The Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike (also known as Sentinel Peak of Tugela Falls hike) climbs tricky gullies and nerve-wracking chain ladders, to the second highest falls in the world.


Our necks are craned, staring up at a chain ladder that disappears over the ledge.

A Basotho shepherd leans over the top grinning down at us. He knows if we make it up the ladder, he’s probably in for a small treat. We’re not so certain he’s going to get anything from us today.

The first metal ladder, almost 100 vertical rungs creeping up the rock face, is only half the challenge. The second ladder, which will take us to the climax of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike overlooking the Tugela Falls, isn’t even visible from our current vantage point.

We stand there frozen, contemplating this flimsy-looking structure, hoping it will talk to us. Tell us it’s ok. The remnants of a broken ladder beside the operational one is doing little to satisfy our apprehension.

Our adventure to explore the Drakensberg Amphitheatre began before we even started the hike. A few hours ago, we were being tossed around in our 4×4 as it tackled the extremely bumpy 7 km dirt track to the carpark at the start of the trailhead. The owner of the local guesthouse who was returning from dropping off wiser guests who hitched a lift slowed down to shout out: “you’re brave,” before speeding off, covering us in dust.

At the carpark, we were met by a National Park Guard who took our park fees and asked us to sign the hiking register “just in case we don’t make it back.”

But at least we’ve made it here. We’ve followed a gradually ascending path with beautiful views of rolling hills. We’ve skirted the base of a massive lump of rock, high above the surrounding landscape. We’ve stopped at breath-taking vantage points. For the last 2 hours we’ve enjoyed one of the best hikes in the Royal Natal National Park and some of the most remarkable terrain we’ve ever experienced.

And now here we are, at around 2,900 m, at the foot of one of two chain ladders.

They are all that stand between us and the incredible Drakensberg Amphitheatre.


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WHAT IS THE DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATER?

The Drakensberg Amphitheatre is located in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa near the Lesotho border. It’s one of the most remarkable natural features in the world – a 5 km long, curved stretch of rockface with a 1200 m drop. The wall of rock is broken by the small stream of the Tugela Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the world.

With so much vertiginous rock you might think that this place is the preserve of rock climbers only. But with a little effort (and 2 chain ladders) the hike to the Tugela Falls will bring you to the top where you can enjoy some of the most spectacular views in South Africa.

Endless ridges of green rolling hills. Soaring pinnacles of rock. Imposing cliff faces.

It’s quite simply the finest walk we have done in South Africa (just beating the Tugela Gorge hike) and we highly recommend including the Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike on any South Africa itinerary.

There is no special equipment required and, apart from a few sections of exposed path and a couple of nerve-wracking chain ladders, it’s a very do-able walk.

Here’s all you need to know to complete the hike.

DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE OVERVIEW


SUMMARY / Superb hike at high elevation with staggering views

DISTANCE / 12km round trip

TIME / 5 hours (Chain Ladder route) to 6 hours (Kloof Gully route)

ELEVATION / 550m (Chain Ladder route) to 650m (Kloof Gully route) ascent and descent

DIFFICULTY / Medium

HIKERS / Mark & Paul

TUGELA FALLS HIKE OVERVIEW


SUMMARY / Superb hike at high elevation with staggering views

DISTANCE / 12km round trip

TIME / 5 hours (Chain Ladder route) to 6 hours (Kloof Gully route)

ELEVATION / 550m (Chain Ladder route) to 650m (Kloof Gully route) ascent and descent

DIFFICULTY / Medium

HIKERS / Mark & Paul

IS THE DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE DIFFICULT ?

The Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike (also known as the Sentinel Peak or Tugela Falls hike) starts at 2500m and ascends 550m to the 3,000m summit of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre. From here the Tugela Falls plummet over the massive cliff face 1,000m to the valley floor. There are two ways up to the falls, 1) via two chain ladders and 2) via a scramble up Kloof Gully.

Apart from either Kloof Gully section or the chain ladders, the rest of the walk is fairly easy.

Initially the path zigzags gradually up the side of the mountain with various lookouts over the vertical edge of the amphitheatre to see waves of ridges disappearing into the distance. It then skirts the basalt base of massive Sentinel Peak.

There are a few short sections where the path is exposed (requiring getting down on your bum and shimmying across) and there is a small ladder (4 steps) with a bit of a scramble over the rock at the top. All in all nothing is too challenging and in spite of hiking at an altitude of 3,000m we never found ourselves out of breath.

But after around 1 hour and 40 minutes, you need to decide whether you are going to take Kloof Gully or the chain ladders. The gully is a long hard slog up a steep boulder strewn canyon. It requires fitness and sure footing. The chain ladders are a nerve-jangling climb up a long metal ladder attached to a vertical cliff.

We decided to take the chain ladders.

