Tugela Falls

Mon, 18 Aug 2008 15:46:13 +0000

Jo'Burg to Drakensburg Index Drakensburg to Jo'burg

It was a fairly regimented schedule today. There was no point getting up before 7:00, when they start serving breakfast. I got a "health" breakfast of weetbix and yoghurt, with a coffee. I mistakenly thought the milk was for the coffee and the yoghurt for the cereal, Swiss style, so I had some very strange weetbix and cold coffee. Good enough. And I got some toast to follow up with.

I got myself organised and ready for the expedition to the waterfall today. My tracksuit pants really, really need a wash, and today is probably my best chance, so I put in a load of washing to be done. Only trouble was, that left me in shorts for the hike. I hoped it wouldn't be too cold. I did rent a raincoat, which costs one beer for the bloke at reception. A good deal.

Most of the others on the hike are German backpackers, so there's a chance to practice my German. Filling out the expedition are the Irish couple, an Indian guy, a woman with a thick east-London accent, and three Afrikaans kids. We all hung around in the garden looking lost until an imperious lady called Ziki took charge, giving a speech about safety, distributing lunch boxes, and making sure we all had good footwear. I was the only person without a backpack, but I seized a nylon mesh bag that had been discarded and tied it to my handbag. It'd do. We were all loaded onto the two minibuses, and off we went.

Off we went, as far as the service station. The other minibus had to make a diversion to pick up some suitable footwear for one girl who hadn't brought any, so we were left waiting for them. It was a chance to grab a snack and another coffee, so I wasn't bothered. The others seemed a little impatient to be getting on though.

Eventually the other bus turned up and we set off again. It's quite a long way to the hike. We passed some fairly impoverished-looking towns on the way, filled with tin shacks and rows of identical government-built bungalows. The schools always seem to be the nicest buildings in town, in stark contrast to western cities. They also had a very impressive football stadium, which is a priority I would question, but probably a no-brainer in South Africa.

We pulled into the carpark for the hike and it was immediately obvious that it would be windy and cold, with the sun only occasionally peeking out from behind the clouds. I was glad of my raincoat, even though it was a couple of sizes too large for me and flopped around me ridiculously.

The scenery is, of course, marvellous. It's the dry season, and all the grass is yellow and red, making the place look like a martian landscape. We threaded our way along the side of the mountain over the rocks. Soon after setting off it began to almost snow: the kind of tiny refrozen snow balls that I don't have a name for. The Afrikaans boys were ecstatic, but I was just glad that the snow was light. I didn't fancy tramping through snow in shorts all day.

At first it was the usual gentle slightly rising trail, but after a bit we got to a good 45 degree slope through a narrow gully full of rocks, and we had to climb up as best we could. I was perpetually terrified of knocking rocks down onto the climbers below, since evasive action would be pretty difficult.

Eventually, panting and sweating, you emerge onto a saddle point a gentle few metres from the first big feature of the day, the lip of an enormous cliff. Very dangerous, of course. You can lie down and poke your head over the edge to look down. I don't really suffer from vertigo, but it did make my head swim a bit.

In that photo you can see a rock thrown by one of the kids, which entertained them for quite a while. They graduated to throwing bigger and bigger rocks, and each time they stood craning their necks to view the descent as long as possible. It looked absurdly dangerous, and I actually had to turn my back on the spectacle.

We had our lunch there, most people complaining that it wasn't enough and trying to find someone who didn't want the two toffees each of us had as dessert. It did the job for me though. After a long session of relaxing and photographing each other, we marched off once more.

It was a fairly easy hike over the plateau. We came to the river feeding the waterfall, a rather pathetic trickle in the dry season. Interesting though was the ice which still clung to the more shadowy rocks. My first ice in Africa. Near the river (sensibly enough) there were the tents of a bunch of campers. Looked a fairly cold and windswept place to spend the night to me.

Eventually we reached the waterfall itself, which was something of a disappointment. It's the world's second highest waterfall in the wet season, but today it was the world's second highest dribble. And there's no way to see where the water lands when there is a decent flow, since that would require getting a bit closer to the edge than would be wise. But it was still a spectacular spot. It's on one arm of a wide curve of cliffs called the Amphitheatre. On the other arm there is a spear of rock inevitably called "Devil's Tooth". Then there is a plateau which, according to GPS, Openstreetmap, and my compass, must be Lesotho. Then around to us, and to our left Sentinel Mountain. Photos don't do it justice.

After hanging around there for a while, it was time to make the return leg. On the way back we went via some chain ladders draped over a couple of particularly sheer sections of rock. This turned out to be a bit more scary than I had expected, especially where the ladder twists or rests against the rock. Some of the people who were scared of heights really seemed to struggle.

From then on it was just trotting back along the track we'd arrived on. I was about midway through the pack, and soon found myself walking pretty much alone. There was a German couple ahead of me and I kept them in sight, but I completely lost track of those behind, and soon realised that they must be at least half an hour behind me.

As the track wore on it started to get late. What's more, the cloud began to roll over the mountainside and over the track. It was very spectacular, being surrounded by wisps of cloud travelling fast with the wind. But of course it's also dangerous. I could always see the carpark clearly in front of me, and I made it back there before the cloud really set in. But it was starting to look pretty tricky for those still on the mountain.

There's a hut by the carpark and they have a wood stove, so those of us in the lead group gathered inside there. Only two more people arrived shortly after I did, and then nothing for at least half an hour. We realised that the remainder would have to bunch together for safety in the fog, and that meant they would only travel as fast as the slowest walker. We were a little worried for their safety, and also slightly worried at how long we'd be hanging around in this hut in the middle of nowhere waiting for them. There was even some speculation about commandeering one of the two minivans to take us back home. But the rest of the group arrived before it got really dark, safe and sound.

We stopped off at the petrol station on the way back, which was good because I had forgotten to sign up for dinner, and was able to get something to keep me going. A pie, some sandwiches, and some biscuits. The rest of the journey wore on, and I was keen to get home. The kids decided I sounded like Mr Bean, and they called me that for the rest of the journey. I wasn't much impressed by this, I must say. Then they started singing an advert for a chicken restaurant over and over again, and were lucky not to be chucked out the window.

But eventually we got back to the hostel, much later than anyone had planned. I retrieved my laundry and gratefully pulled on my long tracksuit pants. After eating my food I went to the bar for a single beer, before deciding I was tired enough for bed. A good day out, and finally some ecotourism.

Jo'Burg to Drakensburg Index Drakensburg to Jo'burg