By far the most imposing feature of the Drakensberg is the Amphitheatre and also probably the most recognisable. A hike to the top – not recommended for the faint-hearted – also involves a near vertical climb up the chain ladders.
Rising over 1000 metres from the Tugela Valley, the Amphitheatre is a mighty wall of granite which ascends all the way to the Lesotho plateau which is almost 3000 metres above sea level.
Its aesthetic appeal arises from its near perfect symmetry – extending as a sheer wall of rock some 5 kilometres in length from the Eastern Buttress to the Sentinel Peak in the west. Due to its majestic and incomparable beauty, it has been declared a World Heritage Site.
The Tugela Falls, the world’s second tallest falls (and the highest in Africa), plunges 948m over the basalt face of the Amphitheatre, down to Royal Natal National Park below. The highest point on the escarpment is the Mont-Aux-Sources at 3283m.
Hiking to the summit of the Drakensberg
From Qwa Qwa the road commences climbing, passing the Witsieshoek Mountain Resort before the Sentinel Car Park is reached. From here the hike commences, a two hour journey along a contour path. Savour this 6 kilometre walk with its spectacular views across the face of the Amphitheatre to the Eastern Buttress and Devil’s Tooth.
Expect a continual upward ascent for the first hour, by which time one is beneath the northern face of the Sentinel (3165m). After this, the path generally levels out, leading to a gradual yet gentle ascent amidst breathtaking scenery as the trail winds beneath towering peaks and giddying drops below.
The final half an hour to the summit comprises the climbing of the well-known Chain Ladders which commence at 2560m and rises almost vertiginously to 2987m at the crest of the Ladder.
There are two sections of chain ladder, consisting of two sections (40 and 20 metres) which are firmly bolted to the rock. There is also a choice of ladder; one without large “grabbing handles” (the left-hand one) and one with (on the right). There is a ‘gully’ alternative.
Once at the top, follow the path east which converges with the stream cutting. Twenty five minutes later, one will be standing on the edge of the Amphitheatre at 2926m, gazing down into the Tugela Gorge a full thousand metres beneath you.