Hiking Royal Natal National Park: The Tugela Gorge Trail

Today we’re recapping our visit to Royal National Park and the Tugela Gorge Trail near the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. It’s the latest installment in a series of recaps of our February 2019 trip to this gorgeous country. To see our other South Africa posts – click here:  International Trips

After 4 days in the Cape Town area, our next national park stop in South Africa was to Royal Natal National Park in the northern Drakensberg Mountains. We had two days in the area and spent one of them on a guided hike of the Tugela Gorge Trail. Before we recap the hike, here’s what we learned about Royal Natal National Park and the Drakensberg area.

About Royal Natal National Park

Royal Natal National Park is located in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa about 3 1/2 hours drive south of Johannesburg. Unlike Table Mountain and Cape Point National Parks, Royal Natal National Park is not managed by SANParks (the United States equivalent of the National Park Service). Instead, Royal Natal National Park has a provincial park designation and is managed by the KwaZulu Natal government.

We selected the Tugela Gorge Trail and Royal Natal National Park for our guided hike because of the stunning geological features in the area, including Tugela Falls (the tallest waterfall in Africa and the second tallest in the world), the Tugela Gorge running along the Tugela River, and the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, a rock wall 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) long by up to 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) high.

The Drakensberg Amphitheater from Royal Natal National Park
The Drakensberg Amphitheater from the Tugela Gorge Trail

Part of the Drakensberg Mountains

Named Drakensberg or “Mountains of Dragons” by the early Dutch settlers, the range runs north and south along the eastern part of South Africa. Royal Natal National Park contains some of the tallest peaks of the range, topping out at more than 3,400 meters (11,000 feet).

In 2000, portions of the Drakensberg Mountains were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here’s what the UNESCO website says about why the park received the designation:

“The site has exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts as well as visually spectacular sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools. The site’s diversity of habitats protects a high level of endemic and globally important plants. The site harbors endangered species such as the Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) and the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). Lesotho’s Sehlabathebe National Park also harbors the Maloti minnow (Pseudobarbus quathlambae), a critically endangered fish species only found in this park. This spectacular natural site contains many caves and rock-shelters with the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. They represent the spiritual life of the San people, who lived in this area over a period of 4,000 years.” – UNESCO World Heritage List

Royal Natal National Park Entrance Sign

Hiking the Tugela Gorge Trail

We started the morning early, entering the main park gates by 8:00 am. The trail begins from the Thendele Car Park where we met our guide Otto from Go Vertical Mountaineering (more about guided hiking in South Africa later). From there we followed the Tugela River along 11 km of rolling hills into the gorge.

Along the way, we hiked through a protea veld (protea are the national flowers of South Africa) and up to some stunning views of the Drakensberg Amphitheater.

Our guide Otto shared that it’s thought that the rock formations here were created during the division of the continents some 200 million years ago. The formations are mostly basalt (lava pushed up from the pressure of the land masses separating). and sandstone which has been eroded by the waters of the Tugela River.

Views of Tugela Falls

The Tugela River in Royal Natal National Park is famous for cascading over the rock wall at Tugela Falls. Measured at 948 meters (3,110 feet), it is the tallest waterfall in Africa and ranked as the second highest waterfall in the world. We were treated to several partial views of the falls along the gorge hike (although all 5 cascades can only be seen from up above).

There’s some debate right now about whether Tugela Falls may actually be taller than Angel Falls in Venezuela given that more accurate equipment is available than when the falls were originally surveyed in the mid-1900’s.

The hike was relatively easy with short, steady inclines until you reach the gorge. From that point, the route follows the river with quite a bit of bouldering and rock hopping as you cross back and forth across the Tugela.

We ran into a classic South African afternoon thunderstorm just after lunch and opted to turn around before we reached the end of the gorge trail. The next section of the trail included some chain ladders and bouldering. Our notes promised more views of the falls, but by this point, the boulders were quite slippery in the rain. Not sad that we opted for safety that day, but if you happen to hike on a clear day, we heard you’re in for some gorgeous views.

Protea along the Tugela Gorge Trail

Guided Hiking in South Africa

We debated quite a bit about hiring a private hiking guide for our day trip on the Tugela Gorge Trail. Everything online indicated the easy elevation gain and well-marked trail would be similar to something we’d find here in a United States national park. Yet in our travel planning, we couldn’t shake the feeling that finding a hiking guide would be a better choice. In the end, we were grateful to have Otto along for the day.

After seeing Tugela Gorge, could we have handled the trail on our own? Most definitely.

Was it more fun to have a local describing the plants and geology to us as we hiked? Most definitely.

Without a lot of international hiking miles logged, having Otto along helped us better enjoy the sights and sounds of the scenery without being worried. We heard some amazing stories about other areas of the Drakensberg and logged some ideas for hikes the next time we find ourselves in South Africa.

Here are some other photos from the Tugela Gorge Trail:


THE PARK CHASERS

THE PARK CHASERS

Greg & Amy
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