When I was told that the Tugela falls hike in the Drakensburg Mountains would allow me to peer off the second tallest waterfall in the world, I knew I had to do it. There were a few different hikes/experiences offered by my hostel, Amphitheatre Backpackers, all exploring different regions of the iconic Drakensburg Mountains on the South Africa/Lesotho border. Read more about my travels in Lesotho Here!
I went with the Tugela Falls Hike because I figured it would be silly not to experience taking a peek at the second tallest waterfall in the world! But, I resolved to come back one day to do the other famous Cathedral and Amphitheater hikes, which peruse dramatic cliffy mountains and amazing views similar to the one I would see that day.
We set off on a fairly long drive up into the mountains in two mini-vans from the hostel. It was April, which is nearly fall in the southern hemisphere, but as the mountains can reach up to 12,000ft in elevation it was still quite a chilly day. After passing some small towns and winding up the mountain roads for quite a while, we reached the entrance to the trailhead and made sure we were packed and ready for the adventure ahead.
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Tugela Falls Hike: Into the Fog
As we prepared for our voyage, we could see a trail crawling along the mountainside into the distance only to start switching back upon itself as it increased in elevation up the steep green mountainside. The clouds were quite dramatic, and there was thick fog racing up the side of the mountain only to seemingly materialize into thin air as it reached the part where we were to be walking. I hoped that it would stay that way!
We trudged along, up and up, stopping every mile or so to group the faster people up with the slower ones. The fog began dripping over onto our side of the mountain rather than disappearing, a bit like thick honey descending over a warm breakfast. There was no doubt that the fog was getting thicker and larger in volume, but we kept following our guide and hoped for the best.
We started at that tiny little building down there!
After doing a lot of zig zagging, climbing along grassy hillsides, and carefully sliding across some fairly sketchy damp rocky passes, it was time for our steep rock scramble. As you will see in most of the photos, these mountains increase in elevation quite slowly until coming to quite a vertical cliff face. If we wanted to get to the top, we were going to have to get up the steep part too! But, not to worry, we climbed up along quite a safe ravine and not up a vertical cliff face 😛
When we got to the ravine the fog had pretty much enveloped us completely. The fog was flowing through the area like a river; with thick parts clouding our vision only to pass through and leave us with clear sight for a few minutes before the next wave. At times we could just see about 20 feet in front of us, and then all of a sudden it would be completely clear above and below us if only for just a few moments.
Myself and a few other keen hikers took to the front of the pack for this rock scramble of about 200m. Being careful not to knock any rocks back on our fellow hikers, we scaled the cliffside quite quickly. Rock scrambles are my favorite part! For this reason we finished much faster than the more careful people in the group, leaving us a bit of time at the top to start our packed lunches and explore a bit.
Being the adventurous soul that I am, I decided to check and see what was at the top of the hill where we ended up. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see anything besides the hill in front of me, but I climbed up nonetheless.
I sat at the top for a while, watching and feeling the waves of fog roll by. But, even if just for a second, a bit of clear air passed by, revealing an enormous, majestic bit of steep cliff jutting purposefully out of the clouds and into the sky. It seemed so close to me, but I knew it must be across a big valley as these cliffs here are very jagged and abrupt.
My jaw fell to the floor as I tried to take in a few more moments of this view before it was enveloped in fog yet again. I could just imagine what this would look like on a clear day – but the fog seemed to be teasing me and making it that much more exciting.
Starting the rock scramble – up into the fog!
A very brief moment of clarity
Just a teaser of the amazing cliff right beside me!
Tugela Falls Hike: To the Top of the Waterfall
When the rest of the group reached us and had a bit of a breather, it was time for a leisurely climb around to a plateau on the top of the mountains and around to the top of Tugela Falls.
We wound round and up and along a little stream that thickened as we walked along it, which eventually turned into the very awe-inspiring second tallest waterfall in the world. The fog was still thick through much of our walk, and we were a bit concerned we would arrive at this massive valley only to see a vague whiteness covering what should be one of the best views of our life.
But, cheeky old mother nature had something else in mind. As we neared the top of the falls, the fog got lighter… and lighter. All of a sudden I could see jagged cliffs in the distance – including Devil’s tooth rock, which I am sure you’ll be able to pick out from the photos! I felt myself speeding up to make sure that I could make the most of this fleeting view while it lasted.
Devil’s Tooth finally showing itself
We reached the top of the falls and the absolutely sweeping view that opened up over thousands of feet of rippling green canyon made my jaw fall to the floor yet again. After standing there in a few seconds of absolute stupor, my ever-active photo senses began to tingle and I sped to the closest point I could safely get to the waterfall and begin shooting like mad.
