South Africa's Forgotten Waterfall

Magwa Falls

Yet another unremarkable Tuesday morning beginning the same way they all do, pouring over emails followed by a quick catch-up on world news. Yes, Tuesdays, like most weekdays, are emphatically boring and essentially demand that we somehow manifest motivation using only thin air. Every now and again, however, the smallest titbit of information can make the burden of realising motivation considerably lighter, and it was one such titbit that spurred my most recent photographic excursion.

There, on my phone, a Facebook post from a friend. A delicate ribbon of water tailing off into a deep, narrow canyon. A scene that, at first glance, appears to have been plucked from the sticky, humid jungles of Venezuela, one that could not possibly exist in my own extended neighbourhood. A scene boasting the caption, “Can you believe that this is in South Africa!” Well, no, I couldn’t, I had to see it for myself!

Now, if I’m honest, I consider myself to be rather geographically astute, someone who is well acquainted with most of what South Africa has to offer those with a taste for the outdoors. Even if I haven’t visited a specific location, I feel that I have a good sense of what one is likely to find in any given corner of the country. For this reason, it was altogether humbling for me to discover that a mere 23 km outside the town of Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, a town that I have reluctantly laboured through on countless occasions, stands a waterfall capable of competing with the very best of South Africa’s airborne aquifers – Magwa Falls.


Coming in at an astonishing 142 m high and carved into Africa as if someone took to the continent with a gouging chisel, Magwa Falls is something to behold. It is not the highest waterfall in the country (that award goes to the Tugela Falls) nor does it see the greatest volume of water (the Augrabies Falls takes that one) but it is certainly among the most unique. More than any other waterfall I have ever laid eyes on, the waters of Magwa appear to be falling inward, as if on a quest to find a route to the planet’s core via an improbable tectonic fissure in the heart of the Transkei. It is a truly remarkable scene deserving of a place in every one of South Africa’s tourist brochures.

A Magwa Falls 'guide' sporting a set of faux binoculars.

Why Magwa Falls has never achieved this sort of fame is beyond me. Perhaps it is simply because of its unlikely location in what is a quite populated area of the Eastern Cape, or possibly the fact that travellers to the region are blinkered in their pursuit of the sea. Whatever the reasons, though, the inconspicuous nature of the falls makes it a true pleasure to visit and, indeed, photograph. Unlike its noted contemporaries, a trip to Magwa requires nothing more than driving to the end of a farm road, jumping out the car and poking your head over the edge. There is no visitor centre collecting a fee, no boardwalks and certainly no fences. Instead, the only thing that stands between sightseers and natural selection is common sense and the help of local boys who are eager to show off what is, quite literally, their back garden.

A small, and entirely optional, gratuity gets you a ‘guide’ – in fact, several – who will do whatever it takes to help you wade across the river without taking your camera for an unwelcome swim. They will also help you navigate all the other natural barriers – streams, bush and the small matter of a 142 m deep hole in the ground – that stands between you and the Wild Coast’s rift valley.

The entirely unrestricted access gives you carte blanche when it comes to framing up your photos and you can certainly be forgiven for thinking that prize-winning pictures are a foregone conclusion. Needless to say, photography is seldom that compliant and Magwa Falls does its best to uphold this reputation. The crux of the problem lies with the deep and exceedingly narrow proportions of the gorge, which always sees one wall throwing a shadow onto the other. There is, however, a small ‘shadowless’ window of opportunity that opens just before midday, when the sun is at the correct angle and casts light all the way to the bottom of the trench. The rather annoying thing is that shooting during the midday sun doesn’t normally come with the pastel hues necessary to win you praise among your peers.

Having said that, there is no truly ‘ideal time’ to photograph Magwa Falls. If your schedule doesn’t permit multiple visits at various times of the day, then I suggest that an hour or so after sunrise is likely to be your best opportunity to capture a Pulitzer Prize-winning image. The hills to the east of the gorge are markedly lower than those to the west, meaning that when compared to sunset, the golden hour following sunrise sees more of the precious golden glow making its way into the slot.

Where To Stay In Mbotyi

Mbotyi River Lodge

By far the best known establishment in the area.
Prices (from):
R 745.00 pps (low season)
R 832.00 pps (high season)
Tel: +27 (0)82 674 1064

Dingezweni Back Packers

A quite rough and ramshackle backpackers but clean and friendly.
Price: R200 pppn.
Tel: Fanie on +27 (0)71 25 4469


The is camping at the Mbotyi River Lodge.
Prices (from):
R 100.00 pp (low season)
R 120.00 pp (high season)

Being at the falls an hour after sunrise is, however, not without its own complications. Those wishing to employ the tactic are going to need accommodation and, unfortunately, there is none to be found in any close proximity. There are, in fact, only two feasible options for individuals wanting to overnight: either head back to Lusikisiki, a town not known for its breathtaking beauty, or travel down to the coast and call in at Mbotyi. Both destinations are roughly the same distance away from Magwa but the bumpy and steep descent to Mbotyi makes the travelling time to that end appreciably longer. If you do choose Mbotyi as your rest stop, it is worth keeping in mind that it is a full 40 minutes’ drive from the falls.

Reflecting on the Facebook post that precipitated my visit to Magwa, there is one curious characteristic of the waterfall that the image fails to capture. Magwa Falls is found on the property of the Magwa Tea Estate and, as a matter of fact, a literal stone’s throw away from the cul-de-sac at the falls itself, fields of tea cover the hills in resplendent green leafiness. I have seen these sorts of tea fields before in the highlands of Kenya and the southern reaches of Malawi but never within the confines of South Africa. What makes the tea plantations especially impressive is the sheer size of the enterprise and the fact that its expanse is all but hidden from view. Even those who pass through part of the estate en route to Mbotyi are unlikely to grasp the unending extent of the tea through which they drive. Field after field covers the whole plateau separated by veins of turpentine trees, a scene best appreciated from the air – or with the aid of Google Earth in my case!

One of the many Magwa tea plantations.

Turpentine Tree lined road.

Magwa Falls and its surrounds is a fascinating place to visit. It offers photographers and sightseers alike the exceedingly rare opportunity to explore a national treasure unencumbered by the guardrails found at more formal tourist attractions. If this article happens to find you on a Tuesday, then I hope that it serves as a saving grace, providing you with all the motivation necessary to grab your camera and head to the Eastern Cape in search of a few Facebook posts of your own.

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