Most rivers flow away from the giant Drakensberg escarpment near the north-eastern borders of Lesotho. Happily there is one stream which bravely flows towards it and leaps over the rim of this cliff. Thus have formed Tugela Falls – second tallest (or… may be the tallest?) waterfall on Earth.

Tugela – river with a sudden surprise

Tugela stream (from Zulu word "Thukela" – "sudden" (with a frightening suddeness), "astonishing") starts just some 4 – 4.5 km before the falls. It is rather calm, small stream meandering among the deserted landscape of Mont-Aux-Sources plateau. In hot and dry summer it can dry up to a small trickle or even disappear altogether but after heavy rains it might turn into a sizeable stream.

Tugela happens to fall over the tallest part of Drakensberg escarpment – a giant system of cliffs consisting of hard sandstone which formed in Triassic period (Clarens Formation). Upper rim of falls is at the height of 2,972 m.

Tugela Falls consist of five drops which descend per 948 m over the distance of some 400 m.

Upper rim of Tugela Falls and view to Drakensberg escarpment, South Africa
Upper rim of Tugela Falls and view to Drakensberg escarpment / Ric McCharles, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

First leap is some 182 m tall and then comes an impressive drop of 411 m. Afterwards come three more drops and then the river descends over a series of rapids which are not included in the height of falls.

Below the falls Tugela River flows through the magnificent Tugela Gorge and then continues for almost 500 km (total length of river is 502 km) towards the sea. It is the largest river in KwaZulu-Natal Province.

Tugela Falls can be visited by walking two different trails. Each of them can be done in one day time but require a good level of fitness.

The tallest waterfall in the world?

It is assumed that Tugela Falls are the second tallest tallest waterfall in the world after Angel Falls in Venezuela.

Upper rim of Tugela Falls, South Africa
Upper rim of Tugela Falls / Ric McCharles, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

There are though some arguments in favour of Tugela Falls as the tallest waterfall on Earth. Main argument is the following: there are doubts about the true height of Angel Falls.

Angel Falls were measured in 1949 and since then… not anymore. Back then there was measured the height of 979 m – but it might be that this is the height difference between the Churún river and upper rim of falls – thus it may include part of the slope below the falls, which is not a part of the falls. Main drop of Angel Falls is 807 m (or even "only" 738 m) high and, who knows – may be, strictly speaking, we should consider that these 807 m constitute the full height of these falls?

Tugela Falls though are less impressive than Angel Falls. African waterfall does not have a single, breathtaking vertical leap of water into abyss. It forms a sequence of shorter free-falls, nearly vertical slides and less steep sections. Of course, another drawback is the weak, intermittent stream.


  1. Tugela Falls. World Waterfall Database. Visited in 30th November 2015.
Tugela Falls on the map
Travelers' Map is loading...
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Location, GPS coordinates: 28.7531 S 28.8950 E
Categories: Waterfalls
Values: Geology, Visual
Rating: 4.5 out of 10 stars
Where is located? Africa, South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal province, Royal Natal National Park, escarpment of Drakensberg at the border with Lesotho
Alternate name: Thukela Falls
UNESCO World Heritage status: "Maloti-Drakensberg Park", 2000, No.985
Height: 948 m
Drops: 5
Tallest drop: 411 m
Run (horizontal distance between upper rim and the lower end): ˜ 400 m
Width: 3 – 15 m
Average annual flow: ˜ 1 m3/s
Stream: Tugela River

Video of Tugela Falls

Drakensberg Hiker, May 2015

Landmarks of South Africa

Blyde River Canyon, South Africa
Blyde River Canyon / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0
South Africa is extremely rich with unusual archaeological and natural monuments.

Geologically South Africa is interesting with its unique mineral deposits providing some of the best diamond, gold, platinum ores and other highly valuable mineral resources.

The biodiversity of South Africa is unsurpassed in many respects but also very endangered.

Waterfalls and rapids

Virginia Falls, Canada
Virginia Falls / Paul Gierszewski, Wikimedia Commons / public domain
Some of the most fascinating and awe inspiring natural monuments are waterfalls, or locations where a river abruptly changes its elevation.

Recommended books

Walking in the Drakensberg

A guidebook to the Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site. The book describes 75 day walks of between 1km and 26km long, in Royal Natal National Park, Cathedral Peak, Monk’s Cowl, Injisuthi, Giant’s Castle, Highmoor, Kamberg, Lotheni, the Himeville and Underberg districts, plus Bushman’s Nek. Graded from easy to strenuous, the walks take in the spectacular natural beauty of the area.

Waterfall: Nature and Culture

From Niagara Falls in the United States to Angel Falls in Venezuela, Victoria Falls in Africa, and Hannoki Falls in Japan, waterfalls provide some of the world’s loveliest panoramas. With their glistening spray and deafening roar, these astonishing natural wonders attract hordes of people each year who seek out, with cameras in hand, these terrifying and sublime examples of natural beauty.

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