Cathedral Peak is one of the best known and most climbed peaks in the Drakensberg. Standing at the end of the Cathedral Range, which runs perpendicular to the main escarpment, it can be climbed as a day hike. The easiest route involves some rock scrambling and is a little bit exposed in places, but does not necessitate the use of rope in dry conditions. The peak is dramatically shaped and steep on all sides, with the normal route running up the eastern face, the least steep of the faces.
Behind (west of) Cathedral Peak is the very distinctive Bell (2928m), then the Outer and Inner Horns (both 3005m), the Chessmen, the Ntonjelane Needle, the Mitre (3023m), and the Twins (2899m). It is possible to traverse the slopes of all these peaks by a route known as the Bell Traverse. The Traverse starts from the top of Mlambonja Pass, a wide grassy gully which summits on the escarpment, and runs along the sides of the peaks before descending to the Cathedral Peak Hotel. The peak can be climbed in a day from the hotel by following the lower section of the Bell Traverse to a little gully between Cathedral Peak and a gendarme, and then branching off the traverse route to ascend a few slopes and rock bands to the summit of the peak itself. The view from the peak is absolutely fantastic, and also atypical in that one can look across at the escarpment from a relatively high altitude.
Find your way to the town of Harrismith. When coming from Cape Town, follow the N1 through Bloemfontein to just after Winburg where you take the N5. Follow this road through Bethlehem to Harrismith. When coming from Johannesberg, simply follow the N3 all the way.
From Harrismith head west along the N5 for 4 km (if you come from Cape Town you needn't actually go right to Harrismith, since you're on the N5 anyway) and then turn south onto the R712. Follow this for 9km then turn left onto the R74 to Bergville. Continue through Bergville, and about 2km out of the town take the secondary road to the right, to Cathedral Peak.
If you come from Durban, take the N3 until you branch off onto the R74 to Winterton, and from Winterton take the secondary roads to Cathedral. You should find signs directing you to Cathedral from either of the towns mentioned.
From the Cathedral Peak hotel and campsites, you take the path marked Cathedral Peak. This crosses a river immediately, then starts ascending the long ridge up to Orange Peel Gap. After about 4.5 km there is a path fork. Continue straight up the ridge and then right into the gully up to Orange Peel Gap. The left fork is the contour path. From here just continue along the path staight toward the peak, which soon becomes visible shaped like a rhino horn. You eventually get into a gully which summits between Cathedral on the right (north) and the gendarme on the left (south). Don't ascend to the top of the gully, but look for a path out onto the slopes to your right. The path doesn't actually run from the gully, you have to see where it starts and then edge across the steep rock out of the gully to get to it. This is actually about as tricky as the route gets, and if you follow the correct path the other scrambles will take you across and up sloping slabs, up a chain ladder, and then up the high slopes before a last brief scramble onto the summit.
Once on this path, follow it out across the face on a grassy ledge, until you reach a sloping basalt slab with a couple of bolts in it. Traverse across this slab to the left, then continue along the path, zig-zagging up the face and up a few similar basalt slabs. The route soon heads left toward where the gendarme stands below you, ascending a short, steep little gully and then a chainladder. After this point the path ascends diagonally to the right, zig-zagging a few more times and eventually coming to the eastern edge of the final rock band. This is easily ascended with very basic, but slightly exposed (especially if windy) scrambling, and then you're on the top.
From the hotel, the total walking distance to the summit is about 10km, and the differential altitude gain is about 1665m, so it's a substantial ascent.
Another way to climb the peak is to come from the escarpment, if you are doing a multiday hike, descend Mlambonja Pass for about 200m altitude, branch left and spend a night at Twins Cave, then take the very worthwhile Bell Traverse. The route follows a clear path, along the northwest slopes of the Twins, Mitre and Horns, then through the gap onto the southeast side of the Bell and Cathedral Peak itself. One eventually comes to a gully between the peak and the gendarme, but now you must climb up this gully and down the gully on the other side a little way before scrambling out onto the path to the summit of the peak. Note that the Bell Traverse traverses a lot of very steep ground. This is fine in dry conditions, but with snow and ice it can be very tricky. People with a fear of heights may find the steepness of the ground disconcerting at times.
For more info on the Bell Traverse and the Drakensberg in general go to the 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.2, Cathedral Peak, Culfargie – Monk's Cowl.
Hiking costs R25 per person per day from Cathedral. A popular multiday hike runs from Sentinel to Cathedral Peak. When doing this one pays R75 for the whole route, leaving Sentinel and ending at Cathedral. At Sentinel there is cheap accommodation, R15 per person per night. Camping is forbidden in a 3km radius of intensive use zones.
Should you choose to go up onto the escarpment, remember that you will be entering Lesotho and thus should carry you passport. It's unlikely that anyone will check though.
Always sign the mountain register and fill in the info requested, since this will be used for a potential rescue. Remember to sign out when you leave, even if you started somewhere other than where you finished the hike.
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 sections of the Bell Traverse very tricky and potentially dangerous. 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. In summer there is a better chance of the scramble sections being wet, so take this into account. A good winter's day can be still, dry, and warm enough to be very pleasant, but beware of cold fronts.
There is a very pleasant camp site near the Cathedral Peak hotel, which costs R45 per person per night. There are hotels as well, Cathedral Peak Hotel and Didima Camp, but obviously these are much more pricey. Up in the mountains, there are several caves to sleep in, but not much flat ground for pitching a tent. Twins Cave sleeps 12 and has dramatic northward views. This is a very good option if you're taking the Bell Traverse route, and lies in the northwestern slopes of the Twins. It offers good shelter and plenty of room for sleeping, cooking, whatever. On Cathedral Peak there is Trencher's Cave which sleeps 6, but it is high on the north slopes of the peak and thus far away from the path. It appears from the map that one can only reach it from the summit of the peak. Bell cave is another option, with room for 5 or 6 people. However, it faces southeast and offers little shelter at all, effectively just a shallow overhang right on the path. There are a couple of caves near the beginning of the route from the hotel, but there's not really much point sleeping here since you're so close to the official campsites anyway.
There is practically no water to be found on the Bell Traverse, so if you climb the peak from the escarpment you will need to fill up water at the Kwakwatsi river on the escarpment behind Mlambonja Pass, and carry this for the traverse. In summer you may find a drip in or near Twins Cave, but in winter there will be nothing and the river is your only chance. There is no reliable water source on the whole Cathedral Range, at least not on the high ground where the Bell Traverse goes, so if you come from the hotel your last water is at a stream crossing on the ridge after about 3km. You might as well just fill up at the bottom and carry your water for the day. In summer you might find running water in the stream bed along side the path 1.5km above Orange Peel Gap.
Weather forecasts for the Drakensberg can be obtained from www.weathersa.co.za, KwaZulu Natal. 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. The Basotho are generally not a concern once you're on the Cathedral range, away from the escarpment.