standing on top of the world
Dropping more than half-a-mile in five distinct free-leaping cascades, Tugela Falls (948 meters) is Africa’s tallest waterfall, and second in the world only to Venezuela’s Angel Falls. After hiking through Royal-Natal to get a glimpse of Tugela from below, D ascended to the top of the Amphitheatre on his last day in the Drakensberg to stand at the waterfall’s edge.
Though the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation area was only 7km from his lodge, D very nearly did not make it to the trailhead at all. The last three kilometers of road are inlaid with paving stones, but to reach them one has to navigate a rough, rock-strewn, steep track, which is definitely not designed for low-clearance rental vehicles. D made it, but just barely, and was white-knuckling the drive the whole way, especially when he thought about how much more difficult the road would be on the way back if the storm clouds gathering in the distance reached the parking lot before he did.
The previous day in Lesotho, just on the other side of the Drakensberg Mountains, D enjoyed nearly flawless weather. The weather in this region is temperamental, however, and D woke up to a total whiteout. The mist lifted as D was having breakfast, but returned with a vengeance just as D reached the trailhead. The park attendant told D that the mist comes and goes, so D decided to press on.
The first couple of kilometers are inlaid with paving stones, making the trail easy to follow, even when visibility dropped to no more than ten feet. At times the mist would lift momentarily, revealing the sheer monolithic walls of the Amphitheatre. At other times, the fog got so soupy that D seriously contemplated turning back.
Once the paving stones ended, a bit of scrambling led to a neatly groomed trail that skirted the Amphitheatre massif. Once more D was reminded of the hikes we had done in the Island in the Sky in Utah. After 5 kilometers, the chain ladders – the hike’s signature feature – came into view. There were two sections of ladder, which made it possible to scale the sheer rock walls with relative ease. Although they appeared well anchored, the ladders swayed tremendously with every step, making D’s nerves tingle a tiny bit.
Once atop the Amphitheatre, the panorama is breathtaking. There was a pretty waterfall flowing down the mountainside and, improbably, herders with flocks of cows and sheep. The trail was not immediately obvious, especially in the mist, but D had printed good directions and knew to head in a southeasterly direction. He crossed over some mossy areas and reached the Tugela stream, which he followed through the mist to the waterfall’s edge.
The fog was soupiest at the edge of the Amphitheatre, and D sensed – more than saw – that he had reached the end of the trail. A colorful Drakensberg crag lizard darted under a loose rock, and D spent half an hour waiting him out while eating his packed lunch. D was just about to turn around and head back when the fog suddenly lifted, and D was treated to Tugela’s gorgeous views.
For variety’s sake, D decided to descend via the Beacon Buttress gully instead of taking the chain ladders. If anything, this proved a much more adventuresome route. The steep gully was strewn with loose rocks. Whereas the chain ladders conveyed the sense of danger while being anything but, the gully actually was perilous. One misstep on a loose rock would be enough to send a hiker tumbling down the steep mountainside. Once he reached the groomed trail D realized that he had passed the gully on his way to the chain ladders, and it had looked so impassable that he hadn’t even given a moment’s thought to the possibility that it might offer an alternate route to the top of the Amphitheatre.
D made it back to the car park just as the first drops of rain began falling, and back to the lodge just before the storm broke out in earnest. The power was out, but it seemed a small inconvenience compared to the predicament in which D would have found himself had the rain come sooner and made the road impassible.