Is it the alluring mix of power and beauty that we love about waterfalls? Or is it the negative ions?
Hidden in the spray of fast-moving water, negative ions are oxygen atoms that have picked up an extra electron, thus the negative charge. When we’re near them we soak those ions up as positive energy. According to Pierce J. Howard, author of The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, once they enter our bloodstream, our production of serotonin is increased, therefore making us naturally happier. Science!
So, we’re happier around waterfalls, nature’s fireworks. But where to go to find the best in South Africa? Not to worry, we’ve rounded them up for you.
Let’s start with the big one. The combined total drop of Tugela’s five distinct free-leaping falls is officially 948 metres, with the biggest of those five falls an uninterrupted leap of 411 metres, making it the second-tallest waterfall in the world. Venezuela’s Angel Falls is the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall, with a height of 979 metres and a plunge of 807 metres.
Tugela, Zulu for ‘startling’ due to the river’s occasional flash floods, sources in the Mont-Aux-Sources plateau, a few kilometres from The Amphitheatre escarpment from which the falls drop. It’s here that one gets the most impressive view of the falls, best accessed through a five to eight-hour round-trip that begins and ends at The Sentinel car park. Another option is the trail to the foot of the Tugela Falls, which starts in the Royal Natal National Park.
The easy 7 km route up the Tugela Gorge winds through indigenous forests. The last part of the hike to Tugela Falls is a boulder hop. A little chain ladder leads over the final stretch for a view of the falls rushing down the amphitheater in a series of five cascades.
The Zulu people call the falls KwaNogqaza, ‘Place of the Tall One’. According to local legend, the pool at the bottom of Howick Falls is the residence of the Inkanyamba, a giant serpent-like creature. Only sangomas can safely approach the falls, and then only to offer prayers and other acts of worship to the Inkanyamba, ancestral spirits and the ‘Great God’.
A viewing platform in the centre of Howick’s town grants the best view of Howick’s 95-metre waterfall. Although the trail through Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve to the bottom of the falls is equally impressive.
Many people have been swept over the falls, with 40 deaths attributed to Howick falls, with the first one recorded in 1851. In 1999, Jeb Corliss had a near-fatal BASE jump into the waterfalls where his chute opening went asymmetric and he got sucked into the downpouring water.
Mac Mac Falls
Mac Mac derived its name from the Scottish gold prospectors who joined the gold rushes in this region in the late 1800s. Being Scots, many had surnames starting with ‘Mac’. It was the gold miners, in fact, who blasted the river with dynamite, which was once a single stream, in an attempt to work the rich gold-bearing reef over which the falls plunge.
The 70m high Mac Mac Falls is found right next to the Graskop Road, 14 km north of the town of Sabie. A paved path and steps lead down to a viewing platform which extends a short way over a cliff. The more adventurous can walk to the top of the falls by taking the tarred road a 100 metres or so and then following the stream to the falls. For an even better experience, go down to the base of the falls. It’s more adventurous, fewer people are around, and you’ll get up close with the falls.
The largest waterfall on the Orange River has been enclosed by the Augrabies Falls National Park since 1966. The gorge at the Augrabies Falls is 240 metres deep and 18 kilometres long, an impressive example of granite erosion. The falls are around 56 metres in height, but it’s their sound, just as much as its size, that really impresses.
The original Khoikhoi residents named the waterfall ‘Ankoerebis’ — ‘place of great noise’ — from which the Trek Boers, who settled here later on, derived the name, ‘Augrabies’.
The last leader of the area’s khoikhoi residents was Klaas Pofadder who lived on an island upstream of the falls, now known as Klaas Island. The first westerner to see the falls was the renegade Swedish mercenary Hendrik Jakob Wikar. He arrived at the falls in October 1778, after years long wanderings in the wilderness.
The Augrabies Falls have recorded 7,800 cubic metres of water every second in floods in 1988 and 2006. This is over three times the average high season flow rate of Niagara Falls of 2,400 cubic metres per second and greater than Niagara’s all-time record of 6,800 cubic metres (240,000 cu ft) per second.
Lisbon Falls is the highest and most dramatic waterfall at a striking 92 metres high, forming part of the ‘Waterfalls Tour’ along the Panorama Route in Mpumalanga. The other waterfalls along the route include Horseshoe Falls, Lone Creek Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Mac Mac Falls, Maria Shires Falls, and the Berlin Falls. It’s named after the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, which is also the name of a large farm in the area.
The Magwa Waterfall lies in the middle of the 1 800 hectare Magwa tea plantation, South Africa’s last remaining tea estate just outside Lusikisiki. At 142 metres, it is one of the tallest falls in South Africa (and 34 metres higher than Victoria Falls, although not nearly as wide). It’s half an hour from the town of Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, and 90 minutes from Port St Johns.
One of the coolest features of Magwa Falls is that you can hike along the edge of the falls – it makes for an incredible picture, if you don’t have a fear of heights. The best way to get to Magwa Falls is to spend a night in Port St. Johns and drive up to the falls for sunrise or sunset.
It’s recommended to hire a local guide (it’s not required or expensive), to help you find and access the waterfall safely. Oh, and it also hosted the most insane rope-swing bungee jump. Ever.
There are not many waterfalls that cascade into the ocean. In fact, there are less than 50 worldwide (although the number is difficult to know for sure). In Pondoland, between Port St Johns and Msikaba Nature Reserve, there are three in close proximity to each other. Commonly known as Waterfall Bluff, the Mlambomkhulu Waterfall lunges 40 metres into a thunderous ocean and offers one of the best picnic spots in all of SA.
This is best reached on a multi-day hike, although very long day hikes can be taken from Mbotyi.