The Tugela Falls is world famous and one of the most spectacular places on Earth. Said to be the second highest waterfall in the world, it falls about 950m into the Royal Natal National Park. There is the rare occasion that it runs dry, it flows most of the year, and in the summer wet months after heavy rain it cascades over the escarpment with awe inspiring beauty. The falls has three big drops, 60m at the top to a cascade, then a huge 250m free drop and then a third drop of about 170m, thereafter numerous smaller drops of 70 to 20m before levelling out and leading to a winding steep sided valley before a deep narrow sided gorge of the tunnel.
The Amphitheatre wall was first climbed by Doyle Liebenberg and party in September 1934, which takes a route far to the right of the waterfall (facing downstream) and follows numerous grass bands which resemble a letter M. However, near the waterfall itself no climber has ventured with the one exception of the great George Thompson who on two occasions together with his party in October 1947 traversed across below the falls to get to the body of Tom Pinkney who had fallen off the escarpment. Having now been in that area, it is amazing how bold and way ahead of his time Thompson was. He had to traverse huge featureless cliffs with enormous drops below, with loose rock everywhere.
Around 2014 I remember somebody telling me that they were at the top of the Amphitheatre when they saw a large party of Europeans descending down the Tugela falls. They were no doubt doing this illegally as they had no permission to do so, nor to place bolts, which would be essential to achieve this as there are almost no natural anchors on those huge faces. We tried to find more information on this but there was no trace of them. This mysterious event seems to have been deleted from all records. This was not surprising as they made some serious contraventions of the law. I was not even sure that they had indeed got all the way down, until speaking to Gavin Raubenheimer last year when he confirmed that they indeed did get all the way down.
We set it a goal to do the second descent (not counting Thompsons descents), and we started planning. Training and preparation commenced in 2019 with plans to make an attempt in 2020. But as with many things, because of Covid this was delayed. This year in 2021 we commenced our plans. The first thing we did was send an email to Stephen Richert, Officer in Charge: Royal Natal National Park. He replied that in principle he has no problem with it. We began the planning.
The first issue was the time of year we plan to do the descent. If we went in full summer where the falls were full, we ran the risk of being in the valley at the bottom during a thunderstorm, so we opted for end of April. Having done this, we may repeat it with more flow, seeing as now we know the route and could see there are numerous escape lines lower down onto grass ledges on the sides. This is always the problem when you have no knowledge of the route, one cannot mitigate the risks if one has no grasp of what is involved.
The next step was to get a very strong party, with plenty of experience. Chris Haas, a German who is currently living in Kempton Park was the strength of the team, his leadership and skill made it possible. Chris has descended hundreds of canyons all around the world, up to 50 abseils long. Other members of the team were Samuel Chowles a registered mountain walking and rock climbing guide, and Roger Diamond who has years of rock climbing, big mountain and canyoning experience.
Gear was discussed numerous times and in the end we settled on using two 100m 9mm, one 60m 9mm, and one 60m 10.5mm static ropes. The weight of thicker rope was considered less of an issue than the difficulty of abseiling a single 9mm for lengths up to 100m. We were not sure at all if any of the abseils were longer than 100m, this was a risk we had to take. We did however practice a method of extending an abseil rope with another rope with a releasable system using a Petzl Shunt. This is a terrifying procedure, and I am glad we never had to use it. We chose to abseil using a Petzl Stop, this seemed to work the best with the 9mm ropes up to 100m, but thick gloves also helped with the fast thin ropes. We also used a carabiner on our leg loop and diverted the rope up on the last third of the big abseils to get more friction. We also had every person use a radio which proved invaluable with the big distances between stances. We equipped to bivvy, in the event we did not make it down in a day, but in the end we did not need to.
The weekend before the planned date of the event we spent a training weekend at Thabaphatshwa and Wellingtons Dome in Limpopo. Here we abseiled down the large cliffs numerous times perfecting the system and teamwork. We also practised certain rescue techniques such as passing knots, ascending from a descent if you go past the anchor, guidelines for protecting traverses to get to anchors and more. On the same weekend we had numerous discussions on methods and systems we propose to use. In the end we had everything very slick and ready.
The hike up was uneventful except for huge queues at the chain ladders, large parties were going up and back down very slow. This is made worse by the fact there is only one ladder in operation. The support team led by Tony Marshall and comprising of Nadine Van Heerden, Kyli Benadie-Chowles, Laurence Phillips, and Brittany Haas who all helped carry some of the gear, (but also left one person’s food and spare cloths behind). That afternoon I descended to try look for the third set of anchors and set some ropes in place to speed up the process the next day. On a previous occasion we had already descended to the grass ledge below the first waterfall and found it full of old tins, bottles and other rubbish which was tossed over the cliff over the years. I abseiled to a full 90m down moving left and right across the face looking for this anchor station, the static rope having about 2 percent stretch, I was bouncing around above the huge 850m high chasm below me, looking for the anchor. In the end it was getting dark, and I had found nothing, so I ascended back up the 90m of rope using a mechanical ascender and Traxion. This was exhausting work, also considering I was carrying a bag with emergency rescue gear and a 60m rope which I would have used to set the next abseil.
The next morning,we set out before dawn. There was an icy wind blowing, but the forecast looked excellent for the next few days. The commitment pending resulted in swarms of butterflies circulating in my stomach. The night before I did not sleep well with visions of getting to the end of a rope dangling in midair with hundreds of meters of fresh air below my feet or my bag with all my gear breaking off its connection on my harness and plummeting into the void below, and not finding the third set of chains we could not find the day before. Would we find all the anchors, or will we end up stranded hanging halfway down with no anchors to continue waiting for a Gavin and his rescue party and a 400m drop line on a chopper?
