Royal Natal National Park is in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, bordering onto the Free State province and Lesotho. The Tugela Falls, the world's highest waterfall (by some measures), can be found here.
Best time to visit is in late summer (March to May) when all the rivers are full, the air is crystal clear and vegetation is lush and green.
The park was established in 1916, but only received its current name in 1947 after the British Royal Family visited there in May that year. Despite its name, it is not a South African National Park and is administered as a provincial park by KwaZulu-Natal Parks rather than SANParks.
Flora and fauna
Bushbuck and baboons are common. Other animal that may be encountered are Rock Dassies, Otters, Mountain Reedbuck, Duiker and Black-backed Jackal. The only animal that poses any real danger to humans are the baboons and contact with them should be avoided while hiking.
Rainy season is between October and March, mostly as short lived afternoon thundershowers. There is a possibility of snow between April and September. Winters (April to September) is dry and wind is common in late winter.
From the N3, take the R616 just south of Ladysmith towards Bergville (35 km). Where the R616 meets the R74, take a right turn and follow that road for a further 29 km until it joins with the R615. Take a left turn and you will reach the park within another 19 km. Roadsign are clearly displayed along the way.
For a more scenic route, take the exit the N3 at Harrismith and take the N5 towards Bethlehem for about 5 km, then turn left onto the R74 and follow this for about 38 km, then take a right into the R615. Following this route will take one past the Sterkfontein Dam.
Drive with extra care along the R615 as it passes through a number of rural villages where livestock and school children cross the road at will.
Entrance to the park is open 24 hours for residents and from 6AM to 10PM (May-Sep) and 5AM to 7PM (Oct-Mar) for day visitors.
The nearest petrol station and tyre repair shop is in Bergville, 48 km away.
A daily conservation fee is payable at the park entrance. R50 per adult, R25 per child day.
The speed limit within the park is 40 km/h (25 mph), but mostly you will walk rather than drive.
- 1 Tugela Falls. The highest waterfall in the world, with a total drop of 983 m in 5 leaps. The highest single drop is 411 m, which is not nearly as high as Angel Falls. Accessible via the Gorge walk.
- 2 The Amphitheatre (Drakensberg). Visible from most of the park, but best seen on the 23-km Gorge walk.
- 3 The Cascades. A set of waterfalls. Located a short walk (around 2.2 km round trip) from the entrance to Mahai camp, most of this on a wheelchair-accessible concrete pathway with only the last couple of hundred meters on bush trails.
There are a number of walking and hiking trails in the park. A booklet on all the walks is available at the Information Centre for R50.
- Short walks
- Cascades (From the entrance to Mahai camp). About 2.2 km round trip, mostly on wheelchair-accessible concrete pathway.
- 1 Devil's Hoek Valley. Starts next to the Tugela river at the car park near Thendele, 6 km, 2 hours, easy walk. Some Bushman rock art along the way.
- 2 Fairy Glen (From the Information Centre). An easy walk of about 45 minutes to cover the 4-km trail.
- Long walks
- Sentinel/Tugela Falls Walk. 6 to 7 hours, a beautiful walk to what claims to be the tallest waterfall in the world (but which most sources put at second). Much of the walk is along an easy-to-follow path, until reaching two sets of long, exposed ladders ascending a cliff. It is possible to avoid the ladders by ascending a steep gorge. At the top, a river leads to the top of the falls. An early start is suggested in summer, as afternoon storms are not uncommon, and the mist can get very thick, making it easy to get lost.
- 3 Tugela Gorge Walk. The trail starts next to the Tugela river at the car park near Thendele, 23 km return trip, 5 to 6 hours. A relatively easy walk except for the last 2 km that required 3 river easy crossings and some boulder hopping. At the far point of the walk you will see spectacular view of the Amphitheatre, Sentinel and Tugela Falls.
- Mudslide. 11 km, just under 5 hours.
- 4 Policeman's Helmet (From Thendele camp). 14 km in about 4 hours. Lots of cycads along the way and excellent views of the Amphitheatre.
There are a number of mountain biking trails accessible from Witsieshoek Lodge.
There are two dams located behind the day visitors picnic area. As per South African law, a fishing license is required to fish anywhere in the country. This can be obtained from the Information Center.
Horse back excursions are available from Rugged Glen camp.
There is a shop at the Information Office (first building on the left after entering the park) that sells most of the basic necessities (from washing powder and ice to boerewors and beer). The selection is not huge, but they do not try and take advantage of being the only shop in the park; prices are reasonable with no outrageous markup added. (R15 for a beer for example (2018)).
The shop also stocks the usual curios, branded clothing, travel books and maps.
A mini-ATM is located behind the Information counter. One can perform a normal withdraw, but the mini-ATM will provide you with a slip rather than cash. Exchange this slip for cash at the information counter.
