Amphitheatre Drakensberg Hike - April 2016
The Drakensberg mountain range has always been an area that I have travelled to for many years. I have enjoyed many photographic trips to this magnificent part of South Africa, but I had never managed to find myself on top of the dramatic escarpment edge. During the last few months of 2015 I contacted my good friend Carl Smorenburg, and asked him if he was keen to meet up for a 3 night hike up to the top of the Amphitheatre. Carl is a very keen hiker, and he answered with an immediate yes! Carl is very experienced in the mountains, and he was the perfect hiking partner to assist in my very first adventure into the beautiful and dynamic landscape of the Drakensberg. I contacted another friend Rudi van den Heever, and he was super keen as well. We set a date, and that was that!
The date finally arrived for us to meet up at the Sentinel car park, where our adventure would begin. We stayed at the very rustic hut at the car park on Thursday night. We braai’d, spoke a lot of rubbish, got to know our fellow hiking party, and at about 10pm bedded down for the night. I never got much sleep that night as excitement levels where high and I couldn’t wait to see what the next 3 days had in store for us.
We woke up at 3am to check the weather, as we either wanted to begin hiking early to reach the witches view for sunrise or stay near the hut and shoot from a ridge just above the hut. We all felt very tired at 3am so the consensus was to get a bit more sleep and wake up at 5am. To our excitement, a very thick mist inversion was present and we made our short walk to the ridge. The sunrise looked very promising and turned into one of my favourite images from the trip. The image below was captured during the peak of perfect sunlight illuminating the inversion below us.
Sunrise came and went, and we returned to the car park hut for a warm breakfast and to pack up all our gear and get ready for the hike to the top of the escarpment. We left the car park at about 8am. The walk up to the witches view point was not too strenuous although we did gain altitude. The zig-zags make it quite easy and with the magnificent scenery it was a great start to our hike. We arrived at the witches view point and stopped for a snack and to take some images from an amazing view point. The inversion was still partly present, and together with high clouds the light was partially diffused and provided some nice light in our images.
One of the reasons why I chose to do the Amphitheatre hike was to climb the world famous chain ladders, and after the break at the witches view, we made our way along the contour path around the iconic Sentinel peak towards the ladders. I have heard from many that the chain ladders are frightening, but I was nervous and excited about making up my own mind about the ladders. About 3 hours after leaving the car park, we arrived at the base of the chain ladders. The weather was clear and the wind was still, perfect conditions to climb the ladders I assume. We went up one at a time, taking it very slow and making sure of every step. I really enjoyed climbing the ladders, and although quite scary it is something I can’t wait to do again.
We all reached the top of the chain ladders safely, and breathing a sigh of relief we made the last little climb to the cairn at the top of the escarpment and stopped for a well deserved lunch.
Our camp for the first night was at Ribbon Falls, over a hill a few kilometers past Tugela Falls. We finished our lunch at the cairn above the chain ladders and made our way towards Ribbon Falls, following the contour paths along the top of the escarpment and bypassing the view at Tugela falls to get to our camp sooner. We walked for about 3 or 4km and finally reached our overnight spot. The camp site was very close to a flowing stream, and we all set up our tents, collected some fresh water and took a well deserved nap inside our tents. That water from the stream is the cleanest water I have ever tasted. I’m not sure how far we walked from the car park that day, but it must have been about 10km and took us about 6 hours. We did stop a lot along the way to take photographs, hence the long time to arrive at Ribbon Falls.
After a well deserved nap, we awoke to some pretty dramatic skies. We heard thunder rumbling in the distance and storm clouds beckoned. We set off with cameras in hand to photograph the sunset. Opportunities abound up on the escarpment edge, and I felt very spoilt for choices. I eventually set up near the edge looking towards Tugela Falls, the Western Buttress and the Sentinel peak. We had wonderful conditions for photography that evening, clouds rolling above and below, the wind was calm and sunset colours swept across the sky in a magical display. We all finished the day with wonderful images on our memory cards and felt tired but souls refreshed. A day spent walking the Drakensberg is better than a day on the beach I say!
