Harrismith, on the banks of the Wilge River, is dominated by 600-m-high Platberg to the northeast of town. Horse-drawn carts are still a common mode of transport among the local rural people. Established in 1849, Harrismith was named after the British Governor of the Cape, Sir Harry Smith. In addition to its central location midway between Gauteng and the KwaZulu-Natal coast, the town is also an important agricultural centre. The 5 000-ha Platberg Nature Reserve, extending from the edge of the town to the summit of the flat-topped mountain, is stocked with a variety of game including blesbok, black wildebeest, eland, springbok and red hartebeest. The blockhouse on the slopes of Platberg was built by the British in 1901 as part of their strategy to isolate and capture the Boer forces during the South African War. Also of interest is a 150-million-year-old, 33-m-long petrified tree trunk in the Harrismith Town Hall garden. The imposing light-brown sandstone building, with its towered façade, was completed in 1908.


Phuthadithjaba, a name translated as ‘meeting place of the nations’, is the main centre of QwaQwa. It was formerly known as Witsieshoek, a name given in honour of a Kholokwe chief, Wetsi, who lived in the area between 1839 and 1856. Chief Wetsi and his tribe fled to a large cave to the southwest of Witsieshoek in 1856 to escape a large Boer commando, which seized 1 700 head of cattle and 400 horses. A smaller commando later invaded Witsieshoek and burnt down the kraals, forcing Wetsi and his followers to flee to Basotholand. The Mopeli statue, erected 7 km south of Phuhadithjaba, honours Paulus Mopeli, a brother of Basotho leader Moshweshwe, who settled in Witsieshoek in 1867. The sprawling residential and industrial town was developed in the early 1970s as the ‘capital’ of the bantustan of QwaQwa, created for the Bakwena of Chief Mopeli and the Batlokwa, two South Sotho groups living outside of Lesotho.


From Phuthaditjhaba the road  winds along the Witsieshoek Pass, with its 1 in 7 gradient, to the Witsieshoek Mountain Resort, perched on the edge of the Escarpment. The  resort opened in 1972 and is situated at an altitude of 2 200 m, making it one of the highest holiday resorts in South Africa. From here, the mountain road snakes past Breakfast Rock, The Dome, The Pudding and Witches to reach the car park at the base of the 3 165-m-high Sentinel, after a drive of 6 km. Terminating at an altitude of 2 540 m, the Sentinel Drive is the highest gravel road in Southern Africa that can be undertaken in a sedan car. The car park is the starting point for the three-hour hike to the top of the Amphitheatre and the 3 282 m-high Mont-aux-Sources. However, a short walk from the car park to the Escarpment edge will reveal dramatic views of the Royal Natal National Park far below, as well as Eastern Buttress and the Devil’s Tooth at the eastern end of the Amphitheatre.


...lies in the upper reaches of the Nuwejaarspruit and forms part of the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme, which supplements the water supply of the Vaal Dam. Commissioned in 1977, the 2 290-m-long earthfill embankment was extended to 3 060 m in 1980, while the height was increased from 69 m to 93 m. Up to 630 million m3 of water a year is pumped from the Woodstock Dam on the Thukela River up the Escarpment to the Sterkfontein Dam. The water is stored here and is released into the Wilge River, a tributary of the Vaal, only when there is a need to augment the water level in the Vaal Dam. The rationale for this is that, being very deep, the Sterkfontein Dam loses much less water through evaporation than the much shallower Vaal Dam. The dam wall contains 17 million m3 of material, making it the largest dam wall in South Africa in terms of volume. With a surface area of nearly 70 km2 when full and a capacity of 2 656 million m3, Sterkfontein is the third-largest reservoir in South Africa. It is popular with anglers, and windsurfing and boating enthusiasts. The dam is the focal point of the 18 000-ha Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve, which is dominated by grasslands and cream-coloured sandstone outcrops.


...is one of the best-known landmarks on the routes followed by the Voortrekkers. Here, Voortrekker leader Piet Retief made camp at the foot of the Kerkenberg on 2 October 1837. Three days later, Retief set off with 14 men to visit the Zulu king, Dingane. A fortnight later, when Retief had not returned, the chief laager under Abraham Greyling was moved to a spring higher up the slopes of the Kerkenberg. When Retief had not returned from Dingane’s camp by his birthday, his daughter Deborah wrote ‘P Retief Den 12 Novr. 1837’ in green paint on the overhanging rock. The following day, Greyling broke up camp and descended into Natal along the Retief Pass. Around Retief’s name can be seen the names of several members of the Bethlehem Commando, who occupied the Oliviershoek Pass on 10 October 1899, on the eve of the Boer invasion of Natal at the outbreak of the South African War.


...provides protection to some of the most dramatic scenery in the Natal Drakensberg Park, including the awe-inspiring Amphitheatre. Stretching between the Sentinel in the west and Eastern Buttress and the Devil’s Tooth in the east, the sheer basalt wall rises over 700 m above the Little Berg, while the Thukela Falls plunge more than 600 m in five leaps over the Escarpment edge. The park’s main attraction is its spectacular mountain scenery, which visitors can explore along a 100-km network of 25 footpaths, ranging from 3 km to a full-day hike of 25 km. By far the most picturesque route is the Gorge Walk, which leads past the conspicuous Policeman’s Helmet rock formation to the 50-m-long tunnel carved by the Thukela River. Visitors can also see the highlands protea ride horses and try their hand at trout fishing in the river or the dam. Established in 1916, the park was given the name of Royal Natal National Park following the British Royal Family’s visit to the park in May 1947. Accommodation ranges from camping at Mahai and Rugged Glen to the Tendele Hutted Camp and the historic Royal Natal National Park Hotel.


Established in 1897 by a retired mariner, Captain Wales, the tranquil village of Bergville has developed into an agricultural and trading centre. Of historical interest in the town is the Upper Thukela Blockhouse, built by the British forces during the South African War. The Spioenkop and iNtabamnyama battlefields, where Boer and British forces met in battle from 20 to 24 January 1900, lie about half-an-hour’s drive to the northeast of Bergville.


On 30 October 1899 (a day that became known as Mournful Monday), British forces were humiliated at the Battle of Modderspruit. The battle, conceived by General Sir George White as a knock-out blow to the Boer forces, turned into a rout after the Boers changed position during the night and forced the British to retreat into Ladysmith. The town came under siege on 2 November 1899 when Boer forces occupied all the encircling hills, except Platrand which formed part of the British forward defence line. Situated 5 km southwest of the town, Platrand (also known as Wagon Hill) was the key to the capture of Ladysmith, but two Boer attacks on the flat-topped hill were beaten back. On 27 February 1900, General Buller’s forces crossed the Tukhela River and advanced on Ladysmith, causing the Boers to abandon their positions. The siege was relieved the following day, 118 days after it began. British casualties were high; 563 soldiers died of disease, 211 were killed in action, 59 died of wounds and 10 were reported missing. It is not known how many Boers were killed in action, but an estimated 60 died of wounds. The story of the siege is depicted in the town’s Siege Museum.