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Tugela Falls

Tugela Falls, upper drop (182 m), South Africa
Tugela Falls, upper drop (182 m) / Andynct, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

WorldBlue  In short

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 – the second tallest (or… may be the tallest?) waterfall on Earth.

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GPS coordinates
28.7531 S 28.8950 E
Location, address
Africa, South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal province, Royal Natal National Park, the escarpment of Drakensberg at the border with Lesotho
Alternate name
Thukela Falls
UNESCO World Heritage status
"Maloti-Drakensberg Park", 2000, No.985
948 m
Tallest drop
Run (horizontal distance between the upper rim and the lower end)
˜ 400 m
3 – 15 m
Average annual flow
˜ 1 m3/s
Tugela River

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

Tugela – a river with a sudden surprise

Tugela stream (from Zulu word "Thukela" – "sudden" (with a frightening suddenness), "astonishing") starts just some 4 – 4.5 km before the falls. It is a rather calm, small stream meandering among the deserted landscape of the 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 the Drakensberg escarpment – a giant system of cliffs consisting of hard sandstone which formed in the Triassic period (Clarens Formation). The upper rim of the 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. Afterward, 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 (the total length of the 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’s time but require a good level of fitness.

The tallest waterfall in the world?

It is assumed that Tugela Falls are the second 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 favor of Tugela Falls as the tallest waterfall on Earth. The 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 the upper rim of the falls – thus it may include part of the slope below the falls, which is not a part of the falls. The main drop of Angel Falls is 807 m (or even "only" 738 m) high and, who knows – maybe, strictly speaking, we should consider that these 807 m constitute the full height of these falls?

Tugela Falls though is less impressive than Angel Falls. African waterfall does not have a single, breathtaking vertical leap of water into the 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 on 30th November 2015.

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