Over the Easter Weekend, my family and a few friends headed off to hike up the chain ladders to the top of the Ampitheatre.
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 early and arrived at Sentinel Car Park around 10:30 am. There we signed in and headed off.
Access 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.
The Chain Ladders
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
Of course I’ll be back but knowing what to expect makes it all that easier as does knowing where it is I want to go for those images I’m after. Now I need to do some training to increase my walking fitness so that I don’t suffer as much will help too.
waiting for supper in the hut out of the wind