Hiking is a form of meditation or mindfulness practice. There will be moments of chatter or conversations during rest periods, but for the most part, you are on your own. Walking through some of the most beautiful expanses in nature. Alone with your thoughts and observations. I absolutely love hiking, it is one of my favourite things to do. One of life’s most beautiful gifts for me and my family is to hike Royal Natal Drakensberg.
For the last three years in a row, my husband and I have celebrated the day we first met at Thendele camp. We went there twice, before including our kids in the magic. They were equally as blown away as we were with each encounter. Raising kids who appreciate the magic of our natural world is one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve known. When they are excited to get lost in the quiet solitude of what the wilderness has to offer. Yeah, that’s definitely a parenting win.
Come Heritage Day long weekend in 2020 and it was time to revisit this immaculate landscape with our family and my mom. She had never been, and with us leaving for the UK soon, it was the perfect opportunity to spend quality time together. We did some incredible hikes, including the infamous Tugela Gorge hike. My favourite this year was Policeman’s Helmet – possibly because we had never done it before – so I’m going to tell you a little more about it.
Policeman’s Helmet – Always Beckoning You Closer
From Thendele camp you have a full view of Policeman’s Helmet at all times. Even when there is cloud cover over the Amphitheatre, Policeman’s Helmet tends to be completely visible. In all our visits to the area, we had yet to do the hike, but this rocky outcrop beckoned my interest every time.
Our second trip to hike Royal Natal Drakensberg this year and we decided it was time. No one wanted to do it after we had physically exerted ourselves on the first day with the 14km Tugela Gorge hike, but I was raring to go and ready to do it alone, so my hubbie said he’d come with. And I’m so glad he did… it was magical!
Policeman’s Helmet Hike
An Easy Start
From Thendele camp, you are already up at the same altitude as most of the hike into Vemvaan Valley. That’s the start of it. You hike towards Devil’s Hoek and then continue towards Vemvaan Valley on a fairly flat and easy to walk path. There is some beautiful San rock art along the way, fresh mountain springs, and a bit of forest to walk through. The path comes out into the valley alongside a fairly sheer drop, but nothing to worry about if you’re not afraid of heights. The start of the hike is gentle, it’s pleasant, and it’s an amazing opportunity to simply let go and be on your own.
It traverses into a riverbed, which is covered with lush foliage and beautiful trees. A perfect rest spot for the way there or back, but we honestly didn’t feel like we needed a rest. It was the dry season when we did it, so I’m not sure how rapid the flow of water is during the rainy season, but there are boulders to hop across. Rainy season in Royal Natal Drakensberg is generally October, November, and December.
Into Vemvaan Valley
After you come out of the river valley, the views just seem to get better. You are walking towards the right side of the Amphitheatre, with the Sentinel right in front of you. The closer you get, another beautiful valley opens up before your eyes, and it is magical. It feels like you’re walking through the Swiss Alps. It’s green, it’s gorgeous, and it’s full of life.
You double back on yourself on the other side of the valley after crossing the river bed. You can go further into Vemvaan Valley from there, the green valley in the photo above, or go left to Policeman’s Helmet. After taking the left path, you gradually start to climb, but it’s nothing too severe. For older people, younger kids, or those with knee problems, it needs to be taken a little slower. For us, it was great. We powered along and were up against the rocky lid of the mountain before we knew it.
Beauty Beyond Compare
When you hike Royal Natal Drakensberg, the indigenous plants and trees are a gorgeous addition to your journey. Tons of sugarbush proteas everywhere, and the iridescent sunbirds that come with them. I was honestly exclaiming awe and overwhelm around every corner.
We were so blessed with beautiful, blue skies on this particular day; the perfect backdrop for the colourful scenery. As you approach Policeman’s Helmet, ahead of you is the most beautiful rolling landscape, pictured below.
