Chain Ladder Hike
THE CHAIN LADDER HIKE
There is a life-time worth of paths and trails to discover in the Drakensberg. But if you only have a little bit of time to spare (thank you boring day job), and you are looking for a big adventure – then the Chain Ladder hike is the best place to start. This thrilling overnight hike will challenge your fears, convictions (and opinions on negative night time temperatures) and leave you wanting more of the devastatingly beautiful Drakensberg Mountains.
Go Outside Rating: ****
Trail Type: 1 night (2 days of hiking – however it can be done in one day as a day hike)
Slack Packing: No
Level: Moderate to difficult (overnight hiking in the Drakensberg should not be attempted by novice hikers without a guide)
Total Distance: 18km’s
Daily Distance: Day 1: 9km Day 2: 9km
Location: Royal Natal National Park, KwaZulu-Natal
Path Markings: Adequate
Cell Reception: Yes
Bookings: Not required
Price: There is a small cost to enter the Park and to stay overinght (av. R200pp)
Facilities: There are no facilities – hikers should carry everything that they will need
Slackpacking in the Area:
THE CHAIN LADDER HIKE
This challenging trail leads through the Royal Natal National Park, up 60 meters of chain ladders, along the Tugela River, to the second tallest waterfall in the world and finally to the most spectacular sunrise over the Amphitheater that you have ever seen. Do you need any more reasons to head into the mountains with only a backpack, a tent and some friends?
The Chain Ladder Hike, which is also known as the Sentinel Peak Hike, is a popular route and can be done as a day hike (18km’s) or as an overnight hike (9kms each day). We highly recommend doing the overnight hike, however camping in the Drakensberg should not be undertaken lightly. It is essential that you have planned and prepared correctly for a night on the mountain, so we have included all the details, as well as a suggested itinerary for the Chain Ladder Hike.
The Chain Ladder Hike starts at the Sentinel Car Park. But just getting to the parking lot may be your first obstacle. The gravel road is steep, ungraded and in poor condition – it is not suitable for “city cars” especially as it is important that you start hiking in good time and a breakdown or flat tyre could really slow you down.
To prevent this, we recommend booking a night at the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge for the night after your stay on the mountain. This will make your whole trip more enjoyable for a number of reasons. The lodge offers a return shuttle service to the start of the hike and allows you to leave your car in their secured parking overnight while you are on the mountain. It also means that you can bank on a warm, clean room when you return from the mountain the next day, along with a hot meal and a bar!
You pay a small fee at the Sentinel Car Park to enter the reserve, and to spend the night on the mountain. You are also required to fill in a detailed indemnity form which includes things like your tent and backpack colour (incase a search party needs to be activated) as well as how many days of food you have with you and if your shoes would be suitable in the event of snow… And with that ominous reminder of the dangers of the Drakensberg – you are on your way.
The trail zigzags its way slowly through the mountains. The first sections of the path are paved and make for easy, pleasant walking – but the general direction throughout the hike to the ladders is UP (which can be quite a challenge when carrying an overnight pack). You walk along steep cliffs, past many beautiful view points and over a few boulder hopping sections, all leading you closer to the chain ladders.
Fit, capable hikers should make it to the ladders within 2-3 hours, and then the real fun starts… The ladders are divided into 2 sections, the first is 40 meters, followed by 20 meters. There are two ladders for each section so that you can climb up next to each other – or so that people can go up and down at the same time. If you are hiking over the weekend, you may be surprised at how many people have reached the ladders. It is a popular hike so you should expect to wait a bit while other hikers try to come to terms with what getting up the ladders entails.
The best way to get up the ladders is to just take a deep breath and do it (SLOWLY). Some people really struggle with the height of the ladders, while others seem to be unaware of the precariousness of the whole thing, but eventually everyone gets to the top – just allow each hiker to take their time and remember to keep looking up!
There is an alternative route to the top for those who simply are not able to climb 60 meters up a sheer cliff face with a huge backpack in unpredictable weather and hazardous conditions. This route veers off the main path, up a gully to the top of the mountain. The Gully is still extremely steep and can be unstable and it should therefore not be considered an easier route than the ladders.
Once you have made it up the chain ladders there is an easy, flat walk that follows the Tugela River across the top of the escarpment to the Tugela falls, and your camping spot for the night. This should take about 1 hour. Walking along the water is really beautiful and the flat surface is a welcome change. The chain ladders are quickly forgotten and you will soon find yourselves discussing how they “weren’t that bad” or “weren’t as high as you were expecting” – remember not to get too cocky because you will be back at the ladders tomorrow… and down is a whole different ball game…
When you arrive at the falls, you can select any spot to camp for the night. The brave set up their tents close to the cliffs, but any spot will offer tremendous views of the Amphitheatre and the vast surroundings, so the options are endless. After a bit of fussing, debate (and in our case a verbal divorce) the tents will be up and all that is left to do is explore, admire the falls, heat up some dinner, layer yourself with every item of clothing that you packed (including your towel) and then settle in to watch the sky fill with stars.
The weather in the Drakensberg changes fast. No matter the season, sunny skies seldom last and the temperature can drop without much warning. Even day hikers are advised to carry tents and supplies as the weather can worsen so dramatically that you can be forced to spend the night on the mountain. This is of course the worse case scenario, but it is important to be prepared for these unpredictable conditions.
Camping overnight requires proper camping equipment and proper clothing for enduring the low night time temperatures. We were well prepared with extra layers of clothing, negative temperature sleeping bags, insulating tent liners and fleece blankets (we even took hot water bottles up and a gas stove) and we only just survived the cold. We woke up to a thick layer of ice covering our tents and the ground covered in frost – and these were considered favorable conditions.
The best part of The Chain Ladder Hike is watching the sunrise, above the clouds on top of the mountain. It is one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen and makes a cold night on the mountain well worth it. People crawl out of their tents before dawn, to count down the arrival of the sun and welcome the warmth that it brings. There is nothing like standing on the edge of the 1000 meter high cliff watching the colours of the sky change as the sun rises.
The way back is the same as the way you arrived – following the river back to the chain ladders and then along the same mountain path to the car park and the shuttle out of the mountains, and if you are lucky a hot cup of coffee, a fresh pair of socks and the lingering sense of peace and clarity from a night in the Drakensberg.
The Chain Ladder Hike
Video Date: 30 April 2017
5 friends (one less prepared than the rest) brave 60 meters of chain ladders up a cliff in search of the most beautiful sunrise in South Africa
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To enjoy The Chain Ladder Hike and your stay on the mountain it is important to be fit, experienced and well prepared. Alternatively there are a number of companies that offer guides for this route and others in the area.
We recommend staying at the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge (or other accommodation in the area) before and/or after the hike, to make use of their shuttle service.
Always hike and camp in a group.