Stimela Peak is one of the highest peaks in the Northern Drakensberg, and it overlooks some of the most dramatic peaks and deepest ravines in the whole region. For this reason the summit offers some of the greatest mountain views in the Drakensberg, and it is fair to say, all of South Africa. The peak stands above the Mnweni Cutback, where the differential height between the top of the escarpment and the riverbeds below is at its greatest, roughly 1700m. The geography of the Drakensberg is such that the edge of the escarpment plateau drops away in sheer basalt cliffs for several hundred metres, and then the gradient eases out gradually to the Little 'Berg and its lush green ridges and rivers below. Standing on the edge one gets a great feeling of altitude, and vast views right across the northern and central 'Berg, with the Mnweni Needles and the impressive rock tower of Mponjwane, the Cathedral range, and on a clear day even the square block of Cathkin Peak and the jagged Sterkhorn on the horizon. Twist your head to the right and you'll see the Mnweni Pinnacles, which provide some of the toughest and most exposed rock climbs in the Drakensberg. This peak is all about jaw-dropping views.
Stimela Peak is on the escarpment edge, so that it can be easily ascended from the Lesotho side. Coming from South Africa it is probably easiest to drive up the Sentinel road, hike around the Sentinel and ascend the Chainladders onto the escarpment, then hike across the plateau (in Lesotho much of the time) to the peak itself. Alternately it can be ascended from the South African side by means of one of the passes in the area, the closest being Mbundini and Fangs passes. Mbundini is quite a steep, ankle-twisting hike on the southern slopes of a steep ravine, but Fangs is more of a classic route directly up a riverbed gully, dramatic basalt pinnacles all around. Fangs Pass cuts deeper into the Mnweni Cutback and is regarded by many as the finest route of ascent onto the escarpment. Mbundini is however a more direct route to Stimela Peak itself, since the pass summit is just below and south of the peak summit. Fangs and Mbundini share the same approach along the Mnweni river, and a day is required to reach the foot of either pass from the Mnweni Visitors' Center, the starting point at the end of the approach road.
To get to Sentinel or Mnweni, first navigate your way to the town of Harrismith. If you're going to Sentinel, head west out of Harrismith on the N5 for about 4km, then left along the R712, following the road signs to Sentinel and Witsieshoek Mountain resort. You pass Qwa-Qwa, go through Phuthaditjhaba, and then up the hill to the start of the paved Sentinel road. Don't turn left to Witsieshoek, but continue straight up the steep paving which later turns to gravel.
To get to Mnweni, Leave Harrismith as above, but turn off the R712 after 9km onto the R74 to Bergville. From Bergville take the secondary road west to Mnweni via Isandlwana.
There is parking at the Mnweni Visitors' Center, where there is also cheap accommodation. From this point one starts along the path up the Mnweni River valley. After about 1.5km the path forks. Stay on the left (south) bank of the river. The right fork goes to Ifidi Pass. Following the left bank, the path soon climbs out of the riverbed and onto the grassy slopes. After 9km the path forks again. Left and right forks both take you to the confluence of the Mnweni and Mbundini rivers. Taking the left fork here will avoid the riverbed. At the confluence the path to Fangs and Mbundini Passes begins, ascending about 300m over 3 km. Now at an altitude of 2020m there is a small waterfall, on the Fangs tributary, and a faint path up the ridge in front of you.
Some details of the passes, thanks to Stijn Laenen for these.
If you wish to ascend Mbundini Pass, take the path up the ridge until it fades out just blow the first rock band. To get through the rock band, contour around to the right for about 500m. Once through this section, head straight for the top of the pass, negotiating other rock bands and scree by staying high on the slopes, closer to the base of the cliffs and well out of the river bed. Since you do not follow the water course, you will need to fill up water at the little waterfall on the Fangs tributary at the bottom, the next stream you find will be on top of the escarpment. The pass is fairly steep, ascending 1100m to its 3100m summit over 3km.