WHAT ARE THE CHAIN LADDERS LIKE?

There are two ladders you need to take to get to the top.

The first is about 100 steps. It’s pretty much straight up except for the final section which starts to curve over the top of the rockface. At times getting your footing on the ladder is a little tricky because the rungs are close to the rock. It also swings slightly as you make your way up.

It was a harrowing couple of minutes, but if you take your time and hold on nice and tight, it will be over before you know it. We certainly didn’t hear any dubious creaking or feel like it was going to give way all of a sudden.

The second ladder is easier mainly because it’s a little shorter, not quite as steep and by this stage, we’d developed a small amount of confidence.

At the top of the ladders, you’ll most likely be confronted by local Basotho people asking for money or food. They don’t know much English, so their requests can sound a little gruff. We were told not to give them money, so we made sure we had some nuts and apples to give them. This seemed to do the trick.

Once at the top the walk to the Tugela Falls is easy, but a map is very helpful. See the instructions below.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE

The hike to the summit of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre begins at Sentinel Car Park where you must pay R90 per person hiking permit in cash. The path is obvious and heads south for 1 km before it begins to get steeper and zigzags up towards the massive basalt rock of Sentinel Peak.

Take the short detour to the Sentinel Peak lookout, marked on our map below – the views are magnificent. Backtrack from the lookout and work your way anti-clockwise around the base of Sentinel Peak.

There are a couple of tricky (very short) traverses, a 4 step ladder, and one or  two or three short exposed sections. After about 1 hour 40 minutes there is a large gully on your left and a sign laying on the ground saying that the chain ladders are closed (they were not).

It’s at the point where you need to decide if you are going to turn right to take the chain ladders or left to go up via Kloof Gully.

CHAIN LADDER ROUTE

If you are ok with heights, then the chain ladder route is much easier.

The path up to them is gradual and most of the ascent is taken care of by the ladders. They can, however, be nerve-wracking. You need to climb two sections. The first one is almost twice the length (about 100 steps) of the second one (about 50 steps).

Once you reach the top of the ladders, the trail rises steeply for a short distance to a cairn. It is then an easy walk across the flat top of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre (3,000m) to where the Tugela falls drop over the cliff edge.

In total, this route is about 6 km (one-way) and takes around 2 hours and 40 minutes from the car park. This is the way we went.

KLOOF GULLY ROUTE

If the chain ladders are not for you, the other option is to go up via the Kloof Gully route. It’s physically more demanding scrambling up a steep narrow gully over rocky boulders but avoids the emotional stress of clambering up the ladders.

Exiting the gully (3140m) you wind your way around the flat top of the amphitheatre to the Tugela Falls. This route takes an extra half hour up and an extra half an hour back and adds another 100 m of ascent and descent. It is about 6 km (one-way), taking just over 3 hours from the car park.

TOP OF THE DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE

Whether you come up over the ladders or scramble up the gully, once at the top the rest of the hike is an easy, completely flat walk to the Tugela Falls. The path, however, is not that clear.

So, it’s a good idea to have the area downloaded on maps.me (or google maps – see below) and track your progress to ensure you stay on the right track (more or less). It’s a wide-open space so you can’t go too wrong. However, in the interest of protecting the natural environment, please try and stay on the path as much as possible.

You’ll most likely find more Basotho people intercepting the path to request food or money from you. Either offer them some spare food (but not money) or say a polite “hello” or “no, sorry” and keep moving on.

At the Tugela Falls, the Drakensberg Amphitheatre stretches and curves into the distance. Its towering red basalt rock forms a massive and imposing cliff face which drops precipitously to a green valley. From your feet, the almost 1,000m long Tugela Falls plunges over the edge. It’s a breath-taking sight and you will want to leave at least an hour to explore.

MAP / DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE

Most of the time the path is clear and easy to see, however, there are a couple of moments when you need to pay some attention and use a map. To save our map with all the directions, click on the star to the right of the title – this will download to: YOUR PLACES -> MAPS in Google.

We also suggest you use the Map.me app. Before you leave for the hike download the area containing the Drakensberg Amphitheatre. All the paths detailed on this walk are fully displayed on the app and since it works offline you can follow your progress and quickly spot when you go wrong. It takes all the stress of getting lost away, especially if the cloud comes in!


DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE TIMINGS VIA THE CHAIN LADDERS

Our timings for the walk to the top of Tugela Falls and back using the chain ladder route took a total of 5 hours round trip. However, with views like this, you’ll definitely want to allow a bit more time to explore the top of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre. As long as there is no cloud or mist you can roam about easily on the flat summit and enjoy magnificent ever-changing views.

