Being a Durban girl definitely has its advantages! Where else can you enjoy beaches, mountains and game reserves, all within a few hours driving distance of the main city?
I recently travelled to the three star Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge for a two night getaway. Four hours from Durban and across the Free State border, Witsieshoek is located in the Northern Drakensberg, close to the Sentinel car park from which the famous ‘Mont-aux-Sources Hike’ to the source of the Tugela Falls starts. Situated at 2 200m, Witsieshoek looks into the face of the Amphitheatre, and is an ideal destination for people wanting to hike the Drakensberg.
After a leisurely drive, we were met by a lovely gentleman, Nelson, who took us through the check in process and explained the hiking options available to us. We hadn’t planned on doing a hike on the day of arrival but with a few hours of light left and Nelson’s passionate encouragement, we decided to do the easiest of the hike options available – a 1 1/2 to 2 hour hike to view the Mahai Falls.
Being winter in Durban, the water levels are significantly lower than the summer months and the vegetation much drier than normal. It allows for fabulous sweeping views and I loved the shrubby vegetation that reminded me of the fynbos of the Cape.
Accommodation at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge includes chalets, bungalows and a hikers cabin. The units are all newly refurbished with en suite bathrooms and large walk-in showers.
After a successful and relatively easy walk back to the lodge, we settled into our room before joining other guests at the main lodge for dinner. The main building includes a lounge with fireplace and television, a pub and an a la carte restaurant. The food was great and the service attentive.
The following morning we were up early for a breakfast buffet before heading off to the Sentinel car park, our departure point for our hike up the Sentinel and on to the Tugela Falls. The road isn’t in great condition and only recommended in a 4×4 vehicle but transfers to the trailhead at the car park are available from the lodge (as well as mountain guides for those who feel more comfortable with a guide).
I feel at this point that I should mention that besides my short and easy ‘hike’ the day before, this would be my first ever ‘proper’ hike. Also that the hike is commonly referred to as ‘The Chain Ladders Hike’… Ironically I didn’t give this as much thought as I probably SHOULD have!
We set off at 08h00am and began our ascent up the Sentinel. The path is in good condition and the direction of the path clear. It is however steep and made up of a series of zig zags that ascend the northern slopes towards the Witches and accounts for most of the route’s 472m altitude gain. En-route we were rewarded with the most magnificent views of the Maluti mountains and Witsieshoek plateau. We even passed through a troop of baboon. Those guys can CLIMB! We spotted a tiny new born baby baboon but they were not keen for us to get any pics of the little guy (or girl).
Its around a two and half to three hour hike before you reach the base of the Sentinel and the chain ladders. Like I mentioned earlier, I probably should have given more thought to the hikes alternate name… I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t this!
Reading afterwards, I learned that the two sets of ladders total around 60m, the first around 40m in height and the second 20m in height. Wow. I am not a fan of heights so I won’t lie, it took a bit of self ‘pep talking’ before I made the decision to ascend. I had come so far and knew that the reward would be worth the effort!
Slow and steady and definitely don’t look down! But then we were at the top… What spectacular views! And definitely a little bit of pride that I’d made it up!
From here the terrain flattens out which was great because by this time, I was really battling to catch my breath! Its a further 45 minutes walking until you reach the edge of the Amphitheatre and the top of the Tugela Falls.
The Tugela Falls is the world’s second highest waterfall, and the highest in Africa, falling a distance of 948m to Royal Natal National Park and the Tugela valley below. As with the little rivers on the walk across the plateau, which we were surprised to see were frozen, so too was the top of the falls.
The views are quite literally breathtaking and we were lucky to see three Cape Vultures but unfortunately not the endangered Bearded Vulture whose breeding site is in the Maloti-Drakensberg mountains.
After enjoying a light lunch on what felt like the top of the world, it was time to head back down! I had been quite relieved during the walk to know that our descent would be downhill all the way but being the novice hiker I am, I was surprised to find that although breathing was easier, my legs were feeling VERY wobbly by the time we got to the bottom some 3 hours later. And as for descending the ladders… don’t overthink it and do it the same way you do it on the way up… sloooooowwww and steady!
In total the hike took 7 hours and was around 18kms in distance. We headed back to the lodge, freshened up and then made our way to the restaurant pub for a celebratory drink and dinner in the restaurant. A very casual and relaxed evening.
After a great nights sleep, which I feel may have had something to do with the events of the day but could also be attributed to the comfy, heated king size bed, we checked out and began making our way back to Durban.
Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is fabulously located for keen hikers and is the closest lodge for those specifically wanting to do the Sentinel Hike. To note however, this hike requires a fair to good level of fitness. Always go prepared with a route map and water and remember that the weather in the Drakensberg changes quickly. Plan for any weather eventuality!
I think my next trip may need to include more beach or bush and a little less mountain….at least until I’ve increased my fitness level! But I will definitely be back… A fabulous, memorable experience! – Viki Haasbroek – Thompsons Africa Marketing Manager
** Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is a TFPD property. Transfrontier Parks Destinations develop and manage world-class, community-owned tourist destinations that benefit the local communities. Our tourist destinations and activities in Southern Africa’s Transfrontier Peace Parks and Limpopo Province are environmentally sustainable and ecologically sound.
Contact a Thompsons Africa consultant on email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge or assistance with putting together a mountain experience package.