Thukela River, KwaZulu-Natal
Did you know?
The Thukela River flows for more than 500km from the Drakensberg to the Indian Ocean.
The Thukela River, KwaZulu-Natal's largest watercourse, plunges over the Thukela Falls before winding its way from the mighty Drakensberg mountains down to the Indian Ocean.
At its source the Thukela has carved out a magnificent gorge that can be viewed both from below by hiking up the Thukela River valley and from above by negotiating a chain ladder at the head of the gorge.
Second only to the Angel Falls in Venezuela, and the highest on the African continent, the Thukela Waterfall cascades 948m over the edge of the Drakensberg mountains, in a series of falls that cut through the Thukela Gorge and valley below en route to the Indian Ocean 502km away.
The home of the waterfall, in the uKhahlahamba-Drakensberg mountain range, is a World Heritage Site which offers the traveller climbing, hiking, camping, kayaking, paragliding, birding and numerous other activities, apart from the pleasure of appreciating its breathtaking scenery.
Royal National Park boasts some of the best mountain scenery in Africa, including the world-famous Amphitheatre, a 5km-long, 500m-high rock wall from where the Orange river flows to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Thukela Waterfall – comprising a series of five cascades – was named by local Zulus. “Thukela” or “tugela” means “the startling one”, a testament to a truly awesome natural spectacle that’s located at the end of a long, uphill hike through the gorge of the same name.
To truly appreciate the waterfall, try the hike from the Sentinel car park at the base of the Amphitheatre to the summit at Mount-aux-Sources. This will take around five hours, but it’s not suitable for the unfit or for small children.
The second option leads hikers from the Royal National Park grounds up the Thukela Valley following a contour path flanking the river. It gradually ascends to the Thukela Gorge and the waterfall itself. On reaching the gorge, the final part of the hike is carried out by means of a chain ladder to the very top. This extra push is well worth the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains that only the Drakensberg can provide.
In the 1800s the Thukela River formed a natural border between the Zulu Kingdom to the northeast and the Colony of Natal to the south.
British forces were responsible for the construction of Fort Pearson and Fort Tenedos about 10 kilometres from the river mouth in 1879. The two forts remain as a testament to a more turbulent past and provide an interesting historical detour.
As the Thukela River winds its way through the small rural towns of Colenso and Bergville, a number of monuments and memorials mark the sites of bloody battles fought between colonial forces and resident farmers. At Kranskop, on the edge the river valley, you'll encounter the remains of Fort Buckingham, a remnant of the Anglo-Zulu War.
The dark military memories that are so much part of the largest river in KwaZulu-Natal are more than offset by the peace and tranquillity to be found along its upper reaches.
On its southern bank lies the Harold Johnson Nature Reserve, where more than 200 bird species have been recorded and game viewing is at its best. Take advantage of a number of hiking trails that take you into the territory of zebra, mongoose, monkey and a variety of antelope roaming freely in their natural habitat.
The Thukela Game Reserve showcases wildlife including elephant, wildebeest, warthog, hyena and buck species. Birders will delight in the presence of ground hornbills and ostrich.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)31 366 7500
Drakensberg Tourism Association
Tel: +27 (0)36 448 1557
How to get here
From Johannesburg take the the N3 towards Durban and turn left after Van Reenen's Pass before the Tugela Tollgate onto the R103 leading to Ladysmith. This will take you to Colenso. The distance from Johannesburg is approximately 400 kilometres.
Best time to visit
The ideal time to visit is between March and May when the weather is not too hot.
Around the area
Visit Thanelani handicraft centre, Bergville; the Royal Natal National Park for game viewing; Rangeworthy Military Cemetery in Bergville; Cannibal Cavern; Kaalvoet Vrou (Barefoot woman); Mgoduyanuka settlement; Oliviershoek Laager; Retief's Pass and the Upper Thukela Blockhouse Near the John Ross bridge, 8 km from the mouth, is the site of the historic Zulu village Ndondakusuka.
Tours to do
Horse rides, 4x4 routes, guided walks, game-viewing, birding and fishing tours are offered at parks and game reserves in the vicinity of the lower Thukela.
Length of stay
There is so much to be seen along the length of the river that it would be best to spend a day or two in the region of its source and another day at one of the battlefield regions to absorb both natural and historical elements.
Where to stay
A variety of accommodation – B&Bs and cottages to rustic campsites – may be found at Bergville, Colenso, the Royal Natal National Park and Zingela Bushcamp.
What to eat
Small towns along the route have quaint local eateries as well as franchised outlets.
Bergville Ladysmith Marathon and Bergville Cycle Race (April); Bergville-Winterton Marathon (December).
Traditional beadwork, baskets and wood carvings are on sale at Thandalani handicraft centre between the Royal Natal National Park and Bergville.