Written at Royal Natal National Park, Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa
September 26, 2011
I’m up early hoping to catch the first rays of light on the Amphitheater. The cliff face glows in the early morning light just before 6.
The air is clearer than the day before and as the sun rises the wind picks up. Fortunately, as we breakfast and get ready for the morning hike the wind calms down leaving a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky, just a brilliant blue capping the peaks.
We decide on the Thukela (Tugela) Gorge hike; about nine miles round trip up the gorge with great views of the Amphitheater. It’s a gentle climb to the Thukela River. The morning light on the hills is spectacular.
Spring flowers are starting to bloom. My two favorites are the brilliant red-orange bottle brush
and the blue, large-bulb lupine-looking flower. The later having just started to bloom.
The outcroppings of mushroom-looking rock formations – having been formed by wind eroding the softer sandstone leaving a larger top layer of harder rock – give the area a surreal fairy land feel.
The well-marked path follows the gorge wall, curving in and descending to where the trail crosses a stream and then climbing back out again along the cliff face only to descend again at the next stream crossing.
After about two hours or so we meet the river at the bottom of the canyon with a steep pink and black striped rock face.
The water level is low this time of year with pretty, crystal clear pools. The water a brilliant blue-green against smooth white rock formations worn from centuries of flowing water.
We follow the river upstream until we come to the confluence of two rivers. Here you have the option of taking the “tunnel” along the river through the gorge or climbing the chain ladder up about 50 feet to a path that bypasses the “tunnel”. There is another trail marked with a big white arrow that goes up the other river. We did not take this path nor was it marked in our trail book.
We tried the “tunnel” first, a narrow gorge that feels like a cave with light streaming down through the ceiling in places. At first we bolder hop down the river but soon encounter a couple of pools that we must wade through to cross.
That first step is a shock as the water is much colder and deeper than it looks. I’m wet to about mid-thigh. At the third pool – we are nearly out of the “tunnel” – there is no way to safely cross without endangering the cameras. This pool is deeper and longer than the others with a 4 inch-thick stick leaning against a 5 foot cliff face as the way out. I’m not sure how this is supposed to work. We turn around and wade back through the “tunnel”.
Plan B – up the chain ladder hanging down the cliff face to the upper trail.
Just beyond the ladder is another cliff with a combination of tree roots and metal pegs anchored into the stone face as our way up. The roots are solid, solid as the metal pegs. Once we are up, the path continues just a little ways before descending back down to the river where we reach the other side of the pool that we couldn’t cross in the “tunnel”. Past here we can’t go much further, the rock face is too steep and the water too deep.
At other times of the year the Thukela falls should be visible, but late September is the driest time of the year. We stop for lunch and admire the views of the Amphitheater and Sentinal Peak and try to imagine where the water fall should be, but there is no trace.