The Tugela Gorge hike in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, provides magnificent views of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre and the Tugela Falls – the 2nd highest falls in the world.
Driving rain and hail batter our raincoats.
The glorious views of the Tugela Gorge we were treated to until recently are now obscured by dark black clouds and our flimsy hoods which are doing absolutely nothing to protect us from the deluge.
Just an hour ago we were enjoying bright sunny skies and 33-degree temperatures as we took off along the Tugela River. Vertiginous pillars of rock framed the green valley floor. The mighty Drakensberg Amphitheatre towered ahead of us.
We followed the river where patches of dense forest gave way to rolling green hills; landscapes unlike any previous experience of South Africa. At times we were high above the valley floor overlooking impossibly beautiful vistas. Other times we were sheltered under the protective cover of jungle with the river bubbling gently beside us.
At our destination – the crossroads between two boulder-filled valleys – we waded up the river, our feet numb from the icy water. We climbed up a chain ladder; our fingers numb from extreme tension. Our reward: fleeting well-earned glimpses of the Tugela Falls – the second highest falls in the world.
This can be an unpredictable part of South Africa, but the Tugela Gorge Hike is a beautiful and diverse outing in the stunning Drakensberg Mountains.
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IN THIS GUIDE
TUGELA GORGE HIKE
A beautiful hike up a valley to glimpse the second highest falls in the world
14 kilometres to the viewpoint and back
4 hours 40 minutes to an easy viewpoint, longer if you head deeper into the gorge
450 metres (+/-)
Easy to viewpoint, Medium to strenuous further up the gorge
March to May
WHAT IS THE TUGELA GORGE HIKE?
The Tugela Gorge is a valley in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa that is carved out by the river of the same name. Despite the beauty of the gorge, Tugela is more famous for forming the second highest waterfall in the world as it cascades over the enormous cliffs of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre.
The gorge, the river, the falls and the amphitheatre combine to create a thoroughly scenic part of South Africa and the ideal territory to explore on foot.
The best way to experience the top of the amphitheatre is on the Tugela Falls hike, which you can read about here.
The best way to experience the jungle-shrouded valleys and towering views of the amphitheatre is from the bottom – on this Tugela Gorge hike.
This hike winds up the Tugela River drops into a stunning narrow gorge before exiting out the other side. From here, dramatic views of both the gigantic cliff face and the Tugela falls are worth all the effort it takes to get there.
It’s a 14 kilometres round trip to reach an excellent viewpoint in the centre of the gorge on a relatively easy path.
However, if you’re feeling more adventurous, the Tugela Gorge hike offers the opportunity to continue deeper; conquering large boulders, precarious chain ladders and steep gullies to catch a better glimpse of the falls.
All in all it’s an excellent day out that can be adjusted to all levels of fitness.
Here’s what you need to know.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE TUGELA GORGE HIKE TO THE PICNIC SPOT
Park at the car park just below Thendele Camp and follow the trail through the forest heading upstream on the west side of the river. After about 20 minutes you come to a junction. Take the left turn signposted to ‘Gorge’, cross over a bridge spanning a small tributary and loop back to the main river.
The path gradually climbs for the next 1 hour 30 minutes and at times is quite high above the river. It passes under the strange rock formation of Policeman’s Helmet and through sporadic patches of dense forest.
Eventually, the river comes up to meet the path and narrows into a gorge.
A bit of boulder hopping up the riverbed is required and at one point you need to cross the river for 100m and then cross back.
The path then continues winding up and down the western bank for about 10 minutes until it drops to the confluence of the Tugela River (on your right) and Devils Tooth Gully (on your left).
Here you will find a short wooden ladder, a chain ladder and a good selection of boulders to sit down and have a well-earned picnic.
READ NEXT / VISITING CATHEDRAL PEAK IN THE DRAKENSBERG
OPTIONS FOR GETTING A VIEW OF THE TUGELA FALLS
Refreshed after lunch, you can either head back to Thendele Camp or spend a bit more time exploring the area and finding the best vantage point to view the falls. There are a few different options if you decide to continue with various levels of difficulty.
OPTION 1 – VIEWPOINT (EASY)
Climb the small wooden ladder next to Devil’s Tooth Gully (on your left as you face upstream). Follow the path that winds up the bank for about 5 minutes where you’ll come to a large boulder on your right-hand side. Climb up onto the boulder for a quick view of the falls.
After that, continue along the path for another 5 minutes to arrive at a large carved out section of rock. Here there is a stone shelter and a viewpoint with an excellent view of the falls, nicely framed by some dense green foliage. They are still some distance away so a telephoto lens would be a good addition to your camera bag.
