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The Amphitheatre Hike - Tugela Falls

Tugela Falls
Hiker ascending the chain ladders at Tugela Falls hiking trail
The Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg Mountains
Backpackers at The Gulley, Amphitheatre hiking trail, Drakensberg Mountains
A hiker in the Drakensberg Mountains.
Drakensberg hiking maps

A journey to the sky

 

The Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike, also known as the Sentinel Peak or Tugela Falls hike, unfolds in a remote corner of South Africa. This is the hike that every backpacker wants to do...but not all are brave enough! Karma is the nearest backpackers to the car park that is the hike's departure point.

On a clear day, summer or winter, climbing to the top of the Amphitheatre is a breath-taking experience, specially as regards the view from the escarpment. All the way from the Sentinel Car Park, whether one climbs the Chain Ladders or hikes the Kloof Gully, Nature offers surprise after surprise: from the miniature montane flora growing on the banks of a burbling stream to the occasional glimpse of Mountain Reebuck, various raptor species and occasionally a noisy small baboon troop; one gets to feel part of the pristine environment.

Tugela Falls are located in the Royal Natal National Park, which is part of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, which itself is part of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park. The protected area also falls within the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area, which straddles South Africa and Lesotho.
 

The Basics:

  • Distance: Approximately 12 kilometers round trip.

  • Elevation: Ascends from 550 meters (via the Chain Ladder route) to 650 meters (via the Kloof Gully route).

  • Time: Expect 5 to 6 hours of hiking.

  • Difficulty: Classified as medium, although the chain ladders might pose a challenge for some.

  • Best Time: March to May.

 

The Trail Unveiled:

Our adventure begins with a bumpy 7-kilometer dirt track ride in a rugged 4x4 to reach the trailhead. Do not attempt this drive in a car, it can only be negotiated by 4x4. A shuttle is available from Witsieshoek. At the carpark, a National Park Guard collects our fee and asks us to sign the hiking register—just in case we don’t make it back.

The Ascent:

  • We follow a gradually ascending path that skirts the base of a massive rock formation, perched high above the surrounding landscape.

  • For the first two hours, we’re treated to breathtaking vantage points showcasing the best of Royal Natal National Park.

  • But then, our gaze shifts upward to a chain ladder that vanishes over a precarious-looking ledge. The first metal ladder, with nearly 100 vertical rungs, is only half the challenge. The second ladder remains invisible from the base.

  • These two vertical chain ladders are the gateway to the ultimate reward: the Tugela Falls and the majestic Drakensberg Mountains.
     

Tugela Falls: Nature’s Masterpiece

  • Starting at 2,500 meters, the hike ascends 550 meters to the 3,000-meter summit of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre.

  • From this lofty perch, the Tugela Falls cascade over the massive cliff face, plummeting 1,000 meters to the valley floor.

  • Two routes lead to the falls:

    1. Chain Ladders: Climb these nerve-wracking ladders for an adrenaline rush and unparalleled views.

    2. Kloof Gully Scramble: An alternative route for the adventurous souls.

  • The rest of the walk is fairly easy, with zigzagging paths, basalt formations, and occasional exposed sections that require a bit of shimmying.
     

Cost

  • Royal Natal National Park entrance fee: ZAR70 (payable at park entrance)

  • Hiking fee: ZAR90 (payable at Sentinel Car Park, where the hiking trail begins)

  • Shuttle: the last 7km of the access road to the Sentinel Car Park is in bad condition and cannot be negotiated by cars. A 4x4 shuttle runs from Witsieshoek and costs ZAR225 there and back.

  • Optional hiking guide fee: ZAR500 per person. The trail is clearly marked and is often done unguided. However if you would prefer to climb the 40-metre and 20-metre chain ladders with a safety rope, or prefer to walk with an experienced guide who can read the weather, as well as having the geology, flora and flauna pointed out to you along the way, we recommend Zee Ndaba, an experienced and popular mountain guide.
    (prices current at time of writing - 2024)

Recent Measurements and Height Controversy:

Tugela Falls has long been believed to be the second-highest terrestrial waterfall in the world, after Venezuela’s Angel Falls. However, recent measurements by a Czech scientific expedition in 2016 revealed that Tugela Falls stands at 983 meters (3,225 feet), surpassing Angel Falls by a mere 4 meters. The debate continues due to the measurement locations being at considerable distances from the waterfalls themselves. Both falls have their complexities, and the true tallest remains uncertain. Regardless, Tugela Falls remains a marvel, with its five distinct free-leaping tiers adding up to an official drop of 948 meters.

