Hiking Drakensberg, South Africa
One couple took on a Drakensberg traverse in South Africa, a formidable task during the wet season.
“OH I WOULDN’T GO in January if I were you” – the words echoed back to me off the thunderhead that rolled across the dark sky.
“You’ll certainly get wet,” my mentor and Drakensberg authority had said.
He was right. We had been wet for the past four days.
Our feet were rotting in our boots and now, one kilometre from home, our way was barred by the Mlambonja River in full flood.
We could not pick out the fording point in the moonlight, as it was 10pm and we’d been walking for 15 hours.
Heavy precipitation had swollen all the rivers and, unbeknownst to us, we were in the wrong place anyway, because the crossing was mismarked on the official map.
We were so close to a bed and real food, yet it would have been suicidal to risk crossing that torrent in the dark.
There was nothing for it but to heave a big sigh, stamp down a patch of the chest-high grass and pitch the tent on a 30-degree slope for another night.
The Drakensberg, South Africa
The Drakensberg is the highest mountain range in South Africa, reaching its peak of 3482m at Thabana Ntlenyana, officially the highest point in the tiny landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and the highest peak in Africa south of Mt Kilimanjaro.
Thabana Ntlenyana means “beautiful little mountain” in the local Sesotho dialect. The word Drakensberg means “dragon mountains” in Afrikaans, a reference to the jagged escarpment, which marks part of the international boundary between KwaZulu-Natal province and Lesotho.
The Zulu people call the area uKhahlamba, – “barrier of spears” – another apt description of the formidable cliffs, which are composed of a combination of sandstone topped with basalt.
A good portion of the range is protected wilderness including the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area, itself part of the UNESCO Ukhalamba/Drakensberg World Heritage Site listed in 2000.
Of all the South African wilderness areas, the Drakensberg is the wildest, most treacherous and downright deadliest, and summer is a time of persistent rain and fierce lightning storms.
There were 55 hiker deaths recorded in the period before 1985, mostly from falls and exposure. Even so, I wanted to do a Drakensberg traverse and January was the only time I had free. Unluckily for her, my fiance Gerda had agreed to join me.
Royal Natal National Park
We aimed to start from the Royal Natal National Park near Mont-aux-Sources, mount the escarpment at the Sentinel and follow it south as far as Cathedral Peak, where we would descend the Mlambonja Pass back to the lowlands and civilisation of the five-star Cathedral Peak Hotel.
I estimated that a good pace would get us there in four days with the wind behind us. To say I was being wildly ambitious was an understatement – I didn’t have a clue what I was getting us into.
While we were paying our fees at the entrance gate, the rangers tried to dissuade us from our course by mentioning the huge storm on the way. “We’re not afraid of rain,” declared Gerda, after which I could hardly turn back if I’d wanted to.
We spent that morning hiking up a gorgeous kloof (valley) through the RNNP, the emerald-green slopes dotted with proteas and what might have been agapanthus.
By lunchtime we hit the gravel road leading to the car park at the base of the Sentinel – the huge, vertiginous buttress that marks the start of the escarpment proper. With a bit of luck we could grab a quick lift from a ranger or another tourist and start up that afternoon.
It was not to be. We ended up slogging the whole 8km uphill in full gear under a blazing sun, with only an occasional bush offering enough shade in which to cower.
By the time we panted into the car park there was no point continuing that day, and we elected to sleep in the convenient Sentinel bunkhouse.
The next morning we set off with fresh optimism and a spring in our step. The imposing cliffs were misty yet mesmerising and we soon reached the infamous chain ladder that grants access to the plateau.
Clinging to the rock wall, this welded jumble of bent iron bars seemed a precarious instrument in which to place one’s life and we were glad to get past it.
Ten minutes later we followed the Tugela River through low scrub until it flowed into empty space. At 947m, Tugela Falls is one of the highest in the world and an impressive sight tumbling down the cliffs to disappear into cloud.
Here, we left the track and struck out along the top of the gentle curving cliff known as the Amphitheatre. The marked path went inland but we thought it would be much more pleasant to follow the line of the escarpment. The views would be tremendous if the mist ever cleared.
As we came level with the Devil’s Tooth, a spectacular rock pinnacle that pokes up between the main ridge and the Eastern Buttress, the clouds thickened and blackened and soon the sky was split by forked lightning and rocked by peals of thunder.
The rain pelted down unbelievably hard and we were quickly soaked through, despite our waterproofs. The soil, far from soaking up the flood, seemed to saturate immediately and turned the ground into one big swamp, drowning the scrubby bushes.
The top of an escarpment is a good place to be struck by lightning, but there was nowhere to hide. We were heading for Icidi Cave, an overnight spot a little way down the Icidi Pass, which we only reached after three hours of detouring around sharp cutbacks and struggling up and down hills.
It’s amazing how the ridge that had looked so level from the plains below turned out to be so steeply undulating. After searching frantically along the walls of the pass all we found was a shallow niche into which we could just about squeeze – a far cry from the advertised “cave” that was supposed to sleep six.
We were thoroughly drenched by this time and made the best of things by hanging our sopping gear around the walls. Fortunately, there was leftover foliage lining the floor and we used it to start a fire. It smoked us like kippers but at least we warmed up a little as we huddled together and tried to sleep.
After shivering through a cold and uncomfortable night we opened our eyes to a bright, cloudless morning. We had battled so much yesterday that we decided to cut back west and find the path.
I got out my compass to take a bearing only to discover its bezel had smashed in my pack and all the liquid had leaked out, rendering it useless. Instead I took a rough “inland” direction, thinking that we would hit the path somewhere even if our direction wasn’t spot on. This turned out to be a mistake.
