A fiery start to a long day on the trail to the Tugela Gorge at Royal Natal National Park
As with the trip to Giants Hut a few weeks ago, it had been decades since the last sortie I made to the Gorge of the Tugela River in the Amphitheatre, that spectacular mountain backdrop to the Royal Natal National Park. As family groups we’d been there in searing summer, and in knee-deep snow in September, and it had always been so exciting, almost like being the first explorers to see that wild place. We were essentially city dwellers then, and had never expected that introducing our offspring to nature could be so rewarding, for ourselves as much as for them. I’d never been there alone, and the idea of being there on my own was irresistible. So, in the deep darkness of the early morning this past Saturday, I cranked up the Nissan, and set sail.
The patches of mist along the road through Howick, Mooi River, Winterton and Bergville spoke of an interesting sunrise, and as I approached the RNNP I was looking for signs of colour while the early minibus taxis drivers tested my temper before daybreak, using the full width of the paltry road to circumvent potholes they had prior knowledge of, so relegating me to the role of dodgem driver. I’d been on the road for two hours, and hadn’t really enjoyed the drive. A cursory glance in the rear view mirror got the day going in spectacular style. The eastern sky was ablaze, “a splendour of warm light,” as Vicki Street put it. I was still a few kilometres from the Reserve entrance, and had been dodging dogs and other animals in the gloom, and I happily left the cosy interior for better things. Only for a moment, though. The cold was like a hammer. All along the road verges were pinky-white bands of frost that threatened my toes and fingers, and I was tempted to forgo the wonderful colours in the clouds. Just as well I didn’t. Take a look.
The one that so nearly got away...
With the poor light and my shivering hands, I never expected any usable images, but I was pleasantly surprised. Turning away from the sunrise for a moment, I was amazed at the rosy glow that coated everything between me and the top of the Amphitheatre. It was a thing to capture and to relish – it lasts for just a few minutes.
A pink start to the day for the local residents.
Shortly after this I presented myself at the entrance (interrogation) post of the Royal Natal National Park. The naming of the reserve is interesting, but more of that another day, for those of you who’ve skipped my blog titled “Hotel in the Hills.” The Bic pen screeched as I tried to scribble my details into spaces designed for single letters, paid the entrance fee, received the receipt and a warning that I must present it upon leaving the reserve or face paying a penalty of yet another R10-00. These guys really know how to make friends and promote tourism.
With the temperature reading on the dashboard at a temperate 3C, I decided a trot around the trout dams was in order. I hadn’t consulted my fingers or nose. The cold was solid. I couldn’t cross the log bridges that were coated with a treacherous frost, so took the long route, passing a deeply huddled photographer sullenly guarding a camera on a tripod, waiting for the light, and a hardy fisherman who didn’t see the funny side of my observations on the ruddy glow of his unbending fingers.
The placid trout dams in the chill before the sunrise
But the view made it all worth the suffering. The light changed by the minute, and suddenly the cold didn’t matter quite as much as before. There really is nothing to challenge the depth and colour of the light in the early morning and late afternoon, and this day was proof of that. Here and there a bird querulously enquired after the weather before venturing into exposure, and some near-frozen fish made ripples on the surface of the ponds. The details in and around the water were fascinating, and of course, the mountains were calling the camera.
By now the sun was struggling out of the grip of the low morning clouds that turned the early light to murk, and gradually the warm rays began to touch and massage a world that had withstood another brutally cold night. The rude dwellings that boasted no warming nor insulation against the freeze reached out to summon the tentative warmth of the small hour of the day.
The first warmth seeking out the huts and dwellings
Dusk and dawn in South Africa are fleeting things, as many visitors from England have commented. So it was that day, as gloom gave way to cold, bright sunshine that bathed the hills and mountains in its golden glow that would last for just a short time, long enough only for those lucky to be there and ready to record the spectacle. And what a spectacle….
