Northern Drakensburg and Lesotho

July 15th 2017
Published: July 22nd 2017
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Amphitheater SummitAmphitheater SummitAmphitheater Summit

The cliff and Tugela Falls are just to our right, but the falls don't make for much of a photo.
The Amphitheater in Northern Drakensburg is a 5 km long 1,500+ meter escarpment shaped like a ( with Tugela Falls, the second-tallest waterfall in the world, cascading into the gorge below, and then dispersing into fertile grasslands where we stayed for 4 nights- at the aptly-named Amphitheater Backpackers Lodge, with panoramic views of the cliffs that extend for tens of kilometers north and south, making it impossible to climb to the top of the escarpment from the valley without driving around the cliffs for 2 hours on good roads.

Amphitheater Hike
The hostel runs a guided summit of the Amphitheater every other day. As I mentioned above, though we could see the area towering about 30k from the hostel, it takes about 2 hours to drive around the escarpment to a carpark at the base of the backside. You could do it alone, but the plateau has sudden, severe changes in weather, and parts of the road there are poor and often foggy, so I agree with the hostel that it's smarter to go with a guide, and the main one at the lodge now, Siya, is excellent.

As with most group walks, we began at the pace of
Climbing down the chain laddersClimbing down the chain laddersClimbing down the chain ladders

Not pictured: being the only one in the group roped in, repeating the mantra "I'm all roped in" the entire descent, my hands gripping so hard that they hurt afterward. The group two days later had 50kph winds during this section, so I'm surprised I missed that experience.
the lowest common denominator- the slowest person ever to have done the hike, to ensure that it wasn't too much for anyone. After taking shelter in a cave while the edge of a winter storm passed, we scrambled up a very steep, rocky, slippery vein in the cliffs to reach the plateau for lunch. The 947-meter Tugela Falls was barely a trickle, and you couldn't really see it unless you looked over the edge (so I didn't see it, especially with the high winds whipping around), but the views of the grasslands and the surrounding escarpment, including Sentinel Peak, were fabulous, and made the hike well worth it.

After lunch, we continued across the exposed plateau to what I had been dreading since planning the trip- the chain ladders (see photo). After getting through the two sets, the second of which was 20 meters (65 feet) high, the rest of the hike was an easy descent to the van, with spectacular views of the low sun shimmering in the serpentine rivers below.

Day Trip to Lesotho

Peggy and I did this excursion through the hostel / lodge as well. Lesotho, the highest country in the world (averaging
Backside of plateau Backside of plateau Backside of plateau

This is the side you climb to get to the Amphitheater. The car park was a little off to the right.
the elevation, and it's very small) is similar to South Africa, except poorer and colder, both of which are well embodied by the blankets everyone wears around themselves. The drive to the border was another two hours to the same area we had been the day before for the hike, making us wonder if the hostel would be better located next to all their main attractions. But then they wouldn't have the view (see the yoga photo below). The border was easy but the roads were terrible- it would have been faster to walk from there to the small settlement a few k away.

The excursion wasn't much of a hike, though most in our group seemed to expect one. The primary school we visited was interesting but sad; the homemade beer at a local's house was tasty but more of a photo opp (see photo); the cave paintings were mostly chipped off but it would be fun to do an overnight trip and sleep in one of the caves; the sangoma (healer) visit was awkward, as we were forced to ask questions (the Russian guy in our group later said that he wanted to ask, "How does it
Shadows on Golden fieldsShadows on Golden fieldsShadows on Golden fields

This is along the airstrip walking back to the hostel.
feel to be a fraud?" but luckily didn't, since I guess we all delude ourselves into thinking thinking we're important and this guy was no different); the tour of a rondaval and pap snack assumed no one had experienced these things in South Africa, where they're also commonplace. Though the day trip has room for improvement, we are still glad we did it just to get into Lesotho for one long day.

Royal Natal National Park

We wanted to do a trip independently, and Royal Natal National Park (which is what Tugela Falls falls into) is only 30k from the lodge. Since we hadn't hired a car, we inquired at the hostel, and they wanted to charge an astronomical $100 for round trip transport and told us that it "might be cheaper" to go by shared taxis. So at 9AM we went to the stop on N74 to wait for one to pass. By 10, 3 had passed us without stopping, so I ran inside to ask if we were missing something. We weren't, and when I came back down, I saw that a car had stopped for Peggy alone. So we hitched a ride with a young
Yoga with PeggyYoga with PeggyYoga with Peggy

This is the view from the Amphitheater hostel / lodge grounds. They apparently have a pretty big music festival between Christmas and New Years, since they own so much land.
African family, with a toddler in the backseat, and then hitched another ride in the bed of a small truck with a French woman and (presumably) her son at the next intersection, which got us to a French resort 5k away, and then walked from there.

Since it took us over three hours to get there, we couldn't do the gorge hike (some said it was overrated anyway) to near the bottom of Tugela Falls, so we opted for stringing together a few shorter trails near the cascades, which made for a really nice day of hiking. There are good maps available at the visitor's center.

Near the park exit there is a taxi rank and a shared taxi pulled up right when we got there and departed a minute later, eventually heading right past our hostel, for just 15 rand for the two of us, bringing the grand total to 35, including the tips to the people we had hitched with earlier, or under 3 dollars, slightly less expensive than the $100 the hostel had wanted to charge.

There are more photos far below.

Additional photos below
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Man with beerMan with beer
Man with beer

We all passed around this cup of homemade beer - it wasn't bad.
Schoolhouse in Lesotho Schoolhouse in Lesotho
Schoolhouse in Lesotho

Even the math workbooks had messages about HIV / AIDS throughout.

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