Hiking in the Royal Natal National Park – Northern Drakensberg



Semi cut-off from the rest of the Drakensberg region, but probably the most spectacular, the Royal Natal National Park.



Where is it?


The Royal Natal National Park can be found on Google Maps.  Yes, although adventurous people sometimes wants to be as hardcore as cavemen, it’s seldom necessary.  We once went to the same region with some friends and took the several hours longer not-so-scenic route through the townships because someone knew the way, apparently.  If you get lost in the mountains it’s fine, but you don’t want to get lost before you even get there.  On the north-eastern border of Lesotho, about an hours drive from Harrismith, you’ll find the Royal Natal National Park.


SA Map

Royal Natal National Park as found on Google Maps



Where to stay?


There are quite a few accommodation options in the area with prices ranging from out of pocket to a bottomless pit.  Choose wisely though, as you don’t want to drive in and out on twisty roads just to get to your day hike.  I prefer staying at the Mahai Campsite as it’s affordable, at the start of many day hikes and absolutely stunning.  It has large grass areas for camping cricket, volleyball, badminton and even enough space for a chipping contest, although some happy campers may not enjoy the sound of a golf ball against their precious fiberglass caravans.  If you prefer a fixed roof over your head then the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Thendele Resort would be the other option in the Park itself.  Other familiar lodges in the area are Rugged Glen Campsite, ATKV Drakensville, Amphitheatre Backpackers, The Cavern, Tower of Pizza Lodge, Mont Aux Sources Hotel and the Hlalanathi Drakensberg Resort.


Worthy day hikes


OK, let’s get down to the hiking details.  Royal Natal has plenty of well-marked day hikes with clear pathways to choose from.  No scrambling or bundu bashing is required and you can find your way quite easily by just following the routes.  Easy-to-read maps are available at the visitor’s center if you want to familiarize yourself with the general layout of the area, but you don’t need a GPS watch or fancy gadget to show you the way around.



Behind the clouds the mighty Drakensberg Amphitheater keeps an eye over everything below


While visiting over the March long-weekend we did two hikes.  Firstly, the Thukela Gorge hike which takes you along the Tugela river in the face of the magnificent Amphitheater and secondly, a scenic loop up the Mudslide and down the Crack, whilst exploring the top of the Gudu Falls along the way.



Plan view of the two hikes as detailed in this blog, powered by Strava and jonathanokeeffe.com


Thukela Gorge


The Thukela Gorge is a flattish contour hike that takes you from the Thendele Resort upstream towards the Tugela Falls.  It is a non-technical out and back hike with a well-travelled pathway and it is therefore probably impossible to get lost.



Perfectly shaped over the years


You can drive to the parking spot below Thendele which will give you an out and back combined distance of about 16 kilometers with roughly 500 meters of elevation gain.  We started the hike from Mahai Campsite and caught a lift back on return.  The additional stretch from Mahai Campsite to Thendele is 4 kilometers both ways.  I would advise rather starting from the Thendele car park as the deeper and quicker you can get into the gorge the more beautiful it gets, unless you want to add some kilometers.

Time wise I would say it takes roughly 3.5 hours to get in and 3 hours back at a relaxed hiking pace.  The route back is slightly downhill and one would generally go a little faster.



Only a small portion of the route is actually a bit technical.


We had foul and rainy weather all day and in case mother nature hits you with the same weather, it is worthy to note, that there is a convenient overhang close to the turn-around point where you can find some shelter.  When you reach the chain ladder on your right, you will notice that there is a path on the other side of the river to your left.  This path takes you onto a small climb where you’ll find the overhang.  This also serves as a nice spot for lunch.



The important signs are all in English, which is not my first language.  Next time I’ll chuck a dictionary into my backpack.


Close to the turn-around point there is also some lovely rock pools where one can cool off.  As it was raining, we were not quite fond of this idea but on a hot summer day these rock pools should provide the perfect oasis feeling.

