GRADE: C+ if you continue past the Chain Ladder for better views and more excitement.
TIME: 5 hours return.
DISTANCE: 14 km return.
TERRAIN: The path is easy to follow and climbs gradually. The only part that may present difficulties is the last two kilometres in the Gorge itself, which involves boulder hopping and some wading in fast knee-deep water.
The Tugela Gorge hike is one of the finest one-day hikes in South Africa. A guide with packed lunches provided by The Cavern enables you to make a full day of this trip. This walk is a must-do in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. As well as proper walking shoes it may be useful to take along a lighter pair of shoes or sandals to walk through the river to get to the Gorge. In summer make sure you take a costume for a lovely swim in the rock pools. Drink plenty of liquids – the river water is safe – and take along a hat.
The hike takes place within the Royal Natal National Park. This has an interesting history dating back many years. In 1836 while exploring Basutoland, two French missionaries, Arbrousset and Daumas, first discovered Mont-Aux-Sources, literally the mountain of sources (of the rivers). In 1908 the idea of establishing a National Park in this area was conceived, and the territory was explored by Senator Frank Churchill, General Wylie, Colonel Dick and Mr W. O. Coventry. Recommendations were put forward, but it was not until 1916 that the Secretary of Lands authorised the reservation of five farms and certain Crown Lands, totalling approximately 8160 acres, and entrusted it to the Executive Committee of the Natal Province.
On the 16 September 1916 the National Park came into being. An advisory committee was appointed to control the park. Shortly afterwards the Natal Provincial Administration purchased the farm “Goodoo”, upon which a hostel had already been opened in 1913, and incorporated a small portion of the Upper Tugela Native Trust Land, thus swelling the National Park to its present 20 000 acres. The Advisory Committee was abolished in January 1942, and the park was administered by the Provincial Council until the formation of the Natal Parks, Game and Fish Preservation Board on the 22 December 1947.
Mr F. O. Williams held the first hostel lease rights on the farm Goodoo that he obtained from Mr W. O. Coventry, the original owner. Mr Coventry became lessee of the whole Park in 1919, and took over the post of Park Superintendent in August 1924 at the grand salary of £5 per month. In 1926 he was succeeded by Otto and Walter Zunkel, who each added their share of buildings and improvements. Mr Alan Short was the next Superintendent, and was in charge when the Royal Family visited the park in May 1947, as a result of which its name changed to “Royal Natal National Park”.
This walk begins in the Tugela car park, and is a wonderful experience of “climbing” into the mountains. Follow the signs to “The Gorge”. After 15 minutes you will come to a bridge over the tributary from Devil’s Hoek. Cross the bridge and follow the path to the left. Not long after crossing the intersecting stream from Devil’s Hoek, look out for Policeman’s Helmet on the high ground to the right overlooking Vermaan Valley. Initially the trail is almost flat, allowing you to admire the magnificent scenery to the full. The path winds along, above and parallel to the Tugela River.
The scenery is spectacular, and in spring and summer the valley is a carpet of indigenous flora. The path meanders in and out of lush forests cascading down the hills into the river valley below. Views of the Amphitheatre wall get increasingly more magnificent as you approach the Gorge – the wall rises over 1800 m from the valley floor. Before the path begins to steepen it is still possible to leave the path to get to the river for water, should you think of stopping for a picnic lunch here.
The path disappears just before the Gorge proper. The last kilometre through the Gorge entails three boulder crossings of the river – simple enough unless in flood, and takes about an hour. If at all possible it is well worth continuing, but anyone nervous about their knees might do well to stop here. With a little bit of effort the most picturesque scenery in the park is to seen at the far end, along with a welcome cup of tea from The Cavern guide.
At this point there are a number of things to look for; the Devil’s Tooth, the tunnel ahead and the chain ladder. Pause for a swim in the crystal clear white sandstone rock pools before attempting the chain ladder.
At the Tunnel (really a ends here, but the Tunnel can be bypassed by a scramble up a chain ladder deep cleft) the river flows through an impassable rock formation. Some local information suggests that there is a way through here, but don’t attempt it. The mapped trail to the right, leading into the Amphitheatre. A boulder hop further up the Tugela for about half a kilometre will reward you with a complete change of scenery at every step.
You may see or hear baboons barking on the high rocks. Three beautiful and locally endemic birds often perch on the rocks too: the ground woodpecker, Cape rock-thrush and buff-streaked chat. On the proteas look for the greater and southern double-collared sunbirds, and even Gurney’s sugarbird.
Keep an eye out for thunderstorms that quickly brew above the Amphitheatre wall, but above all else remember to enjoy yourself in this special place. The return down trip to the car park is faster than the up trip so savour the moments you treasure the most.
Before you Go!
Check the weather forecast before setting off. Heavy rain causes very dangerous flash floods. Sunblock is especially important on this hike, the terrain seems to focus the sun’s rays on hikers. There is no mountain rescue emergency procedure here, and no recognition of distress signals. So if hiking without a guide it is essential that you advise hotel staff of your route and expected time of return. Then stick to these.