Hike to Ifidi, Drakensberg - March 2019

In March 2019 I made a 4-night hike into the Drakensberg in South Africa. I went with 2 friends, Rudi and Matt and the main goal of the trip was to explore the Ifidi area. We spent 2 nights camped up at Ifidi, and made good ground across the area, exploring most of it. It was my second time visiting the area, but there were parts I hadn’t explored previously.

Getting to Ifidi can be achieved in two ways. The easiest route is to come from the Sentinel car park via the chain ladders, past Tugela falls and towards the end of the valley to the right of Mount Amery (if looking from Tugela). The second option is to ascend via Ifidi Pass, which is regarded as one of the hardest passes in all of the Drakensberg. Needless to say, we hiked to Ifidi via the chain ladders. I stood at the summit of Ifidi pass, and it looks insanely difficult! I was absolutely amazed by the steepness! Maybe one day I will be brave enough to try and hike that pass. Shooting sunrise looking straight down Ifidi pass was spectacular, the landscape is just magnificent. From the Sentinel car park, it is about a 13km hike to Ifidi.

I really like the Ifidi area! I enjoy the view onto the Devils Tooth and Eastern Buttress, but the area offers spectacular views looking over towards the Mnweni Needles, Mponjwane, the Saddle and the Cathedral ridge as well.


I spent the first part of the first afternoon shooting with a 70-200 onto the distant peaks. The compression of the longer lens brings the peaks closer together, and I enjoyed picking out certain areas to frame up. The image below was my favourite from the afternoon. The soft dappled light worked well accentuating the peaks and valleys, and I love how valley below creates a “u-shape” to frame up the higher peaks.

 

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 160mm / ISO 250 - f/7.1 - 1/500 sec / circular polariser. It was incredibly windy and I needed a fast enough shutter speed to combat the shaking camera. The view across to Mnweni from Ifidi is just breath-taking!

 
 

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 200mm / ISO 200 - f/6.3 - 1/80 sec / circular Polariser. Looking across the drop-off that is Ifidi Pass, the late afternoon light picked out some wonderful detail on the giant Basalt walls.

 

The conditions this afternoon became very hazy, and once the dappled light lost intensity on the distant peaks, I went over to try photograph the Devils Tooth, but the conditions were not fantastic. Good clouds were about, and we had one good moment of sunlight spilling across the landscape, but not much else happened. I managed to find a bit of order in the chaotic rock formations close to the edge, and framed up a vertical composition.

 

Nikon D850 / 16-35 f4 lens @ 19mm / ISO 250 - f/11 - 1/80 sec / circular polariser / focus stack using 10 exposures stacked using Helicon Focus. The hazy conditions did help soften the extreme bright sky closer to the sun, and I liked the accentuated light beam spilling across the escarpment edge. Shooting the focus stack for this image with the D850 was extremely easy. I used the focus-shift feature to automatically shoot the focus bracketed exposures.

 

We waited until sunset, and although the clouds lit up like fire in the distance, nothing above the Devils Tooth materialised unfortunately. It was a great first afternoon at Ifidi however, and we were happy with the images we had captured, and looked forward to the rest of our time there..

 

Nikon D850 / 16-35 f4 lens @ 16mm / ISO 6400 - f/4 - 30 sec. A cliche tent shot under the Milky Way. It’s not a good shot by all means, but makes a nice memory.

 

 

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 95mm / ISO 400 - f/8 - 1/40 sec. This was my first photo for the morning. I do wish there was no horizon obstruction, obstructing the pink light from the middle band of high clouds, but the conditions were great.

 

Our first sunrise at Ifidi was special. We awoke to a beautiful cloud inversion, and we decided to head out and photograph across the peaks of Mnweni and Cathedral. Standing on the edge of the escarpment, Ifidi pass below us, Ifidi buttress to the right, and the massive valleys below covered in cloud with only the high peaks standing above the cloud was a moment I won’t forget soon. There was a decent covering of high cloud too, and we knew something special was happening. I spent about an hour or so watching the beautiful sunrise play out in front of us, taking as many photos as I could, but not letting my camera distract me too much from enjoying the spectacle.

Our first sunrise was by far the highlight of the trip for me.

 

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 200mm / ISO 100 - f/11 - 1/4 sec. Matt was kind enough to run over to the edge of the escarpment to allow us to take a portrait of him with an incredible inversion below us, just before the sun had risen. I love the colour contrast between sky and cloud. Thanks Matt!

