It is interesting that in 1947 when the British Royal Family visited the then Natal National Park, the Park competed for space on the royal itinerary with tourist heavyweights such as Cape Town and Victoria Falls. Regardless of your opinion on the matter of inherited power as the basis for a system of government, there is something to be said for a location capable of attracting guests who have the wealth to go wherever their hearts desire. Whether or not the monarchs were genuinely awed by the views on offer at the park is an open question. What is for certain, though, is that today the now Royal Natal National Park attracts droves of visitors, other than those of the blue-blooded variety, from all corners of the planet.
It is obvious then that, if a region has the aesthetic resources necessary to draw royalty, it surely has what it takes to lure photographers. Nowadays, many of the “peasants” visiting Royal Natal can be seen standing around with tripods and bags full of glass, all gazing towards the western horizon with dreams of images to add to their portfolio. The most obvious drawcard is unquestionably the Amphitheatre, which, in fairness, is deserving of the attention. It is genuinely a spectacular mountain to behold and there are two renowned locations from where to try and capture portfolio-grade images – the Tugela River and the trout dam.
The Tugela River position is by far my personal favourite and my crusade to get a prized photo from the spot is well documented in my articles Photographing the Amphitheatre and The Drakensberg Amphitheatre. For the sake of completeness, however, I have had the greatest success when composing photos from within the river itself, near an abandoned parking lot located at the following GPS coordinates: 28°41'51.3"S 28°56'51.4"E. The beauty of this spot is that access into the riverbed is relatively straightforward and, having once gained the river, there is opportunity for moving both towards and away from the mountain.
Yet, despite my preference for the Tugela photos, the trout dam has also produced many spectacular shots over the years. Moreover, if you do not have time to spend scouting for compositions and to deal with the variability of the river level, then the trout dam offers exceptionally easy access and predictability. My exploration suggests that the best images are likely to come from the most northern point of the trout dam, at coordinates 28°41'11.7"S 28°57'19.9"E.
While the Amphitheatre is the undisputed star of the show, there are other areas within the reserve that are equally unique and which, with the necessary effort, are also likely to produce top-draw images. These locations don't garner the same attention as the Amphitheatre and are consequently not as well photographed. They are, nonetheless, as distinctive and shouldn’t be overlooked as favourable photographic hunting-grounds.
The first of these sites is the Tugela Gorge, a narrow and deeply set ravine situated 6 km upstream of the primary Tugela River parking lot. Despite the route leading to the gorge being called the 'Gorge Trail', the sudden emergence of the trench-like valley from beneath the cover of the surrounding forest is impressive, to say the least. By Drakensberg standards, the chasm is unusually shear with cliffs ascending near-vertically from the flat-bottomed riverbed. Photographically, the gorge is admittedly oriented along a north-south axis which can make lighting a little tricky; however, even with this minor complication, there can be no doubt as to the creative potential of the scene. Personally, I am yet to see a photo that encapsulates its true beauty. Even the best photograph that I could find on the internet focusses more on the river than the enormous ditch that has been carved into the earth’s crust.
At the furthest end of Tugela Gorge – approximately 1 km upstream of its entrance – lies a second noteworthy location, The Tunnel. Technically speaking, The Tunnel is not a tunnel at all but rather a slot canyon formed by the Tugela River cutting a crevasse into the sandstone. Compared to The Gorge, The Tunnel has been the subject of a far greater number of images over the years, owing to the fact that it is the only known example of such a canyon in the Drakensberg.
Nonetheless, pictures in the public domain don't seem to capture the true nature of this rocky gutter, with most images often simply showing a brown hole in the side of a mountain. The reality is, however, somewhat different, especially when the river flows strongly. Under those conditions, The Tunnel can put on a display of colour dominated by the green lichens, yellow sandstone and blue mountain water.
Finally, if one walks past The Tunnel towards the base of the Amphitheatre, the Tugela Falls comes into view. These falls are generally regarded as the second highest in the world; though I am not sure that this title is deserved. The water plummeting to the valley floor is, in fact, broken into three steps which somewhat detracts from the spectacle. Be that as it may, the waterfall remains majestic and worth seeing, with most photographers choosing to capture pictures standing on top of the Amphitheatre. From that position, pictures show the Tugela – as a rather diminutive little stream – disappearing off the edge of the cliff. There are a few examples of photos from the opposite perspective, with the falls seen from the valley below, but honestly, the publically accessible photos of this view don't speak to the potential on offer.
The principal reason for the lack of bottom-up images is inaccessibility. Of the possible photographic locations along the Tugela River, this one is by far the most difficult to reach and, by my estimation, the 11 km hike required to get near the base of the falls is simply too long and treacherous to be done before dawn or after dusk. Consequently, to be in the area during the prime sunrise and sunset hours requires overnighting in what is a forbidding environment. There is not much in the way of flat ground or natural shelter, meaning that a night out will likely be a rather uncomfortable affair. In addition, the river is fickle, particularly during summer, and sudden fluctuations in the water level could leave you needing to take steep and dangerous detours, or, even worse, stranded.
With that said, I am confident that a photo of National Geographic standards awaits anyone brave and adventurous enough to take on the challenge. I can just imagine the scene – the Tugela River at peak flow thundering down the cliff face with a moody sky as a backdrop.
The truth is, the fact that the second highest waterfall in the world is not synonymous with the Royal Natal National Park goes some way to making my point. In spite of all the gushing over the Amphitheatre, Royal Natal offers a broader spectrum of distinctive locations than it often receives credit for. The Tugela Gorge, Tunnel and Falls are all as exclusive as the Amphitheatre and yet receive only a fraction of the attention. I understand that time is valuable and that when pressed for a choice between photographing a known masterpiece or lesser location, the masterpiece always wins. However, if the underlying goal of photography is to produce unique and compelling images, then surely the quest for success starts with a unique destination and not with the most photographed scenes.