Amphitheater Hike in the Drakensberg
In December we decided to beat the winter blues, travelling to the Southern hemisphere and sunny South Africa – The Drakensberg.
I grew up hiking these parts of Africa as a child with my parents and various youth groups. The unspoiled scenery was exactly how I remembered it, if not better! If you are not a local or a mountaineer, seeking mountains, you will miss this part of South Africa. While it is tempting to be lured by the mother city, Cape Town, the garden route and the Kruger National Park, this area should be on everyone’s list.
After our Kilimanjaro experience in Tanzania, we got hooked on mountains and hiking adventures. So, when the mountain called we just had to go.
In this blog post we will share with you our Drakensberg experience in the Amphitheater. We will share where we stayed and our daily hikes. One thing is for sure, nowhere in South Africa can compare to this area. Sometimes it felt like we were in a Flintstones movie, other times, we could have been somewhere in Austria singing along to the ‘Sound of Music’.
We had to remind ourselves that we are actually in Africa.
The Drakensberg Amphitheater is a large cliff, stretching 5km (3.1 miles) over the Royal Natal National Park in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. It is by far one of the most photogenic scenery in South Africa and of course undeniably beautiful. Every photo is like a painting from a ‘Turner’.
We arrived at the crack of dawn in Johannesburg. We got delayed due to missing luggage but as soon as our case was filed, we picked up our rental car and off we went. The drive from O.R Tambo took about 5 hours. We stopped twice to stretch our leg, savoured a Wimpy coffee and had lunch at Black Steers where we met my mother. The drive was easy, straightforward and road ahead was wide open… Yes! Mom’s joining.
We booked our hiking adventure through Active Escapes. The support and assistance we got from them, was second to none. We were very well looked after. Our rooms at The Cavern Family Resort were big and spacious. There is a swimming pool overlooking the majestic Drakensberg mountains, a Forest Spa nestled between the lush indigenous forest and the food: top class.
Things to do:
Trail running. Mountain biking.
Guided hikes – twice a day if you feel inspired.
Or, explore the area on a horse’s back – whether your are adventurous or ‘not-so-sure’, there is a ride for you.
Other activities include canoeing, sipping on cocktails at the pool, play board games in the lounge or challenge a friend for a round of tennis.
For the Kids:
The Cavern is very child friendly which makes it a perfect spot for families of all ages.
Pony rides. Play ground and pool slides.
After a dip in the pool, cocktails and dinner we retired to our rooms.
Hike Day 1
For us, late morning ‘lie-ins’ in Africa are almost impossible. Despite our early schedule, the sun warms the room quickly with its early rays creeping through the curtains.
After breakfast, we bought a couple of necessities from the tourist shop (still no sign of our luggage) and met with our guide. Apart from SPF, I luckily carried majority of my hiking gear in my hand luggage. Pauric borrowed boots from a friend who decided not to do the hike. We shared hiking trousers and improvised for the rest.
We were in a group of 5 people, joining up with another Irish couple (luck of the Irish). It is wonderful meeting new people, especially those with similar passions. We were delighted.
This hike brought us 15km from the Cavern to our next lodge, Witsies Mountain Lodge.
The hike was steep at start, climbing above sandstone cliffs and quite flat towards the end. You have the option to detour to ancient Bushman Rock Art, half way – take the option!! It is only a 25 minute detour and not something you see easily in nature anywhere in the world. The only regret we have, is not detouring. Our guide seemed more concerned about the weather and lead on.
The view at the top of the Sandstone cliffs is overwhelmingly beautiful.
We continued along the ridge. All the way along, the view is absolutely breathtaking, spanning across two provinces: KwaZulu- Natal and the Free State. Along the way we came across a herd of horses cantering freely in the lush green fields on the side of the mountain. We decided to stop here to watch them play and enjoy a light snack. Light it was, as we neglected to take our freshly prepared lunch pack from the lodge.
In the far distance, we could spot game and baboons but it was too far to get a clear view of the antelope.
We arrive to Witsies Mountain Lodge much earlier than expected. If we thought the Cavern was breathtaking, Witsies is where time stops.
Tucked away in the heart of the Drakensberg right at the foot of Sentinel peak, you are surrounded by mountains. Every accommodation type at this lodge has a mountain view. The sunsets are mesmerizing.
We opted for the Hiker’s Cabins. These are new since 2014 and not your typical ‘dorm’-like accommodation. It is a backpacker-with-a-budget’s dream and by far the best view on the property.
View from your front-door at the Hiker’s Cabins – Witsies Mountain Lodge
Hike Day 2
There is nothing more peaceful than waking up in the morning, stepping out your front door, sipping a cup of coffee overlooking these mountains.
However, on our second day of hiking, our beautiful view was covered with thick fog. Initially we did not think we would be able to do the hike purely based on visibility. Nevertheless we transferred to Sentinel Car Park. This is where we start our next route to Tugela Falls and it was the most eventful day of the trip.
We started the 18 km hike on a well-maintained pathway and followed all the way up to sloping edges and the imfamouse chain ladders!
Thank goodness the fog cleared.
The chain ladders were well anticipated. It is the reason why we booked the route. The first was only short, about 6 meters and the second one was approximately 28 meters long. Looking from the ground, up, it does not look too difficult to accomplish. Once you are on it, just don’t look down!
The ladders are luckily very sturdy and well bolted.
From the top of the ladder chain, we followed the path passing a herd of cattle and a herdsman asking for the time. The fog returned this high up. We reached the Tugela falls just in time for lunch.
The Tugela waterfall is the second highest waterfall in the world. There was very little water in the river and with the fog covering the area, the summit seemed underwhelming. With good weather, I am sure a pleasant time can be spent here.
We did not spend a long time here. We mingled with fellow hikers and then made our way back down the chain ladders, passed the slopes and back onto the pathway.
*Tip: For hikers who are afraid of heights, there is an alternative route through the gully. Be mindful going up and down the gully. Rocks are loose and it is quite steep.
Hike Day 3
Our last day of hiking, was the easiest – more like a stroll around the mountain. We trekked 11 km to Mahai Campsite in the Royal Natal National Park, where our pick-up location was. We made it back just in time for lunch at the Cavern Mountain Lodge.
We walked through mist-belt forests and long wet grasslands. We crossed small streams and waterfalls. We spotted bushmen paintings at the visitor’s site and if you did not opt for the detour on Day 1, you can take a guided tour here.
Our favourite moment of the day, was the impromptu refreshing dip in the cascades, 2km before reaching the camp site.
After lunch at the Cavern, we packed up and ventured off to our next South African adventure: Soweto & a fabulous stay in the Munro Boutique Hotel, Johannesburg.