Who knew the second tallest waterfall on the planet was in South Africa? Adventure with me to Tugela Falls in the heart of the Drakensberg Mountains.
I saw a picture of Tugela Falls and said to myself, “I want to go to there.” And soon enough, I found myself driving into the mountains of South Africa in search of this magical place. Check out the video below for the full hike!
ABOUT THE FALLS
Tugela Falls is located inside the Royal-Natal National Park in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. The falls cascade off a geological formation known as the Amphitheatre which is part of the northern Drakensberg Mountains. Drakensberg comes from Afrikaans and Dutch and translates to Mountains of the Dragons.
The waterfall is considered the second tallest in the world—about 100 feet (30 m) shorter than Venezuela’s Angel Falls. However, there is an argument that Tugela Falls is in fact the tallest waterfall on Earth based on measurement inaccuracies of the height of Angel Falls.
—Elevation: 9,751 ft (2,972 m)
—Height: 3,110 ft (948 m)
—Watercourse: Tugela River
Tugela Falls and the Amphitheatre formation are about 4 hours from Johannesburg by car. I am unaware of any public transportation that can get you to this remote region. I recommend renting a car (not a compact) and planning to stay at a lodge, hotel, or hostel in the area. My friend and I chose to stay at the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge as it is just a short drive from the trailhead and offers a number of room types. A popular hostel nearby is the Amphitheatre Hostel; however, you will need to take the hostel’s shuttle to reach the trailhead. Both of these lodgings offer guided tours which are recommended; however, we decided to embark on our own.
The hike begins at the Sentinel Car Park inside the Royal-Natal National Park. There is a small fee (R45) to enter the park, and another for hiking (R75) that you can pay at the car park.
If you are driving to the trailhead, be aware that after the fork in the road to the lodge the final 7 km are almost completely unpaved and very steep and rocky in places. I would not recommend a compact car for this; a four-wheel drive is encouraged in rainy conditions. If you are concerned, you might consider a guided trip where transportation is provided.
—Approximately 7.5 miles (12 km) round trip
—Elevation gain of about 1,400 ft (427m)
—Allow yourself five to eight hours to complete this hike
The trail to Tugela Falls goes by several names. Sometimes it is referred to as the Chain Ladder Hike or Chain Ladder Route due to the ladders you encounter. It’s also called the Amphitheatre Trail as it does indeed lead to the top of the escarpment. A lot of travel blogs refer to it as “hiking Sentinel Peak”. This is incorrect because you do not actually summit Sentinel Peak (requires ropes) but rather hike around the formation.
Once at the trailhead you will see Sentinel Peak reaching to the clouds. There is a small building where we were asked to register. Restrooms are available as well. I have heard that maps are available but on this occasion, the staff did not have any.
We set off along the trail toward Sentinel Peak. Despite it being early November (springtime in South Africa) a snowstorm the night before had blanketed the mountains. The weather in the mountains can change very quickly and this hike is not recommended in foggy or cloudy conditions. There is also a high chance of clouds limiting your view at the top.
The trail is paved in the beginning but quickly becomes a rocky dirt trail. Further along you switchback up toward the Sentinel. In the snow, we found several trails branching off in different directions and lost our way a few times. In general, the main trail is easy to identify and wraps around the Sentinel, sticking to the west face of the mountains.
The Beacon Buttress is an unmarked shortcut that leads to the falls. It follows a steep gorge to the top. At one point I considered this shortcut but with the snowmelt the gorge was too wet and slippery and did not seem worth it. I recommend continuing on the relatively flat trail that winds its way around the rear side of the Amphitheatre.
There were several areas where we had to traverse across slick rock faces made treacherous by the wet and icy conditions. Because of this, my companion opted to turn around and wait for me at the car park.
About two hours into the hike, I reached the chain ladders. There are two sets of metal chain ladders about 50 ft (15 m) tall. I climbed these ladders with relative ease; however, other hikers seemed to struggle with acrophobia and needed encouragement. If you are afraid of heights, you may find it difficult to conquer these obstacles. The ladders can sway a bit but are sturdy. Take your time and focus and it shouldn’t be too hard to make it to the top. I’ve been told that the youngest person to complete this hike was less than 5 years old and the oldest over 80. You can do it!
At the top of the chain ladders, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the area. There is a beautiful waterfall nearby, but it’s not Tugela Falls. I continued on to a large flat area.
It was hard to find the trail in the snow; however, I hiked across the marshy terrain which eventually led to the Tugela River. The trail led me across this flat area and along the river until it flowed right off the escarpment! In the summer months this area can be very dry and the Tugela River and Falls are sometimes completely dried up.
The reward for all my hard work was a magnificent panoramic view atop the Amphitheatre and Tugela Falls. There are many great vantage points of the falls from up here. Just be careful as it’s easy to slip off the edge and can be very windy. In warmer months and when the river is high enough, hikers can wade and swim in small pools before the falls.
From here, there are other trails leading along the edge of the Amphitheatre and to Mont-Aux-Sources, the highest point of the escarpment. Should you choose to do any additional hiking, you should be prepared to camp on top of the escarpment for the night.
I was told the hike to the falls and back should take about 7 to 8 hours. Despite the snow, getting lost, and some wrong turns, I managed to complete it in about 5 hours. It really depends on your pace and ability.
If you haven’t already, check out my video of the hike to get a real feel for the falls!
BEFORE YOU GO
Please check the weather. The top of the falls is nearly 10,000 ft (3,048 m) above sea level. Snow is a possibility in fall, winter, and springtime. Conditions at the trailhead can vary substantially from those at the top. Be prepared for wet, foggy, and cooler conditions at the top. The falls can be shrouded in clouds (the dragon’s breath).
To prepare for weather conditions, bring appropriate clothes. I started off in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, as it was about 40º F (5º C) at the trailhead. Despite the snow, I ended up in a t-shirt and slathered on sunscreen by the time I reached the falls.
Be sure to bring at least 1 liter of water per person. Again, pay attention to the weather. Hot summer days may require more water.
Cell service is very spotty, but I was able to get service at the car park and in places on top of the Amphitheatre using a Vodacom 1GB SIM Card.
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