Craggy peaks. Countryside painted in forest greens and fading yellows. Impressive rock formations that flush red in the afternoon light. The Drakensberg boasts all of these things, but for us, it was the colossal rippled facade of the basalt Amphitheatre towering over the valley that called us north to the Royal Natal National Park.
Nestled in the north of the mountain range in KwaZulu-Natal, this spectacular pocket of national park is also home to one of South Africa’s highest peaks, Mont-aux-Sources, and the world’s second highest waterfall, Tugela Falls, though some controversially believe it deserves the top spot.
With numerous hiking trails navigating the lush forests and many a babbling brook carved through the park, this is not a place to come and relax. Though an afternoon spent idly in the shadow of the cliffs would not be a wasted one.
But for these two backpackers eager to be back in nature, the mountains called, the clear rivers beckoned and the best way to answer was in a pair of boots that were soon to be very muddy and wet.
If you have the time you could easily spend weeks exploring the beautiful Drakensberg mountain range, but with just a few days you’ll still be able to cover quite a lot of ground.
This short guide to Royal Natal National Park covers our favourite hiking trails, where to stay in the park and how to prepare for your visit.
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With trails carved through forests, along cliff tops and across rivers in this serene pocket of nature, hiking is easily the main attraction in Royal Natal National Park with some of the best Drakensberg hiking on offer. While the most spectacular walks are also the most challenging, there are hiking trails to suit all abilities.
We may not have seen the entire Drakensberg range, but we’re going to put it out there anyway, the Amphitheatre Trails to the top of Tugela Falls is the most spectacular in the area.
A valley ridged in textures of mossy greens rising into the folds and furrows of the cliff face and upward to the escarpment blanketed in sheaths of golden grass.
If you do just one hike in the area, make it this one. Though it is demanding and weather is a major factor to consider.
For more on how to prepare for and complete the hike, check out our full guide to the Drakensberg’s Amphitheatre Hike.
One of the more popular walks in Royal Natal National Park, the Tugela Gorge Trail takes in the sights from below, passing through lush forest and zigzagging across the Tugela River in the shadow of the cliff face.
The main hiking trail ends at the tunnel, a narrow section of undulating rock that delivers the crystal clear waters further downstream. Getting here requires some rock hopping and it seems many turn back before reaching this point.
For the more intrepid hikers though, a small and rarely used trail continues onward via a chain ladder to the right.
This path is far more overgrown, you’ll probably take a few spider webs to the face and if your feet aren’t already wet they soon will be as the now very vague ‘trail’ frequently crosses the river and eventually leads towards the base of Tugela Falls. Rock hop as close as you dare.
Admittedly we didn’t make it all the way there. After a late start and a leisurely lunch at the tunnel before setting off up the chain ladder we simply didn’t have enough time to make it right to the base, instead turning our attention to the smaller river pools and satisfying ourselves with an icy dip in the shadow of the cliffs.
If you intend to go the whole way to Tugela Falls, it’s best to get an early start. Don’t underestimate the challenge of scrambling over the river boulders which can be quite strenuous and leave enough time to make it back to the gate before closing if you are not staying within the park.
Also note that during the summer months when the area receives plenty of rainfall, the waterfall thrives, but for the rest of the year it may be little more than a trickle.
Two days of solid hiking left our muscles a little sore and us keen to rethink that whole ‘not a place to relax’ type sentiment. Our solution – the Cascades.
One of Royal Natal National Park’s more relaxed hiking trails, the Cascades is flat and easy walk alongside the Mahai River where bushbuck congregate in the grassy clearings and the delicate arched bridges are straight from a fairy tale.
If you’re looking to take the pace down a few notches, but not quite resolved to spending the afternoon curled up in a rocking chair with a warm beverage, this meandering trail is a good option.
We walked only as far as the cascades, but the trail continues on to McKinlay’s Pools for those looking to wander a little further.
In just few days these walks will show off some of the best sights in Royal Natal National Park, but if you’ve got extra time, there are plenty more activities to occupy yourself with.
This List covers most of the hiking trails and activities available in the park, both long and short.
We would also recommend a stop at the little dam where you’ll get a full panoramic view of the Amphitheatre rock face on a clear day.
Inside the park is the perfectly situated Thendele Camp has a number of fully-equipped self-catering chalets (starting at R800 (US$60) per person) with panoramic views over the Amphitheatre cliff face – easily the best breakfast view around. Find rates for Thendele Camp here.
Camping in Royal Natal National Park is also possible with two campgrounds in the park: the spacious Mahai Campground which sits alongside the river, and the smaller and more secluded Rugged Glen Campsite. There are a combined 140 campsites available with barbecue and ablution facilities and a limited number of powered spots at each camp. Per person prices start at R220 (US$16.50) at Rugged Glen and R330 (US$25) at Mahai for an unpowered site.
If you’re not camping and have your own transport, it’s far more economical to stay outside of the park where there are a number of comfortable hostels and guesthouses.
Just a thirty-minute drive from Royal Natal National Park’s entrance gate we found the Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge. Set in a large grassy area with views of the mountains, this is a great budget option with quirky decorations throughout the property, wide variety of accommodations options on offer and excellent facilities including several guest kitchens, a barbecue area, pool, jacuzzi, bar and restaurant. Check here for rates and availability.
If you don’t have your own transport, this is the only place in the northern Drakensberg where the Durban – Johannesburg BazBus stops. The hostel can also arrange trips within the park, including guided tours of the Amphitheatre Trail and a daily shuttle service (R100, US$7.50) which runs inside the Royal Natal National for hiking the Tugela Gorge and the other shorter hikes.
Closer to the park entrance, Berghouse and Cottages is a slightly more upmarket option with a gorgeous location looking directly onto the Amphitheatre. Lodgings are in beautiful private chalets with meals available on site. Check here for rates and availability.
Another budget-friendly option is Karma Backpackers. Located in Kestell, this lovely hostel is the ideal base for the Amphitheatre Hike sitting a little over an hour from the trailhead. Bright, colourful rooms are set around a garden with natural products sourced from the surrounding region made available for guests. Check rates and availability here.
The Royal Natal National Park entrance fee costs R40 (US$3) per person, per day payable at the gate. Closing times are signposted at the entrance gate so be sure to leave enough time to drive back to the gate after your walk, unless of course you are staying at Thendele Camp of camping within the park.
The visitor centre has a miniature model of the park showing all the Royal Natal hiking trails and individual brochures outlining each hike which can be purchased for R3 each (US$0.20).
If you’re planning to self-cater at your accommodation, we would recommend that you stock up on food and supplies on your way in, either at Bergville or Harrismith, as there are no large shops nearby the park. There is a small souvenir shop and some basic supplies available at both the visitor centre and Thendele Camp.
If, like us, you’re craving something a little indulgent after all that Drakensberg hiking, something deliciously sweet, just off the main highway leading to the park (the R74) you’ll find The Outspan, an excellent cafe and bakery. The milkshakes, muffins and other desserts are scrumptious and the ‘legendary’ biltong, crafted from an old family recipe, was the best we tried in South Africa – and we tried a lot. The chilli variety was particularly good.
If you’re a bit of a mountain goat and not ready to hang up your hiking boots quite yet, Giant’s Castle Game Reserve to the south and Golden Gate Highlands National Park to the north have plenty more hiking trails, caves, cliffs, waterfalls, wildlife and rock art to explore and experience should you have a few extra weeks up your sleeve. We definitely wish we had!
The stunning zigzag road of Sani Pass that leads the way into Lesotho further south is another path that will not disappoint.