Rainy conditions and poor visibility prevented us from rock scrambling to a point where we could see the Tugela Falls.  I believe it is possible to get to a point where you’ll see the falls in the distance but I get the feeling that you’ll need some climbing experience to get real close to where the water drops.  I wouldn’t count on it.



Cold weather calls for coffee, always carry coffee and waterproof clothes


Nonetheless, even without seeing the falls the spectacular rock formations are something to admire.

I would recommend this hike to anyone that wants a perfect day out in the mountains without putting too much strain on the legs.



The real slide of courage


Mudslide – Gudu Falls – The Crack


Fancy something short and sweet?  This little loop can get you into the real Drakensberg sensation.  Two magnificent gullies and a waterfall among these sandstone mountains really makes this hike spectacular.  Although only 12.5 kilometers in length it gains just over 700 meters in elevation.  This loop takes you up and down some steep climbs so it should not be underestimated.  At leisurely pace I would say half a day is more than enough to experience all facets this loop has to offer, unless you want to spend the other half of the day at a lovely rock pool at the top of the Gudu Falls.  We encountered some families with kids along the way, tactically draining all the excess energy, but also proving that this is not the toughest of routes to be found in the Drakensberg.



Gudu Falls


From the onset, after leaving Mahai and filling in the mountain register, the route climbs gradually on a clear and open pathway.  The route is well marked and tourist friendly so finding your way shouldn’t be too much of a struggle.  As for any hike, knowing the general layout of the route is always a good idea and having a map will be helpful when the foul weather or mist rolls in.  No fancy GPS equipment is required to find your way along this route.



The Mudslide gully is equipped for the masses with plenty of ladders


After a few route splits and following the “Mudslide” signs, the route becomes slightly more rugged and steep.  Look up, the gully full of trees that sits in the sandstone rock face is where you’ll be heading up on.  The mudslide is steep but well maintained with numerous wooden ladders and some chains scattered along the way to assist with the tricky parts.



One should not generally fall of a ladder, but if you have to, don’t choose this one.


In rainy weather this gully could possibly become quite interesting and slippery as it has quite a bit of tree cover allowing the moss to grow freely.



Some chains to negotiate.


Pop your head out on the top and a magnificent sandstone landscape awaits.  I was surprised by the landscape as it was not quite what I was expecting it to be.  At this point the scenes struck me real deep and although we were hiking, I got that feeling of wanting to run on all of these massive rock areas, tagging some peaks.  The sandstone has good grip so slipping off the edge should not generally by an issue, but know your limits and be cautious of the wind.



The top of the Mudslide gully is magnificent


A small gradual descent takes you to the top of the Gudu Falls waterfall.  It is beautiful in every aspect and a perfect spot for hanging around for a snack and cooling off, as there is a lovely rock pool that awaits.



A small river supplying the beautiful Gudu Falls


On your way back you find a short little ascent that takes you up and over a ridge towards the Crack gully.

The Crack, as the name suggests, is a bit more technical than the usual hike and will be somewhat slippery in wet conditions.  A bit of rock scrambling and a chain ladder takes you down through a forest and back onto the main pathways at the bottom.  From here you have two options, head back along the Tiger Falls route or pass by the bottom part of the Gudu Falls.  Continue with this route to find yourself backtracking on the same route that you’ve started on.



Oh Crack.


A proper afternoon nap awaits.


Worth it?


Absolutely worth it, yes.  It might not be the two most hardcore hiking routes in the Drakensberg but is contains all aspects that make this area so popular and beautiful.  I would recommend these day hikes to anyone, especially if you are not that familiar with the Drakensberg or if you fancy a proper family outing.




There’s still a lot more to offer in the area


There are also other more extreme options from this area, like a 50 kilometer day hike to the peak of Mont-Aux-Sources via the Witsieshoek Mountain Resort.  I will certainly review this route in the future.

That’s it,

Live a little,