Trekking into the Tugela Gorge is an arduous mission on any day. Tackling this trail in the Northern Drakensberg mountain range of South Africa with a group of varying capabilities requires the balance of a high wire walker.

We leave the bustling city of Johannesburg at the witching hour of 3 am. It’s even stranger on this day as the roads take on a buzz close to the traffic logjam of midday thanks to the Black Friday rush.

Our journey begins on the impressive N3 highway that leads to the warm coastal city of Durban but that is not our final destination. We have our sights set on the Drakensberg and sure enough a few provinces (and hours) later the Drakensberg mountain range comes into view.

Our destination is the Mahai Campsite. Set within the Royal Natal National Park and surrounded by mountains, it almost feels like a teacup under the grip of a blue saucer.

Primates are always on the lookout to pounce on unattended food
Primates are always on the lookout to pounce on unattended food

Enjoying The Journey

The real work begins as the roads start winding and the altitude quickly escalates to over 1700 meters above sea level. The excitement of the mountains and the urge to arrive are conflicting pleasures I have to deal with.

However, the terrain has a calming effect. It slows one down, probably a friendly reminder that the essence of travelling is not about the destination. The road winds through the mountains and the car tilts with the breathtaking but treacherous curves.

The engine roars to an agonizing limit. On the right is the Sterkfontein Dam, an infinity sight that stretches for kilometers beyond the eye. The dam is trapped between mountains, like a huge bowl of warm soup. The red sun and bouncing refraction gave this ‘soup’ a steamy effect.

“Ah, ah, these curves,” says my travel mate Eddy, who would help set up camp for our group of glampers that would be arriving later in the day.

“This is the place where Mzilikazi took his first rest on his way up north to Zimbabwe,” chirps another passenger.

The talk becomes more animated. The chatter turns into a History 101 lesson. Quietly, but imposing, the Amphitheatre zooms into focus with each meter we move forward. It’s a majestic sight that has been subject to folklore.

Songs have been composed about the Berg. It’s a colossal creation that almost stands like a mythical sentinel, watching humans come, pass, return and fret along its hiking trails. This is why we are here.

The Tugela Gorge offers a challenging but exhilarating hike
The Tugela Gorge offers a challenging but exhilarating hike

The Tugela Gorge Trail

The next day our group of glampers is up at the crack of dawn to enjoy the beautiful sunrise and a hearty breakfast before attacking the Tugela Gorge trail. The trail is a 14km return trip from the car park near the Thendele camp and we accept the challenge.

The hike through this scenic wonder put every glamper to the test. One glamper returned to camp, two contemplated returning, and others pressed forward shakily with only the spirit of achievement driving them.

Still the Amphitheatre stood, firm, like a sentinel, watching our approach in varying countenance. The voices of the leading the pack enjoying the pool motivate the rest of us to soldier on so that we too might enjoy a relaxing splash in the pool to soothe our tired legs.

Soon enough the Tugela Gorge appears almost without warning. It’s ‘mouth’ gasps, wide open as we emerge from the narrow trail. It’s a wonder to the eye. The water levels are little low however a few of the pools and puddles still hold water as clear as unspoiled glass and as icy as a cold one from the deep freezer.

We dig in, some dive in and others sit in awe of this natural architecture. “It’s addictive,” says an American glamper from the pool. It’s not unusual to find foreigners frequently visiting the Drakensberg.  The mountains call and travellers respond.

As we leave the gorge with our rejuvenated bodies, revived spirits and hypnotised minds, still, the Amphitheatre stands watching, bidding us farewell until we meet again.

The scenic hiking trail has picture perfect spots from any angle
The scenic hiking trail has picture-perfect spots from any angle

The Essentials

Where To Stay

Service providers like Glamping Adventures offer weekend packages that let you live the best of nature and glam. Packages include activities like hiking, water tubing, photography and more.

All meals and soft drinks are included and you can enjoy spacious, well-lit tents with comfortable beds and campsites with access to hot water and electricity. 

When To Go

For hiking with fewer crowds and lower prices, spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit.

Words By Davison Mudzingwa