Royal Natal National Park is a beautiful area in the northern Drakensberg Mountains with fantastic hikes, camping and chalets. There are amazing views of the Amphitheatre, a curved wall of rock that soars above you.

Amphitheatre views near Thendele Hutted Camp in Royal Natal National Park
Views of the Amphitheatre from near Thendele Hutted Camp

Location

Royal Natal National Park is in the northern Drakensberg. You need a car to get here. Google says it’s 3 hours from Durban and 4 hours from Johannesburg, though the roads near the end are slower than Google thinks. In the Drakensberg region, it’s useful to have a real map that distinguishes between paved and unpaved roads. Check out our article on best road maps of South Africa.

Driving to Royal Natal National Park, Amphitheatre, stream and village
Driving to Royal Natal National Park

Royal Natal National Park is divided into two sections: Mahai campsite and Thendele Hutted Camp at the base of the Amphitheatre, and Witsieshoek Resort and the Sentinel car park at the top of the escarpment. Here we focus on the base of the escarpment.

Tips

  • Summers are cool, winters cold. In summer there are regular afternoon thunderstorms. Lightning can be dangerous, so setting off early, and getting back before the afternoon storms is a good idea.
  • Royal Natal National Park reception and Thendele Hutted Camp both have a basic shop. Bergville is the nearest large town, 50 km away.
  • The gate is open 24 hours a day for overnight guests. For day visitors, hours are 05:00-19:00 in summer (Oct-Mar) and 06:00-18:00 in winter (Apr-Sep)
  • If the reception at Thendele Camp is closed when you arrive, keys will be left for you to collect.
  • See our report on the rest of the Drakensberg, coming soon!

We were on a two week round trip to the Drakensberg from Cape Town. We drove to Royal Natal National Park from Golden Gate National Park (2 hours), and after our short stay, drove on to Cathedral Peak area of the Drakensberg (1½ hours).

Village hut in the Drakensberg
Local villages
Campsite in Royal Natal National Park
Views from the campsite
Tom jumping over mud
Avoiding mud on hikes

Day 1

We arrived to Royal Natal National Park in the late afternoon. The reception was still open, and there was a shop selling basics. We hadn’t booked (it was late May, and the entire Drakensberg was very empty, despite the beautiful weather) but it was fine to book on arrival.

Campsite in Royal Natal National Park
The campsite

Since we were there in May, the sun set early and it quickly became cold. We huddled in our tent, and went to sleep early.

Accommodation

All accommodation in the park is at the rest camp, and has to be booked through KZN Wildlife. Outside of busy periods, you can probably just turn up.

Mahai Campsite

The campsite is huge, with 84 sites! It’s located in a large grassy area, with plenty of trees and great views. The ablutions have hot and cold water – including a handy instant boiling water dispenser. Half the spots have power points, half don’t. The campsite is 1 km from the main reception, and the start of many hikes.

Thendele Hutted Camp

There are a variety of huts at Thendele, from 2 -bed chalets to 6-bed cottages. These are well-equipped, and all have private bathrooms and kitchens. Thendele is 5 km from the main reception, has beautiful views over the Amphitheatre, and is the start of the Tugela Gorge Hike.

Outside of the Park

There are a wide variety of hotels and other accommodation options outside of the park, 10-30 km away.

Day 2

We got up with the sun, and drove to the start of the Tugela Gorge and Amphitheatre hike. This was beautiful in the morning light, as the sun struck the shear cliffs.

Golden grass on Plowman's Kop Loop trail
Golden grass on Plowman’s Kop Loop trail

We returned to the campsite for lunch, after which we started out on the Plowman’s Kop Loop. This hike was gorgeous in the afternoon sun. We returned to the campsite around 4pm, and packed up to leave. We drove 1½ hours to our next destination, Cathedral Peak.

Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park
Amphitheatre
Vicky in Tugela Gorge
Tugela Gorge

Mahai Cascades near Mahai Campsite
Mahai Cascades
Vicky at Lookout Rock on Plowman's Kop Loop trail
Lookout Rock

Hikes

There are many moderate-length hikes in Royal Natal National Park, many of which can be shortened.

We used the Cicerone hiking guide: Walking in the Drakensberg*, to plan our hikes. We also used this guide on our other hikes in the Drakensberg.

  • Tugela Gorge and Amphitheatre
    • 14.5 km, 450 m climb, 4-6 hrs, start near Thendele
    • Best done in the early morning to avoid the crowds
  • Policeman’s Helmet
    • 13 km, 475 m climb, 4-5 hrs, start Thendele
    • Hike to a funny looking rock with great views of the Amphitheatre
  • Plowman’s Kop Loop
    • 10km, 475 m climb, 3-4 hrs, start Mahai
    • Beautiful in the afternoon light
  • Lookout Rock
    • 5 km, 250 m climb, 1½-2 hrs, start Mahai
    • This walk is the first part of Plowman’s Kop Loop.
    • After a steep climb, you reach a fantastic viewpoint.
  • Mahai Cascades
    • 3 km, 50 m climb, 1 hr, start Mahai
    • This is out-and-back along a paved track, to lovely waterfalls
    • This walk starts the same way as the Plowman’s Kop Loop.
  • Fairy Glen
    • 1 km, 25 m climb, 30 mins – 1 hr, start Mahai
    • An easy walk with trees and a waterfall
    • This walk covers the last part of the Plowman’s Kop Loop.
  • The Crack and Mudslide
    • 10 km, 750 m climb, 5-7 hrs, start Mahai
    • For the adventurous, with scrambling and chain ladders
Policeman's Helmet, Drakensberg
Policeman’s Helmet

We only had time for the Tugela Gorge and Amphitheatre hike, and Plowman’s Kop Loop. Next time, we’d love to visit the top of the Amphitheatre!

Read more about the rest of the Drakensberg coming soon!

Drakensberg mountains and vegetation
Views in Royal Natal National Park

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