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South Africa: Falling for Tugela Falls

A hairy ascent of the world’s second highest waterfall is worth it for the fleeting view at the top

South Africa: Falling for Tugela Falls
Tugela Falls. Image: Getty

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Having been stuck overnight in the rangers’ cabin in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, my heart sinks when it becomes clear the thick fog surrounding the small shelter still holds fast. I climb off my bunk and walk out into the cold whiteness. The cloud at this height is so thick I can barely see one metre in front of me here.

I walk over to the start of the mountain trail, but the rocky pathway disappears into the milky swirl, so I decide to delay for an hour. Back in the cabin, I sit down with the park ranger, Mokabe, in front of the small gas burner beside his wooden desk.

After some time, Mokabe looks out the window, gives the glass a rub with his sleeve and tells me the cloud is about to clear. I glance out and only see a blanket of mist, but he seems certain, so I lace up my boots, shoulder my pack and head out into the Drakensberg Mountains.

The trail is steep and uneven, strewn with rocks. The mist gradually dissipates as the sun burns it away, and I glimpse the landscape below — vast and green, with distant hills and valleys, and small iridescent blue lakes sparkling in the sun.

The higher I climb, the more frequent these holes in the cloud become, until finally all that’s left is a thin veil of mist clinging to the cliff face. The views from the narrow, winding cliff-side path are breathtaking and it takes great concentration not to let my eyes linger too long else I misplace a foot and tumble to my doom. Eventually, I enter a narrow gorge where the path stops and bare rock and boulders block my way. I look around for a minute before I notice the metal ladder.

The chain ladder hangs from the rock above. It’s impossible to see the top as it slips out of sight past an overhang. I start to climb, the rungs cold and my sweaty palms giving little grip against the smooth metal. But I reach the overhang at about 50ft and see this swinging rungs continues even further still.

I scramble to the highest point and look over the flat top of the mountain. It’s sparse and cold, almost like Scottish moorland. A river cuts through the centre of my view, running away to the east and disappearing. It’s sapphire blue. This seems to be the right way so I follow the water downstream.

After 30 minutes, I can hear a dull roar coming from somewhere ahead. I see a man wrapped in a red tribesman’s cloak, sitting smoking on a rock in the middle of the river, which spreads out around him. The fog has returned and I walk to where the rock ends and look over, but there’s nothing but whiteness. I sit on the edge and swing my legs over, I hear the man chuckle to himself and suddenly the cloud clears and I’m left aghast as the drop appears directly below me.

The water falls 3,110ft until it meets the wide blue river below, which snakes off into the distance. I’d climbed to the very top of the second highest waterfall in the world, Tugela Falls. Yet as soon as the view had appeared, it was again obscured by cloud, and I never saw it again. But that moment was worth it all.