Note: for no particularly good reason, we split the narration up between us. Claudia goes first:
After our excursion in Lesotho, we made our way to a lovely backpackers’ called Karma in the “Northern Berg”. It is the closest to the start of the famous Amphitheatre day hike, which was the main reason we were stopping in the area, besides the fact that it broke up what would be too long a drive between the “Southern Berg” and Kruger National Park. The Amphitheatre is an 8 km-long trail around the back of the dramatic escarpment known as the Amphitheater, an 500m-tall and 5km-long semicircle of sheer rock.
We’d heard from a few other backpackers’ owners that Karma’s owners are incredibly sweet, and that they’ll provide lots of info on nearby hikes and things to do. The other well known hostel in the area, Amphitheater Backpackers, has a reputation for telling their guests that they cannot do the Amphitheatre hike without a guide, and pushing them into paying for one (which costs upwards of $70/person!).
When we woke up, it was a lovely sunny day with a breeze and looked perfect for a hike. I asked Karma’s owner, Vera Ann, whether she knew what the weather was supposed to be and her response was, “Well, it looks warm with a bit of wind now, but if you want a prediction you’ll have to check the Internet because I’m afraid my weather prediction was terribly wrong last weekend!” Good enough; we didn’t think any more about it. We packed some snacks and the maps she lent us and set out on the hour drive to the trailhead. The drive was pretty straighforward until the last 7 km, which was a windy and rocky dirt road. (Sidenote: rental cars go through quite a lot of abuse.) At a few points the rocks were so bad that I actually said, “Well, the good news is that this drive will probably be the toughest part of our day!”. I’m hilarious.
The start of the hike was very windy, but in some ways it was a nice relief from the hot sun. The trail was pretty clear and the ascent was gentle. We had views of the mountains and valleys to our right for miles. After the first part of the trail that skirts the back of the escarpment, we knew that there were supposed to be two paths to get to the top of the Amphitheatre escarpment: via the chain ladders or via a scramble up and through a gully; the latter path is supposedly hard to find and follow, and tough to descend because it’s essentially a steep rock scramble. Both paths lead up to (and down from) the escarpment, a wide and flat area, and then to the Tugela Waterfall, which tumbles down the Amphitheatre 900 meters.
After about two hours of easy hiking we got to the chain ladders: two parallel iron ladders which looked to be at least 75 feet long. As I looked up them, I started to feel apprehensive. I’m not scared of heights in general, but I was scared of climbing such a long way without any kind of safety system, not to mention that the wind had really picked up by this time, and it was adding an eerie sense of danger to the situation. We sat down for a minute to take a quick rest, and then decided to start climbing the righthand ladder before we psyched ourselves out too much. Two other hikers, the only other people we would see all day, appeared and started climbing up the lefthand one. I didn’t allow myself to look down, and I kept having to stop because the wind was gusting up to speeds I was sure were going to blow me right off the metal ladder. As I got close to the top, I looked up and saw that there was another ladder above that was not visible from the bottom. Great. I waited for Nick in the small area between the two ladders, and when I saw that he was a bit shaken by the climb too, I realized that it wasn’t just me: that shit was scary! The second set of ladders was a bit shorter, but nonetheless frightening. the good news was that there was not a third set waiting for us. Having gotten to the top of the escarpment, I determinedly proclaimed “I am definitely not going down those ladders. We’re finding the gully trail and taking that.”
The remainder of the trail was an easy walk alongside a mountain stream, ending in what was supposed to be a view of the waterfall, but because of a severe drought in the region, there was nothing but a trickle falling over the edge. Nonetheless, the point afforded us a postcard view of the impressive rock formation, and the national park below it. After a quick lunch, we turned around and started walking toward where we thought the gully trail should begin. After walking for ten or fifteen minutes, however, we started to see clounds gathering ahead of us, and felt a few drops of rain. We exchanged nervous glances, but kept walking because both descent trails were in roughly the same direction. In the next few minutes the ominous clouds continued to gather, and we agreed that we didn’t want to be trying to find a notoriously difficult and difficult-to-find trail in the middle of a spring thunderstorm, even if that meant going back on Claudia’s word and descending the scary chain ladders: “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”
When we got to the top of the chain ladders, we got a view of more of the sky in front of us and were discouraged to see dark clouds as far as the eye could see. The wind was also picking up, but we knew what had to be done, so we gathered our courage and descended quickly and without incident. Glad that we only had a few miles of easy trail ahead of us, and that a serious scenario had perhaps been closely averted, we relaxed a bit, thinking that the worst was over.
As we descended, the winds continued to increase–I think they must have been at least 50mph, if not more–and the rain started in earnest. As we had both brought adequate rain gear, we knew we would be ok, but things were becoming less fun by the minute. During a particularly strong wave of wind and horizontal rain, Claudia said “I think it’s about to hail”. I didn’t agree, but lo and behold, just seconds later, we were being pelted with balls of ice just smaller than peas. Claudia pulled her hood up and I covered my ears with a hat, we turned our backs toward the wind and kept going.
The next hour was the miserable type of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other hiking, while we negotiated the heavy rain and wind gusts strong enough to put us off balance. But before too long we were back in the safety of our car, thoroughly wet and a bit shaken, but with an immense sense of accomplishment. On the drive back, we joked that of Claudia’s three big pronouncements during the day: “The drive in will probably be the worst part”; “I am NOT going down the chain ladders”; and “I think it’s about to hail”, only the last one came true.