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Boulder hopping in awe-inspiring Tugela Gorge

Royal Natal, Drakensberg

Early in our hike, Garth, with the familiar form of the Amphitheatre behind. Pictures: Garth and Rhys Johnstone

By Garth Johnstone

Boulders the size of houses, crystal clear pools, cascades of shining water falling from cliffs above and an enchanting tunnel calling you to explore further. This is what awaits you at the end of the hike to Tugela Gorge at Royal Natal National Park.

Part of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site, this easy 7-8km walk each way (16km in total) culminates in some boulder hopping for the last 500m to a kilometre – unless you’ve got dodgy knees and ankles and would prefer the easier path above the gorge for this last section (NOTE: the path will only take you so far and eventually you need to get down into the gorge.)

In the gorge, approaching the tunnel. The Amphitheatre towers above.

When I go hiking, I look for something wild or a little unique, and this route certainly has that appeal of being something different. Initially a gradual walk along the contours, following the river for the first few kilometres from the parking lot, the interest factor picks up when you start ambling through a series of wooded areas.

Setting out. The weather looked a bit dodgy, but held out for a great day’s hiking.

Deliciously cool, a little spooky and definitely falling within the realms of Hobbit territory, the lush woods boast an array of long-established indigenous trees, mini fern forests, hanging vines and water dripping down from rocks here and there. You’ll be tempted to slow down, and perhaps drop your pack and take a seat for a minute or three, just listening to the forest sounds and bird calls. On a hot day, these little breaks are gold, acting as air conditioning to break up the walk.

These wooded sections are a delight and a welcome chance to cool down on 30 degree-plus days.

We (my brother Rhys and I) had started early and the weather was perfect; a little cool and cloudy, with the odd patch of sunlight here and there. Our pants and boots were soon soggy, as the bush was soaked in water from an earlier rain shower. Getting the jump on a lot of the other hikers, we pretty much had the trail to ourselves.

Now read: Weekending at Bushmans Nek

I’d done this walk many years before, but the river and gorge section was even more impressive than I’d remembered. It’s an awe-inspiring place, as you marvel at the forces that must have conspired to create this man-made wonder.

A moment’s reflection as Rhys takes in the magnificent Tugela Gorge.

Towering high above you, is the Amphitheatre’s famous Mont-Aux-Sources, the origins of all this crystal clear, delicious mountain water.

One of the Berg’s major peaks, its dominance of the skyline makes you shrink within yourself as you ponder your insignificance.

Brain meltdown

In the final section of our rock-hopping experience, I had a brain meltdown and somehow managed to drop my smartphone (screen smashed), so we have no photographs of the very best part… the tunnel at the end. Here the side walls are sculpted by nature and have the appearance of a themed waterpark, except of course they are the real deal.

The best way is to take off your boots and walk through the water, or pack some slops or diving booties and do it in comfort.

A pile of stones left by some of the countless hikers to have come this way over the years.

It’s a lot of fun and, on a hot day, you’ll revel in the chance to get wet and enjoy this other-worldly environment.

Makeover for Berg adventure sports event

Once we’d gorged on the beauty of this unique setting and taken a few moments to stretch our legs and refuel, we were ready to get going again.

Why the Midlands is a gem for hikers

On the return journey we passed a lot of hikers, locals and international visitors, who all asked us for info on the way to “the waterfall”. Happily, we could report that the walk would get much more interesting, that they should keep trucking and that it was “awesome for photographs”.

We giggled and talked nonsense all the way back – nature does that to you – remembering every now and then to savour the stunning Berg scenery.

The route is pretty simple to follow; there’s only one way in and one way out.

If you go

Royal Natal is about 3.5 hours from Durban and Joburg.

Entrance is R40pp for a day visit.

Covid-19 protocols are observed at the entrance gate.

There are numerous accommodation options, including camping and in chalets in the park itself. We stayed at Amphitheatre Backpackers, which is about 30 minutes’ drive from the park. There are more luxurious alternatives aplenty, such as The Cavern, Hlalanathi Resort and Montusi Mountain Lodge.

Do some research about the many hiking options in Royal Natal park and nearby.

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Midlands walk teaches about natural healing and embracing nature