- Thendele Lodge, ☏ , email@example.com. Situated within the Royal Natal National Park in the Maloti Drakensburg Park. Self catering chalets high in the mountains.There is a 24-hour gate. Pets are not permitted in the reserve. The 6-bed lodge and 6-bed cottages offer the services of a cook. All units are self catering and equipped with crockery, cutlery, linen and towels. There is only Vodacom and Cell C cellular reception. Horse Riding is offered at Rugged Glen. For your own safety, hikers must complete the mountain rescue register before and after their hike. Basic food supplies are available in the curio shop. The nearest towns are Bergville and Harrismith. Bergville is 45 km from the resort. Tel : +27 36 4386411
- Lower Camp: There are 8 2-bed chalets with one bedroom, a lounge incorporated in the bedroom,a bathroom and a kitchen and 5 4-bed chalets with two bedrooms, a separate lounge, a bathroom and a kitchen.
- Upper Camp: There are 6 2-bed chalets with one bedroom, a separate lounge, a bathroom and kitchen and 7 4-bed chalets with two bedrooms, a separate lounge, a bathroom and kitchen.
- Cottage: Two 6-bed cottages accommodate 6 people each in 3 bedrooms, lounge/dining area, a bathroom and fully equipped kitchen.
- Thendele Lodge: Accommodates six people in three en-suite bedrooms, a bathroom, a lounge and dining room and a fully equipped kitchen.
- From Ladysmith, turn off just south of Ladysmith and follow the Bergville road for 55 km. From Bergville travel 30 km towards Olivershoek Pass/Harrismith and then turn left at the Drakernsburg North sign. It is approximately 16 km from there to the Royal Natal entrance gate.
- From the South, turn off the N3 at the Winterton/Northernberg Resorts turn off and pass through Winterton and Bergville. Turn left at the Northern Drakernsberg North signboard. It is approximately 16 km from there to the Royal Natal entrance gate.
- From Harrismith, turn right and travel 5 km on the Bethlehem road where you turn left onto R74/R712 at the Phuthaditjaba sign. Turn left again 8 km along this road at the Bergville/Olivershoek pass/R74 sign. The park is approximately 16 km from this turn off.
- 1 Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge (From Clarens take the R712 out of the town in the direction of Golden Gate National Park and Harrsmith. After 49kms turn right at the "R57 Phuthaditjhaba" sign. Follow the road through the town and then rural villages for 29.8kms, then take the left fork at the "Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge" sign. Follow for 1km until reaching the lodge at the end of the road.). Check-in: 2pm. Ideal lodge for hiking, with views over the Amphitheatre and the Sentinel. Numerous hikes are possible from the lodge, and it's the closest accommodation to the parking area at the start of the Tugela Falls/Sentinel hike. This is accessible only by 4x4, and shuttles to and from the start can be arranged at the lodge.
- 2 Mahai Camp Site, In the valley below the Cascades (Follow the signs from the park entrance), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 10:00. Stands with and without electrical plug points are available, be sure to specify when booking if you need electricity. Ablution facilities are clean and well maintained. There is a laundry with coin operated washers and dryers, dish washing facilities (including boiling water on tap) as well as Telkom card and coin pay phones. The only problem with the camp is the large number of pine trees that consume huge amounts of water causing some of the stands to be devoid of grass. After the summer rains this is not as big a problem, but if you visit during the winter it is best to avoid electric stands 1 to 14 and 42 to 50; electrical stands 15 to 25 will have a lot more grass cover and less dust. If you do not require electricity, non-electrical stands 3 to 5 are probably the best in the whole camp. There are two security guards on 24 hour duty in the camp, mostly to ensure that wildlife that wander in is promptly escorted out again (Baboons seldom come near the camps as they are shot at with paintball guns to scare them away, but bushbuck often wander in). From R65 per camp site.
- Rugged Glen, ☏ , email@example.com. Situated in the Maloti Drakensburg Park, However Rugged Glen is siutated just outside the Royal natal National Park. Pets are not permitted in the reserve. Camping is only allowed in the official campsite grounds. Basic food and drinks are available at the Visitors Centre. Portable generators are not permitted. Visitors are urged not to feed the animals. Site allocations will be done on a first come, first served basis, on arrival at the resort. Tel: +27 36 4386303
Before going on a long hike, be sure to fill in the mountain rescue register at the Information Center or at Thendele camp. Also make sure to sign out again on your return. This allows officials to keep track of who is on the mountain and to initiate rescue parties should you be overdue.
Weather can change fast in the mountains and mist can often cause visibility to drop to near zero, especially higher up the mountain. Should you be caught in thick mist, stay where you are and wait for it to lift; eventually it will and you can continue your hike safely.
The scenic Sterkfontein Dam is located on the R74 towards Harrismith about 50 km outside the park.
Spioenkop dam, nature reserve and the Second Boer War memorials on the Spioenkop Battlefield is located less than 80km away towards Ladysmith. To reach the battlefield, follow the R74 to Bergville and the R616 from there toward Ladysmith. About 25 km from Bergville, a gravel road will lead off to the right towards Spioenkop. It is well sign-posted and the gravel road is in good condition. Entrance is R20 per person. Keep the entrance ticket as it also covers access to the nature reserve.
The central Drakensberg is about 90-minute drive away and an easy daytrip.