In South Africa, Heritage Day is an annual holiday observed on the 24th of September. Due to our country’s diverse history and tribal groups, on this day, all South Africans are encouraged to celebrate their heritage by dressing and engaging in practices which showcase the diversity of our nation.
This year I decided to trek the Amphitheater and Tugela falls hike in the northern Drakensberg adorned in some of my traditional Zulu accessories to acknowledge and partake in the day’s celebrations. At the summit of the Amphitheater is the Tugela waterfall which cascades from 983 meters above sea level. There is an ongoing debate about whether the falls are the highest or second-highest globally, but I won’t get into that detail. What seemed like a manageable task in theory, quickly proved to be, at times, quite tricky to navigate! The views of the mountain range and feeling of self-achievement always make the tricky bits worth it.
What tricky bits do you ask? Well, here goes.
The first surprise of the day was the drive to the Sentinel car park, the hike’s starting point. It’s a relatively short drive from Witsieshoek mountain lodge, not more than10km but the gravel road makes it an uncomfortable endeavour. I’d give it a five on a scale of 1-5 with five being the most uncomfortable. Warning: Do not attempt this drive if your car doesn’t have above average ground clearance. I lost count at the number of times I jumped off my seat due to the bumps and dangerously uneven ground surface. The shuttle fee of R150 is a small price to pay for the potential damage to your car! Our driver recalled a story of a group of hikers who insisted on driving their VW Polo up to the car park, and needless to say, that story did not have a happy ending.
The second surprise was the difficulty of the hike. Although the trek is relatively short (3 to 3 half hours to complete the ascend), it required a lot of stamina. The majority of the hike is at an incline of varying degrees. This is good news when coming down, but it’s a slog making it up. There were few moments where the trail was level to allow for reprieve. At the start of the hike, an employee of the lodge told that we wouldn’t require trekking poles to complete the hike, but in retrospect, the third and fourth leg that the poles provide especially on an incline is always welcome in the Berg.
The third and final surprise, you guessed it. The dreaded chain ladders
Confession time, I’ve fantasised about doing this hike since I picked up a copy of Go magazine while waiting in a queue to pay for my toiletries in 2014. I’ve done a lot of research and thought I covered everything I needed to know about this hike. To my surprise, we encountered two chain ladders, one directly above the first, that we needed to climb to get to the top of the Amphitheater. I’ll be honest you’ll need a head for heights to do this. It was incredibly scary, and I held on to those chain ladders for dear life.
Despite these few tricky bits, I thoroughly enjoyed my hike and already planning to return, this time to camp on the top of the Amphitheater. Unfortunately, we trekked the hike just at the end of the winter season and discovered the waterfall was dry due to the lack of winter rains. The dry waterfall didn’t dampen our spirits though and the spectacular views of this mountain range keep me coming back, over and over again.
Before you hit the road…
- Plan your trip ahead of time.
- Pack snacks and rain gear before heading out for the hike. The weather in the Drakensberg is notorious for changing at any moment.
- Consider bringing your hiking poles. When we arrived, we were told that the hike could be done without poles but in hindsight, one can always use the additional balance which the “third” and “fourth” leg provides.
- The Sentinel car park is relatively isolated, and accommodation is scarce. The closest accommodation is at Witsieshoek mountain lodge which is also where you can book a shuttle to take you to Sentinel car park. Apart from here, one can stay at the numerous lodges and camping spots in the Northern Drakensberg or the nearby town of Clarens. 2 hours and an hour and a half from the Sentinel car park respectively. We opted to stay at a bed and breakfast in Phuthadijhaba. It is halfway between Witsieshoek and Clarens.