SENTINEL CAR PARK TO SENTINEL VIEWPOINT

40 minutes / 1.25km

SENTINEL VIEWPOINT TO DECISION POINT

1 hour / 2km

DECISION POINT TO BOTTOM OF CHAIN LADDER

20 minutes / 1km

BOTTOM OF CHAIN LADDER TO TOP OF CHAIN LADDER

15 minutes / 150ish terrifying steps

TOP OF CHAIN LADDER TO TOP OF TUGELA FALLS

25 minutes / 1.75km

TUGELA FALLS BACK TO SENTINEL CAR PARK

2 hours 20 minutes

DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE TIMINGS VIA THE CHAIN LADDERS

Our timings for the walk to the top of Tugela Falls and back using the chain ladder route took a total of 5 hours round trip. However, with views like this, you’ll definitely want to allow a bit more time to explore the top of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre. As long as there is no cloud or mist you can roam about easily on the flat summit and enjoy magnificent ever-changing views.

SENTINEL CAR PARK TO SENTINEL VIEWPOINT

40 minutes / 1.25km

SENTINEL VIEWPOINT TO DECISION POINT

1 hour / 2km

DECISION POINT TO BOTTOM OF CHAIN LADDER

20 minutes / 1km

BOTTOM OF CHAIN LADDER TO TOP OF CHAIN LADDER

15 minutes / 150ish terrifying steps

TOP OF CHAIN LADDER TO TOP OF TUGELA FALLS

25 minutes / 1.75km

TUGELA FALLS BACK TO SENTINEL CAR PARK

2 hours 20 minutes


BEST TIME TO DO THE DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE

Summer rains (December through February) can be torrential and although you are at 3,000m temperatures can reach into the high 20s making the Tugela Falls hike tiring. In winter (June to August) the temperatures drop rapidly, and the summit can be very cold making hiking a chilling experience.

The best time to go is March to May when the rains have subsided, the temperatures comfortable and the hills are still a lush green from the winter downpours. September to November are also good for walking but as it is after the dry season the Tugela Falls may have no water in them and the hills will be a parched brown rather than a glittering green.

Whatever time of year you go try to set off early. The early morning has the best light for photos, the clearest skies and less strong winds. In particular, in summer make sure you are back by early afternoon. Torrential thunderstorms can appear from nowhere and make the chain ladders and gully slippery and dangerous.


DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE TIPS

1 / Entrance to the national park is R55 per person payable at the toll booth a few km north of Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. Day hiking fees for the Drakensberg Amphitheatre are charged at the Sentinel Gate car park and are R90 per person. Both must be paid in cash, so bring enough money. 

2 / Make sure you fill out the hiking register at the car park and sign back in when you return. It’s nice to throw the ranger a few rand for looking after your car.

/ For most of the route the trail conditions are relatively straight forward. However, Kloof Gully requires some scrambling and the chain ladders can be slippery (especially after rain) so we highly recommend wearing shoes with a decent grip.

4 / Download our Google Map onto your phone or use Maps.Me offline maps to help you track your route. Ensure your phone is fully charged and has a compass. It can be particularly helpful if cloud and mist come down when you are at the top.

5 / Take plenty of water and food. The Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge provides pack lunches (R110) if you order the evening before.

6 / Conditions on the Drakensberg Amphitheatre can change rapidly. Take enough warm clothing and most importantly a waterproof. The storms (especially in summer) can be torrential and sudden. There is also very little shade so take sunblock and a hat.

7 / Local Basotho people may be waiting at the top of the chain ladders and near the top of the Tugela Falls. We were told not to give them money but offering them food was fine, so perhaps take some extra with you.

8 / If you don’t fancy going on your own then a guide can be hired from Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. It is R750 per guide for up to 4 people and then a further R100 per person after that.

9 / It would be mad not to take a camera. The views are stunning!

GETTING TO SENTINEL CAR PARK

The Drakensberg Amphitheatre is in the Royal Natal National Park in a remote area on the South African Lesotho border. This hike to the top of the Tugela Falls begins at the Sentinel Car Park. Situated at 2,500m altitude it can be reached on foot or by car.

It’s either a 4-hour drive from Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg or 4 hours 30 minutes from King Shaka International Airport in Durban to the edge of the national park.

From here it’s another 7 km drive (25 minutes) over a rough and rocky road to the Sentinel car park. At the time of our visit, you needed a 4×4 to make the journey. But if you don’t have one, Witsieshoek lodge offers a round trip shuttle service to and from the car park for R150 per person for 2 or more people.

We suggest you hire your own car or join a tour because public transport in these remote areas is pretty non-existent.

AUTO EUROPE


The best portal we’ve found for booking hire cars is AutoEurope. They have access to cars from all the major companies which are compared on a grid format that clearly displays the prices for different car sizes across each provider. Click below to check prices based on your home location.

