We left the Southern Berg and made our way up to the Northern Berg & Royal Natal National Park. The Northern Berg is home to much more dramatic scenery, as the low veld of South Africa smashes up against the high veld of Lesotho to create steep vertical cliffs that shoot up into the sky. The day was spent driving but we were rewarded by the 5 star backpackers that we camped at. After dinner we relaxed in the hot tub while watching the Euro Cup matches on a large projector before crawling into my tent for a cool 75R ($9.37).
After a night of staying up late, watching soccer, and soaking, we were slow to get moving. We made it out to the trailhead by 10:45 a.m. The Royal Natal National Park is home to the Amphitheatre, a huge sheer cliff that seems to swallow most of the park. It is home to some of the taller peaks in the Drakensberg, some reaching over the 3000m(9,842ft) mark. We opted to take the Thukela Gorge trail which took us winding through the valleys and eventually to the gorge at the bottom of the 850m(2788ft) Thukela Falls which falls from Lesotho into South Africa. It was by far one of the best hikes thus far on the trip. The first few kilometers weren’t anything to write home about, but it soon opened up into huge winding tunnels of rock, carved away by water over thousands of years. Every turn seemed to be filled with pools that would make the perfect summer swimming hole. The gorges are also home to sets of chain ladders which take you up on top of the gorge and eventually to the bottom of the falls. The short winter days took their toll and we had to turn around after spending our time exploring the rock tunnels. This wasn’t a huge disappointment since the falls would have been barely running because it was the middle of the dry season.
Our second day at Royal Natal NP started off with a short hike with a mandatory guide up to the bushman rock paintings. Our guide, Matiba, from the nearby village of Amanzizi was extremely nice, and was actually very knowledgeable about the areas trails, plants, and animals, unlike many other park rangers I had encountered. The village Matiba hailed from, Amanzizi, literally translates to “Cannibals”. The village was named so because during the time of Shaka many of the people lived in caves in the area to hide from the mighty armies of Shaka, and during extremely difficult times had to resort to cannibalism to survive. After about 1km we got to the site of the rock art. Many portions had been damaged to the point of being almost unrecognizable from vandalism before the site came under protection from the national park. This is the reason for the mandatory guide. The drawings higher up on the wall remained in good condition, showing historical scenes of the lives of the Bushmen. There were drawings of leopards, elands, hartebeests, as well as many human figures. One of the sections depict the Bushmen being pushed out by the Zulu, and the Zulu being pushed out by the white settlers. The oldest drawings dated back about 800 years and were created by mixing ochre with either animal urine or animal blood. On the hike we were lucky to encounter Elands, and a reed buck before we got back to the car.
We then made the short drive to the trailhead that would take us up to an area called the cascades. We arrived at the parking lot to a troop of about 30 baboons, most of whom were young and rambunctious. The kept to themselves with games of tag, but there was one older male who seemed in a destructive mood. We pulled up as he proceeded to pee on the hood of a SUV a few cars down and then hopped to the next car, and with apparent ease folded back the rear windshield wiper to make a perch to sit on. He continued to further chew and pull off bits of the car. This included tearing and chewing a metal license plate, and pulling the bumper partially off the car. Assuming the standard insurance for the rental car wouldn’t cover baboon damage we decided to park elsewhere and walk the extra distance to the trail in a roundabout fashion. We knew little about the trail before we set out but were pleasantly surprised. It lived up to its name of cascades as the river ran its course down a series of worn and rounded shelves creating a string of small waterfalls, which had perfect pools. I could not resist even though the water was all ice and snow melt and froze every bit of me. I took a nice refreshing dip and dried out in the sun.