Drakensberg South Africa – The Ampitheatre Hike

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Royal Natal National park - the view from the top of the chain ladders

Drakensberg South Africa – The Ampitheatre Hike

  • 16/04/2016
  • By Admin: admin
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Over the Easter Weekend, my family and a few friends headed off to hike up the chain ladders to the top of the Ampitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg in South Africa.

My aim for the hike was to photograph the Tugela and Ribbon falls along the way and to take in the sheer majesty and magnitude of this stunning area of the Ampitheatre. I’d have loved to get some images similar to the ones taken by Prakash Bhikha and Carl Smorenburg. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

Sentinel Car Park

We left Pinetown in KwaZulu Natal early and arrived at Sentinel Car Park in Witsieshoek in the Orange fFree State around 10:30 am. There we signed in the mountain register and headed off.

Royal Natal National park - Sentinal car park
Royal Natal National park – looking back towards the car park on the way up to the top

Acccess to the chain ladder is via what used to be the bridle-path but is now a road which has some really bad patches just after the road forks to the left for Witsieshoek Lodge.

For me the path leading to the chain ladders was by far the most difficult section of the hike. The actual chain ladders up to the top of the Ampitheatre were not nearly as bad as I thought they’d be.

Parts of the path are paved with concrete but it is mostly pebbly and rocky with a few outcrops of smooth rock to negotiate. There is also a viewing point along the way but I was too tired to take the detour. There are also a few false paths where people have taken short cuts up rather than around. It’s really quiet sad that they don’t think of the environment before doing that.

Royal Natal National park - looking back on the way up
Royal Natal National park – looing back towards the car park on the way up to the top

The Chain Ladders

royal natal national park amphitheatre chain ladders
Royal Natal National park amphitheatre chain ladders
Royal Natal National park - heading up the chain ladders
Royal Natal National park – heading up the chain ladders

Natal Provincial Administration installed the two ladders (100 rungs) in 1930 to the top of the Ampitheatre near Sentinel Peak by-passing having to use the Gully especially in winter when it’s choked with snow and ice.

At the top – woooo hoooo, well it was for some of us 😀 It certainly wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

Royal Natal National park - people waiting at the top of the chain ladders
Royal Natal National park – people waiting at the top of the chain ladders
Royal Natal National park - the views from the top of the ampitheatre are breath taking
Royal Natal National park – the views from the top of the ampitheatre are breath taking

From there it was a relatively short walk to Tugela Falls where we decided to camp for the night.

The plateau at the top of the Ampitheatre used to be called Pofung by the Basutho (Empofeni) meaning Place of Eland. We only saw sheep, donkeys and shepherd dogs.

Royal Natal National park - campsite for the first night
Royal Natal National park – campsite for the first night

Tugela Falls

Tugela Falls is the second highest falls in the world with Angel Falls in Venezuela being the highest. There is still a lot of controversy around which falls are the highest.

view from the top of Tugela Falls
Royal Natal National park amphitheatre – view from the top of Tugela Falls
sitting at the top of Tugela Falls
Royal Natal National park amphitheatre top of Tugela Falls
Tugela Falls
Royal Natal National park amphitheatre top of Tugela Falls

At this point it was cold but not unbearable. During the night a lazy wind, the one that goes right through you, picked up and stayed for the rest of the long weekend. 

Royal Natal National park - landscape on the top of the ampitheatre
Royal Natal National park – the landscape for our hike for the second day

From here we were headed to Ifidi cave that looks out across Royal Natal National Park. Little did we know that the route we had chosen was the “scenic” route along the escaprment of the Ampitheatre with the most grueling hills to conquer. As a first hike in a long time this was a really tough route to choose. Lesson learnt. There was however some spectacular scenery on the way and I had some fun taking images and stitching them together in Photoshop CC when I got home.

Royal Natal National park - exploring the edge
Royal Natal National park – exploring the edge of the ampitheatre
Royal Natal National park - exploring the edge of the ampitheatre
Royal Natal National park – exploring the edge of the ampitheatre

The Ampitheatre is considered relatively flat. I happen to disagree as my flat and their flat seem to be very very different.

An example of the terrain on the second day. Although the We also started bumping into the local Basutho shepherds who we were hoping not to encounter. Unfortunately many hikers have problems with their tents being slashed during the night and hiking boots and other essential equipment being stolen. They’re very insistent and were most disappointed when we had no cigarettes or sweets. We had already decided that each person would take a night watch for an hour starting at 9pm and ending at 1am as recommended by the guards at the hut.