The incredible Amphitheatre
The Amphitheatre is world-renowned for its grandeur and rugged beauty, and was used as the location for the film Zulu, starring almost forgotten stars like Stanley Baker, Michael Caine and other well-known actors of the time. Of course the battles didn’t occur anywhere near here, but it was a wonderfully scenic setting. It is probably, after Table Mountain, the most photographed and painted part of South Africa, but never loses its appeal. It has drama and peace, violent storms and torpid lulls, wild vistas and serene glades, all along embracing an endless panoply of colour and light. This really is heaven for a photographer.
The Eastern Buttress in different guises
I filled in the hiking register at the car park, while two intrepid hikers tweaked and adjusted their packs and equipment in preparation for an assault on the heights. I left before they did, and had time to soak up the small things that caught my eye. I saw the colours of the frost that made my nose run, heard the crackle of the thin layer of ice on the blades of grass as I trod the path. The air was free of dust, and only the small clouds of mist from my breath betrayed the presence of an intruder.
The early morning highway
At every turn the massive Eastern Buttress dominated the scene, framed by any and all parts of the landscape. Still the light was changing by the minute as the sun rose and penetrated the deep shadows that still harboured frost and ice, and in my wake lay the deeply shadowed Thendele Hutted Camp that showed no signs of life, even at this late hour of morning. Before long I realised that I needed to identify a hideaway for my jacket, one that I wouldn’t bypass as I had the one on Giants Ridge. I found a huge rock at the side of the path, tucked my jacket into the thick grass at its base, and stood back and took a photo just in case….. Then I was able to travel light.
In this area the path winds around the spines of hill that dribble down from the Little Berg, embracing a wonderful variety of grassland species and some trees and, of course, the ever-present rocks and boulders that provide the basis of the paths we’re lucky to travel.
Morning sunlight selecting parts of the landscape for lighting
Looming above this tranquil valley is a series of sandstone promontories that erupt from the foothill ridge, the most celebrated being the Policeman’s Helmet. These shapes are caused by exfoliation of the sandstone, where the stone erodes at the lower levels, creating hollows and “caves” underneath, many of the shapes being really dramatic and exciting. In some ways the Little Berg is more appealing than the main range, with the soft sandstone colours and gentler shapes and forms, and of course the generous covering of savannah and patches of deep forest.
"Little Berg" sandstone formations, including the Policeman's Helmet
In several places the trail enters areas of dark forest where the sun never shines. Most of the major trees are evergreen, and the canopy is permanent, so all new growth below is tall and spindly as the new plants reach for light. The forests are almost always on the south-facing slopes of the Little Berg, partly because of the better water supply there. The lack of direct sunshine results in many of the trees such as the Yellowwoods being tall and straight. I found it fascinating to see the various stages of a tree species growing, or not growing, cheek by jowl. Exposed roots have been polished by decades of the attentions of hikers’ shoes, and some of the shapes of tree trunks are just outlandish.
Some surprises on the forest floor
As the morning began to warm some of the local inhabitants appeared. Dark-capped Bulbuls were all about, a lone Jackal Buzzard soared overhead, and this formally dressed Buff-streaked Chat sat on his favourite boulder, calmly soaking up the sunshine after a really cold night.
The Buff-streaked Chat greeting the sun.
A piece of our family's past association with the Gorge is what we've come to know as "Granny's Roc." When Terri's mother died and was cremated in 1989, Terri's father Rex, Terri and I, and Donald and Pam (Terri's sister) McHardy spent a weekend at Thendele and walked to this lovely spot and scattered Granny Naureen's ashes there. When Rex died a number of years later we took a small phial of his ashes to Granny's Rock and accorded him the same farewell. We're not sentimental about earthly remains, but for some reason we're happy we did it. What a place to rest.
"Granny's Rock," at the entrance to the Tugela River Gorge
And so, into the Gorge proper.
After trudging for about a kilometre through dense forest, I came to a steep descent into the river bed, already some distance into the Gorge proper, tall sandstone cliffs rearing up on either side, creating a feeling of being trapped in an alien space. The bed itself is a riot of round stones and boulders, looking for all the world as if they'd been dumped there by some Giant with a wheelbarrow. With the river being at such a low level at this time of the year, the stream often runs out of sight between and under the rocks. Here and there the Tugela was being minutely swollen by seepage water trickling and dripping down the cliffs, many of those spots themselves interesting and worth a careful look, with tufts and trails of algae adorning the bright red sandstone surface.