USA CUSTOMERSEUROPE CUSTOMERS

AUTO EUROPE


The best portal we’ve found for booking hire cars is AutoEurope. They have access to cars from all the major companies which are compared on a grid format that clearly displays the prices for different car sizes across each provider. Click below to check prices based on your home location.

USA CUSTOMERSEUROPE CUSTOMERS

DO YOU NEED A GUIDE FOR THE HIKE TO TUGELA FALLS ?

As readers of Anywhere We Roam know, we love doing hikes by ourselves. Except in places where a guide adds specific value, like in Ait Bouguemez in Morocco, navigating ourselves is all part of the fun.

There is no particular need to hire a guide for the Tugela Falls hike. The path is very clear the whole way up to the plateau. At the top, google maps or maps.me will help you find the right path.

There are, however, two reasons why you might look at hiring a guide for the hike.

The first is that you might want a guide is for dealing with the Basotho people at the top of the plateau. Groups of 4 or 5 locals intercepted the path at various points to ask for money. If you’re travelling solo this could feel a bit intimidating – so a guide would help with this.

The second reason is for confidence going up the ladders. They’ll be able to explain what it’s like if you have any questions, but also, watching someone who has done it many times before race up is a nice confidence builder.

WHERE TO STAY FOR THE DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE

One of the best things about accommodation in this part of South Africa is the ability to stay in excellent locations at very reasonable prices. The Witsiehoek Mountain Lodge, where we stayed, is in an enviable position. Perched on the top of a ridge – just 7 km from the start of the trail for the Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike – and with 360 degree views, sunrise and sunset was a sight to behold.

But even further afield, there are some great options that are excellent for exploring more of the area. Being a remote part of the country, most accommodation places will provide meals. We generally found the food to be pretty good, but if you are vegan or vegetarian it might be a good idea to let them know in advance.

Here are a few other suggestions from us.

PERFECT LOCATION – OUR PICK

WITSIESHOEK MOUNTAIN LODGE


The closest accommodation is the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. It has magnificent views over the Royal Natal National Park and is the perfect base for exploring the amphitheatre. They have 2 bed bungalows and chalets plus a decent onsite restaurant with wi-fi. Guides, packed lunches and transfers can be arranged.

CHECK PRICES

EXCELLENT BASE FOR EXPLORING

BERGHOUSE AND COTTAGES


These well-equipped cottages are a 1-hour 45-minute drive to the Sentinel Car Park. However, being closer to Bergville and the main road, they are a good base for longer stays. The bottom of the amphitheatre is a 30 minutes away; the Golden Gate Highlands Park 1 hour 15 minutes; and the battlefields just over an hour.

CHECK PRICES

GOOD BUDGET OPTION

AMPHITHEATRE BACKPACKERS


This is a remote area of South Africa and there is no public transport into the parks, making it difficult to see the area properly without a car. However, this is a good option if you are on a budget. The Durban – Johannesburg bus bus stops here three times a week and the hostel runs regular day trips to the top of Tugela Falls.

CHECK PRICES

PERFECT LOCATION – OUR PICK

WITSIESHOEK MOUNTAIN LODGE


The closest accommodation is the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. It has magnificent views over the Royal Natal National Park and is the perfect base for exploring the amphitheatre. They have 2 bed bungalows and chalets plus a decent onsite restaurant with wi-fi. Guides, packed lunches and transfers can be arranged.

CHECK PRICES

EXCELLENT BASE FOR EXPLORING

BERGHOUSE AND COTTAGES


These well-equipped cottages are a 1-hour 45-minute drive to the Sentinel Car Park. However, being closer to Bergville and the main road, they are a good base for longer stays. The bottom of the amphitheatre is a 30 minutes away; the Golden Gate Highlands Park 1 hour 15 minutes; and the battlefields just over an hour.

CHECK PRICES

GOOD BUDGET OPTION

AMPHITHEATRE BACKPACKERS


This is a remote area of South Africa and there is no public transport into the parks, making it difficult to see the area properly without a car. However, this is a good option if you are on a budget. The Durban – Johannesburg bus bus stops here three times a week and the hostel runs regular day trips to the top of Tugela Falls.

CHECK PRICES

MORE SOUTH AFRICA READING

DRAKENSBERG / Explore all the best things to do in the Drakensberg.

HIKING / Try more great hikes in the Royal Natal National Park.

AMPHITHEATRE / Enjoyed the hike at the top? Try the Tugela Gorge walk at the bottom.

CATHEDRAL PEAK / Check out more hiking just south of the amphitheatre at Cathedral Peak.

WETLANDS / For hippos and turtles head to St. Lucia in eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal.

HIGHLIGHTS / Check out our favourite places to visit in South Africa.

PLANNING / Tips on how to construct your own South Africa itinerary.

TIME / Find the best time to visit the different regions of South Africa.

WILDLIFE / Check out all the animals you might see on an African safari.


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