Slightly over 6 kilometers takes you from the car park just below the Tendele Hutted Camp to directly to the base of the soaring walls of the Amphitheatre. The hike is fairly easy - you gain about 1600 feet - passing through protea grasslands and small pockets of forest (officially ‘afromontane forest’). Eventually, the canyon walls come ever closer and you will probably need to bring some shoes that can get wet if you want to push up the gorge as far as you can. The hike has been described as the most spectacular hike in the Park short of hiking to the top of the Amphitheatre itself - something that usually is done from a starting point outside of the Park. At the meeting of the Thukela and the East Buttress gully, there are three options. One path leads to a small cave above the East Buttress gully from which you have a great view of the magnificent rock walls rising all around you. The second option is to push up the Thukela further, an option not to be taken if the water is running strong. This is a wet option as you will have to wade your way up the slot canyon. The last option is to take the chain ladder up the cliff opposite from the East Buttress gully and to the right of the slot canyon. After the chains, you clamber up further with the help of some more chains and the odd spike imbedded in the jungly rock walls. This path lets you get further up the Thukela without getting wet. Remember to give the lad a few rand in the car park for watching your car while you are off exercising.
The chain ladder dates back to 1930 when local pioneer, Otto Zunckel (the same man responsible for the construction of the Patrol Cabin), installed the 200 rung ladders which take you to the top of the Escarpment. Two sets of ladders were originally in place covering some 30 meters of cliff. Two newer sets of ladders were added after sometime in order for faster climbers to bypass slower climbers or those who tend to freeze up on the cliff faces. The ladders give one a reasonably easy access to some of the best alpine terrain South Africa has to offer. ‘Easy’ is a word that applies as long as the wind is not howling.
Coming off the Amphitheatre Rim, Thukela Falls is the second or third highest falls in the World - only Angel and possibly Yosemite are higher. The falls is at its maximum during the summer rains when it can be visible as far away as the Amphitheatre Backpackers Hostel on highway N74 near Bergville. If it has not been raining, however, the falls is but a trickle - the ‘river’ starts but a short distance from the Escarpment cliffs. I met a Bavarian fellow in the Thukela Gorge below who was pressing ever higher because his guidebook told him to do so for a proper view of the waterfall. Up on the rim a couple of days later reconfirmed my earlier thoughts that the only way you are going to see this waterfall in dry conditions is from the top itself.
There are several points along the Drakensberg Escarpment where the adjective ‘magical’ could apply. Here, atop the rim of the Amphitheatre is one such place. Pictures do not do proper justice to the natural majesty. The rim is best seen at sunrise when, if you are lucky, the lower bowl is ensconced in a sea of clouds. Add the barking of a baboon hidden away somewhere in the cliffs below and the surreal scene becomes quickly World-class.
The Sentinel stands at the right hand side of the Amphitheatre, dominating the views from approaches from that direction. At 3165 meters high, the Sentinel is the highest free-standing peak in the local vicinity - slightly over 100 meters higher than its bookend on the other end of the Amphitheatre, the Eastern Buttress. The main trail to the top of the Drakensberg Escarpment, circles around the upper base of the Sentinel, giving one up close views of the massif. The Sentinel, due to the ease of access, is very popular with climbers (‘popular’ is a relative term in South Africa. A ‘popular’ berg pass might see one party a week, for example) and all sorts of routes exist from the reasonable easy original route (graded ‘D’ by South Africans being the equivalent to upper 4th class to maybe 5.0 by US standards) to routes that quickly rise in difficulty level.
It takes about 30-40 minutes to walk up to the Bushman paintings in Sigubudu Valley, a round trip of an hour or a little over without counting the time taken to look at the paintings (6km). Royal Natal has trained people from the local village who act as guides and can explain the origin of the paintings and also point out some fossils embedded in the rock. There are paintings of eland, and many people, as well as hand prints - all very interesting, and reasonably well preserved.
This is a fairly hectic hike, with a pretty decent (vertical) uphill including some ladders and then a scramble downhill, also including some ladders. The view from the top of Plowman's Kop is beautiful and very satisfying, and on the way down, we saw a wonderful camel shadow of the mountains (see my pics). The Mudslide is true to its name in wet weather! The walk is well signposted. It is 11 km round trip from Thendele, and starts at the end of the road in the upper camp. Remember to sign the register.
A day's walk can get you to the top of the 4km-long Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg. A snakepath up the mountain, past the Sentinel (3165m) and the Eastern Buttress (3047m) takes you to the only vertical section of the walk, the chain ladder (see picture). Actually there are 2 ladders - you can swing from one to take photos of people ascending the other. Then a relatively short walk along the banks of the tiny Thukela (Tugela) river takes you to the amphitheatre edge, where you can see almost 1km down. The Thukela Falls is the highest water cascade in the world. Also on the top of the amphitheatre is Mont-aux-sources which is the highest point in South Africa - the mountain of river sources. Once you are on the top of the amphitheatre, it is like a little pimple to get to the top of Mont-aux-sources.
The hike takes about 5-8 hours round trip depending on your fitness level, and how long you spend on top. The weather can change unexpectedly.
Translated from Afrikaans, "Dragon Mountains", these mountains run up the middle of South Africa. They are at their most dramatic along the border with completely landlocked Lesotho (South Africa completely surrounds it).
The Zulus call them the "Barrier of Spears" and given the jagged nature of them, it's probably the better name.
I freaked out trying to climb some chain ladders to get onto the top (a little nervous about heights), but made up for it getting up a rock strewn gully which two climbers I was with were not happy about (I'm not a climber). Pieter, Graham, if you ever read this, sorry for putting you through that - if you'd said 'No way', I would have listened.
Although 'Apartheid' (meaning 'separateness') may be a distant memory, the economics of South Africa still have to catch up with the politics. It is fair to say that much of the money is still in the hands of the white population and many blacks still live in the townships (above photo taken in Orange Freestate), some in slum settlements.
This is something that will take time to sort out, however, I feel more hope for South Africa. Everyone now has equal access to education and healthcare, though admittedly it can cost - a lot of the old barriers have gone. It is true to say a generation have missed out due to the struggle against Apartheid, but those that have followed want to work towards a better future and want to achieve something with their lives - the attitude of a student called 'Charles' (despite feeling a bit homesick while studying) typified this. He wanted a decent job, he wanted to travel (he mentioned 'America') and he wanted to do right by people - I can only wish him the best of luck (though you should support one of your local football sides instead of Real Madrid, mate).
There is still a feeling of different groups living in separate communities living separate lives, however, the habits of a few lifetimes will take time to disappear. Although mistakes have been made (the ANC on coming to power did replace many of the civil servants thus depriving themselves of much needed experience) and people are perhaps not quite interacting together as quickly as they should, there is also a feeling of wanting to put things right. In South Africa, the path of reconciliation is very much that slowly and surely being followed.