amphitheatre of the gods
D’s first hike in the Drakensberg also proved to be his toughest – not just because of the length and intermittent sketchiness of the trail, but also because of what it took to get there.
After departing Kigali late Friday evening and spending the wee hours of Saturday morning fighting drowsiness with caffeine in the Johannesburg airport, D still had a four-hour drive to reach the trailhead. At one point he passed through a seemingly interminable whiteout of soupy, low-hanging fog. The temptation to forego the hike and find a place to sleep was overwhelming. The only reason D did not give in to it is that he figured, correctly, that a good dose of fresh mountain air would feel every bit as refreshing as a nap.
The good thing about leaving Johannesburg at the crack of dawn is that there was not much traffic; D reached Royal-Natal with plenty of time to accommodate a full-day hike. By 10am, D had paid his entrance fee, signed into the park register, geared up, and was ready to hit the trails. There are numerous attractive paths criss-crossing the park. The one on which D had set his sights follows the Tugela River gorge right into the Drakensberg’s famed Amphitheatre.
The views were magnificent and the neatly manicured path was easy to follow as it ascended gently for 5-6 kilometers, passing through copses and crossing wooded valleys. Eventually the terrain grew a bit monotonous, but just as D’s enthusiasm began to flag, the path joined the Tugela River and D got his first glimpse of the eponymous gorge. This part of the trail immediately called to mind Zion’s Narrows, with the trail following the riverbed as the canyon walls closed in overhead.
The trail guide D had found online noted that many hikers turn back at the first river crossing. Those who do miss out on most of the trail’s most spectacular attributes. There were three river crossings that required some creative rock hopping if one wanted to stay dry (D got one boot just a wee bit wet). Then the riverbed trail opened up unto a junction of sorts.
To the right, a chain ladder led up a slick rock wall, which in turn led to a narrow, root-covered rock chute. There were a handful of metal spikes driven into the sheer rock and lengths of wire stretched from the top to assist in navigating this section. This made for an exciting ascent even if the way back down was a bit nerve wrecking. There was not much trail left after the rock chute, as the path dead-ended into a field of massive boulders overlooking the Tugela River.
It looked like it would have been possible to hike in the riverbed, but it certainly would not have been comfortable, and would likely have been a bit dangerous given the rate of water flow and size of the boulders. Also, the riverbed did not appear to offer much more diversity in terms of views, especially since the Amphitheatre was swaddled in rainclouds. D ate his lunch with a group of rowdy Belgians and retraced his steps back down to the river junction. He snuck a peak into the main river tunnel and then crossed over to the river’s other flank, where a steep trail ascended to a viewpoint that offered a glimpse of the famous waterfall.
If one looks for pictures of the Amphitheatre online, the images all feature flawlessly clear skies and idyllic summer scenery. The reality is that the Drakensberg is shrouded in mist the vast majority of the time – it’s not called the Dragon Mountain for nothing. D did catch a glimpse of the narrow Tugela Falls, but it looked like the water was flowing straight out of the clouds, rather than off the top of the Amphitheatre. It was 2pm by the time D got back down to the tunnel entrance. This was the turnaround time he had set for himself; moreover, it looked like a rainstorm was brewing, so D packed away his camera and practically ran back towards the car park.
It’s unclear how much distance D actually covered. The park map put the length of the gorge hike (car park to tunnel) at 7 kilometers each way. The trail guide estimated 22 kilometers total if one tacks on the Boulder Hop and the viewpoint trail. D’s iPhone clocked him at approximately 18 kilometers, but the app clearly undercounts steep segments of trail, registering them as “stairs climbed” instead of incorporating them into the total distance walked. Either way, the Tugela Falls gorge trail is pretty much everything one could hope for in a hike: gorgeous scenery, a bit of adventure, and varied landscapes. D cannot recommend it highly enough.