Tugela Falls Trail via Chain Ladders
32km from Phuthaditjhaba
Hard trail; Suitable for children with supervision
The magnificent Drakensberg Mountains, known to the Zulu people as uKhahlamba ("barrier of spears"), form the border between KwaZulu-Natal and the Kingdom of Lesotho. Hiking to the top of the plateau normally involves a lengthy, strenuous slog up one of the rugged passes that is only achievable by strong, fit backpackers. So, this relatively quick, straightforward route to the top of the Amphitheatre is a real bonus for day-walkers. The chain ladders are not for the scared of heights but can be avoided if necessary.
Drive up the steep, winding, but paved, road from Phuthaditjhaba to the Sentinel car park at Witsieshoek. Fill in the mountain register and pay a nominal entrance fee at the guard’s house. From the car park, the path climbs gradually up to the switch-backs, taking you to the base of the Sentinel massif. At the top of the zigzags, there's a stunning viewpoint overlooking the Amphitheatre, Devil's Tooth and the Inner Tower – a good place to catch your breath.
From here, the path turns right and contours below the Sentinel. If you’re afraid of heights and don't fancy the chain ladders, there is the option of hiking up the obvious, steep gully, which takes you to the top of the Beacon Buttress (3 121 metres) and then drops down to the falls. But if you want to test your nerve, continue contouring, past the Sentinel Cave, until you reach the chain ladders, which are about four kilometres, and 400 metres of altitude gain, from the car park.
There are two sets of parallel ladders, each with two sections (40m and 20m respectively). This is handy, as more experienced climbers can climb up alongside nervous members of a group. The first set, installed in 1930, is still in good nick but the newer ones are marginally more stable.
After negotiating the chain ladders, it's another half an hour's walk to the edge of the Amphitheatre, where the Tugela River plunges into the gorge below.
If it's wet, retrace your steps, but if you want a circular route, returning via the Beacon Buttress gully is an interesting option. The path follows the Tugela River for a short while before it curves uphill towards the top of the steep, rocky descent gully. When you rejoin the main path at the bottom of the gully, turn right and retrace your steps to the car park.
The weather changes extremely fast in these mountains, so go prepared for all conditions. Should you want to overnight, there is basic accommodation at the car park and the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is just seven kilometres down the road.
The northern and eastern sections of the Free State, commonly referred to as the “eastern Free State”, nudge up against the borders of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Kingdom of Lesotho. Officially the region is called Thabo Mofutsanayana. Mofutsanyana, born in QwaQwa, was a leading light of both the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party until his death in 1995.
Geographically, this region bucks a trend. While most of the Free State is flat, the eastern reaches tower up as the Drakensberg and the Malotis come into play. The landscape climbs and soars, leaving impressive cliffs and buttresses of sandstone, and hidden caves in its wake.
Nowhere is the scene more striking that at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park near the village of Clarens. The maze of sculptured rock formations here is almost too much to absorb. Sunset colours the cliffs in shades of ochre, hence the reference to gold in the name of the park.
These higher altitudes, of course, do wonders for the eastern Free State air, which is crisp, clean and bracing, conducive to a feeling of good health.
Clarens is one of the villages that lie in the foothills of the Malotis. With its mountainous surrounds, it is said to be reminiscent of the Swiss village of Clarens, where President Paul Kruger lived out his exile.
A town of sandstone buildings set amidst farmland, it has undergone something of a reincarnation in recent years as an artists’ colony. Just three hours or so from Gauteng’s big cities, weekenders come down to roam its galleries and craft shops.
The principal town in this region is Bethlehem. Once again sandstone buildings are characteristic of the town, which is the centre of a farming community that produces the lion’s share of South Africa’s wheat crop.
It has both built and natural attractions, including a flat-water slalom course for canoeists on the Ash River. Bethlehem is also the location of an annual national hot-air balloon championship.
Also set against an imposing Maloti backdrop is Ficksburg, renowned for its annual Cherry Festival in summer. A gateway to Lesotho and its Katse Dam, the town’s environs offer much in the way of adventure activity, such as 4x4 trails, quad-biking, abseiling, trout-fishing and game-viewing.
Other Thabo Mofutsanyane towns are Arlington, Clocolan, Fouriesburg, Harrismith, Kestell, Lindley, Marquard, Memel, Paul Roux, Petrus Steyn, Phuthaditjhaba, Reitz, Rosendal, Senekal, Vrede and Warden.
Look out for
Golden Gate Highlands National Park – This park is a theatre of natural, towering sandstone formations, named “golden” for their colour at sunset. At that time of day, the best place to appreciate the beauty is the highest point in the park, Ribbokkop. The former QwaQwa National Park was incorporated into Golden Gate in 2005. Horseriding is a popular outdoor pursuit in the park, which is valued for its plant, animal and bird life. A number of accommodation options are available.
Basotho Cultural Village – South Sotho architecture, arts and crafts, herbal medicinal remedies and cuisine can be explored at the Basotho Cultural Village near Phuthaditjhaba. Song and dance folklore shows can also be enjoyed.
The Sentinel – Also near Phuthaditjhaba, it is the access point for a series of trails that lead hikers to the rear of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre and some of the country’s most magnificent scenery. Geographical features to view are The Sentinel, Devil’s Tooth, the Eastern Buttress and the Tugela Falls.
Discovering cherries, Ficksburg - The annual Cherry Festival in Ficksburg takes place in November. It is a three-day event that attracts thousands and entertains with fun activities such as horse- and camel-rides. Cherry farm tours, however, take place throughout the cherry season, which is in October and November. Locally made cherry liqueurs, brandies and schnapps should be tasted to complete the experience.
Clarens – A host of things to do and see in Clarens includes the Artist Amble, a route of galleries open to the public; rock art on Schaapplaats Farm; sandstone formations such as Mushroom Rock and Titanic Rock; dinosaur fossils at Sue’s Zoo; fly-fishing as well as bass- and river-fishing; hiking and horse-riding.
Sterkfontein Dam, Harrismith – The third largest dam in South Africa, the Sterkfontein Dam is a popular venue for water sports and angling. Predating the Lesotho Highlands project, the water that fills the dam is pumped up from KwaZulu-Natal. It is then released into the Wilge River, from where it flows into the Vaal Dam. The Sterkfontein Dam’s banks are surrounded by a nature reserve where strange rock formations are just as interesting to view as buck and raptors. Camping and chalet accommodation is available, as well as hiking trails.
Salpeterkrans – At Fouriesburg you will find Salpeterkrans, one of the largest sandstone overhangs in the southern hemisphere, shaped by wind erosion. It not surprising that it is considered a sacred site where ancestral worship and fertility rites take place.
Rosendal – like the town of Clarens, Rosendal is known for its arty vibe. There are numerous art galleries in and around town, as well as quaint shops and restaurants. The Meerkatkolonie Art Gallery is a must. Rosendal is a popular weekend getaway destination for those who live in Pretoria and Johannesburg.