Sentinel and Tugela May 2021

As said… we left Monk’s Cowl in quite overcast conditions which luckily cleared mid morning when we passed through bright and yellow fields.  We took a short break at the Sterkfontein Dam, peaceful and azure in the sunshine. 

We arrived in Harrismith, did some shopping and went in search of a truck stop to park and stay put for the night. We easily found the massive Highway Junction Truckstop. By then it was about 4-ish in the afternoon and we rather got stuck here than trying to go on for another 2 hours but not knowing what place we would find to sleep. So, the truck stop it would be. It was not yet proper evening and we realised that their cheapest rate was for a 12 hour period which would imply us having to leave at 4 o’clock in the morning. Obviously that was not gonna happen, so we had to pay a bit more for an extra four hours till the more acceptable 8am time slot to get on the road.  After our first truck stop experience in Estcourt, we now fully understood the concept of a truck stop: trucks arriving and leaving at all kinds of hours… day and night. I have taken the habit of sleeping with earplugs for years (Stefaan snoring and all that) and I offered him a pair too. At least he had to admit they work like a charm and he slept like a baby!

The following morning, we left Harrismith under thick mist. It was very cold and the fields were covered with a thin layer of white frost. The mist shrouded everything in a spooky blanket. 

When we eventually drove through Qwa Qwa and got higher up on the mountain towards  Witsieshoek, Sentinel and the Tugela Falls, the whole valley lay below us with white cloudbanks drifting between the mountain tops.

We had done the hike to the Tugela Falls in the Royal Natal National Park a few years ago but, due to time restraints, never really reached the falls. We only had gotten as far as the Gorge. So, between then and now, we had done some research and figured out that you can reach the top of the falls from the Sentinel Peak side. That sounded like a good alternative and we had decided on that particular solution. To get to Sentinel Peak you drive from Harrismith through QwaQwa towards Witsieshoek  and the National Park. Once inside the park you continue, past Witsieshoek Lodge, towards the Sentinel Car Park. The hike to the falls starts there.

Sounded good and when we entered the park, we were pleasantly surprised at the well established paved road up. This looked like a breeze. (Just sad though that visitors always feel the need to spray graffiti wherever they go.) 

Until we got to a split: to the left the nicely paved road continued to the Witsieshoek Lodge… going right to the Sentinel Car Park the nicely paved road changed to serious off road and in the worst possible condition at that. I think this must have been the worst road so far we have seen and when Stefaan gave it a try or two before I nearly died of a heart attack, he had to admit defeat: this road was too badly eroded and rutted to risk Trokkie.  

So now what?

With a hair-raising reverse manoeuvre to get back on the nicely paved road, we eventually aimed for the lodge to see what solution we could find to our predicament.

We were in for a pleasant surprise when the management was very accommodating. We eventually parked and booked a shuttle for early the next morning to take us to the Sentinel Car Park. Where we parked we couldn’t resist a photo-op for Trokkie with the Amphiteatre in the background: she’s got this particular mountain range featured on her side (right next to the giraffe). We had a nice meal at the restaurant and a rocky night on our solitaire spot on the mountain, because the wind picked up quite a bit and we were parked very much in the open without much shelter or windbreakers.

We woke up to a spectacular sunrise over the mountains, that bathed the Amphitheatre and Sentinel Peak in a vibrant and glorious red. The morning was nice and crisp and, dressed warm enough, we got into our shuttle and underway. Now, we actually drove on the road that we had only attempted for about 10metres the previous day and, going further now, we realised how totally impossible it would have been with Trokkie. We bounced around quite a bit in the shuttle suv and heard some funny noises now and again when we hit one of the many rocky dips in the road. Even though that maybe only a few sections on the 7km trip were really that bad, those few parts might have been disastrous for Trokkie. I had visions of her making just that one too many bounces or wobbles and tip over! Even Stefaan was glad we had taken the decision not to risk it. 

Our driver dropped us off at the car park and off we went: a steady walk and climb with umpteenth stops to take photographs and admire the views. After a while we started shedding layers of clothes: while the autumn mornings in the mountains are crisp and cold, when the sun starts warming up the landscape, all these layers become way too hot!