Up and down low, treeless hills we walked. The sun soon dried the wet clothes tied to our packs, if not our boots. It didn’t matter though, as by mid morning we had to cross a large river. It looked harmless from the hillside above but up close it was thigh-deep and fast flowing.
There was also something not quite right about it that I couldn’t put my finger on, but which would prove vital later that day. There was nothing for it but to undo our pack straps, grasp each other’s shoulders and inch nervously across.
Another steep climb awaited us on the other side, which we sweated up with still no sign of a path. At the top we met some Basotho shepherds, each dressed in a blanket, balaclava helmet and wellington boots. The blanket is the national costume of Lesotho.
Had we come too far? These young men were farmers who looked vaguely interested in why two white people might be tramping across their precipitous grazing land. By this time I was getting curious about our true location and its relation to the path we should have come across some time ago.
I tried talking to them but they spoke no English. We continued on.
We had better luck with another shepherd we met on the next ridgeline. He spoke some English and explained that there was a road two days walk in a westerly direction, from where we could probably get transport to Maseru – Lesotho’s capital city.
This was not quite what we were hoping to hear. He guided us around his family rondavels (circular huts) to avoid his vicious dogs, then we set off again, with me trying to keep my increasing worry from Gerda.
After walking down the next steep valley only to be confronted by another river, it suddenly hit me! The thing that had been nagging at me since the last river crossing leapt from my brain stem into my frontal lobes – the water was flowing in the wrong direction!
How could I have been so stupid? The international border is actually demarcated according to the water table – if a river runs west into Lesotho, it is in Lesotho; if it flows towards and over the escarpment, it is in South Africa. Now looking at our map, I realised we’d come too far north.
We were in Lesotho, and we didn’t even bring our passports! We must have crossed the path at some point as planned, but it obviously wasn’t substantial enough to be noticed.
It was early afternoon by now, and we had no choice but to about-turn and march back up the hill. We followed another sheep track up the opposite valley and as the light faded, after 11 hours of walking the wrong way, we were back on top of the escarpment.
At least we were fairly sure we knew where we were, and we were dry. Not for long.
The Drakensberg traverse
I was woken about midnight by flashes of light in front of my eyelids. I thought I was dreaming until I slowly woke up and realised the coruscation was lightning. Then the rain came.
If being caught on the escarpment was bad, being caught on the escarpment in a tent with metal poles, the only upstanding object for miles, was worse. The thought of leaving our cosy tent was disheartening to say the least, but staying put was too risky.
Stoically we stepped out into the deluge and sat on a Therm-a-Rest some distance away, getting drenched and counting the seconds between lightning strikes.
This was a low point. I think if there had been an easy escape route, such as a nearby road and taxi, we’d have taken it. But there wasn’t. When the storm had passed we got out of our wet clothes and tried to sleep.
A day behind schedule, in perfect hiking weather, we found the path immediately and managed to follow it all day along the bare crags and past some breathtaking scenes – the Mnweni Cutback wreathed in mist was gorgeous.
We also passed the source of the Orange River (South Africa’s longest), which flows 2200km towards the Atlantic Ocean, along the way forming the South Africa/Namibia border. In the late afternoon mist we carefully followed a line of cairns up a rocky buttress to Mponjwana cave.
This rough refuge is famous for its dawn views over KwaZulu-Natal.
Although more of an overhang than a cave, it was big enough that we could set up our tent underneath it and relax to watch the fog wrap around the tall rock pinnacles guarding tomorrow’s descent.
Bell and Cathedral Peak
Reasonably well-rested at last, we were ready for our final day. We set off early along the escarpment and successfully reached the jutting ridge that leads to Bell and Cathedral Peak.
At 2pm we were at the top of the Mlambonja Pass, and we judged we had plenty of time to make it to the Cathedral Peak Hotel in time for tea.
The path initially descended very steeply but safely, and there were even stone cairns to follow. The reasonable stage lasted only until the streams began.
Thereafter, we zigzagged down an increasingly sheer slope until we were climbing down through dense foliage, crossing and re-crossing multiple watercourses at dangerous points.
Again and again we had to wade through a rushing torrent over slippery rocks above crashing rapids, only to walk a few metres and be directed back across by the cairns.
It went on and on; 3km, including 1000m of altitude loss, took us more than four hours to cover, all the while hoping we weren’t lost. Eventually we drew away from the crashing ravine and into tall grass, and as dusk overtook us we calculated our position as One Tree Hill – a mere 5km from the end.
We couldn’t face another night out here, so we pulled out our head torches and ploughed on. Progress was excruciatingly slow down the switchbacks to the river. We were trench-footed, blistered, sore, tired, bruised and burned (Gerda’s sunburnt legs were later diagnosed with third-degree burns) .
When one of our head torches died I was reduced to taking a few steps, then stopping and turning to light Gerda’s way over rocks and roots, and then repeating the process. When we realised we couldn’t cross the final river at the bottom of the incline, the hotel lights twinkling cheerfully just beyond, we were gutted.
Too exhausted to cook, we collapsed. Harsh words were spoken. Sleep was scarce. By daylight the river was obviously uncrossable. Thank goodness we hadn’t been driven to try it in the dark.
The next nearest marked crossing was a 15km detour, but thankfully we managed to alert the park rangers to our predicament by mobile phone and some sterling chaps reached us via a secret shortcut and led us to safety. Thus ended the most traumatic hike of our lives.
The excellent manager of the Cathedral Peak Hotel saw fit to bestow on us a slap-up breakfast free of charge before we started the drive back to Zululand, and suddenly the past six days didn’t seem so bad after all.
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