The entire canyon was visible in a moment of what I wouldn’t know whether to call luck, fate, or fortune too good to be true. I tried to get a good balance of taking photos/videos with all three of my cameras (typical), and taking in the moment. Tugela Falls is second highest only to a waterfall in Venezuala, coming in at a total height of 3110ft/948m. It falls down in sections, gathering into a little pool at various parts of the cliff before dropping off a few hundred more feet again. The tiny little river that it culminated into all those thousands of feet down in the canyon was hardly even visible to me all the way at the top. It truly was one of those moments that leaves you utterly speechless and awe-struck; the Tugela Falls hike was SO worth it.
The pinnacle of the Tugela Falls Hike
The stream that eventually becomes of the falls – all the way down there
My traditional photo I take at the tops of cliffs
Eventually moving to let others have a go at this slightly perilous view, I walked along the side of the cliff to get a view of the falls from a bit farther away. But, as a continued tease like she had been doing all day, it was at this point that mother nature took the view away just as fast as she had presented it! In a gust of wind the fog was back and I could hardly see 20 feet in front of my face yet again. I was just thankful that I had gotten to see the view in the first place!
After snapping a few more shots of the now clouded waterfall, I joined the rest of the group to begin our loop trek back down the mountain. This time, we had something even crazier in store: literal ladders down a sheer cliff face!
Devil’s Tooth lost again in the thick fog
The waterfall disappears into whiteness
Tugela Falls Hike: Ladders Down a Mountain
We traipsed along the boggy little river, following it back up the plateau and toward another cliff face where we caught a glimpse of another waterfall. This is where we came to the part everyone had been anticipating (some in a good way, and some in a bad!): metal ladders right down the face of a cliff!
There were two sections of two ladders right down a cliff: one ‘easier’ fixed/ring ladder and another ‘hard’ one that was only fixed at the top. My excitement matched the fear of some of my fellow hikers; I thought this was totally awesome but others were ready to have an anxiety attack! Our guide told us to have three limbs on the ladder at a time for maximum safety. After watching a few others go, it was my turn!
Naturally turning on my Go Pro for the descent, I captured a few angles of the vertical rickety ladder giving way to thousands of feet of view behind me. Taking in the view while filming, I really enjoyed this treacherous adventure while cheering on others who were not as stoked on it as me.
Would you do this? 🙂
The bottom of ladder one, and you can see ladder 2 in the distance if you look hard enough!
Tugela Falls Hike: The Storm
We waited at the bottom for the more apprehensive of us to conquer their fears and come down the cliff. It was beautiful to see people afraid of heights conquer their fears first hand! We waited at the bottom, taking photos of the valley and cheering on our companions.
But, something was definitely a bit alarming to us… and that something was the sound of thunder in the distance. Uh oh.
We waited patiently for the group to descend, while literally watching some quite intense-looking storm clouds inch closer and closer to our location. Not too far past these ladders was the spot we would loop back upon the place we did the rock scramble to get up the cliff, and then we had the whole winding path to take before we would get back to the base. The clouds seemed to be coming upon the area we started our hike. We all knew deep down that we were probably doomed; I took a few last photos with my camera before wrapping it in a plastic bag and placing it into the depths of my backpack.
Let’s just say: there’s no better way to find out that your jacket is actually not completely waterproof, than by being stuck on a mountain in a rainstorm! A group of us decided to take off in hopes to beat a bit of the storm, and we did beat a bit of it… but not all of it! We walked faster and faster into the impending thunder until little droplets slowly grew into big droplets which slowly soaked us to the bone. I had to give someone else my valuables because the water was soaking through my seemingly ‘waterproof’ jacket!
We trudged on through the rain for a few miles, our feet squelching with the lost hope of keeping them remotely dry. It only started to let up when the end was actually in sight. As relieving as it was to see some blue sky, we were absolutely soaked and freezing cold. We stopped for another photo or two, but basically bee-lined it back to the little building at the trailhead.
When we got there, there were two extremely kind men sitting inside near a furnace. As we had quite a while to wait for the rest of our group, these men set us up chairs near the furnace and insisted we warm ourselves there. This was my saving grace; I was SO cold and I appreciated SO much to sit near a warm fire!
When the rest of our group arrived we piled, damp and muddy, into the mini-vans. It was a long drive back but we kept ourselves entertained with conversation and dreams of a warm shower upon our arrival.
But, little did we know that the storm had been even worse down at the backpackers! Apparently multiple tents had washed away (and they were still looking for one), some of the hostel had flooded, and all my clothes and sleeping bag were drenched!
Luckily I hadn’t stored my entire backpack in my tent like some of my tour mates. I had to hang out the clothes I had set out for myself, and set up a little makeshift bed with my tour guide’s blanket inside the hostel kitchen. It wasn’t the best situation, but it’s sure I’ll never forget the experience – oh, the price you pay to have incredible adventures. I can’t wait to return to the Drakensburg to do some more hiking one day.
Click here to see more photos from the Tugela Falls Hike and the rest of the beautiful area in Lesotho and South Africa, and possibly order prints and memoribilia from this area!
A few different waterfalls below Devil’s Tooth
One of my favorite photos from the day
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