 
 

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 165mm / ISO 64 - f/8 - 1/20 sec. This is one of my favourite images from the trip. I like the composition, the river and valley edges, and that shaft of light just takes this image to a different level for me. I like the softer contrast to this because of all the haze. The Drakensberg is so much more than just the high peaks and dramatic cliffs.

 
 

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 145mm / ISO 64 - f/8 - 1/30 sec. The morning continued to produce amazing conditions and after the sun had risen, I captured this image as the first rays of light hit the inversion below.

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 200mm / ISO 200 - f/8 - 1/80 sec. The rays of light cutting through the valleys were beautiful, enhanced by the hazy air. I am not sure why I like this image, perhaps its the abstract representation and warm to cool colour contrast, and that shaft of light cutting the image in two.

 

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 135mm / ISO 100 - f/11 - 1/100 sec. I absolutely love the dramatic feeling to this image. Of all the kinds of images I capture of the Drakensberg, this style is by far my favourite.


During the morning, the cloud inversion drifted way below the escarpment summit for many hours, but it slowly made its way higher, soon engulfing the landscape and forcing us back to camp.

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 86mm / ISO 64 - f/8 - 1/40 sec. I used a longer focal length here to focus in on this composition, I like the ridge lines going from bottom right to upper left, which adds some great diagonals to the image. The light and shadow play well and that inversion adds so much drama creating space between the front ridge and the Eastern Buttress.

Nikon D850 / Nikon 16-35 f4 lens @ 23mm / ISO 64 - f/11 - 1/60 sec. I am not much of a flower person, so I am not sure what these flowers are called in the foreground, but they make a great foreground to this wider composition of the peaks and inversion below.

Nikon D850 / 70-200 f4 lens @ 70mm / ISO 64 - f/8 - 1/40 sec. I don’t regard this as a great photo, but I like how the inversion has split up the peaks. It wasn’t long after this photo was taken, that I packed up my gear and headed back to camp in thick cloud.


This is my MSR Access 1 tent. I absolutely love this tent. Its a lightweight (1.7kg) 1-man 4-season tent, quite small but I like to stay organised in the tent so the space is plentiful for me. It stands up well in heavy wind.

Our camp site in the valley of Ifidi. We had such an amazing time at Ifidi, we saw no other people for the entire duration of our stay. We headed back to Tugela after our Ifidi stay, which was rather unpleasant because of all the other visitors.

Rudi van den Heever resting up during the misty day. At least the mist cools things down for a midday nap.


On our full day spent at Ifidi, the inversion from the morning spilled over inland, and we spent the majority of the day in the mist. There is not much that can be accomplished in the heavy mist, but I did walk around and look for some abstract images on the floor. I love looking for these types of images, I like looking for shapes and form and I was happy with what I found. The colour was very flat in these RAW files, so I chose quite a dramatic black and white processing style.

Our second sunset at Ifidi was quite frustrating. We spent most of the day in thick mist, and literally as the sun was setting the cloud opened up, but not quite enough for us to make a good image. We had very brief views of the tips of the Devils Tooth and Eastern buttress, and the sky was flaming all around us, but the inversion just hung around for too long and blocked just enough to not allow any great views. If the cloud had dropped just 100 meters, I would have been smiling!


Our final morning was clear. No inversion, no clouds, just clear skies and hazy air. We explored the area around the Ifidi pinnacle and close to the Ifidi cave. The views were spectacular, but difficult to photograph. The Ifidi pinnacle is massive, but doesn’t quite work so well at sunrise - too much of the foreground would be in shadow. I took a shot anyway before the sun had risen.

 

Nikon D850 / 16-35 f4 lens @ 18mm / ISO 64 - f/8 - 1/3 sec / Blend of 3 exposures - dark exposure 1/50 sec, bright exposure 1.3 sec.

 
 

Nikon D850 / 16-35 f4 lens @ 35mm / ISO 64 - f/8 - 1/8 sec. Looking down this pass at sunrise was spectacular, much better than this image can ever convey. Its impossible to show the scale of this place in a photo, you’ll need to take my word for it that it is gigantic!

 

To summarise, we had a great stay at Ifidi, I came back with many images I am very happy with and we had great conditions. I would definitely like to return to Ifidi, I would love to photograph a storm over those Mnweni valleys and I would like to explore the Ifidi buttress and possibly camp somewhere up there.

Thanks to Matt and Rudi for an awesome hike! I cant wait to go back to the Drakensberg. Winter is upon us, so I am seriously hoping for some great snow storms soon.

If you have made it this far into this blog post, thank you for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts on the trip or images, so please leave me a comment below.

Until next time - MD