Drakensberg Chain Ladder (Photos in Gallery below)

High mountains and dramatic hiking terrain are all part of the South African Drakensberg range.

This was a golden opportunity with so many unforgettable highlights, such as the chain ladders up a high cliff, summiting a peak of well over 3,000m, a memorial to fatalities by lightning and a jaw-dropping view from the top of the second highest waterfall in the world – and not forgetting the knee-knocking climb back down the chain ladder!

It was a last-minute opportunity to join some of my new South African hiking friends on a trip to the Drakensberg Mountains – I was thrilled! They do the trip annually, known as the ‘Snow Hike’ because it snows so infrequently in South Africa and in July there can be snow in the Drakensbergs.

A group of about 30 of us car-shared and headed for the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, where we were booked in, for the weekend.

This particular part of the Drakensberg forms the border between South Africa and Lesotho and it’s where the escarpment reaches its maximum height, over 3,000m or 10,000ft, from which it plunges almost vertically into the Tugela gorge to the north-west below, a drop of some 1,500m or 5,000ft.

The journey to the area was quite long, over 400km from the Johannesburg area so we arrived late on Friday afternoon, around an hour before sunset and the setting sunlight on Amphitheatre cliff face was indescribably beautiful. The camera wasn’t really able to capture the full magic, though that’s probably more a reflection on my inadequacy as a photographer than on the camera!

The Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is in the Sentinel Peak Park, on the ridge behind Plowman’s Kop, at an altitude of about 1,700m.

The ‘Snow Hike’ was on the Saturday and we were all ready to hit the trail before 8am as we needed to get back before dark.

I was with Roger’s group and the plan was to head up to the chain ladders (there are two and it was something else altogether!), across the plateau to the Mont Aux Sources summit (3282m or 10,767ft), back to the top of the Tugela Falls, the chain ladder down again and then just 2 more hours, aching legs and all, back to the car park.

Chain ladders seem to be a feature of South African hiking in the mountains and these two (side by side ladders, not sure if they’re so you can panic together, or encourage each other!) seemed to be the grand-daddies of the lot! I think if one had any problem with heights at all it wouldn’t be the place to be! they are certainly an adrenalin-pumper! The Drakensberg chain ladders are in two long stages, so at least one can stop about half way, collect one’s composure, calm down a bit and then go for the top! It took two and a half hours’ of hard but spectacular hiking to even reach the base of the chain ladders!

Once we were on the plateau it was then on to the summit of Mont Aux Sources, at least another couple of hours and my legs were really starting to feel it! There were small amounts of glazed-over snow left but it was quite warm off the summit.

On our way there was a cairn and memorial at a spot where three people and a horse were killed by lightning in 1932. Electric storms in this part of the world are legend – pyrotechnics and noise like you wouldn’t believe. It is extremely dangerous to get caught out on high ground if a storm moves in. Much safer at altitude in the Drakensbergs in winter (June, July, August).

The altitude is a big factor hiking here and at approaching 11,000 feet I could certainly feel my lungs heaving to get enough air. I have never hiked this high before and there is 32% less oxygen at this height. I also noticed there is a much starker difference between sunlit areas and shade because there is less air to diffuse and diffract the light which means areas in the shade will be much darker – exaggerated of course by lack of any cloud cover.

A 20min rest and lunch at the summit (it was quite cold!) and on to the top of the Tugela Falls. It’s just too spectacular to describe and one gets a frightening sensation of height as one approaches the Amphitheatre cliff edge from the plateau on top.

I believe the Tugela Falls is the second-highest waterfall in the world. The South African highveld winter is very dry with minimal rainfall so very little water goes over the top at this time of year. It’s the summer rains and huge storms that make the falls so spectacular.

So back down the chain ladders again, starting to get used to these things! and nursed my legs and feet for another few hours of tough, arduous hiking back to the car park. We made it with about 30 minutes to spare before dark fell, which happens very quickly here. Very tough hike, but stunning and a real life event for me!

Have to seek out another adventure now while I’m in this part of the world!

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