Royal Natal National Park

Amphitheatre from Royal Natal National Park

By Vicky · Published Mar. 10th, 2021 · Updated Nov. 23rd, 2022

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


Royal Natal National Park is located 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 the 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.

Royal Natal National Park Map


  • 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.
  • Find out more in our 12 Day Drakensberg Trip.

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 the 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 at 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 Mahai Campsite (the main and only campsite in Royal Natal National Park) on arrival.

Campsite in Royal Natal National Park
Mahai 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.


All accommodation in the park is at the rest camp and has to be booked through KZN Wildlife. Outside of busy periods, you can book on arrival, but in summer (Christmas) holidays make sure to book in advance.

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 (Reviews*), 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 sheer 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 4 pm, and packed up to leave, after which we drove 1½ hours to our next destination, Cathedral Peak.

Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park
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 in Royal Natal National Park

There are many moderate-length hikes in the 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

  • 2.4 km, 75 m climb, 30 mins – 1 hr, start visitors centre or 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!

Guidebooks to explore more of South Africa

Read more about Cathedral Peak where we went next, or the rest of the Drakensberg!

FAQS – Royal Natal National Park

What time does Royal Natal National Park open?

Royal Natal is open 24/7 for overnight guests. For day visitors, the opening hours are May-Sep 06:00-22:00 and Oct-Mar 05:00-19:00. Closing times are stated by the entrance gate.

How much does Royal Natal National Park cost to enter?

It’s R70/35 for foreigners, or R45/20 for South Africans per adult/child to enter Royal Natal National Park. It’s free with a Wild Card.

Where is Royal Natal National Park?

Royal Natal National Park is located towards the northern end of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. The park also borders Lesotho. Bergville is the nearest large town, roughly 1 hr drive to the east.

Drakensberg mountains and vegetation
Views in Royal Natal National Park


  1. Hi i would like to gind out if we could have a family gathering off about 100-120 people for a day outing can we travel there by bus at the mahai picnic aera

  2. Good day! I am interested in a day hike to the top of the tugela falls next Saturday morning. I’ll be coming from D119 Jagersrust Northern Drakensberg, 3354, South Africa (aha Alpine Heath Resort) I wanted to find out the following
    *is there a direct route from my accommodation to the foot of the hiking trail accessible with a small car ?
    *Are there always guides available to assist with the hike (how much are they?)
    *Are there hiking gears available to hire?
    *what time is the first hike?

    1. Hi Malwande,
      It depends what you mean by hike to the top of Tugela Falls – there is not a path from the bottom of the escarpment (i.e. the main section of Royal Natal National Park) to the top of Tugela Falls.
      From the main section you can walk along Tugela Gorge, which is a lovely hike (see post – Tugela Gorge and Amphitheatre), but you don’t get great views of the waterfall. This hike starts from near Thendele Camp, which is along a paved road so you can easily reach with a normal small car (it’s about 50 minutes from Alpine Health Resort). Most people do this hike by themselves, i.e. unaccompanied by a guide. You can’t hire hiking gear – you’ll need a decent pair of hiking shoes and a rain jacket but no specialised equipment. If you camp inside the park, you can start the hike at anytime, while for day visitors the park opens at 6am May-Sep.
      If you want to go to the top of the falls, you can hike there from Sentinel Car Park. However, you need a 4×4 to reach this car park and it’s 2hrs15 drive from Alpine Health Resort – if you only have a small car you have to park at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge and then get a shuttle up to the car park. You can also hire a guide for this hike from the Lodge (R860 per guide for up to 4 people) but these rates don’t include equipment hire – again, decent hiking shoes and a waterproof jacket are essential.
      I hope that helps and enjoy your trip!

  3. Hi, we are a small group that would like to hike Tugela Gorge the 15th of Des.

    How much does this cost per person?
    Do we need to book accommodation inside the park to be able to do this hike?
    How much does it cost?

    1. Hi Rochelle,
      you don’t have to book accommodation inside the park to do the hike, you can do it as a day visit. You will need to pay the entry fee to Royal Natal National Park – R70/35 for foreigners, or R45/20 for South Africans per adult/child. At this time of year the gates to the park open at 5 am.
      I hope that helps!

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