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 adventure to explore the Tugela Falls on the Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike began by being tossed around in our 4×4 as it tackled the extremely bumpy 7 km dirt track to the start of the trailhead. At the carpark, we were met by a National Park Guard who took our fee and asked us to sign the hiking register “just in case we don’t make it back.”
The Drakensberg Amphitheatre hike is a slightly challenging day out in a remote part of South Africa. But, following a gradually ascending path that skirts the base of a massive lump of rock, high above the surrounding landscape, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences in South Africa.
For 2 hours, breath-taking vantage points display some of the best scenery the Royal Natal National Park has to offer. After that point, our necks were craned, staring up at a chain ladder that disappears over a precarious-looking ledge.
The first metal ladder, almost 100 vertical rungs creeping up the rock face, is only half the challenge. The second ladder isn’t even visible from the base.
Nevertheless, these two vertical chain ladders are all that comes between you and the best views of the Tugela Falls and the stunning Drakensberg Mountains.
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IN THIS GUIDE
DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATRE HIKE
Superb hike at high elevation with staggering views of the Tugela Falls
12 kilometre round trip
5 hours (Chain Ladder route) to 6 hours (Kloof Gully route)
550 metres (Chain Ladder route) to 650 metres (Kloof Gully route) ascent and descent
Medium, however, the chain ladders may be a challenge to some people.
March to May
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 3,000 metres, 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.
TUGELA FALLS / DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATER – TIMINGS
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.
3 – For most of the route, the trail conditions are relatively straightforward. 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 THE TRAILHEAD (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.
CAR HIRE IN SOUTH AFRICA
If you are looking to hire a car in South Africa, we recommend Auto Europe. 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 on the below link to check prices based on your home location.
AUTO EUROPE UK & EU // AUTO EUROPE US
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.
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.
HOTELS.COM / BOOKING.COM
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.
GOOD BUDGET OPTION
AMPHITHEATRE BACKPACKERS LODGE
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 stops here three times a week and the hostel runs regular day trips to the top of Tugela Falls.
As one of our favourite places to visit for winter sun, great hiking and incredible wildlife opportunities, we’ve been to South Africa several times. Find all our writing on our South Africa Page or read these guides next.
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