General tips and facts when planning to hike in the Drakensberg Mountains
Southern African weather has two major weather patterns that cause bad weather from time to time: The biggest of these are the fronts (most often cold fronts, but can also be warm) moving up from the Antarctic region and moving in an easterly direction. These fronts bring rain and snow in winter and rain in summer.
The other weather pattern is moist tropical air moving down from central Africa in late spring and early summer, which can bring extended periods of rain and mist.
The warm Agulhas current running east to west along the east coast causes warm moist air to move inland toward the Dakensberg. The cold current moving north along the western seaboard causes dry air to circulate causing the deserts of that region.
In most parts of southern Africa the weather is, by northern hemisphere standards, very good.
In our mountains, life-threatening weather does not often stay for more than a few days. However, that is not to say that southern African mountains cannot experience very harsh conditions, which at times can strike suddenly.
The region can also expect extremely hot weather in summer and spring, which can cause its own problems with mountain walkers including dehydration and heat-stroke.
By and large the biggest weather related problem encountered by mountain walkers in the Drakensberg, is a loss of visibility caused by rain and mist.
Leaders must get to know how to navigate in bad visibility!
Orographic rain is also a common phenomenon in the southern African mountains and especially the Drakensberg. This occurs when moisture filled air is forced to rise when moving up against the mountains on the eastern side. This rise of air causes the temperature to drop and condensation to occur.
This phenomenon can take the form of either thunderstorms or layers of cloud lingering along the eastern sides of the mountains.
Drakensberg Weather Patterns:
The Drakensberg lies in the summer rainfall area of South Africa (October to March). During this time thunderstorms, accompanied by sleet and hail, can occur several days in succession. They are normally preceded by a small fluffy cloud build-up at high altitude by mid-morning. By midday, the storm is usually fully developed and lasts until mid-afternoon. This weather pattern makes early starts very important for the mountain walker. November through to February it is normally possible to begin walking before 6 a.m.
From September to April it is usual to get periods of several days of rain and mist shrouding the summits, making walking very unpleasant, if not impossible. Daytime temperatures can become very high and may be accompanied by high humidity.
Spring time (September and October) is quite unpredictable and generally the wettest time in the Berg and this can cause much frustration for hikers.
May until August is certainly the best time for walking – with long spells of mild, stable skies. These fine periods are broken by cold fronts moving in from the south-west of the country, bringing rain and often heavy snowfalls even to valleys of the little Berg.
Fronts don’t often strike without warning. Initial signs are high cirrus cloud from the west, accompanied by hot, dry, westerly “Berg winds”. These conditions last at least several hours and give way to a steady build up of cloud from the west.
Warning: Blizzards can occur between June and September and can last for up to 3 days, making travel at high altitude impossible, with temperatures well below freezing.
TV and radio reports are usually up to date and reasonably accurate, although not specific and detailed. Newspapers tend to be out of date and not specific and detailed enough. Long-term forecasts can also be seen on the Internet on sites such as www.weathersa.co.za and www.accuweather.com. It is possible to receive the forecasts for some of the mountain regions by phone, dial 082 231 1602.