Camping in the Drakensberg
On Top of the World
The Drakensberg is world renowned for its natural beauty with a uniquely colourful South African cultural experience. The ‘’Drakens berg’’ or ‘’Mountains of dragons,’’ named by the early Dutch settlers, stretches for over a 1000 kilometres, from the Eastern Cape to the Limpopo province, parallel to the Eastern coast.
This adventure plays out in the Northern region of the Drakensberg – more specifically the Amphitheatre. You will get here in a little more than four hours and it is 340 kilometres from O.R. Tambo International airport. The best route to this spot is via the N3 to Harrismith and the R74 from there, past the Sterkfontein dam on your right.
The Amphitheatre has one of the most impressive rock faces on the globe and boasts one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. It is five kilometres in length and its highest point is 3,050 meters above sea level. It is a World Heritage site and part of the Royal Natal National Park. The waterfall rolling off the back of the dragon is the Tugela (Thukela) Falls, which refers to the ‘sudden’ or ‘startling’ effect of the heavy rains on the falls in Zulu. This is regarded as the second highest waterfall in the world, with 948 meters in total taking five cascading leaps with the tallest being a spectacular, uninterrupted 411 meters.
Snakes and Ladders
The very popular Sentinel Peak trail – also known as the chain ladder hike or Tugela Falls hike – is a frequently treaded hiking trail in the Drakensberg. The claim to fame of this trail, apart from the Tugela Falls, is the daunting, legendary chain ladders connecting you to the top of the world.
The hike will take more or less five hours return with a distance of 6,4 kilometres and an elevation of 518 meters. From the Sentinel car park above the Witsieshoek resort, it is a zig-zag single track hike up to the only weak point or gully in the continuous, intimidating and lofty sheer rock face. This rocky valley in between the rising citadels is hard work, but once you get to the top of the escarpment, the mountain levels out into an enormous, flat plateau. I could not tell what took away my breath; the strenuous gully, the ice cold wind, the realisation that I tore my pants, the hissing sound I heard when I placed my
hand on a rock, or the spectacular views as you rise through the rocks.
The 360 degrees view is immensely vast and humbling. Up there you look past civilisation into a simpler time where it was just man versus nature: no pride, no ego, and no self-doubt. At the bottom of valley are furious fires blowing up clouds of smoke that roll up the mountain, emulating the fabled dragon.
After taking it all in, you continue with the hike across the mountain top until you get to the mouth of the waterfall. At this cold stage of the year the river bed was dried up and we only encountered frozen pools of ice. We were able to walk all the way up to the edge of this barren waterfall, something you cannot do in the rainy season.
A short hike across the tundra and now it was finally time for the dreaded chain ladders. This took up the majority of the dialogue on this trip and it did not disappoint. As you get to take your turn down the ladder, you can feel the trembling instability of the person below you. This ladder is 40 meters to a ledge where you take ladder number two and a further 20 meters to the single track trail. Once you are on the ladder, the fear turns into adrenalin, in turn becoming exhilarating fun.
You will hear screams of full grown men on these chains, guaranteed. The now smoky trail zig-zags back to the car park and a well-deserved rest.
Mixing with the locals
We sought refuge from the cold at our old favourite, the Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge in Bergville. This is a melting pot of locals, international tourists, adventure seekers, and mountain climbers. This might not match the other high-end accommodation in the Drakensberg, but what it lacks in luxury, it makes up for in personality.
With colourfully eclectic décor coated with a lot of South African flavour, it is an entertainment hotspot and a fixture for the locals. There is a bustling bar at the centre of this tourist trap with an indoor fireplace to one side, a jacuzzi to the other, and a break-away Tv-room above. The stock standard entertainment features like table tennis, pool, chess, rock swimming pool, and foosball are all accounted for. But what makes this place really special are the sauna, indoor bouldering cave, and a cosy restaurant. The pre-set, three-course meal at this restaurant is always delicious and only surpassed by the live entertainment on stage – an explosion of local flavour.
For more information, please visit www.amphibackpackers.com.