Wrapping around the eastern border of Lesotho, the Amphitheatre takes pride of place in Royal Natal National Park in the northern Drakensberg. While many come to admire the impressive ribbon of ochre cliffs from below, it was the challenging hike to the escarpment that drew us to this particular stretch of mountain.
A chance to stand on the roof of Africa, a nickname shared with the gargantuan feat of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.
The Drakensberg’s Amphitheatre Hike, also called the Tugela Falls Hike, is one of Royal Natal National Park’s best hiking trails and yet is one that sees relatively few foreign visitors.
This post covers how to do the hike the trail independently, where to stay for the Amphitheatre Hike and some tips for your trip.
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Above a sea of puffy white clouds, the rocky path, in the process of being paved, winds and zigzags toward the sheer cliffs of the Sentinel.
To the right, wisps of cloud slither across mountain ridges, revealing distant landscapes as they dance in the wind.
A makeshift sign indicates a viewpoint off to the right, one of many spectacular stops along the Amphitheatre trail marked by chiselled valleys, emerald peaks and spires of jagged rock.
Enhanced by shadows from the harsh midday sun, it’s not hard to see why early settlers felt the rugged topography, textured in shades of green and black, resembled that of a dragon’s back, giving rise to the name, the Drakensberg, or so the story goes.
Around the base of the Sentinel the track traverses steep rock faces and barely-flowing streams with baboons as constant spectators to our every step and stumble.
Two routes lead to the upper escarpment. The incredibly steep rocky gully and the infamous chain ladders.
We aim for the chain ladders, but with a slight navigational error on our part, we find ourselves on the rock gully route that brings us panting and red-faced to the top, far higher than expected and with no defined path to follow.
A gentle slope downhill leads to a thread of silver meandering through the yellowing grasses marking the glistening Tugela River, the source of Africa’s tallest waterfall, Tugela Falls, now tumbling over the cliffs ahead of us.
After just 3 hours of walking clouds are already beginning to form as warm air from the valley collides with the chill of the higher altitudes.
Knowing our minutes here are numbered we savour every moment. The perfectly carved landscapes, the veil of water cascading over the cliffs, the small yellow flowers waving in the wind.
Thunder echoes in the distance indicating our time on the mountain is quickly running out.
Following the contours of the river, we cross the escarpment the way we had originally intended, to the chain ladders that will lead us down from the roof of Africa.
The Amphitheatre Hike begins at the Sentinel Car Park which can only be reached by car.
Pay the R40 (US$3) Royal Natal National Park entrance fee at the opening to the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge Area and further along the road turn right at the fork just before reaching the lodge itself.
From here, the last 7km to the Sentinel Car Park are, quite simply, pretty terrible. Large rocks and loose gravel litter the road and there are some particularly steep sections.
In our little car we took it really slow and managed to get there and back without incident, but we were glad we left before the rains came when the road most likely becomes a shit fight between mud and sliding rocks.
Once at the parking lot, register and pay the R70 (US$5) entry fee in the little building. On your return from the Amphitheatre Trail, be sure to let them know that you’re back from the hike. There is also a tap here where you can refill your water bottle before setting off (this is the reusable bottle we always take hiking).
Although the walk is just 12km, it reaches over 3,000m so if you’ve come straight from the coast you might feel some effects from the altitude. The recommended hiking time is 6 to 7 hours including regular stops for photographs and a lunch break at the top. We started the walk at 8AM and were back at the carpark by 3PM, just in time for the afternoon downpour.
With a stunning location overlooking the mountains and just a few kilometres from the Sentinel Car Park and start of the trail, Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is an ideal base for the Amphitheatre Hike.
The property has recently received a much-needed makeover and offers everything from spacious chalets with mountain views to shared hiker’s cabins. Prices start from $40 per person, including breakfast. Check rates and availability here.
If you’re on a tighter budget, the Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge where we stayed is a more affordable option though it’s a good 2-hour drive to the start of the Amphitheatre Hike. Set in a large grassy area with mountains views, this hostel is decked out with quirky decorations throughout the property and excellent facilities including several guest kitchens, a barbecue area, pool, jacuzzi, bar and restaurant. We would recommend bringing your own food though as there are no shops nearby and the food served is a little overpriced.
While we had an excellent time here and genuinely felt it was a great hostel in the area, it does get a bit of a bashing online, in particular for overselling their tours, though we felt the information given on activities in the area was actually quite useful.
If you don’t have your own transport, it’s also the only place in the northern Drakensberg where the Durban – Johannesburg BazBus stops and from there the hostel can arrange guided tours of the Amphitheatre Trail with prices starting from R690 (US$50) including a guide, transport, lunch and all entrance fees. Check here for rates and availability.
Another budget-friendly option is Karma Backpackers. Located in Kestell, this lovely hostel is well-situated 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.
We were strongly recommended by the hostel manager not to undertake this hike on our own for various safety reasons. While none of the other unaccompanied hikers we met or ourselves encountered any issues, serious incidents have occurred in the past.
As well as taking the following precautions, check the situation on the ground before heading out.
Check the weather. At just over 3,000m above sea level, the weather is one of the biggest dangers in the Drakensberg. Afternoon storms, particularly in the summer months, are frequent and fierce. Trust us, you don’t want to be stuck on the escarpment when the heavens decide to open up.
Get an early start. At a decent pace and factoring in breaks, the walk can be completed in less than 7 hours. It’s best to start by at least 9AM to ensure you can make it back to the Sentinel Car Park before the afternoon storms. Clouds also start to roll in by around noon which can be disorientating on the narrow goat trails of the escarpment.
Which route to the top? The chain ladders cover two stretches of vertical cliff and can be a bit nerve-wracking if you’re afraid of heights. In this case, you might be better off taking the gully route which is marked by a thick wooden pole on the left directly as you come around the back of the Sentinel.
Dress Appropriately. It can get bitterly cold both at the exposed summit and on the decent so bring appropriate clothing, even if it feels warm when you set out. If you plan to come here in winter note that much of the mountain may be covered in snow.
Be wary of the herders. We were warned to be wary of the goat herders on the mountaintop who have been the source of issues in the past. We encountered nine men at the top, one solo and the others in groups of four and while they were not particularly friendly, they were more indifferent than aggressive in any way. Our advice would be to act friendly and perhaps hide your valuables rather than being overly cautious toward them.
Watch out for baboons! Although they always kept their distance, we did see them screech rather aggressively and throw rocks at other hikers. Keep an eye on them and definitely don’t attempt to feed them.