INJESUTHI VALLEY TRAIL
The total distance of the trail is 27 kilometres and the total elevation change is 850 metres. We did the trail over a relaxing four days. It’s not a taxing hike and is ideal for a quick getaway early in the season or if you have inexperienced hikers in the group.
The trail starts at the Injesuthi Hutted Camp in the central Drakensberg. It runs along the valleys that have been carved out by the Buttress Fork and Injesuthi streams. Unlike many other valleys in the Berg, these ones twist and turn and provide more than the usual amount of structure, making it one of the most photogenic hikes in the Drakensberg. Wildlife abounds and you are almost sure to come across eland in the valleys. There are certainly a lot more around than 30 years ago, when we started hiking the Berg.
Overnighting is in caves. The maximum capacity ranges from eight to 12, although you have exclusive use of a cave, even if it’s just two of you hiking. These caves are no more than exaggerated overhangs, so be sure you are warm enough in winter and have sufficient cover in windy and wet conditions in summer.
One of the advantages of this trail is that it can be hiked in any combination of caves, over two, three or four days. The trail description below is just one such combination. It overnights at the Lower Injesuthi, Marble Baths and Grindstone caves. It offers the further convenience that Grindstone Cave is close to camp, allowing for either a late start on the first day, or an early day back in camp on the last day.
Normally, when hiking in the wilderness areas of the Drakensberg, you simply buy your permit when you get there, fill in the mountain register and go. However, the overnight caves are booked out to one party at a time and they are quite popular. It is therefore a good idea to reserve these beforehand. Booking is done through the main Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife number.
In winter, it is not a bad practice to carry a tent - pitch it in the cave if you have to!
The office at the Injesuthi Hutted Camp has expanded over the years to include a few basic “tinned” provisions, as well as snacks, soft drinks and beer. The latter, in particular, is a great bonus when you get back to camp after four or five days of hard hiking. However, it is not intended to provide a full supermarket service and hikers are best advised to stock up on provisions for the hike (and afterwards) beforehand.
There is a lovely ablution block in the camping area at the bottom of the Camp - very useful for a hot shower before you hit the road for the trip home.
The overnight caves are no more that large overhangs and offer less than ideal protection against the elements in adverse weather conditions. In winter, it is not a bad practice to carry a tent - pitch it in the cave if you have to!
All the caves on this trail are just far enough from the rivers to make regular trips to refill water bottles a drag. It is a good idea to take an eight- or 10-litre water bladder with you. It will comfortably last two hikers through the evening and the next morning’s breakfast.
All map references refer to the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife hiking map no. 3: “Giant’s Castle”, third (current) edition.
Day 1, Camp to the Lower Injesuthi Cave
Day one is eight kilometres long, ascends a total of 300 metres and involves about four hours of actual hiking time. We hiked the trailin mid-summer, after two days of heavy rain. So, although we were fortunate that it did not rain during the hike, we still had to contend with high rivers. After leaving the car in the shade of the trees at the entrance to the camp (and filling out the mountain register), we hiked the short section back along the tar road to the bridge that crosses the Injesuthi river.
Under normal circumstances, we would have started on the trail that runs along the right-hand side of the river, but this crosses the main Injesuthi river after about one kilometre - and this far down the valley, the river was in no state for a crossing after all the rain. So, we crossed the bridge and turned right onto anther trailhead after about 40 metres.
The trail climbs a short but steep section to get you to a plateau and then ambles along the plateau for about two kilometres until it eventually meets up with the path that runs on the opposite bank. Although a kilometre longer, this path is, in many ways, preferable to the first, because once you are on the plateau, you have the most magnificent view of the Eastern, Middle and Western Triplets, the Red Wall and the Injesuthi Lesser and Greater Buttresses. It is best to take this alternative when hiking in. If taken when hiking out, you will spend most of the time walking with the view behind you over your left shoulder. Towards the end of this section, we crossed Poacher’s Stream, which runs down a most beautiful valley to our left. Although the map indicates a footpath running up this valley, it is no longer maintained. It is still in good condition higher up, but takes a bit of bundu-bashing to get to. But I digress.