Royal Natal National park - meeting the locals
Royal Natal National park – we met some of the shephards on the top who were wanting their picture taken, cigarettes and sweets.

We got to an area near Ifidi cave but it was already quiet late in the afternoon so we decided to find a spot with a good vantage point of the herds and their shepherds as well as close to running water. There was a lot of surface water on the top of the Ampitheatre with a few perrenial rivers and plenty of false ones. Navigating maps by rivers in the wet season is not easy due to all the false rivers.

Royal Natal National park - campsite on the second night
Royal Natal National park – campsite on the second very cold night
Royal Natal National Park - campsite on the second night
Royal Natal National Park – camping on the second night

On the third day we decided to head back along the river towards the edge of the escarpment keeping with the contours so that there would be a lot less climbing. From there we would cut across a valley and head up a “small” saddle and hopefully come out behind the guards hut.

edge of the Ampitheatre in the distance
Royal Natal National park – view along the top of the ampitheatre

It was a hard slog on the third day even though we kept more a less level until we got to the valley and then up the other side. We couldn’t have tea, coffee or breakfast as the wind was too strong and seemed to be everywhere so we couldn’t get the little stoves to stay alight long enough to boil water.

Most of the Ampitheatre / escarpment area is above 2500 m which makes it even more taxing on the body.

To say I battled going up and over that last hill would be an understatement. If it weren’t for my husband and my daughter’s boyfriend helping with my backpack I would never have coped. Even without a backpack it was a really hard slog. Seeing the guard hut below us was the most amazing feeling. All I wanted was to get out the wind and make some coffee.

The Guard / Natal Mountain Club Hut

Royal Natal National park - guards hut
Royal Natal National park – guards hut which is where we spent the last night

The hut has been known as the Natal Mountain Club Hut, was built by Otto Zuckel and his son . All the material (other than the stone) had to be carried up and over 21km of mountain paths and a vertical distance of 1 850 meters. It was officially opened by Mrs Botha-Reid (wife to the “father” of the Natal Mountain Club). The ceremony was held during Easter 1930 with a huge party in the Hut with Mount Amery being christened the next day by Mr Botha-Reid (with a bottle of petrol as all the champagne had been finished at the party the previous night).

Royal Natal National park - well derverved rest when we reached the guard hut
Royal Natal National park – well derverved rest when we reached the guard hut after a hard slot

The hut was originally equipped with wooden table, bunks, mattresses, blankets and stoves. It is now an empty shell as seen below with no windows or doors. This is due to the plundering by the Basutho and later a dispute over the ownership of the land on which it stands.

The guards were really happy to see us as they’d been worried with all the trouble hikers had had with the locals and were really surprised that we had had no problems during the night. They insisted that we stay in the hut that night which I was more than happy to do despite it being really dirty. The roof was also lose but with extra hands we were able to put a few more rocks on to stop it flapping about.

Royal Natal National park - getting warm with well deserved tea inside the guard hut
Royal Natal National park – getting warm with well deserved tea inside the guard hut
Royal Natal National park - getting warm in the guard hut
Royal Natal National park – getting warm in the guard hut

We used the orange plastic bags that we had used to keep clothes and sleeping bags dry in case of rain, as sleeping mats to keep sleeping bags and hiking matreses clean.

Royal Natal National Park - guard hut
Royal Natal National Park – guard hut

The next day was the relatively easier walk down the ladders back to the car park. At this point I was still questioning my sanity at thinking I’d be able to do the hike at all. The knowledge that I’d not taken nearly as many images as I’d have liked to, due to the really strong winds didn’t help either.

The camera I used on this trip was my Nikon D7100Nikon D7100 with my 8 – 105 mm kit lens.  I used a Vanguard 233P tripod and some images were stitched together in Photoshop.  I definiteately needed to add a sandbag to my kit as the wind was really strong causing the tripod to wobble too much.

We used 2  man hiking tents from First Ascent and a variety of very old sleeping bags and matresses and the back packs were loaned by some amazing friends at Bootcamp SA

We took oats so easy for quick and easy breakfast as all that was needed was boiling water, instant coffee and hot chocolate pouches and supper consisted of pasta and sauce or noodles also made with hot water.  All of which are easy to squash the containers down to take back off the mountain in our rubbish bags.

01 Comment

Lee-Ann Conway

21/06/2016 | 07:44

Thank you.

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