Sunday, 9 May 2021




Navigating the Drakensberg Wilderness

You don’t need to spend three weeks in an ashram in India eating rice and chanting to gain a little direction in life. You do need a map, a compass, a watch and a little bit of know-how. Before you even pick up a compass, you can learn to navigate with GPS-like accuracy by using map and watch alone. In fact good mapwork, not good compass-work, is they keystone of successful route-finding: if you always know where you are from relating your map to the ground, you’ll never even need to get the compass out of your pack.

With good navigation skills comes safety, freedom and a consideration for the environment. But there’s an assumption that good navigators use compasses all the time. That is not true. The better your navigation gets, the less you’ll have to rely on your compass, and the more you’ll enjoy your time spent in the wilderness.

Before you go out

   A stitch in time saves an unnecessary climb. Spend some time with your map on your living-room floor the night before you go walking. Ignore the strange looks you will get that night; it’ll be worth it when you do go outside.
   Spend a couple of hours with maps indoors before you go out into the wilderness. You should look at the keys and refresh yourself as to what the different symbols mean. Familiarize yourself with basic contour features. What is a hill, what is a valley, what is a contour?

   Prepare yourself: sometimes finding the start of the walk can be the hardest part of the day.

Navigation tool kit

Map: This is the single most important item you take with you into the wilderness; you’d quite literally be lost without one. Buy the 5 available topographic maps covering the Drakensberg and which are available at all Reserve offices. Note that GPS devices do not and can never replace maps!

Map case: Unless your map is laminated or kept in a waterproof map case, it’ll turn into a lump of unreadable paper the first time it encounters rain.

Watch: Knowing how long you’ve been walking for is absolutely vital to successful route-finding. A watch is just as important as map and compass.

Compass: In bad visibility, you’ll be relying on your compass. It is best to luminous dials, two-degree markings and a big baseplate.

Choice of maps

The 5 Drakensberg topographical maps are the best to use. The Drakensberg Wilderness has been divided into 5 areas and every area does have its own map. There are no better maps on the market.

Map scales

Many general purpose maps are at a scale of 1:50,000. That means that a feature on the map is 50,000 bigger on the ground. So 2cm on your map is 1km over the ground. They give a good idea of the bigger picture of the lie of the ground.

Map symbols

On every map is a key showing what the different symbols mean. Study this before you go out to familiarize yourself with the map you are using, especially if you are switching between map publishers or between old maps and new. Particularly check contour lines, paths, and access markings.

What is a contour?

Contours are the brown lines that cover the map. Each one indicates a constant elevation as it follows the landscape – like a bathtub ring showing where the water level used to be. Being able to picture the shape of the land from looking at the contours on a map is the single most important skill in navigation. On most fully metric maps there is a contour line for every 10cm of height, and a bold one every 50m, but this should be checked on each map’s key.

When you are out
Setting the map

The most important thing to learn how to do is ‘set’ the map’. That means orientating it to north. Identify a big feature that you can see like a summit, and use that to set the map. If in doubt, use the compass. Remember the top of the map is north, so plonk your compass on it, then turn both until the red arrow points to the top of the map.

The map represents a plan of the ground. So if you mark your position as the central point on the map, all the features that you can see around you are in the correct relative positions. You can draw a line on the map from where you are and where you want to go, and it’ll point the right way over the ground.

With an orientated map, the landscape around you falls into place. Then you can identify all the features you can see and pick a route towards an objective you can’t yet see.

Estimating distance and time

Working out how far way your destination is, and from that how long it’ll take you to get there, are vital skills. First, it means that you can choose a day out that suit your needs, and second, it helps you find your way. If you know that the path junction you are looking for is 15 minutes away, you have an important tool to help you find it.

Estimating distance from the map

Each map is covered in grid squares, and each square is usually a kilometer. So when you are looking at longer distances to work out how far you’re walking over a few hours, you can count the squares crossed length-ways as 1km and the number crossed diagonally as 1.5km.

For more precise measurements, use something flexible like a compass string or a piece of grass. Lay it along the path you want to measure, and then use either the ruler on your compass or the scale on the map to find out how far it is.

Up or down

Looking at contours, it can be hard to tell which way is uphill, which is down. The easiest way to check is to look at streams and rivers. Small streams flow down into bigger ones. If there are no streams, look for a named peak.

Estimating how long it’ll take

In the wilderness, several factors affect your walking speed: distance, steepness, terrain, fitness, and how heavy your pack is. An unfit person carrying a heavy pack uphill in snow is going to make very different progress from a fit walker cruising along a ridge on a bright sunny day.

Only experience will tell you what speed you walk at, and this is something to practice.


Walking the wilderness, most of us follow paths most of the time. Any linear feature like a stream, path, or ridge that can be walked along is known a handrail feature. When you’re trying to work out where you are on the map, these are a big help: for example, if you know you are somewhere on the path between Boggy Bottom and Howling Hill, all you need to do is work out how far along it.

Collecting features

Sometimes you can’t find a feature to tick off at the precise point where you need to turn off the ridge you’re on, or start heading east to pick up another path. But what you might be able to identify is a collecting feature. This is one to let you know when you’ve gone too far. For example you might have to turn off a ridge 200m before reaching the little tarn. So if you hit the tarn, you know you’ve gone too far.

We as hikers, explorers, and adventurers have the absolute duty to respect and protect our Wildernesses. Nobody else will do it for us. Take ownership!




The End.


Safe Hiking.

References and Acknowledgements

From the book: Ultimate Hiking Skills Manual  – C Bagshaw/A Hinkes

Photos:  ©Willem Pelser

Compiled by:  Willem Pelser