We returned back to camp from a wonderful photographic session, and cooked dinner – 2 minute noodles with biltong, followed by a Snickers bar, YUM! We sat around our cooking stoves for a while and chatted, and then spoke about photographing tents under the night sky. It was a bit cloudy, but some stars made it through the cloud cover, so we set up our camera gear next to our tents, and practiced some long exposure star photography and light painting. We set up a small light on some of the tents, diffused with a shirt and managed an image as seen below. I know this is a very cliche’d photograph, but I enjoyed taking it and when I look back at the image it brings back that wonderful feeling of adventure in the mountains for me. We said good night, climbed inside our tents and went to sleep. Alarms were set for 5am.
I woke up 5 minutes before my alarm sounded on Saturday morning and peered out of the tent to a crisp and clear starry twilight sky. I woke up my hiking buddies, and we set out to shoot the sunrise. The sky remained clear during the twilight hour. Into Lesotho we could see a large amount of mist building up, and literally as the sun reached the horizon, the wind picked up from the direction of Lesotho and the mist got closer and closer. Eventually it reached the escarpment edge, and in an epic display of nature continued falling over the edge for about an hour. This must have been one of the most amazing natural events I have ever seen and photographed. I spent the next hour running around finding different compositions, incorporating this falling mist into my compositions and hoping to capture something unique.
The wind howled and mist drenched my gear and clothing, but I never stopped shooting. I enjoyed the experience… but it wasn’t until I moved south along the escarpment edge that I found a scene I could not believe. It’s hard to put into words the feeling I got when I saw this scene, but hopefully the image below can tell a good enough story to convey the essence of that amazing mist fall across the dramatic landscape at sunrise.
Everyone was on a high after that sunrise, I was very excited about what I had captured that morning. I don’t remember ever seeing many images of the Drakensberg with mist falling down like we had witnessed. We returned back to camp for breakfast, and because the mist was becoming thicker, we decided to relax for a few hours before heading off towards Tugela Falls. We cooked breakfast, dried out our tents as best as we could, and packed up at about 11am. It was very misty so the group stuck close together so as to not get lost, and we took just over an hour to reach our camp site for the second night, a mere 30 meters from the worlds second highest waterfall. The mist was still quite heavy, and we spent most of the afternoon relaxing around camp and napping.
Sunset on Saturday was quite challenging as the mist was very heavy and continued to swirl about. We did get fleeting moments of the escarpment edge, but not too often. Conditions were tricky, but we gave it our best shot. Over the course of about an hour and a half, I took a few photographs, and I was lucky to be rewarded with a very fleeting moment of sunlight illuminating the Eastern Buttress and Devils Tooth through the mist. I used a longer focal length to zoom into the scene, focussing on this moment of light and I was happy to walk away with only this image from the sunset session. After that I never saw more than 30 meters in front of me for the whole evening. We returned back to camp to make dinner. The mist was very thick at this stage, and it started to rain a little bit. We decided to close down for the night and get some needed rest. Again, we set our alarms for 5am.
Sunrise on Sunday was very bland, no clouds or mist to help add drama to the images. I did shoot, but got nothing worthy of sharing. The experience however, of watching the sun rise across the vast African horizon was special. I really enjoyed watching the warm glow of the sun illuminate the basalt peaks of the escarpment.
Our aim was to leave the Tugela campsite no later than 7:30 am. We got back after sunrise, made a quick breakfast and packed up camp. It was a short walk back to the chain ladders, and then about another hour and a half back to the car park. Needless to say, the walk down was a lot easier but bitter sweet for what we were leaving behind us. The mountains are special, there is an essence to them that draws me back time and time again. I have a few more hikes planned for the remainder of 2016, and I certainly cannot wait to set foot into the majestic grandeur of the Drakensberg once again.