To take Fangs Pass, ignore the path up the ridge and instead head straight up the Fangs tributary. There is no path here but the route is simple, just follow the boulder bed all the way to the grassy slopes near the summit. Stay in the larger left gully all the way, the right fork is significantly steeper. There is usually water in the riverbed (which you follow) until about halfway up the pass. The next water is from an escarpment river about 1km from the pass summit.
For more detailed info go to Stijn's Super Traverse webpage. Also, there is a good set of maps coverning the whole Drakensberg, which can usually be found at hiking/climbing/outdoor stores in this part of the country. The map for this section is Hiking Map No.1, Royal Natal, Rugged Glen – Mnweni.
Hiking costs R20 per person per night if starting from the Mwneni Visitors' Center. Hiking from the Sentinel car park costs R25 per day if you return to Sentinel. If you do a multiday traverse starting at Sentinel and ending anywhere else you pay a standard fee of R75 regardless of duration. Also note that you have to pay a toll of R5 per person to drive up the Sentinel road. Up at the car park there is always a guard/ranger in the little office by the hikers' dorm, who issues permits, etc. For a variety of reasons one must sign the hiking log wherever you go. Carrying a passport is a good idea (but not critical, since probably no-one is going to check), because if you're on the escarpment you're going to be in Lesotho some of the time.
When To Climb
There are different opinions as to what is the best climbing season. Basically, the weather is more stable in winter, but days are short and usually very cold at either end. Snow is common in winter and can make the passes rather tricky. If it does not snow, the area can be very dry, so water should be carried. In summer the days are long and hot, the sun rises very early, but thunder storms and rain regularly occur in the afternoons. Many people are attracted to the lush green that covers the slopes in summer, as well as the atmospheric mists that frequently occur at this time of year, while the landscape is golden brown in winter.
Whenever you go, be prepared for nasty weather with no quick escape route. It's about 18km back to Sentinel car park and over 20km out via Mbundini Pass.
There is cheap accommodation at the Mnweni Visitors' Center should you arrive there late in the day. At the confluence of the Mbundini and Mnweni rivers is 5-Star Cave, which is apparently quite decent. There is also Shepherds Cave but this one is dirty and has a layer of dust and ash across the floor. At the top of Mbundini Pass there is another unpleasant cave – only really worth it in an emergency I guess. About 200m below the summit of Fangs Pass and about 100m up a side gully from the left fork is a nice 8-person cave with good shelter. There are some good spots to pitch a tent near the little waterfall at the bottom of the passes, and unlimited camp sites on the escarpment itself.
At Sentinel car park one can spend a night in the hikers dormitory for R15 per person. There are basic facilities here, such as toilets, drinking water and wash up facilities, and desperately cold showers. Parking is also very secure on this fenced-off, isolated mountain top.
Most hikers like to do multiday traverses of the escarpment, and if this is the case it is really worthwhile to spend a night in Ledger's Cave. It's about a day's walk around the Mnweni cutback from Stimela Peak, and offers tremendous views of the northern escarpment. Its location on a ledge in the basalt cliffs makes it a truly dramatic place to spend a night – although at the cave itself you don't really feel exposed. To find it, it's best to look at the map, but once you get close you'll find some cairns leading you to a steep little gully which takes you onto the ledge, and the cave is just around the corner to your left. Shelter in the cave is good and there is comfortable room for eight. You may have to fetch water from the escarpment streams (which are actually the source of the Orange River) above and behind the cave.
Weather forecasts for the Drakensberg can be obtained from www.weathersa.co.za, KwaZulu Natal, but it is important to remember that the weather on the escarpment is often very localised and can change very rapidly. Lightning strike is a risk in summer. Gear theft can occur on the escarpment, as there are Basotho viliages among the Lesotho hills some way inland from the escarpment, so be alert, don't leave your gear unattended, and try to travel in a party of at least four people. Generally the Basotho are freindly if you're friendly to them, but take care all the same.