OPTION 2 – BOULDER SCRAMBLE (POSSIBLY COLD)
If water levels permit continue up the Tugela River (right-hand gorge as you face upstream) from the picnic spot. Shortly you come to an awkward pool of water that may be impossible to cross. If you can get through, continue boulder hopping up the gorge for as far as you can. You are very likely to get wet feet so you might want to take your shoes off.
The further you go, the closer you get to the falls and the more the view improves. It’s not that tricky if you take your time and select the boulders carefully – which can be slippery. The water, however, can be very cold.
OPTION 3 – CHAIN LADDER SCRAMBLE (HARD)
The final option is to take the 40-step chain ladder up the canyon wall on the right-hand side. Once at the top, push your way through an overgrown path before clambering up a very steep gully using tree roots and metal handholds to pull yourself up.
The overgrown path then descends back to the river where you can continue to make your way up the gorge. This avoids the awkward pool from option 2 but requires some nerve-jangling moments up the chain ladder and a brief strenuous effort to get up the gully.
Return the way you came. The worst part of the chain ladder is getting back on it from the top on your way down.
READ NEXT / STUNNING PLACES TO VISIT IN THE DRAKENSBERG MOUNTAINS
MAP / TUGELA GORGE HIKE FROM THENDELE CAMP
The path to the picnic spot is easy to follow and well signed, however, it is always useful to have a map to track your progress and make sure you are heading in the right direction. To save our map, 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 Royal Natal National Park. 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.
TIMINGS FOR THE TUGELA GORGE HIKE
The Tugela Gorge hike to the viewpoint above the wooden ladder (Option 1) is 14 kilometres and takes 4 hours and 40 minutes round trip. However, if you want to explore the gorge in more detail then allow time to either boulder hop up the narrow canyon or negotiate the chain ladder.
HIKING TUGELA GORGE – TIMINGS
THENDELE CAR PARK TO PICNIC SPOT
2 hours 20 minutes / 6.5 kilometres
PICNIC SPOT TO VIEWPOINT & BACK (OPTION 1)
20 minutes round trip / 1 kilometre
EXPLORING THE GORGE AND CHAIN LADDERS
As long as you want for as far as you can get / 2 hours
PICNIC SPOT BACK TO THENDELE CAR PARK
2 hours / 6.5 kilometres
BEST TIME TO HIKE THE TUGELA GORGE
Summer rains (December through February) can be torrential and temperatures can reach into the mid-30s making hiking tiring. In winter (June to August) the temperatures drop rapidly, and the summit of the amphitheatre can be very cold making walks 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 is 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 summer, make sure you are back by early afternoon, torrential thunderstorms can appear from nowhere and make the chain ladders slippery and the gorge outright dangerous.
TIPS FOR THE TUGELA GORGE HIKE
1 – Gates for the Royal Natal National Park open from 5:00 – 19:00 October to March and 6:00 – 18:00 April to September. Park entrance fees are R55 per person and are paid at the visitors centre or at Thendele Camp registration.
2 – Make sure you fill out the hiking register at the car park. And most importantly sign back in when you get back. Furthermore, it is nice to throw the ranger a few rand for looking after your car.
3 – For the walk to the viewpoint the trail conditions are relatively straight forward and trainers will do on a dry day. But when it rains the path can get muddy very quickly and waterproof shoes or boots are advisable. If you plan on exploring the upper gorge, we highly recommend wearing shoes with a decent grip to negotiate the boulders and chain ladder.
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.
5 – Take plenty of water and food to provide energy, especially if you plan on exploring the more arduous parts of the gorge.
6 – There is good shade on the walk, especially in the gorge but make sure you are protected from the sun at other times.
7 – Be aware that weather conditions in the Drakensberg mountains can change rapidly. Take enough warm clothing and most importantly a waterproof. The storms (especially in summer) can be torrential and sudden. If you are heading up the narrow section of the gorge when it starts to rain, we suggest you quickly turn around and leave as flash floods can be extremely dangerous.
8 – It would be mad not to take a camera. The views are stunning!
WHERE TO STAY FOR THE TUGELA GORGE 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 kilometres from the start of the trail for the Tugela Falls 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.
Here are a few other suggestions from us.
The views of the amphitheatre from the balcony of these chalets are simply amazing. Each one offers easy access to the Tugela Gorge hike and come with their own braai and full kitchen.There’s no restaurant or shop on site, so pick up your supplies at Winterton or Bergville on your way. There’s no internet.
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.
MOUNTAIN LODGE LUXURY
A bit of luxury in the middle of nowhere, this upmarket lodge has a swimming pool, children’s playground, tennis court and rents out bicycles. A range of activities and walks leave from the hotel but beware, it’s a 40-minute drive to the trailhead. With so much to occupy you it might be a struggle to leave.
HOTELS.COM / BOOKING.COM
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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