Amphitheatre hike in the Drakensberg with South Africa Adventures
As many intrepid hikers the world over know, the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa are fast becoming one of the most popular hiking destinations . In fact, these ancient spires of ancient rock are rated in the top 10 hikes to do on this jagged planet we call Earth.
One of our most popular hiking tours in the Drakensberg by far is to the top of the Amphitheatre. Over the past 15 years we have taken over 2000 hikers on this tour. And why would this tour be so popular many people ask us? In our opinion, there are various reasons for this which we will discuss in this article. I remember 10 years ago when we basically had the whole mountain to ourselves but that is quickly becoming a thing of the past as more and more people are discovering the awesomeness of this area.
Amphitheatre Hike – Accessibility
The Amphitheatre hike is the only hike in the Drakensberg where the escarpment can be reached within a few hours. The hike starts at a place called the Sentinel Carpark which is already situated at 2600m. The average height at the top of the Amphitheater is about 3000m depending on where you go. So there is only a 400m height gain. On all of the other various Drakensberg hikes, the escarpment can only be reached in about 2 days covering sometimes over 30km.
This hike is relatively easy in comparison. The hiking distance to the top is only about 4km and only takes a hiker of average fitness about 3 hours to complete. If you are new to hiking and are not ready for an intense hard core hiking experience, then this hike is a definite.
Amphitheatre Hike – is it easy hiking?
The Amphitheatre hike is probably one of the easiest hikes in the Drakensberg. Although there are many other day hikes in other regions, this is the only hike that reaches the top of the mountain range or escarpment. So how do we define easy? Mountains are not classified as ‘easy’ hiking environments. There are always going to be areas of with a steep incline and uneven, rocky terrain. But compared to other Drakensberg hikes, this is relatively easy. Obviously you will need some degree of fitness to enjoy the hike, but being super fit is not a pre-requisite.
The hiking distance is nearly 8km. That is from start to finish. The only really challenging part is the zig-zag path up to the sheer basalt cliffs below the looming bulk of the Sentinel. Once you have recovered from that, the path contours for about 2km on relatively flat terrain. There are two ways to the summit. Hikers can go up the Gully or up the Chainladders. On our tours we have opted for the road less travelled –up the Gully. Yes it can be a challenge as it involves a little bit of scrambling up a steep gully for about 45 minutes but the views on the top are well worth it.
We summit by between the Sentinel and the Western Buttress. A short walk takes us to an incredible view point where you get some awe-inspiring views that will definitely take your breath away. Hikers will get their first views of Kwazulu Natal nestled nearly 1000m below. After a brief rest, we hug the escarpment and descend to the second highest waterfall in the world-The Tugela Falls. It’s all downhill from the top of the Gully so easy walking. This is a perfect spot for overnight camping.
Amphitheatre Hike – What are the real Challenges on the Hike?
Well besides the Gully that we spoke about which can leave you out of breath and bit leggy, the only other real challenge is the Chainladders. These ladders consist of two sections. The first is about 10m high. The second and ‘more’ challenging is about 25m high. The Chain Ladders have been bolted secured to the top of the cliff face and are regularly checked. People with a fear for heights might find this part of the hike pretty challenging and will need to dig deep to overcome it.
If a hiker decides that it is totally impossible to do, the only other option is a 2 hour detour via the Gully which in itself is also going to be hard work. On all of our Drakensberg hikes we take along ropes and abseiling equipment. So if hikers feel the need for that extra comfort of safety, we set up a safety line for them. We also set up an anchor point on the ledge between the two ladders and create an abseiling area. We encourage our clients to spend some time abseiling and having some fun at this point.
This Amphitheatre hike has been classified as one of the most scenic mountain views in the world. There are many pictures that have been taken, but they still do not do the real image justice. It is hard to explain the sheer magnificence of the views. Once on the escarpment, you will have the opportunity to gaze over 1000m into the valley below. You have to actually be there to grasp the sheer height.
How to Deal with the Basotho Shepherds?
Once on top of the Amphitheatre the chances of encountering the Basotho shepherds are pretty high. They are found in the summer months between about September and April. If you had to go a few kilometers inland into Lesotho you would find their kraals. Basically there the shepherds have been assigned sheep that they take out every day into the various valleys and areas of pasture to graze.
In the evening they all return to the kraals with their sheep. So yes, you are most likely going to run into them from time to time. Hikers need to understand and respect these shepherds. They live in the mountains and do not know the way of modern man. Getting to know how to talk to them and interact with them has been so beneficial in the past with it comes to our past hiking experiences. We have many fond memories of just chilling with a few of them sharing a cup of coffee.
All in all, this hike is truly spectacular and is accessible to everyone. No hard core hiking. No technical experience needed. And spending night on the escarpment waking up to the clouds below you is something that will stay with you forever.