After meeting up with the aforementioned path (junction G18), we walked along a gently downhill-sloping path past the junction of the Injesuthi and Cowl Fork rivers (junction G6) and continued to the junction of the eMbovaneni and Injesuthi streams (junction G8). This is our traditional lunch spot and we duly broke for an hour or so.
After lunch, we took a leisurely two hours to climb the last 200 metres over a distance of three kilometres to the Lower Injesuthi cave.
Day 2, Lower Injesuthi to Marble Baths
Day two is also eight kilometres long, descends 200 metres and then ascends 200 metres, and involves about four hours of actual hiking time. Unfortunately, by morning, the mist that had obscured the escarpment on the first day had still not lifted and we were denied the beautiful views of the Triplets, Red Wall, and the two Injesuthi Buttresses.
We slept out in the open in the cave, which is actually no more than a pronounced overhang. We have hiked this trail in winter, when it can be freezing cold. In fact, we have, on occasion been forced to pitch our tents under the overhang in order to escape the worst of the winter blues.
Safely on our way, after a late breakfast of oats and coffee, we descended back down the Injesuthi stream, turned left at junction G8, followed by another left 500 metres further at junction G6. The rivers were still very high and the crossing quite challenging. After many minutes of shuffling, bracing and feeling for secure footholds, we finally crossed the
Injesuthi stream. From here, we followed the Cowl Fork stream for two hours to get to the caves at Marble Baths. Similar to day one, the trail climbs about 200 metres over three kilometres to get to your final destination for the day.
If you are hiking in a larger group, bear in mind that there are two caves. They are about 40 metres apart, and the second cave is often overlooked. Take the trouble to look around before you decide where to settle for the night.
As its name suggests, the river has carved a series of beautiful channels and runs through a section of white sandstone and one can while away a pleasant hour or two in this tranquil setting.
From the approach to the cave, you are afforded a clear view of the Molar, the Ape and the Old Woman Grinding Corn. From the second cave, and once you drop back to the river, the Greater and Lesser Injesuthi Buttresses can be seen brooding over the landscape.
Day 3, Marble Baths to Grindstone
Day three is eight kilometres long, ascends 300 metres, descends 250 metres and involves about four hours of actual hiking time. It is a little tricky to pick up the path that takes you to the Grindstone Caves. But if you sniff around the many tracks that run along the opposite bank, you are bound to pick up on it as it veers off to the right and over the ridge in front of you.
As you do this, you are likely to come across a small clearing on the other side of the river. This is a popular camping spot for hikers and a viable alternative to sleeping in the cave.
Once you’re on the path, it takes you to junction M9 with the contour path after four kilometres and a brisk climb of 300 metres. This is the highest point of the whole trail and the only time you get to meet up with the contour path.
The contour path then descends 250 metres down a nose to junction M31 over a distance of three kilometres. The one thing you realise quite quickly in the Berg is just how inappropriately the contour path was named!
The Grindstone Caves lie just a kilometre beyond this point. The closer of the two caves is also the nicer. In fact, it is possibly the nicest of all the caves on this route. However, it is the furthest away from water, in this case the Old Woman Stream. Here you will definitely be glad you brought a water bladder.
The Grindstone Caves are quite close to camp, and the only cave where you are likely to run into day-trippers.
Day 4, Grindstone Cave to Camp
Day four is only four kilometres long; descends 350 metres and should not take more than two hours. It involves a quick 400-metre downhill trek over a total distance of about three kilometres. If you are in a hurry, you can cover this distance in a little over an hour and be back in camp by mid-morning, or even earlier if so desired. The path is pretty straight forward as it drops down the valley that has been carved out by the Old Woman Stream.
As an alternative, if there is no rush to make it back to camp, you can hike across the Old Woman Valley and up the next ridge to junction M7 in Cataract Valley. There are some pretty spectacular waterfalls higher up in the valley and it is a detour that is definitely worth making. This extends the day’s hike to a more substantial 9,5 kilometres.