Geological Formation of Tugela Falls:

The story of Tugela Falls begins millions of years ago when the Drakensberg Mountains were still in their infancy. These mountains, part of the larger Great Escarpment, were shaped by volcanic activity, tectonic forces, and erosion. The Amphitheatre, a massive semicircular cliff face, was carved out by glacial action during the last Ice Age. The Tugela River, originating from the nearby Mont-Aux-Sources plateau, began its relentless work of cutting through the sandstone and basalt layers. Over eons, the river eroded the rock, creating a series of stepped ledges that eventually formed the magnificent Tugela Falls. The falls plunge over these ancient geological layers, each tier revealing the passage of time etched in stone. Appropriately, the name Tugela (or "uThukela" in the modern Zulu spelling), means "sudden" or "surprise" or "a shock", because the river can go from being a tiny trickle to a raging torrent within a few hours after heavy rain.

Flora and Fauna

The Drakensberg region boasts diverse flora. During the hike, keep an eye out for the following:

Flora:

  • High Altitude Flowers: January and February are prime months for orchids, agapanthus, red hot pokers (kniphofia), brunsvigias, candelabra lilies, nerines, and river bells.

  • Proteas: These iconic South African flowers bloom throughout the summer, both as trees and dwarf shrubs.

  • Mountain Fynbos: This type of vegetation is found in the high mountains of South Africa, including the Drakensberg Mountains. It is characterized by low-growing shrubs and proteas, which are flowering plants known for their large, colorful flowers.

  • Bergvlies: This succulent plant is found in the Drakensberg Mountains. It has thick, fleshy leaves, and yellow flowers that bloom in the summer. Bergvlies is a popular ornamental plant, and is often grown in rock gardens. 

Fauna: 

  • Cape Rockjumper: This small, black and white bird is endemic to South Africa and Lesotho, and is commonly found in the rocky areas of the Drakensberg Mountains. They are known for their acrobatic displays and loud calls.

  • Black Eagle: This majestic bird of prey is one of the largest eagles in Africa, with a wingspan of up to 2.4 meters. They are found in the mountains and foothills of southern Africa, and can be seen soaring above the Tugela Falls.

  • Lammergeyer: Also known as the bearded vulture, this large vulture is found in the mountains of southern Africa, Europe, and Asia. They are scavengers, and feed on the carcasses of dead animals. Lammergeyers are known for their impressive wingspans of up to 3 meters, and for their ability to crack open bones with their powerful beaks.

  • Drakensberg Rock-chat: This small, brownish bird is endemic to the Drakensberg Mountains. They are found in rocky areas, and are known for their loud, warbling songs.

  • Southern bald ibis: A rare bird found only in the mountains of South Africa. It is a long-legged wader with a curved red beak and is most closely related to the spoonbill family.

  • Mountain Reedbuck: This small antelope is found in the mountains and grasslands of southern Africa. They are shy animals, and are often difficult to spot. Mountain reedbucks are herbivores, and feed on grasses and leaves.

  • Berg Adder: A small venomous viper found in southern Africa's mountains, is known for its stocky build, triangular head, and various color patterns for camouflage. These snakes are active during the day and ambush small mammals, lizards, and frogs for prey. While generally shy, they can become aggressive if threatened, and their bite, though not the strongest, can be dangerous if left untreated. Though currently not endangered, their habitat faces threats like climate change and invasive species.

The Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike rewards us with vistas that etch themselves into memory - a testament to the raw beauty of South Africa’s wilderness. So, lace up your boots, embrace the challenge, and let the Tugela Falls and the Amphitheatre weave their magic. Remember, this isn’t just a hike; it’s a rendezvous with nature’s grandeur.

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