follows the upper edge of the gorge for about 5 km (3 miles), giving you splendid views of the extensive yellowwood forests on the south facing slope. The footpath then descends into the forest and in this vicinity there are two shelters, Poacher's Cave and Leopard Cave, with rock paintings where backpackers may overnight.

Poacher's Cave on the southern slopes of the gorge contains more than 200 individual paintings and is one of the few shelters in the Berg depicting reclining rhebok. Other paintings include a swarm of bees, some of them in two colours, and numerous human figures in various poses, including a hunting scene.

The turn off to Leopard Cave, which can sleep about 12 people, is reached shortly before you start descending into Ndedema Gorge. After turning right you will continue for about 1 km before reaching the cave, which faces south west. The cave takes its name from a painting which depicts a man being chased by a cat-like figure, presumably a leopard. There are well over 100 paintings, mainly of human figures but also of eland, bushbuck and rhebok, but unfortunately they are mainly fragmentary.

Another popular route is to ascend the escarpment via the Organ Pipes Pass, the start of which is signposted some 2.5 km (1.5 miles) before you reach Ndedema Gorge. Over the next 6.5 km (4 miles) you will gain more than 900 m (2,950') in altitude, passing an assembly of spires and buttresses known to the Zulu as Qolo la Masoja, the "Ridge of the Soldiers". It has been suggested that the name could be a reference to the fluted columns which could conjure up visions of a regiment of soldiers standing to attention or could be derived from a tradition which associated it with military action. The columns echo when you shout or yodel and this natural phenomenon was used to maintain contact between the Zulu and the Basotho. One such instance was in 1823 when the Basotho sought the help of Shaka.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press . All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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