On our first afternoon in the Drakensberg we trundled up to the gates of Royal Natal National Park, our sparkling white rental not yet acquainted with the thick layer of mud that would streak its doors by days end.
“You cannot see it today,” the attendant said, peering through the window, “It’s too cloudy,” as if that was all the reason we might need to simply turn around and head home.
Yet in answer to his raised eyebrows, we continued on into the park.
In a valley of lush greenery where even the slightest inclination was quickly obscured by the grey mass of cloud, we’ll admit, we didn’t know quite where to look to see ‘it’ anyway.
Truthfully though, we didn’t care. The babbling rivers, fairy-tale bridges and a gathering of small buck meant our afternoon visit was well worth it.
It was only later, as we laid eyes on the rippling face of rock towering over the valley that we understood what the man had meant. The Amphitheatre is a sight you won’t want to miss.
Wrapping around the eastern border of Lesotho, the Amphitheatre takes pride of place 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 similarly given to the gargantuan feat of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.
The trail leads to one of the most striking geological features in the area and yet is one that sees relatively few foreign visitors.
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 distant ridges, revealing the landscapes as they dance in the wind.
A makeshift sign indicates a viewpoint off to the right, one of many spectacular stops 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 and 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 deposits us panting and red-faced at 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 Tugella River, the source of Africa’s tallest waterfall 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 upper 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 trail for the Amphitheatre hike begins at the Sentinel Car Park that can only be reached by car.
Pay the R40 (US$3) fee at the entrance to the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge Area and further along turn right at the fork just before reaching the lodge itself.
From here, the last 7km to the Sentinel Car Park are, in short, pretty crap. 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 return be sure to tell them you are back from the hike. There is also a tap here – it’s a good idea to fill up your water bottle before setting off.
Although the walk is just 12 km, 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 start of the trail, Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is an obvious choice, though those travelling on a budget may prefer to look elsewhere.
We stayed at Amphitheatre Backpackers which is relatively close to the main entrance of Royal Natal National Park, although a good 2 hour drive to the Amphitheatre hike.
With quirky decorations throughout the property and set in a large grassy area with views of the mountains, they offer a wide variety of accommodations and the facilities are excellent with 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 was a little overpriced.
While we had an excellent time here and think it is a great choice of hostel, 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.
Another budget-friendly option is Karma Backpackers which is located in Kestell, a little over an hour from the start of the hike.
By bus this part of the Drakensberg is accessible on the Johannesburg – Durban BazBus that runs four days a week and only stops at the Amphitheatre Backpackers.
From here you can organise to do the hike as part of a tour (from R690/US$50 depending on group size and including a guide, transport, lunch and all entrance fees) or join other travellers with their own vehicle.
We were strongly recommended by the hostel manager not to undertake this hike on our own for various safety reasons. While we nor the other four unaccompanied hikers we met 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.
At just over 3,000 m above sea level, weather is one of the biggest dangers on the mountain. 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 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 top and on the decent so bring appropriate clothes, 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.
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. While they not 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.