Northern Drakensberg – A place of incomparable magnificence
Even the drive to the Northern Drakensberg already looks promising! Crossing over hilly landscapes, spread in the nicest shades of autumn-like yellow and light brown grass one can imagine. I have a slight foreshadowing of how beautiful it will be to hike here. And upon arriving at the hostel, even the view from our terrace at Amphitheatre Backpacker is super stunning.
The two most popular day tours this hostel offers are Lesotho and the Tugela Falls hike, usually taking place alternately. Since we planned to spend three nights in the Northern Drakensberg, it is possible for us to do both day tours – which is one of the main reasons why I would highly recommend staying at least three nights for everyone planning to come here. However for those on a time schedule who won’t be able to attend both day tours, the area has plenty shorter activities to offer. The lodge is located on a bewildering piece of land , so even exploring the surroundings of your accommodation can turn into an experience on its own. You can hike around the wide fields of wild flowers and make your way to one of the dams around to take a refreshing swim. Or if you prefer, take a splash in the pool or the Jacuzzi!
LESOTHO – THE HIGHEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
First morning waking up in Northern Drakensberg – off to Lesotho! After about an hour of driving, we enter Lesotho over the Monantsa Pass, which is super rocky and may be a challenge even for experienced drivers. Prepare for a bumpy, but funny ride! In exchange for that, the mountain scenery around us is just beautiful!
This wonderful landscape results by the fact that Lesotho is surrounded by a mountain formation which is seen as the natural border to South Africa – in fact is the only existing border since Lesotho is completely landlocked by ZA. What makes Lesotho unique is the altitude it’s located. The lowest point of 1400 metres above sea level makes it the highest country in the world. This is just one of the many interesting facts the headmaster reveals as we meet up with him at the primary school of the small town we visit. Want to impress him when you do the tour yourself? Keep in mind that people in Lesotho are called “Basotho” and the language spoken here is called “Sesotho”.
The tour continues with a scenic hike taking us through a unique landscape of wide fields, dappled with traditional rondavels and framed with impressing rock formations.
As we reach a grassy embedding halfway up one of the mountains, it is time for a lunchtime picnic – which is absolutely enjoyable with a view like that. But apparently, the view is not the only thing we came here for. As our tour guide Sia asks us to turn around and take a look at the sandstone wall behind us, nobody really gets his intention at first. Just when you look very closely, you notice the outlines of some ancient rock art drawings from the Khoisan People, also known as a tribe of Bushmen living in the area of Southern Africa. An advice for you: When you do the tour yourself and Sia asks you what the paintings might show – please don’t make the same mistake as me and say it looks like a hippo! That is going to destroy him! One does look a bit like a hippo though…
Making our way down again, the view gets even nicer – and if you are not afraid of stepping into goat poop, you might as well check out the super interesting caves along the way. Coming down you pass private houses of Basotho people who actually cultivate grass during winter, so that their cattle have something to feed on during the dry summer months – completely unusual, but absolutely necessary in a climate area like this. As we reach our starting point and jump back into our minibus, I can say that it was a nice, short and absolutely enjoyable hike that gave us a wonderful insight in Lesotho’s scenic beauty.
We continue our trip with what Sia declares as one of the highlights of the Lesotho Day Tour: tasting a traditional Southern African beer!
This experience is… well, let’s call it special! The taste is quite unique and definitely not for everyone. I don’t really taste any alcohol, but a lot of sour. Sia took three German guys on this tour a few days ago who loved this beer so much that they got themselves three bottles of it and even emptied it on the drive back to the hostel! That must be real beer love! All in all, it depends on your personal taste if you like this drink or not – you may hate it or love it, so definitely try it once you’re here!
Next stop on our day tour – and my personal highlight – was visiting a traditional healer in her private house. Sia’s amazing translation skills make it possible for us to ask her on her daily life as a healer and her dramatic way of getting there. This woman is unbelievably heartily, amiable and open to answer every question with such a pleasure that you immediately fell super welcome at her home. Not forgetting the story she has to tell is absolutely breath taking! Despite this, she is going to tell you everything you want to know about the myths, superstition and esoteric culture of the Basotho. Very interesting!
Final stop of our tour is at another local lady’s house to try the traditional food of Basotho people, which is a maize porridge, called “pap” and some vegetable mash. A must do is eating it with your bare hands, just like local people do. Sia is gladly going to explain you how to eat it properly. And it actually tastes super yummy in combination with the vegetables and is a delicious hearty meal. Even though, I could not imagine eating this (and nothing but this) every day, three times a day for the rest of my life – which is basically what people in Lesotho do due to their economic and agricultural situation. Another precious insight into a state that is considered one of the poorest on the African continent – but so full of unforgettable scenic beauty! At the end of the day, when going back to Amphitheatre backpackers, you cannot help but leave a little piece of your heart in Lesotho with the people living there.
