A South African Saga part 1 – Getting drenched in the Drakensburgs…

Cathederal-Peak-Dawn

The flight to Johannesburg is nothing like going to the far reaches of SE Asia, but still I felt exhausted when I arrived.  I had been working and presenting hard for the last few months and it was beginning to show.  Also, a nasty chest infection had caught hold of me in Austria recently and didn’t want to let go.  A few days out in the mountains should do me good then…

I was met at the airport by my great friend and fellow mountaineer Sibusiso Vilane.  We had met on Carstenz Pyramid in 2006 and got on like a house on fire.  He looked as fit as ever (he was just back from climbing Aconcagua) and his beaming smile was as infectious as ever.  We had so much to talk about, but I struggled to speak, due to a hoarse throat.  Still we got through and spent a night at the Ritz (no, not that one..!)

Next morning the sun was out and the birds were singing. We hit the road south for the next 6 hours, driving 285m (460 km) from Johannesburg to the Drakensburgs in Kwa Zulu Natal.  Drakensburg means ‘Dragon Mountains’ in Arfikaans, but is also know as the ‘Barrier of Spears’ or ‘uKhahlamba’ in Zulu.  Roving plains and farmland were replaced by table top peaks, smothered in clouds and illuminated by bolts of lightning.  As the sun fell, we drove into Didima Camp and relaxed.  The peaks of the Drakensburgs loomed across the valley only in silhouette as the sky continued to flash.

We set out the next day for Sentinel Peak car park, where the trek began.  By now we had been joined by our guide Carlos and two other Trekkers from Germany and Australia.  We had a late start in threatening rain, but made good progress past the twin peaks of the Witches and under the face of the Sentinel.  Her huge face dominated the skyline, which was impressive enough, but the roving lightning storms over the valley always caught your eye and filled your ears.  As we approached the famous chain ladders a strong wind picked up, which made the 50ft ascent interesting to say the least.  Carrying a 70L bag on a cliff face in a crosswind with no ropes certainly focuses the mind..!  Still, we all climbed it safely and set up camp just above the Tugela Falls.  The river was very low, but that didn’t take away from the spectacle of these wonderful falls.  They stand 3110ft (948m) high and silently drop into the gorge below.  Night fell and a finery red moon rose in the east. I’ve never seen anything like it.  What an amazing way to end the first day…

The following dawn was beautiful, with Sibu and I taking photographs before 6am to catch it’s stunning light.  Camp was struck and we took in eqcuisite views of the Tugela falls from the other side of the escarpment.  The water seemed to fall in slow motion, hundreds of feet onto numerous green ledges, before forming the main Tugela river in the valley below.

We had our first encounter with the Basuto shepherds today – hardly lads clothed in only underwear, Wellington boots and a blanket, they live on the berg for six months to prove their manhood.  They were always close to their flock and though they said hello, they kept their distance.

However, it was the weather which defined the day.  Heavy, driving hailstorms and huge bolts of lightning followed us for the next few hours.  One bolt hit the ground only a few hundred yards away from us with an almighty bang.  People fell to their knees with tingling hands from the ferocity of the strike.  All we could do was walk as fast and hard as possible for our intended campsite and face the awful weather.  Thankfully the sun broke through and dried us out an hour or so before we camped, but lightning and thunder boomed away all night and silouettted the hills around us with a spectacular lightshow.

The next morning we were greeted with driving rain and dense cloud.  It was hardly the picturesque view of the brochures, but the mountains are an ever changing place.  We pushed through the pouring deluge until just past midday, where we were forced to camp because of high winds on the exposed ridges.  It was a blow not to reach our intended destination, but safety had to come first.  The afternoon and evening passed in a daze, but the rain never stopped until way after dark when a few stars crept out.  The problem was that we would have to make the time up…

Warming and beautiful sunshine greeted us the next morning, and soon our camp was strewn with clothes and kit in an attempt to dry it.  We had to set off a little damp, but the heat helped and smiles were seen all round.  We were rewarded with stunning views across the Mnweni Needles, and quite how I’ll ever describe the jagged peaks and snow white cloud inversion, I’ll never know.  It looked like something from a film set.  Whispy cloud began to obstruct the sun, but we eat lunch under blazing skies, still drying off.  A lone Busutu horseman plodded by and waved as we sat.  A few of the shepherd boys had been around with their herds of alpine bell clanging sheep for most of the day, saying hello and asking for sweets.  In the distance a huge diamond mine reminded us of this lands wealth, but also the destructive power of man  It looked awful sat in such beauty.  Then the cloud came in and it came to stay.  We walked up hill and down dale, with no views and increasing frustration.  The evening fell, forcing us to don our head torches, and there was still a few miles to go.  My feet were suffering badly due to the damp and I felt an evening epic was on its way.  My skin grafts had git damp and this always causes me problems.  Onward into the dark we went, with me placing one foot before the other in extreme pain.  Everyone helped and I must thank them for staying with me and keeping my spirits up.  Eventually we were forced to camp at 21:30 on a cliff edge.  It was hardly ideal, but we had no choice.  Yesterday’s short distance had had its revenge on us…

Our final day dawned cloudy, but beaming sun soon warmed our damp and tired souls.  My feet were blistered and bandaged, but onward we had to go. We were rewarded with stunning views of Cathedral Peak and down the long Mlambonja Pass towards our final destination, at the Cathederal Peak Hotel.  We could see the hotel, but it was a long way down a rocky and precipitous valley, strewn with dense fauna and fast flowing streams.  I set off feeling the pain in my feet, and took some painkillers to prepare me for the descent to come.  The only good thing about the downhill was that my aching lungs (still full of infection) would at least get a rest.  We crossed the streams dozens of times, fought through grasses taller than anyone, waded through bogs and slipped all over the place.  What looked a long descent just got longer and longer.  Eventually we broke out into more open grasslands, but because of the late hour, we crossed the river by headlamp light – twice.  Finally after fourteen hours on foot, we entered the hotel grounds, sweating, smelly and covered in scratches.  I was bleeding from my right elbow after a fall, and dried blood was drawn over my arm.  We must have looked a sight.

And so our traverse was done. It was time to say our farewells and find the nearest shower..!

A big thanks to Terra Nova Equipment of Alfreton for allowing me to use one of their Trisar 3 Tents for the trip…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *