South Africa has so much to offer, and hiking in the Drakensberg Mountain Range should be a bucket list item for anyone who loves the outdoors.
While hiking almost anywhere in the Drakensberg is worth your time, there is something about getting to the top of the escarpment at 3,282 meters above sea level which the other hikes cannot compete with. The view from the top is magnificent, and the 1km drop from the top to the Tugela Valley below is simply breathtaking.
We decided we wanted to get to the highest point of the escarpment, of which the peak is called Mont-Aux-Sources. This is where the Tugela Falls, the highest waterfall in Africa, originates. The Tugela Falls is also regarded as the second highest waterfall in the world.
There are a few ways to get to the top. One way is from the Tugela Valley below through the Tugela Gorge. This is rather challenging as you first need to do the 7km hike through the gorge. After the gorge you continue to follow the river upstream, and the hike is about 21kms in total.
Another way to get to the top is by means of the Amphitheatre Slackpacking Trail. With this trail you hike about 10kms per day. It is a 3 day hike, and you overnight in lodges along the way.
The third option that takes you to the top is by means of the Sentinel Trail. The Sentinel Peak and Chain Ladder Hike is about 12kms in total, and is one of the most memorable hikes anyone could ever take on. It is not necessarily a difficult hike (at least for the most part), but what makes it so renowned is the last leg of the hike where you have to climb chain ladders to get to the top.
Arriving At Sentinel Car Park
The starting point for this hike is the Sentinel Car Park. There is a road that takes you past Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge towards the car park. We hiked this trail in July, which is in the heart of the winter in South Africa. We didn’t even reach the car park yet, and already we found ourselves covered in mist. It wasn’t too long before it started to snow, and we wondered if we would be able to do the hike.
When we arrived at the car park it was already noon – and cold! We were totally unprepared for the weather, but the skies had cleared up a bit and we decided to do the hike anyway. We signed the register and paid the entrance fee to the park.
The First Hour
At the car park you have to sign the visitor’s guest and pay a nominal fee.
As we started the hike, we immediately knew we were at a higher altitude. The car park is already at 2,560 meters above sea level, and you can feel that your body is taking strain. For the first hour of our hike, Hank found himself out of breath frequently. We made use of the opportunity to rest along the way and enjoy the scenery.
After about an hour of hiking and resting, Hank suddenly felt like he had his breath back again. Breathing was easier, and the rest of the hike went quicker.
At this point the sun also came out and drove the mist away. We soon found ourselves battered by the sun, where only an hour ago we were freezing.
We slightly lost track of the path, but after scrambling over a few rocks we managed to find the trail again.
At one point the trail was extremely narrow, and we almost had to lean against the side of the mountain to stay on the path. Nevertheless, after another hour the final peak was in sight and we couldn’t wait to get to the top.
Climbing The Ladders
We finally reached the famous chain ladders which we had heard so much about. While we were brave in our planning and fearless in our speech, to actually climb the ladders was a whole new ball game.
To get to the top of the escarpment, you have to make use of two consecutive chain ladders. The 1st ladder is about 40 meters high. The top of the 1st ladder takes you to a ledge, from where you switch to the 2nd ladder. The 2nd ladder is about 20 meters high, and takes you to the top.
To put things in perspective, the average high rise is about 3 meters high for every floor. That means the climbing of the ladders is similar to climbing up a 20 story building.
As if the climb wasn’t daunting enough, we also had another complication. Although the sun was shining, the steel of the ladder was as cold as ice. As mentioned earlier, we weren’t really prepared for this hike, and we didn’t have any gloves at all. Climbing the chain ladder without proper gloves became treacherous. About half way up the ladder our hands were so cold we couldn’t feel the steel any longer.
To try for better grip, we switched from holding on to the steps with our bare hands to using our forearms with locked elbows. This helped, but it also slowed down the climb. There was also frozen pieces of ice on the rock face, which made the cold all the more real.
When we made it to the top we were relieved but also worried, knowing we would still need to come the same way down again.
On Top Of The World
When you reach the top of the escarpment you feel like you are on top of the world. The fear of having to get down the ladders again is immediately diminished as you are greeted by the most amazing sensation. It literally feels like you have entered a different layer in the atmosphere.
We were also surprised to find that we still had a fairly great distance to cover to get to the Tugela Falls. We ignored the warning of how late it was as indicated by the position of the sun in the sky. Hoping for the best, we headed towards the other side of the peak. It was another 25 minutes of walking, but it was also the highlight of the hike.
Once you reach the edge of the Amphitheatre, the view is absolutely breathtaking. The 1km drop to the valley below makes you feel tiny in comparison to Mother Nature.
Because we did the hike in winter, there was some snow on the top of the escarpment. The water that makes up the Tugela Falls was frozen in places, and the 948 meter plunge over the basalt was only a drizzle.
The moment was magical, and we desperately wanted time to stand still.
Climbing down the chain ladders was more challenging than the climb up. You really have to concentrate not to look down. At some point Lynn did look down and became paralyzed for a good part of a minute or so.
Descending with frozen hands, every step down was like a small little contest on its own.
Grateful to have reached the bottom, we added some speed to our walk. Clouds were coming in, and a strong wind was battering our bodies with an undeniable cold.
We started to run. We had heard many stories of people getting trapped and even lost in the Drakensberg. This was Mother Nature doing her thing, and we experienced firsthand how quickly the weather can change in the Drakensberg.
The car park was in sight again, but we didn’t reach it before we got caught up in a snow blizzard. Strong winds forcefully pounded snow in our faces.
We were exhausted but thrilled. We had made it back to the car park.
More importantly, we made memories!