It was here that I found that nowadays I’m severely boulder-hopping challenged. Being hung about with a heavy camera and heavier lenses doesn’t make it easier to do mountain goat impressions, and I must have looked really fragile as I picked my way carefully along the water course, determined not to injure myself or damage my equipment. The slow pace became an advantage as I had time observe the details around me, and particularly the little pools and cascades that made up the river there. The clarity and purity of the water was staggering, and what a pleasure to drink. A bottle of Aqua Tugela is a delight to the senses. The mountain water, for me, is one of the real highlights of a visit to the Drakensberg.
The coolest of the cool, so to speak.
....and here and there I stumbled on welcome devices
to aid old codgers like me....
The easiest track – there’s hardly a path in this part of the walk – crossed the stream three times, but the crossings were easy with the low levels. I’d been there in summer many years before with the river running strongly, and it was terrifying. This time around I’d never have made the crossings. And then, suddenly, I’d arrived.
A look into the Tunnel
The gorge runs almost to an end as a river bed fed by the Tugela which flows from the foot of the Tugela Falls on the face of the Amphitheatre through a dramatic cleft call the Tunnel, and by a subsidiary stream running from below the Devil’s Tooth. On one side a chain ladder offers access to the top of the sandstone crags with a grand view of the Amphitheatre, and straight ahead those prepared to wade and get wet can use the Tunnel as an access. I didn’t feel reckless enough to either, so busied myself recording the surroundings.
Some of the sights from the Gorge
Tugela Falls is the second-highest waterfall in the world, cascading a total height of 948 metres in five stages from the plateau above, called Mont aux Sources as several rivers rise there to start their journeys to the sea. In winter the waterfall is almost permanently frozen and not easy to see, but in summer appears as a thin vertical ribbon against the basalt. Because of the season I wasn’t able to photograph the falls, but they’re never an inspiring sight anyway.
The Devil's Tooth
The Devil’s Tooth is another of those landmark or iconic peaks that cannot go unrecognised. I’d made up my mind that I needed a shot of that peak as evidence that I’d really been to the gorge. Some of the other sights begged to be grabbed too, and the rock formations sometimes looked like papier-mache carelessly tossed onto a wall and allowed to dry and crack, assuming it’s myriad colours in the process.
Time to turn back. I found out later that the distance each way is some eight kilometres, and I wanted to be back in Pietermaritzburg in daylight. This was at around 11.00 am, and other visitors were beginning to arrive. I spoke to several of them, few of whom had seen the gorge before, and they were in various states of awe. Gobsmacked, I believe, would be the apposite term. I was a little envious of them experiencing this splendour for the first time, much as I’ve loved every time I’ve been there.
Enjoying the water and the sights
What would a long trek in the mountains be without a generous helping of Aqua Tugela?
Never a dry moment....
Along the return walk, the Thendele Hutted Camp
By now the sun, although far to the north, was at its highest point for the day, and fire smoke had caused an ugly haze, so the car park became the immediate destination. I made two stops, the first to retrace my steps to recover my persona, the sweat-stained hat that loves me more than I do it, and then a short stop to pick up my jacket from its hiding place along the way. And so back to the car park, sign out on the hikes register page, and urgently seek out my lunch that by now was more than lukewarm. A short drive got me to the visitors’ centre where the only visitors were the most playful and laid-back baboons I’ve ever seen. I watched them for a long while and managed to get a few interesting shots of them. Good fun, it was. And then, home.
These performers had taken the afternoon off from foraging for food.
I’ll go again. It’s too good a walk to stay away from, as I’d done for over three decades. It was a grand day. I’ve written pages here, but I know I haven’t begun to describe adequately the raw beauty that fed my soul today. To any of you daring to read this, don’t delay. Go there and see for yourselves. Soak it up. It’s a truly special place.