Monday, 28 May 2012

Drakensberg Amphitheatre Ascent

To spend the day on the summit of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg of South Africa, must surely be one of the highlights of visiting South Africa.  Even if one is not so fit, the first km of the walk provides the most breathtaking views in South Africa – it is a fantastic reward for very little effort.
For a person of average fitness this must be the easiest way to access the top of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre – other than a helicopter. It takes just 3 hours to reach the summit along well maintained paths – and there is even an alternative route if one is afraid of heights and does not intend to tackle the chain ladders.
Walking up the path and from the summit: This must be one of the greatest views in the world. The breathtaking views and grandeur of the scenery of the Amphitheatre, with the Tugela River plummeting 850m to the gorge below, creates an unforgettable experience. To the north stand the Beacon Buttress and Sentinel peaks. This outpouring of lava dates back to the time when all the southern continents were joined to form the enormous mass known as Gondwana, around 140 million years ago.
From the car park a broad path leads up the looming northern flank of the Amphitheatre called the Sentinel (3165m). At this altitude only the grasses, wild flowers and the Bearded Vulture flourish. As the path leads to the base of the Sentinel, peer over the edge to the left and see the Tugela Gorge in the Royal Natal National Park far below. Due east lies the Devil's Tooth, a completely isolated pinnacle of rock, between the Eastern Buttress (3047m) and the Inner Tower (3044m). The distance as the crow flies between the Inner Tower and Beacon Buttress is 4km. Enjoy this spectacular view before the path follows a contour to the right around the back of the Sentinel and Beacon Buttress (3121m) to the famous ‘Chain Ladders’. This mildly intimidating structure, two ladders of 40 metres and 20 metres each, allows easy access to the Amphitheatre plateau above. Those with faint hearts can ascend/descend via a steep gully between the Sentinel and Beacon Buttress.
From the top of the Chain Ladder the edge of the Escarpment lies 2km to the East. The source of the mighty Tugela River slips over the Escarpment to plummet, in 5 massive leaps, over 850 metres to the valley gorge below – this is the second highest waterfall in the world. The best position from which to appreciate the magnificent views is some way to the south of the waterfall itself at the Window Crevice. From the top of the Chain Ladder follow the path along the stream for 500m then turn to the southeast and follow the rising slope to the top of Crows Nest ridge and to the edge of the Escarpment and the Window Crevice.
 Do not stay too long at the Window Crevice. Head north down the ridge to the top of the Tugela Falls for lunch. It’s difficult to convey the fear of being so close to the edge with such a huge drop below. Try not to worry, as the rocks have not moved yet, so sit back and admire the view. The views in the distance are of the dams and rolling grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal. The source of the Tugela and Orange River lie behind on the Mont Aux Sources.
The term Mont-Aux-Sources refers to the hills lying behind the Amphitheatre wall. The Mont-Aux-Sources peak seems to be insignificant as it lies some 3 km back against the Maluti Mountains. This area marks the watershed between Lesotho and South Africa, East and West coast. In total five rivers have their source here. They are the Tugela, which plunges over the Amphitheatre wall; the Bilanjill which flows into the Tugela just below the escarpment; the Khubedu which joins the Orange River some sixty kilometres south; the Khubela joining the Khubedu some 11 km from its source and the Eland's River which flows into the Free State.
Have some of your packed lunch and refreshments and then start the walk back to the car park by 15h00. One has the choice of descending either by the Chain Ladder or the gully between Beacon Buttress and the Sentinel. The gully is steep and full of small loose rocks and should not be attempted in wet conditions. The path leads to the Contour Path and then retrace one's steps to the car park and The Cavern.
Before you Go!!
Hiking in the Amphitheatre area demands some preparation. Always wear sound shoes or boots. Be aware that this area is subject to rapid changes of weather in all seasons. Always take waterproof clothing and something warm even if you are roasting in the car park below. It has been known to hail and snow in summer at the high altitude. At this height pay heed to the fact that exercise is more tiring – the air is much thinner – and that one dehydrates much quicker.
The Drakensberg Amphitheatre is located at the Northern end of the Drakensberg escarpment.  About 30km from the Oliviershoek Pass the R74 meets the R712. Turn left towards the town of Phuthaditjhaba. The Amphitheatre/Sentinel and Witsieshoek Resort are clearly marked. Passing through the town one is led onto a dirt road and into the National Park. The only way forward is up, past all signs of habitation, towards the Sentinel car park. After 13km the dirt road ends in a secured car park with 24-hour guard presence.
Park Fees and Charges
There is a small toll road fee and the park entrance fee per person.

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