Hiking the Drakensberg’s Spectacular Tugela Gorge

by | Mar 7, 2024 | Joburg Weekend Getaways, KwaZulu-Natal, Parks/Nature Reserves | 18 comments

The Drakensberg Mountains fly under the radar in South Africa’s tourism scene. Everyone goes to Cape Town and the Kruger and the Garden Route, but the Drakensberg doesn’t often make it onto that “must-see” tourist itinerary. Even I’m guilty of neglecting the Drakensberg; I’d dipped in once or twice over the years but had never done a proper Drakensberg weekend until last month, when Thorsten and I stayed in Royal Natal National Park’s Thendele Camp and did the Tugela Gorge hike. Now I’m appalled at myself for sleeping on this spectacular part of South Africa for so long.

Greylene parked at Thendele Camp in Royal Natal National Park
Greylene parked in front of our chalet at Thendele Camp, with the Drakensberg Ampitheatre unfurling behind her.

We only stayed at Thendele for two nights and managed to complete one long hike in between rain storms. But, wow, what a hike it was.

Thendele Camp: What You Need to Know

The Royal Natal National Park, which is actually not a national park but a provincially run park under Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, is about fours hours’ drive from Joburg, making it just about doable for a three-day weekend. You don’t need a 4×4 to get there, but there are some potholed roads to navigate. There is a campsite at Royal Natal, the Mahai Campsite, as well as Thendele, the self-catering chalet camp.

Chalet and bench at Thendele
A bench with a view (more on this later) with our chalet in the background. We were lucky to get the very last chalet, which felt nicely removed from the rest of the camp.

The chalets at Thendele are standard self-catering units — much like most SANParks accommodation — but comfortable and have most things necessary for a weekend stay. Bring a sharp knife and decent frying pan, if you’re particular, and a coffee plunger with coffee. There is a small souvenir shop at Thendele, but they don’t carry many food items so bring everything you need to eat.

Inside a Thendele chalet
The lounge/kitchen/dining area of our two-person chalet. There are lots of big windows for admiring the view.

Honestly, the inside of the chalet hardly matters when you have views like these. The camp is encircled by the spectacular Drakensberg Ampitheatre and the mountains are bright green at the height of summer.

Sunset outside the chalet
Nightfall outside the chalet.
Sunrise at Thendele
Sunrise the next morning.
Heather looking out at the Drakensberg from Thendele
View from the bench shown above. (Photo: Thorsten Deckler)

Thendele is surrounded by hiking trails of varying lengths marked with delightfully old-fashioned trail markers. Don’t miss the “Forest Walk”, a very short (less than a kilometer) but pretty trail through the indigenous forest behind the camp.

Forest walk trail marker
Forest walk trail marker.
Forest walk trees
The Forest Walk.

We arrived at Thendele late on Friday afternoon and immediately set out on one of the shorter hikes: the ominous-sounding Devil’s Hoek. Unfortunately it started to rain about 20 minutes in — rain is a constant risk during the Drakensberg summer — so we had to turn back. We still enjoyed some amazing views.

View from the beginning of the Devil's Hook trail
View near the start of the Devil’s Hoek trail.
Thorsten's sketch of the Devil's Hook trail
Thorsten’s sketch of the same view.

So we walked back to camp, enjoyed a hearty dinner, and went to bed early in preparation for our big hike the next day.

Thorsten braaing at Thendele
Mountain man Thorsten enjoys the view while cooking our dinner.

The Tugela Gorge Hike

Tugela Gorge is the base of Tugela Falls, which may or may not be the highest waterfall on earth. The falls flow over the Ampitheatre, high above Thendele, and there is another hike, the Tugela Falls hike via Sentinel Peak, that takes you to the top of the falls. The Tugela Falls hike is not reachable from Thendele; although it looks close on a map, the Sentinel Peak trail head is more than two hours’ drive away.

I should also mention that we did not actually see Tugela Falls during our Tugela Gorge hike, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. But don’t let that discourage you from doing this hike — it’s stunning regardless.

We got up at sunrise on Saturday and set out as soon as it was light.

Early morning light on the Ampitheatre
First rays of light on the Ampitheatre.
Thorsten setting out on the hike
Setting out.

Tugela Gorge is an out-and-back hike, meaning you walk the same route there and back, and is about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) total. It’s fairly flat for most of the way, except for the very beginning (a steep downhill on the way out and a painfully steep uphill on the way back) and middle part when you are in the actual gorge, which involves some climbing and scrambling and squeezing between rocks. Most of the walk is in the sun, but there are several nice shady stretches through the forest. Bring lots of water, sunblock, and snacks to eat in the gorge. You might also want to bring a bathing suit for swimming in the rock pools in the gorge.

I know this is a cliché, but my photos really don’t do justice to what we saw. But here a few of them accompanied by Thorsten’s sketches.

