The Tugela River marks the end of the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, with Zululand on its northern side. This is the pricipal river of Natal and Zululand, flowing through a prodigious valley set beneath towering cliffs. The river is known to the Zulus as Thukela - "something that startles". Where the river reaches the coastal terrace it broadens and at times of flooding it presents a picture of awesome power.

As the frontier river between Natal and Zululand, the Tugela has had an important role in history. For many years it was a serious obstacle to travellers. What was known as the Lower Tugela Drift provided a hazardous crossing point, but only if the river was low. During floods the Tugela was impassable and travellers could be delayed for days. Nowadays the river is apanned by a bridge, 450 m long and named after John Ross, a 15-year-old boy who, in 1827, walked the 900-km return journey from Durband to Maputo and back to obtain medicines needed by traders and hunters. The round trip, across wild country, took 40 days. When Ross visited Shaka to pay respeacts, the Zulu king provided him with an armed escort and throughout the journey the youth was under the protection of the king.

Five kilometres before the John Ross Bridge is a turn-off from the trunk road leading east down the south bank of the Tugela River to its mouth. On its way, after 1,5 kms is the original Lower Tugela Drift. Overlooking this is the ruin of a small fort, Fort Pearson, built in 1878 by the British when they were preparing for the invasion of Zululand. It was named after Colonel Charles sKnight Pearson, commander of the righ-hand invasion force which had to cross the Tugela at this point. Two other invasion forces, known as the centre and left-hand forces, invaded Zululand further inland. One and a half km from the fort, the road passes a wild fig tree known as the Ultimatum Tree. In its shade, on 11 December 1878, the British presented an ultimatum to a Zulu delegation. The terms of this ultimatum made the Anglo-Zulu War inevitable. From this old tree the road continues for another 7 km passing through a belt of coastal forest and then reaches a shallow bay at the mouth of the river.