Just below is the view we had from the car park: Sentinel Peak dominating the landscape and the gully in the shadows to the right where we eventually would end up at the ladders.

Besides my stopping regularly, the walk went fairly easy: the path is nicely laid out with bricks. There were a few spots where we had to do some guesswork, but we found the right way eventually. On one or two sections we had to negotiate a path that wasn’t really a path but rather a sloped crossing over some pretty bald and slippery rockface. Not my happiest place to be. Note: the little ladder (image 4th row right)  is NOT the ladder that scared the wits out of me – this one I could do!

As we were now full on in autumn, the temperatures dropped seriously through the night and higher up on the mountain we passed several spots where the surface water had frozen with water still running under the frozen surface.

The desk manager at the lodge had told us that there were two ways to reach the water fall: the gulley or the ladders. He had mentioned though that the gulley was very uneven and rocky and could be slippery, and that most people prefer the ladders because that’s faster. When we got at the gulley (top left) we were seriously ooh-ing and aah-ing about what to do. On the one hand the gulley-idea was attractive as it would just imply hard work: climbing! But it would be a steep and difficult climb with me already anticipating a million stops to catch my breath. Looking at our watches and having no idea how long we would do over this steep climb, we eventually decided to do the ladders.

Even though I had anticipated (hoped) that I could possibly get myself hyped  up enough to take on the ladders (top right), when I saw them, my heart sank. I got quite a fright. We had done a set of smallish ladders on our Tugela Hike a few years ago and that had been borderline scary for me, but I had done it. These ladders however were (seemed) much higher and I got the shakes. Stefaan stepped up together with me and kept me enclosed when taking the first steps up the ladder but I got the shakes pretty bad and started hyperventilating! I would never make it to the top!

I told him to go up on his own! It wouldn’t be fair to him to have to return home without having seen the falls because of me.

So I sat around for about 90 minutes watching other groups and couples climbing to the top and breaking out in a cold sweat only watching them take on this precarious climb.

I took the time to discover the little world of flowers and animals around me.

See below photos of his point of view when climbing the ladders and, once on top, the plateau, falls and valley. There was very little water in the river and waterfall and we discussed afterwards we might want to do the Tugela falls again -sometime in an undetermined future. But it would be with two conditions: it would have to be rainy season to see the falls in all their glory and we would climb via the gully! Ladders would be a definite no-no for me!

The plateau on top was a gently sloping valley with no real path to follow. Eventually Stefaan followed what he thought must be the river to where he could see it tumble over the edge (image 3rd row). Then he walked away from where the water falls over the edge and followed the curve of the plateau to get a better view of the waterfall (image 4th row: the waterfall is the tiny white spit in the middle of the picture – totally on the right on image 5th row) and the amazing valley below where you can see the Tugela river winding its way around boulders and rockfaces.

After about 1.5 hours I heard his voice when he chatted to the last couple I had just seen going up and shortly after he started making his descend down the ladders. We started our walk back to the Sentinel Car Park. We took a short detour to the viewpoint, which was amazing. The full walk to the falls (via gulley or the ladders) is actually on the backside of the Amphitheatre. The viewpoint on the other hand shows sweeping front views of the Amphitheatre and the valley where the waterfall comes down. Just spectacular!

Our driver was waiting for us at the car park and we got stuck into a very bumpy ride again, back to the lodge. At one point along the way, we could see Trokkie standing on the ridge behind the Witsieshoek Lodge on the Drakensberg side of the mountains (bottom right) and the driver explained that the mountains we saw on the other side was Lesotho (bottom left).

We arrived safe and sound back at the lodge and had a short chat with a handful of people we had met on the walk. Obviously not many visitors take on the bad road to the Sentinel Car Park and everyone we had seen that day, lodged at Witsieshoek. We enjoyed our last meal and called it a night.

Tomorrow we would start heading towards Cape Town. We had read that soon enough vaccines would be given to the 60-plussers and we had figured out that the sms’s didn’t give you much time to get to your vaccination-station. Hence we decided to slowly make our way back.

Enjoy the video of our Tugela adventure. More videos here.

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