Click here to read Part 1
The 6th day of our adventure was a Rubicon of sorts, as we came to the realisation of what we had truly let ourselves in for. We were sunburnt. Add to this welts, insect bites, rashes, blisters and chafe-burn on our hips. We had sore knees, unhappy hip flexors, burning feet, and overtired and wobbly legs. The smell of exertion clinging to our shirts, socks and skin after another bathless day. The romance of adventure was seriously challenged by questions: “Why did I come on this trip? Do I have what it takes to see it through? Can I push through the pain? Will I let the other guys down?”
At the same time, the rhythms of the wild envelop you. You forget which day of the week it is. Politics, world problems, budgets and conflict slip far from your mind. You can feel your joints and ligaments strengthening beyond the inflammation. Your soul is washed in the purity of unspoilt nature – the incredible sights unfolding with every step; the sound of rain and thunder, and flocks of birds, or the quiet of a windless morning; the taste of pure water sipped straight from the eye of the fountain; your awareness of life magnified in the simplicity of it all. We revelled in the simple fellowship of mountaineers; the shared, small space of a tent, waking up together, cooking in one pot, sharing jokes and encouragement…living as brothers.
Day 7: Jarateng river valley to The Hawk
1 January 2013
11pm: We don’t know how far we went or where we were. Shivering uncontrollably, we try to sleep, hands & feet numb, suffering from the early stages of hypothermia and complete exhaustion. We snacked dinner inside our tents: a cup of Futurelife, biltong & jelly sweets. This was the most extreme day I have ever had, anywhere…
The 1st of January 2013 dawned overcast & peaceful. Our neighbours came early with greetings and smiles, which slowly warmed us from the uncomfortable night. A pack of friendly, curious dogs milled around us. We went up the valley, snaking through hills and peaks to Giant’s Castle, setting an optimistic rhythm as our bodies thawed.
Crossing the main ridge, we were engulfed by dense fog. We followed the GPS to the point where we had to turn north-east to find our peak. On the ridge, we had 20m visibility – clouds streamed over us like the march of a great ghost army, the thick moisture forming droplets that clung to eyebrows and beards.
It started raining, heavy, cold drops, the strong wind tugging at our garments. The storm’s intensity increased – we were walking blind, heads down, following the GPS and going this-way-then-that to get around craggy sections. As we reached Giant’s Castle Pass, the heavens groaned with terrible thunder which echoed in the cliffs and valleys. Suddenly the storm unleashed a series of lightning bolts, all centred on Giant’s Castle. The fog lit-up with each strike. We were sitting ducks, out in the open.
“Let’s get the f@$#* out of here!!!” Staying on the same contour, our jaws clenched and legs firing like pistons, we moved away from the storm as fast as we could.
After about 2km, the storm cleared just long enough for us to have a snack. For a brief respite, we could see the nearby peaks and cliffs adrift in a sea of mist and cloud. Then the heavens closed again, bringing lightning, fog and sleet. We resigned ourselves to our soggy fate as we took off in the general direction the GPS pointed, exerting ourselves to generate some body heat.
We marched for 5-hours in dense fog, as icy rain and fine hail pelted us non-stop. We were soaked throughout and borderline hypothermic – speaking like drunken men through frozen lips and shaking involuntarily in the fading daylight, we made the decision to stop and get warm. Pitching tents presented quite a challenge. Fede’s trusty rock climber’s hands, that inherently know how to place and clip trad gear in stressful situations, were shaking so much that he struggled endlessly to clip tent hooks into the poles. We stripped off our wet clothes, bundled into our shelters and dived straight into our sleeping bags, not managing to keep the inside of our tents dry. My last thought, as I plunged into exhausted sleep, was “If it rains tomorrow morning I’m not getting out of bed”. I would not be able to handle another day like this.
Day 8: The Hawk to Thabana Ntlenyana
We woke as sunrays lit our tent’s canopy. Glory! We spilled out of the tents and stretched out on a soft, dry lawn. Our campsite was in a beautiful spot; a small stream nearby, the Hawk standing proudly to our left, shapely peaks surrounding the plain. We emptied our tents and backpacks on the sward of sunlit grass. We took our time – but in the back of our minds we knew we were behind schedule and must put in another big day. Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest African peak south of Kilimanjaro, was our goal.
As we went deeper into Lesotho, human activity increased – there were herds everywhere and we passed friendly Basotho every few hours. Four young Basotho herders approached. Their leader, tall and impressive, could speak English relatively fluently. “I go to school” he declared with some gravity in his voice. His compatriots nodded enthusiastically. He talked non-stop, spouting reams of dubious information about life in Lesotho, warning us against dangerous dogs and offered to lead us along a safe path. Upon hearing that Federico is from Colombia, he happily informed us that he intends travelling there after school to complete a degree in Mechanical Engineering. We were not as impressed as his 3 younger companions. He again informed us that we were now safe because they’re guiding us, and then decided to strike while the iron is hot:
“Do you have some food for us?”
“No, we carry food for 10-days, we have none to spare”
“Ohhh, do you have money for us?”
“No, we have no money”
“Ohhh, do you have tobacco?”
I gave them what little we had to spare, before the second round of requests started.
Our friendly interactions, especially with younger shepherds in certain areas, became increasingly tarnished with incessant requests for food and money. The comforts of life are in short supply in the remote hills, and we learned the best way to deal with appeals for food / money was to decline firmly, yet remain friendly and respectful.
We lunched next to a clear stream under the expectant eyes of another group of shepherds. Federico devised a plan to relieve Matthys’s blisters, Werner lay on his back with his feet in the water, and I was sitting with a bowed head studying a caterpillar, tired to the bone.
We slogged on.
