Craggy peaks. Countryside painted in forest green and fading yellow. Impressive rock formations that flush red in the afternoon light. The Drakensberg boasts all of these, 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, 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 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 this beautiful mountain range, but with just a few days you’ll still be able to cover quite a lot of ground at Royal Natal.
This short guide covers our favourite walks (and suggestions for a few others), where to stay and how to prepare for your visit.
With trails carved through forests, along cliff tops and across rivers in this serene pocket of nature, hiking is easily the main attraction. While the most spectacular walks are also the most challenging, there are trails on offer for all abilities.
We may not have seen the entire Drakensberg range but we’re going to put it out there anyway, this hike is the most remarkable 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 walk in the area, make it this one. Though it is a demanding hike and weather is a major factor to consider.
For more on how to prepare and complete the hike, check out our full guide here.
One of the more popular hikes in the park, this trail takes in the sights from below, passing through lush forest and zigzagging across the river in the shadow of the cliff face.
The main 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 though, a small and rarely used trail continues via a chain ladder to the right.
This path is far more over grown, 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 the 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.
If you intend to go the whole way, it’s best to start early. 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 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.
A 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 is about as relaxing as you can get.
We walked only as far as the cascades, but the trail continues on to McKinlay’s Pools
In just few days these walks will show off some of the best sights in the park, but if you’ve got the time there are plenty more activities to occupy it.
Check here for the full list of walks and activities available in the park, both long and short.
We would also recommend a stop at the little dam where you’ll get the full view of the Amphitheatre rock face on a clear day.
Inside the park is the perfectly situated Thendele Camp which 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. Check here for rates.
There are also two campgrounds within the park: the spacious Mahai Campground which sits alongside the river and the smaller and more secluded Rugged Glen. There are a combined 140 sites 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.
Outside the park and a thirty-minute drive from the gate is Amphitheatre Backpackers where we opted to stay. If you don’t have your own transport, this is the only place where the Durban – Johannesburg BazBus stops in the northern Drakensberg and is the best budget option nearby the park.
If you’re without wheels, the hostel can arrange guided tours for the Amphitheatre hike and offers a daily shuttle service (R100, US$7.50) inside the national park to the start of the shorter hikes.
Otherwise a handful of guesthouses can be found in the villages near the entrance to the park.
Park entry costs R40 (US$3) per person, per day payable at the gate. Closing times are signposted at the gate so be sure to leave enough time to drive back to the gate after your walk, unless of course you are staying at the accommodation within the park.
The visitor centre has a miniature model of the park showing all the hiking trails and individual brochures outlining each hike which can be purchased for R3 each (US$0.20). We bought the one for the Amphitheatre walk and found the directions useful, despite taking a wrong turn along the way.
As all the accommodation is self-catering and there are no large shops nearby, we would recommend stocking up on food and supplies on your way in, either at Bergville or Harrismith.
There is a small souvenir shop and some basic supplies available at both the visitor centre and Thendele Camp.
TOP TIP: After all the kilometres hiked we were craving some comfort food, something deliciously sweet. Just off the main highway leading to the park (the R74), The Outspan, an excellent cafe and bakery, was a welcome find. 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 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.