Did you know?
The Zulu name uKhahlamba means 'barrier of spears', while Drakensberg means 'dragon mountain'.
While guided tours and porters now make it possible for those of average fitness to tackle the Amphitheatre Heritage Trail, you’ll still need plenty of perseverance and stamina to conquer the 1 200m ascent, where you'll be on the Roof of Africa.
'This is one of the most popular of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg hikes,' says Sarah Drew, who specialises in guided hikes in the area.
The Amphitheatre, she explains, is a massive rock wall, creating one of the most dramatic features in the Drakensberg range: 'It rises 1000m from the Tugela Valley, extending across for 5km across, from the Eastern Buttress to Sentinel Peak.'
The Amphitheatre Heritage Trail spans the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, and the most popular option is to do 25km to 30km over three days.
Hiking through grasslands and indigenous yellowwood forests, visitors have the chance to see plenty of wildlife, including eland, mountain reedbuck, baboons and endemic birds such as the Drakensberg rockjumper.
The route includes the famous chain ladders – two sections, of 40m and 20m, solidly bolted into the rock – which visitors climb to get to the top of the escarpment, also known as the Roof of Africa.
Here you will find the source of the Tugela Falls, which plunge 948m over the face of the Amphitheatre down to Royal Natal Park below. If the chain ladders are not for you, there is an alternative option of hiking up a gully to get to the top.
If you’re fit you can carry your own backpack; if you prefer a porter, this can be organised. Experienced trail guides pace the hike according to fitness levels, with refuel and rest stops along the way.
For those who want to rough it, guides can organise an alternative route with caves where visitors can stay overnight.
For those who prefer comfort, there are inviting tented camps and lodges along the hike, offering delicious food, a hot bath and a comfortable bed at the end of each day.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Drakensberg Hikes/Active Escapes
Tel: +27 (0)84 240 7277 (Sarah Drew)
How to get here
Drive from Johannesburg, Durban or Bloemfontein, all of which are about 350km from Witsieshoek – 1 of the starting points of the hike (the drive from each of these cities will take about 4 hours).
Best time to visit
All year round. In summer it is wise to make the most of the mornings, and presume afternoons will be wet. Days are shorter in winter but the weather is more stable and the whole day can usually be used for hiking. Spring (August to October) and summer (October to April) are the best months for wild flowers.
Around the area
The Drakensberg is an adventurer's haven, with a choice of exciting hikes, horse and mountain bike trails and wonderful places to stay.
What will it cost
A guided hike with Drakensberg Hikes (minimum two persons, large groups accommodated) costs between R3100 and R3450 per person for the three-day hike, including accommodation, all meals, a guide and porters (optional).
Length of stay
The Amphitheatre Hiking Trail generally takes 3 days, but it is such a beautiful area you'll want to spend a week in the region if you can.
What to pack
Hiking clothes and boots, good socks, rain jackets, thermal underwear. Your hike organiser will tell you exactly what you need.
Where to stay
There are lodges, tented camps and backpackers along the way. If sleeping in caves is your thing, this can be arranged with your hike organiser.
What to eat
The guided hikes are fully catered, but it's always good to pack a few of your own snacks to nibble along the way.