I spent a good deal of time watching thunderstorms come and go in the Northern Drakensberg, but the one day I was blessed with sunshine a theatre of stones revealed a beauty that will have me going back for more.
After spending the day checking out the various KZN wildlife camps, Kamaberg – a trout fishing paradise, Highmoor – a campsite at the top of the world and Giants Castle – a hikers paradise and finding the delightful Notty’s Brewery (The Pickled Pig gets my blessing) on Nottingham road, I finally arrived at my destination, Amphitheater Backpackers.
It’s a fantastic place – comfy rooms, dorms in old grain silo’s, en-suite doubles and even self catering units, two well-appointed kitchens and braai areas, a huge campsite which on clear days grant you views of the Amphitheater and the Tugela Falls as it careens down the Mountain, a bar with a Jacuzzi, and a swimming pool to take the edge off if it’s a hot afternoon.
After upgrading my tent to something not designed for a midget, I settled in with plans to hike, hike some more and visit a few of the local nature reserves – Royal Natal ( 20 minutes away), Golden Gate Highlands park – which I have been salivating to visit (60 minutes away – be warned the R74 is more a giant pothole than a road). But after a week of sitting in my tent, propping up the bar and watching old bond films I was getting tetchy.
I had been to Golden Gate twice hoping the weather would be better on the “other side” of the Berg, a lot of mist and hints of the magnificence had me cursing at the weather gods.
But finally after four days, the sun came out and I headed for Royal Natal Nature Reserve to get my Hike on. Thirty Bucks to get in and numerous excellent hikes ranging from four hours right down to simple meanders in the veld.
I set off on the Gorge Hike, the longest and one that promised fantastic views of the Amphitheater and the Tugela Falls. The hike itself is relatively easy and can be completed by most.
The tricky part came after I encountered an angry German who couldn’t find the path and after hiking for three hours he turned disgusted and head back down. Mistake!
After crossing the river twice, which was flowing fast and cold courtesy of all the rains, I found my way into the upper gorge, which revealed epic views of the mountains and the falls.
At the end of the hike, you can climb two chain ladders, one left and one right, the right being a tad hair-raising as there is a chimney climb to get to the very top but the reward is epic.
There is also a “tunnel” through the rocks which the river flows through and if the water isn’t to high – I recommend wading up the river – its surreal, sublime and has a touch of magic.
The rest of the park offers a chance at great views and couple of other waterfalls, which are not quite the Tugela but nonetheless are worth visiting.
Royal Natal is an excellent place to do some of the easier hikes in the Northern Berg, as I couldn’t bring myself to hike all day to be surrounded by mist, rain and clouds as many did trying to summit the Cathedral and Sentinel Peaks.
I will definitely be heading back to summit at least one of them and hike many of the other amazing trails in the various KZN campsites that are more central in the Drakensberg. I might just wait for rainy season to end.
My time in the Northern Drakensberg was sweet as and truly a magnificent location at the Backpackers with views of the mountain range. But one day of sunshine out of seven before I had to leave aggravated me off more than it should have. I did return briefly for two days and got much of the same. Rain.
As an aside worth mentioning – the Backpackers clearly trade on the fact they have a monopoly on accommodation in the area. An evening meal costs R100.00, which is nowhere near a fair price and a quart of beer goes for R26.00. I would suggest self-catering and ask about the shuttle to Royal Natal – they don’t promote it, often choosing to push day trips (R500 or so depending on the trip) If you are self-driving, they can be self-guided. That said, their guides are very cool and the trips make it possible for those on the Baz Bus etc to do and see a lot more of the area.
But don’t let the weather and the monopoly fool you into thinking you shouldn’t visit. You would be fool not too. It’s epic.