The jagged teeth of rock rose into view. Still far on the horizon, they foreshadowed a return to home climes. Gone was the humidity and salty air of the coast we had just come from. In their place was dry, fresh, clear air and endless blue skies reaching over the soaring peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains.
We came off the motorway and back onto the lovely two lane roads that snake through the golden fields and undulating hillsides of the foothills of the Drakensberg. It’s a similar landscape to that which you find in the Free State running along the north-western border of Lesotho, but from this side the mountains rise straight up. It is an impressive sight to behold as pinnacles of sheer rock reach for the sky like freshly planted trees searching for the sunlight.
We were heading for Royal Natal National Park in the Northern Drakensberg, and more specifically for the Amphitheatre. Named due to its likeness of a concert venue, this prodigious geographical feature stretches approximately 5 kilometres across and rises more than 1200 metres straight up from the base of the Tugela River Valley. From the top, the Tugela Falls cascade close to 1000 meters down the cliff face, making them the second highest falls in the world, behind only Angel Falls. There is little that can explain the sheer awesomeness of this place. It is truly something that needs to be experienced on foot, up close.
We arrived just as the late autumn sun sank behind the foothills, with the last rays of golden sunlight striking the awe-inspiring walls of rock. Suddenly reds and pinks and oranges danced over the sheer cliff faces that stretched in front of us. Heads on a swivel we tried to take it all in and quickly realised that the one night we had there was not going to do this place justice – not by a long shot!
The morning light on the rock wall was different, but equally mesmerising. The only problem was the cold, even with cups of tea and many layers, our hands started getting rather cold and ineffectual after a short time sitting watching the sun rise. Luckily for our hands, but not for our photos, the light quickly changed as the sun rose and we retreated inside. Staying at Thendale Camp inside the park was ideal for being able to see the sunset and sunrise. Right out the back door of our cottage we had an unencumbered view of the entire Amphitheatre. It was spectacular.
It goes without saying that this is hiking territory, and so we laced up our boots and headed up the Tugela River Valley directly towards the cliffs. It was a lovely walk slowly uphill the entire way, but it included little patches of forest that have grown up along the water courses coming down off the hillsides. Tucked into the clefts of the hills, these waterfall fed trees are home to troops of baboons. We heard them more than we saw them, but a few showed themselves for fleeting glances through the branches.
The trail was easy enough, but towards the end it offered some nice boulder hopping and a chain ladder up a small rock face. We were short on time, so we unfortunately couldn’t follow the trail all the way to the cliff face. It would have surely been an amazing sight, staring straight up at the crushing amount of rock tower over us. Still, with low river levels there probably would have been very little water in the falls so we will just have to return in spring or summer for a more thorough exploration!
All in all, it was lovely to spend even a very brief amount of time in Royal Natal. It was in many ways a homecoming for us. Returning to the mountains after ten days along the coast re-enforced just how much we crave landscapes that feature mountains, hills and plateaus. If there is something to clamour up, then chances are we are happy to make the attempt!