Policeman's Helmet on the Tugela Gorge hike
The “Policeman’s Helmet”.
Hiking to Tugela Gorge in the Drakensburg
Heading toward the gorge. Can you spot the tiny hikers who were ahead of us on the trail?
Eland in the Drakenberg
These enormous eland, grazing in the valley below the trail, were easy to spot.
Thorsten hiking sketch
I think this is me.
Forest flowers
Walking through the forest, listening to trickling water and watching the light hit just so on delicate, indigenous plants and mosses, was one of my favorite parts of the hike.
Tugela Falls marker
The closest we got to seeing Tugela Falls.
Thorsten sketching in Tugela Gorge
Sketching the gorge. Again, pictures don’t convey how beautiful it was. There were tiny waterfalls trickling down all around us.
Heather in the gorge
Gorge.
Thorsten sketch of Tugela Gorge
Gorge sketch.
Hikers in the Gorge
Another group of hikers in the gorge.

We didn’t have a detailed map, just the simple (i.e., not very readable) map from the Thendele Camp shop, and we hadn’t done any research in advance because that’s how the Blogitects roll. Once we got inside the gorge, we were confused about exactly where to go to actually view Tugela Falls.

We passed the chain ladder on the right side of the gorge, which is one way to get to a viewpoint for the falls. But I took one look at that ladder and knew there was no way in hell I’d be climbing it.

The green sign reads: “Notice: For safety reasons this chain ladder is closed until further notice.” Apparently people still climb it anyway, but nope. If you still want to know how to climb the chain ladder to get to the falls viewpoint, read this post.

We climbed a smaller, less intimidating ladder on the left side of the gorge, which apparently leads to a safer, easier falls viewpoint. But we never saw any signs and got a bit lost and eventually turned back.

Waterfall in the gorge
Pretty view on the left side of the gorge.

So we missed the falls. I’m not that sad though, as they are apparently very narrow and not really that impressive-looking. And anyway, I’m pretty sure we discovered the most incredible photo-op in the gorge, falls or no falls, at the mouth of the magical stone tunnel.

The magical stone tunnel
The magical stone tunnel.

Apparently you can walk easily into (although not all the way through) the stone tunnel in winter, but in summer the crystal-clear water is deep at the mouth. Fortunately Thorsten was braver than I was and swam into the water, which was very, very cold, to have a look inside and provide me with a perfect photo-op.

Thorsten in the stone tunnel
Thorsten in the tunnel. The water was so cold that he shouted in pain — bless him.

The walk back was stunning, as the midday sun had lit up the valley and there were some nice clouds in the sky. I was too tired to take a lot of photos though.

Walking back from Tugela Gorge
The walk back.
Tugela valley sketch
A sketch of the valley.

The last kilometer of our hike, up the steep hill to Thendele Camp, was by far the hardest and involved a lot of swearing. But we made it back, exhausted and pleased with ourselves, and had the whole afternoon and evening to nap and stare at the view. We intended to do one of the shorter hikes the next morning but it rained again. I can’t say we were very upset.

Tugela valley
One last look out at the valley before leaving.

I can’t recommend this weekend highly enough. Better yet, stay for a full week.

You don’t have to stay over inside Royal Natal National Park to do the Tugela Gorge hike — you can also enter as a day visitor. Book a chalet in Thendele Camp at thendele.co.za.

18 Comments

  1. dizzylexa

    Stunning pics. When I stayed in Newcastle this was our favourite weekend getaway, not that it was too far, exploring this amazing mountain range and the many hidden gems it tends to hide in its folds.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I can’t wait to go back!

      Reply
  2. Ms. Nancy Anne McDaniel

    How beautiful!!! I was at The Drakensberg many years ago as part of a Cultural Mosaic Tour of South Africa, which I co-led. Stayed in The Midlands in Howick. Saw rock art (near Giant’s Castle I think) and met with a famous sangoma named Elliott.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Awesome. The midlands are also very beautiful and so is Giant’s Caslte.

      Reply
  3. Maarten

    Amazing pictures. I was at the Drakensberg a few times and did a 2 and a 3 day hike up to the Amphitheater and camped at the plateau on top, where you wake up on top of the clouds the next day. It was a wonderful hike with good friends and although we where all completely exhausted it gave us such an energy as soon we came back at the campsite for a day of sleep and recovery. It’s a pitty that people prefer to visit Cape Town and think they have seen the beauty of this country.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I would love to do one of those multi-day hikes sometime.

      Reply
  4. Rob John Wood

    we Honeymooned at Giants Castle in the Drakensburg also at park lodges, stunning part of the world

    Reply
  5. Phillipa

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience with us!

    Reply
  6. Barend van der Merwe

    Looks like the weather was perfect for the most part.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I didn’t take many photos during the rain. But we loved it even when it rained.

      Reply
  7. AutumnAshbough

    Nothing like doing the hardest part of the hike at the end when you’re exhausted! But well done–especially avoiding the treacherous ladder. Gorgeous photos. How long will it stay green?

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yeah that end part was really torturous, especially because it was about 1 in the afternoon at that point and HOT. I think it will stay green until late March/early April, then the rain stops and it will start to turn brown. Which is not as pretty but also has its own kind of dramatic beauty.

      Reply
  8. Peter

    ” Bless Him ” Thorsten has such an adventurous spirit

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hahaha, he does indeed.

      Reply
  9. Jeroen

    Ah lovely, I stayed there and did the same hike on a sunny winter’s day in 2011 – we also made it up the gorge till near that ladder and turned back, mainly because we were tired after a wild night in Clarens before that. The Falls were just visible as a streak of ice down the mountain then. A very memorable trip.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Oh cool! So did you see the falls from the gorge? I feel silly that we missed them!

      Reply

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