DRAKENSBERG AMPHITHEATER HIKE VIA THE CHAIN-LADDERS

If you happen to be in the Northern Drakensberg and are partial to jaw dropping mountain views, crisp air and the best tasting water on the planet, then don’t miss the opportunity to do the Amphitheatre hike.

The Drakensberg Amphitheatre
The Drakensberg Amphitheater viewed from Witsieshoek
Sentinel-Peak GoVertical
The Sentinel Peak from the trail

The trail is also known as the Sentinel hike or the Chain ladders hike. It winds up onto Drakensberg escarpment and takes you to the edge of the spectacular Drakensberg Amphitheatre. This is a colossal series of peaks towering over the valleys that cradle the Tugela (Thukela) River.

Drakensberg three witches
The Three witches brewing up a snow storm below the Sentinel

The first part of the Amphitheater hike heads up past the 3 witches, quirky jagged peaks that hide the massive drop off down to the valleys of Royal Natal National Park. There’s a great view point as you head up past the 3rd witch that will leave you breathless with exposure! Look out for the sign on the trail. By this stage you’ve zigzagged your way to the base of the Sentinel Peak, it’s the highest free standing peak in the Northern Drakensberg and guards the Western Edge of the beautiful Amphitheatre.

The path winds below some amazing cliffs and around the corner you’ll come across the infamous Chain ladders. These are a bit of fun, if the altitude and trail haven’t got you blood pumping, the ladders should do the trick. You’ll be combining effort and exhilaration, because the exposure it’s quite a treat. If you’re not so sure about big drop offs, take the ladder on the right, if you’re keen to feel cool mountain air to swirling up around you as you gaze across the troposphere, take the ladder on the left.

Panic! You hate heights! Not to worry, a few hundred meters before the chain ladders is a steep gulley known as Sentinel gulley, you can walk up this instead of climbing iron ladders. Spoiler alert: At the top of the gully there is a section of exposure, so you’ll need to move away from the edge, and then amble down the hill at your leisure.

Back to the Amphitheater hike from the chain ladders… There are two sections of chain ladder and then a short cheeky walk up to the cairn – feels a bit unfair that the top of the chains aren’t the top of the climb, but so be it. The cairn marks the top of the Chain ladders ascent onto the Mon-Aux-Sources plateau and the waterfall you can see is the Eland Falls, it can be spectacular after rains and flows throughout the year.

Drakensberg Amphitheatre Trail
Walking up from the top of the Chain Ladders - above the clouds
Amphitheatre Devils Tooth
The Drakensberg Amphitheatre - towards Eastern Buttress & Devils Tooth

You’ll head South East towards the Amphitheatre. Don’t worry. There is no chance of missing it. The cliffs are more than a kilometre from the edge down into the valleys. Once on the edge of the Amphitheatre you’ll look across to see Devils tooth and toothpick as well as the Eastern Buttress. The Tugela Falls is unmistakable and it’s quite a thrill to swim at the top of the waterfall knowing that there is a 1000m odd, drop to the valley below.

Top of Tugela Falls
If you can brave the temperature and the altitude, you can have a dip at the top of Tugela Falls.
Sentinel and Beacon Buttress
The Drakensberg Amphitheater - Beacon Buttress, next to the Sentinel (right)

Keep an eye on the weather and ensure you have enough time to descend in the light. It is a magical place, there is so much to explore and the peace and serenity are quite enchanting, oh, and the stars, wow, you may want to consider spending a night up there instead of just a day. Have a look at our 3 day Amphitheater hike if you’re curious.

Drakensberg scale
That little "pole" on top of the ridge is a person - just for scale...
Looking-down-to-Royal-Natal
Stupendous views into Royal Natal National Park

Essential Amphitheater hike info:

  • You can do this in a day, preferably a full day usually 8 hours if the
  • You pay entrance fees at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge or , which cover your rescue (hope you don’t need it) insurance
  • The trail head is the Sentinel Carpark, best accessed in a 4×4 – alternatively park at the very civilised Witsieshoek Hotel and pay them to transfer you to the start.
  • You need to be prepared for thick cloud and adverse weather conditions moving in very quickly
  • Best hiked in hiking boots/ shoes, not a flipflop walk…
  • Take a good quality rain and windproof jacket
  • The trail is reasonably clear, if in doubt, download the Trail Guide South Africa App and have GPS assurance all along the route!
  • Take water, there is fresh mountain water from the source of the Tugela, but you have to get to the top first.
  • GoVertical offers this as a guided day hike with an experienced guide and packed lunch or part of a multiple day hike package.