TUGELA FALLS HIKE – A WALK IN BETWEEN THE CLOUDS
Next morning, next adventure, Sia on our side again! As we jump into the bus that is going to take us to the beginning of the Tugela Falls hiking track (which is already at an altitude of 2500 meters), we ask him to rate the level of difficulty of this hike on a scale from one to ten. Seven is his answer – that will be funny!
The hike starts quite relaxed with a zig zag pathway taking us along a beautiful misty hilly landscape. The incline at this part is easily manageable, but noticeable enough to warm-up your muscles. And with this scenery around me, I kind of feel like I’m part of a Lord-of-the-Rings like fantasy movie.
After continuously following the zig zag, we get to a tiny, tiny path that takes us around the massive mountains, up a short ladder and to our first battle combat: A massive stone gully we need to climb to reach the top of Amphitheatre Mountain.
Getting up here seems so much more difficult from down below than it actually is once you’ve started. Just be careful, watch your steps, be aware of rolling stones and you will be perfectly fine! This part literally is “climbing” instead of hiking since you often have to pull yourself up and take very high steps – but it is so much fun! I never did something similar before in my whole life and I enjoyed it so much that I might even have discovered a new hobby.
Once you reach the top of the gully, you literally find yourself standing in between the clouds. The highest point of the summit is at about 3254 metres above sea level – and that’s why you feel like standing on top of the world while doing this hike. As we move further on top of the Amphitheatre, the height gives you the creeps in a good way. And walking in between a field of white candy cotton clouds is so unique.
As much as I enjoy crossing the top of the mountain through this scenery, everything has it pros and cons. And our cons reveal when we get to the point where the second highest waterfall in the world is supposed to be – because through this cloud cover, it is nowhere to be seen. The fog gets so strong that there is no chance to spot the waterfall, but at least we can hear it. The extraordinary landscape and weather changes so fast on top of the Amphitheatre and that makes this beautiful hike so exciting.
But not to forget, walking along this many-sided scenery equals another thing: Getting closer to the legendary chain ladders, our second battle combat during this hike! Before going to the Drakensberg, a lot of people told me stories about these ladders and how scary they are. And to be honest, it really looks so scary when you finally reach them! In case you feel absolutely insecure, your tour guide provides some safety ropes to secure you while you make your way down. I decide not to take any, since it is not my first time climbing ladders and I’m asking myself: “Why should it be that much different, just because I got a rock wall in front of me?” It actually turns out to be very safe and stable.
Coming all the way down, you have to climb two ladders: First one about twenty meters, the second one about forty meters. Each section gives you the opportunity to choose between two different ladders: An older one, which is still in good nick but might be a bit loose, and a newer one, which is properly mounted to the face of the rock and gives you a bit more stability. I decided to take the more stable option, since I was so nervous at first. But after the first few steps down, it turns into an enjoyable thrill! So amazing! Looking down actually helped me during my descent, but you may find that it is easier for you not looking down. Just always keep in mind – nothing bad will happen to you as long as you stay calm and focused. So far, everyone always made it down in one piece and so will you!
The rest of the hike takes us around the mountains, past the bottom of the stone gully, along the zig zag and safely back to the car park where we started the tour. Coming down the chain ladders, I thought I had already seen the best of the Amphitheatre – never have I been so wrong. The view during the way back is the most amazing so far and absolutely mind blowing.
Reaching the car park and looking back at the day, you do feel like you conquered something amazing today. The hike is about 12 kilometres long and has some difficult parts, but every single step is worth the magnificent scenery you can enjoy during the tour. Not for a single second was I sad for not having seen the Tugela Waterfall properly – I rather consider it as a reason to do this hike again someday. Right know it just feels incredible having overcome the fear of the ladders and having mastered the stone gully – the two things that in the end make this hike so special and fun. So whenever you go to the Northern Drakensberg, the Tugela Falls Day Tour is an absolute must, but keep two things in mind. First: When the day is not so cloudy, bring your bathing suits! You can actually take a short and refreshing swim on top of the Amphitheatre when it is sunny and hot enough. And second: Ask Sia to take a picture of you with your phone and check it once you’re back in the shuttle. A good laugh is definitely guaranteed!
The Northern Drakensberg is a place not to be missed while traveling South Africa – so different from how you would imagine this continent to look like, but so full of beauty and so unique. If you’re searching for a landscape that makes your jar drop every five seconds, this is the place to visit.
Written by Angela Kolbe.