You walk back alongside the mountain towards Thendele camp with the Sentinel behind you. We looked through the binoculars and saw our family waving from outside the cottage we were staying in. From where they are (as seen in the first picture of the Amphitheatre), Policeman’s Helmet is directly in front of them. They were watching us as we ambled around the mountainside, so cute!
The Final Climb To Policeman’s Helmet
When you get to the end of the valley directly below Policeman’s Helmet you start the climb again up towards the mountain top. Mike (hubbie) is afraid of heights, so he got to a point where he couldn’t go any further. You start winding a narrow path that has a sheer drop to your right, and the wind was howling that day.
You have to climb a rickety, wooden ladder that is wedged between the cliff and a few large rocks. In the picture below, the ladder can’t even be seen. It’s to the right of the rocky outcrop on the left that looks a bit like a mushroom head. Between that and the three small rocks, you’ll find the wooden ladder.
Then there is a narrow mountain path to the top of the mountain where it is quite flat and open. You can wander around there to your heart’s content and even walk further along the top back towards the Amphitheatre. Once you’re up there it feels safe, but getting past the ladder and narrow paths in sweeping winds is a little bit hairy, I won’t lie!
On Top Of The World
I went up to the top of the mountain on my own as another couple were coming down. I literally had the entire top of the mountain to myself and it was absolute bliss. There were moments when the wind wrapped around the rockfaces so hard that I had to get down onto all fours to avoid being blown over. But then it would pass and it would be dead quiet. Just me, the mountain, and moments of wonder.
Policeman’s Helmet is positioned in the middle of the Amphitheatre valley, so the views are unbelievable. You look right down onto the Tugela Gorge hike on the one side with the Amphitheatre commanding the grandest background. On the other side, you have the magnificent Vemvaan Valley and the trail you’ve just walked. Further away is Thendele Camp, looking onto the Mahai Valley and far beyond it. You can see for miles.
With the relentless wind whipping me sideways every so often, I didn’t spend longer than about fifteen minutes at the top of the mountain. Mike was waiting for me down below and my body was telling me it was time for something to eat. In the middle photo below, you can see Mike as a black dot below in the left-centre of the shot.
I headed back down the narrow trails and wooden ladder to my love, and we had a picnic in the valley with no one else around us except some swallows and a curious, hovering raven.
En route back we charged along the trails, knowing where we were going and on a high from the scenery. It took us just under 1 hour to return to our little cottage on the edge of the camp.
Policeman’s Helmet Hike Specifics
8km round trip from Thendele camp
If you’re interested in doing this incredible hike through Royal Natal Drakensberg, you’ve made a great choice! These are the specifics according to what we experienced:
|Hike type||Day hike, put aside half a day|
|Hiker agility||Moderate hike, also suitable for kids|
and older hikers
|Hike duration||4 – 6 hours, depending on speed, stops, fitness, |
and starting point. This is based on starting from Thendele
|Hike length||Approximately 8km from Thendele camp|
A little longer from the Tugela Gorge car park
|Terrain||Mainly level gravel paths, some forest, some river bed|
valley, a small amount of climbing and scrambling
|Altitude||1,811m above sea level|
You can feel the thinner air, especially on the climbs
|Water||We went through three 1,5 litre bottles of water|
|Food||High energy snacks and a sandwich or two will suffice|
|If you stay in Thendele camp, you start from the path|
next to cottage 2. Alternatively, park in the Tugela
Gorge car park and start from there
Hike Royal Natal Drakensberg
If you’re looking to hike Royal Natal Drakensberg, do yourself a favour and stay at Thendele camp. Thendele has a view that no other place in the world could offer. It’s worth paying for. The camp is in need of refurbishment but is still perfect in my eyes. Location is everything in this case.
We booked this Thendele trip through Far & Wild Safaris, who were extremely helpful. You can make a booking for Thendele here. We stayed in cottage 2 this time, which was the most perfect location. As I have said a thousand times, I will always return to this corner of the world. To hike, to bliss out, to relax, and to find myself again. Highly recommended.