The Drakensberg Mountains feature one of the most impressive cliffs faces on earth. Its amphitheatre forms a natural border between Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Kingdom of Lesotho which features the area’s most incredible natural feature. Standing at 948 meters, Tugela Falls plunges 1 km down its facade in five leaps. It is the highest waterfall in Africa, and there is even some debate that it might be the tallest in the world rather than Venezuela’s Angel Falls.
I have been trying to do this hike since January and finally succeed this April. Both my failed attempts were the cause of bad weather, but luckily for me, this time, the odds were finally in my favour.
If you want to conquer this mountain and stand on top of the world’s second highest waterfall, here’s everything you need to know about hiking Tugela Falls!
-Important Information for hiking Tugela Falls-
- Distance: 13 km
- Duration: 4 hours+ round-trip
- Trail Difficulty: Moderate to difficult depending on fitness level.
- Costs: R 75 pp fee payable at Sentinel Car Park and R 45 pp at the entrance to the Royal Natal National Park.
From Johannesburg: It’ an easy 4-hour drive to Sentinel Car Park along the N3.
For Durban: It is a 4-hour 30-minute drive along the N3 and R74.
If you have time, make sure you stop along the R74 just before Bergville for some pictures of the beautiful sunflower fields, flanked by the Drakensberg mountains in the distance.
-Where to Stay in the Drakensberg-
Accommodation in the Drakensberg is a treat within itself. Whether you are on a tight budget or looking to splurge, you won’t be hard-pressed to find beautiful properties with incredible views of the Amphitheatre.
On A Budget
Camp inside Royal Natal National Park at Mahai campsite and hike to your heart’s content. Not only is it one of the best campsites in South Africa, but it is also super affordable at R 120 per person per night. The only downside is that you will have to drive 2 hours to the beginning of the Tugela Falls hike at Sentinel Car Park.
For those looking for something closer, Witsiehoek Mountain Lodge is a 30-minute drive or 2.5-hour walk from the car park. Hiker cabins start at R 495 pp while chalets will set you back R 935 pp. The lodge is also close to various other trails in the area as well as popular rock climbing and mountain biking routes.
Somewhere in between
I decided to stay at Amphitheatre Backpackers – again. It’s no secret they are one of my favourite accommodation options in the area, but it was also half way between the falls and the Drakensberg canopy tour I was doing the following day. Double rooms start at R 200 pp per night, and eight-bed dorms are R 180 per night. There are also some beautiful short hikes from the property, as well as a jacuzzi, pool, sauna, bar and a bouldering cave.
– The Best Time of Year to Hike Tugela Falls? –
Although it can be summited all year around, March to April is the best time to hike Tugela Falls. The autumn weather means you’ll have blue skies, warm weather and a small chance of rainfall. Hiking during the hot summer months (November to February) comes with humidity and high chances of thunderstorms that could spoil your trip. The winter months (June to August) still have clear days, but temperatures plummet at night and the possibility of snow means a more slippery ascent and descent.
– Hiking The Tugela Falls Trail –
Before arriving at the Sentinel Parking Lot, I had read a blog post about the trail that made me worry. Words like “strenuous”, “hard” and “I felt like I could not go on” filled the page. Just what had I gotten myself into?
I am happy to report that the hike is not THAT bad. I’m moderately fit and found it a pleasant stroll after the initial incline. I did stop to take loads of photos on the way up and had an argument with a butterfly who won’t open its wings for a picture. So that possibly helped.
The hike up to the falls is pretty straight forward. After filling in the mountain register and paying the entrance fee, the path gradually climbs up the mountain in zig zags. Once you reach the viewpoint overlooking the Amphitheatre, Devil’s Tooth and the Inner Tower, follow the path right towards the sign that says the “Summit”. If you take the wrong path and end up at the faux-summit (which offers stunning views of the valley below), climb over the rocks and head towards the Sentinel. You will see the path going around the base of Massif, and it’s easy to get back on track from there.
From here, the terrain is flat with minor scrambling. If you want to avoid the chain ladders, take the steep gully to the top of the Beacon Buttress. However, if you want to test your nerve, continue following the contouring path past the Sentinel Cave until you reach the ladders.
As someone who doesn’t enjoy heights that much, I try to push myself out of my comfort zone now and then. After those ladders had come into sight, I did not think I was going to be able to make it to the up. But I mustered up whatever courage I had left, tried to ignore the wind howling around me and just focused all my energy on taking it one step at a time.
After making it to the top and a brief inner celebration, it was another 30-minute walk to the edge of the Amphitheatre, where the Tugela Falls plunged into the gorge below. At 3,121 meters above sea level, this is by far the highest place I have been to in my life.
After finding a spot for lunch, taking photos and investigating the hut where campers can stay overnight, I retraced my steps back to the parking lot. However, if you want a circular route, you can also finish your Tugela Falls hike by descending via the Beacon Buttress gully.