After the start,to everybody’s relief Chris finds the third set of anchors, then on the fourth abseil Chris radioed up that he needed for 2m extra slack on the releasable system as he was just short of the next set of anchors, but on my side at the stance the system jammed. A struggle ensued where Chris abseiled right up to the knot in the end of the rope against his abseil device and just managed to reach down to clip in to take his weight off so that I could sort out the jam,thankful that it was a good knot. At the same time Roger and Sam retrieving the rope above from the top found the rope had twisted and would not pull. So, Roger had to ascend that rope to sort this out. All this drama made more real by the vast amount of fresh air below us and the wide expanse of the whole Amphitheatre setting.
We continued down, and when I came down the fourth abseil, I passed about four soccer ball sized very loose blocks just balancing on top of each other about 10m above the anchor. I had to move to the left to avoid them, but lower down I saw I had to move back right to get to the stance. This would involve the rope above me moving over the rocks and very likely dislodging them onto Samuel and I and causing a serious injury. Gingerly I manovered myself across placing the rope above carefully with outward jumps over the rocks so as not to disturb them. More terrifying happenings with the terrifying void gaping below. After the 5th abseil we reached the first sizable ledge where we could remove some of the clothing and eat and drink something. There was some relief as we had gotten over the worst of the huge second waterfall and things looked easier below.
After another abseil and scramble, we were at the top of the third waterfall. This one also looked very high and intimidating. However, to our relief the abseil line seemed to now take a route closer to the water line and it was thus easier to find the anchors. All three main sections of the Tugela Falls follow one after the other in quick secession with just 50m steep rapids in between, then a series of 6 to 7 shorter waterfalls from 20m to 70m one after the other finishing in the open boulder strewn riverbed way below. The falls all add up to one plummet of over 900m in a horizontal distance of less than 150m making it the second highest waterfall in the world. One would think why there are not higher waterfalls in other mountain ranges, such as the Himalayas or Andes where the prominence is much greater and single drops of over 2000m are common. The one possible reason is because there the water is locked up in snow and ice and not in free running rivers. We set the 100m rope and I went down into the next chasm first. This one running close to the waterfall, the vertical face littered with many loose flakes and the surface very slippery from the algae where the water flows. Below me I see a huge flake about the size of a single bed mattress precariously glued to the sheer rock face. I had to make a decision, how was I to avoid this. I abseiled down a bit lower to look, I could see the anchor station about 10m below me directly below the flake. I had already abseiled about 80m down. I could swing to the right and abseil down on that side of the flake keeping that side as I pass the flake to the right but when I move back left to the anchor below the flake will the rope above not hook under the flake and possibly dislodge it onto me in a disastrous crash leaving nothing but a tattered severed end of rope behind and me plummeting down with the flake to my death. Moving left and right was difficult because of the slippery surface. I considered trying on the right, but the same demeanour presented itself. In the end I went straight over the flake laying the rope very gingerly onto the flake as I carefully stepped over this looming deadly Sword of Damocles. Upon reaching the stance which is a terrifying hanging stance just meters above an open space made by many overhangs below. Upon connecting to the stance, I immediately called the others above on the radio, warning them about the flake. Each person slowly came down to the hanging stance, all carefully stepping over the flake in the same way I did. I continued down first on the next abseil on our other 100m rope brought down by Samuel and found this to be one of the finest I had ever done. This was free hanging 70 to 80m with impressive overhanging walls on all sides and a beautiful waterfall falling to my left.
At the base of this abseil, now number 9, was a comfortable spot. It was around 1pm and we had a brief break eating lunch, and sorting gear. Thereafter we pushed on, the valley was less steep now and we encountered about 9 shorter abseils varying in size from 50m to 10m but less intimidating than the huge drops we had encountered above. Finally, we came to the riverbed and moved quickly down picking our way between the numerous little obstacles. Just when we were thinking we were finished with the ropes we came to a constriction in the valley where we found yet another abseil of about 25m with an icy swim at its end. Our number 19.
The environment began to change as we continued down reaching the top of the sandstone belt. Beautiful pools presented themselves with many interlocking streams flowing over smooth eroded sandstone slabs,weaving their way downstream with an enchanting pattern as if sculptured. At this point we did not have time to admire the pools, nor swim in them, we had a race against the clock. Darkness was approaching fast, and we wanted to minimise the distance we had to cover by head torch. We passed some cliffs on the left and came to what we thought was the beginning of the tunnel, where we had to now donn our torches. We found a way around this, only to find this was not the tunnel, but another constriction just below it was indeed the tunnel. A 3m abseil off a metal pin already placed in the rock brought us into the tunnel where we waded down to reach the end of our epic adventure. Just below the tunnel we saw the torch lights of our support team and jubilation involving congratulatory hugs and shaking of hands occurred.
The Tugela Falls is one of the iconic waterfalls in the world, one of South Africa’s proudest features to show off to the world. I remember first seeing it when I was a young child and now we have experienced it in detail with all its details all the way down. I cannot emphasise more that this undertaking is a very serious one, which must only be undertaken by very experienced parties with many years Drakensberg experience and good knowledge of canyoning techniques which involve multiple descents with long abseils, often from hanging stances. I would also emphasise that permission must always be obtained from Royal Natal National Park before descending the falls.