Late afternoon we arrived at a beautiful overnight spot at the top of Mkhomazi pass. As tempting as it was to stop, we had to push on. Thabana Ntlenyana loomed large at the head of a valley breaking inland to our right – a 5km hike up the valley and then a steep finale to cover the last 600m vertical-climb. We did not feel like it but knew we had to, so we decided to break it up into smaller goals.
“Let’s make our way to the head of the valley, and then we can see if there’s enough daylight to bag the peak”.
The valley was saturated – the path crossed countless bogs, springs, trickles, streams and pools, the grass growing thick and lush in spongy turf. Beautiful, but not the most efficient terrain to cover. We passed a number of kraals with statuesque Basotho herders standing on stone-lookouts, waving a friendly greeting. At 5:45pm we looked up at Thabana Ntlenyana; its stony crown aflame in late afternoon sun.
“Darkness will be at our heels.”
We petered out into four lonely figures on the gigantic slope. Matthys led the way, counting a hundred steps and then starting again; veins bulging on arms as he put his trekking poles to work, the setting sun kindling fire in his curly locks. We reached the top, just in time to see the sun slipping behind Lesotho’s distant ridges. We stayed a few minutes at the top, enjoying the day’s accomplishment. Darkness engulfed the lands as we dropped down into a southern valley to find a rare campsite in the steep landscape.
Day 9: Thabana Ntlenyana to Sandleni Pinnacle
We woke fatigued, but with a hint of optimism: the worst was behind us, and if all went well we’d make it to Bushman’s Neck by the following evening.
We started early and ambled 2km up a gentle slope. Crossing the ridge, Lesotho opened up before us: a deep and broad valley lined with peaks and ridges. In the distance, we could make out a small, white building next to a road – no doubt the road from Sani pass. Excitement. We painstakingly made our way down the steep slope, our conversation dominated by the possibilities: what if that building is a store? Coke! Beer! Chips! Chocolates!
We marched the 8km to the building in a single push; excited by the prospect of food. It turned out to be a locked church building.
“Man shall not live on bread alone”, I joked sardonically.
A few minutes later a Land Rover rolled up the dirt road. We exchanged a few words with the friendly tour guide and the 6 young Germans in the back.
“Is there anywhere close by where we can buy food and drink?” we asked expectantly.
“There’s a lone backpackers, about 6km distant”. He pointed away from where we were headed, while sipping on an ice-cold coke and munching on some crisps.
We turned south-east, making our way across overgrazed pastures back into the hills. The landscape started to change – the valleys and ridges took on a softer form, the slopes more gradual with shallow rivers winding through the hills.
Late afternoon, we lazily looked at No Man’s Peak. We could bag it, but lacked the drive. The big storm and Thabana Ntlenyana had drained us. We found that we had the first cell-phone reception in days, and made arrangements for our pick-up to be a day later – relieving the pressure to tick off another 30km day. We dropped our bags on the soft meadow and explored the area. Sandleni Cave is a magic overnight venue, but was wet from all the recent rain. For the first time in our journey, we could pitch tents leisurely, sitting around barefoot and chatting – simply enjoying the magic of the mountains.
Day 10: Sandleni Pinnacle to Thamathu river valley
Greying light announced the break of day. We eagerly crept out of tents, anticipating a glorious sunrise. We were not disappointed. The great cliffs, towers and peaks of the Drakensberg rose above a sea of white cloud that engulfed the midlands. A fiery streak in the east announced where the sun would make its appearance. The cloud-sea blushed softly as the sun rose. Jagged rock formations glowed golden-orange. We stood on the edge of the escarpment, gaping at the wondrous, dreamlike landscape around us. It was certainly worth rising at 4am for.
At 7am, we marched up to No Man’s Peak and stopped for awhile to enjoy the views, before taking off at a lively pace. Around 10am we reached the top of Mzimkhulu pass, dragging our feet. We were shot through with leaden lethargy in bone, muscle and mind. We dropped on the grass, flat on our backs. We found that humour was the only thing that kept us going, making lame jokes or trying to convert every song ever written into a hiking song…
At the far side of the valley we saw a great ridge rise across our path, Thaba Majoe Matso – a guardian on the eastern edge. We slogged uphill for about an hour. Overly fatigued, we walked like drunkards; our spirits kept up only by singing ridiculous songs.
To the tune of Rodrigues’ Sugarman: “Hiker man, won’t you hurry, for I’m tired of this oats….. Pepper-steak pie at the BP; Monkey-gland burger, chips & sweet milkshake.” Fits of laughter followed. We finally crossed the cliff-gate whilst sounding the Maori Haka full-bore. Shepherds looked curiously on, wondering who these madmen are. We staggered off, stoned on mirth.
Around lunch, fog started to stream into the valleys. Gradually, the landscape around us grew dim, until it became a near white-out. We had 20m visibility. Continuing to follow the GPS’s arrow, we held onto the hope that the landscape would give us no surprises.
The GPS coordinates were dead-on, and we made our way up the ridge leading to Isicatula Pass. We stayed slightly on the right of the exposed ridge’s crest, hoping to find the Pass easily. Eventually, we knew that we had overshot the pass, and started searching in circles. Due to an inexplicable failure of directional sense, we had made a 180 degree turn in the fog without realising it*. Finding the pass’ head, we started going down the sheer eastern side, falling into South Africa. The only conceivable way down we could find was a precarious gulley dropping off steeply, with no real sign of a path – at which point we should have turned around. But on we continued doggedly. We scrambled downwards on all fours, winding down a maze of cliffs and small waterfalls. Daylight was fading when we conceded that we were lost. The fog was cold and clammy; a nippy breeze tugged at our clothing. We were buggered.
“Maybe we should bivvy here on the mountain side and hope for a clear morning”, I offered unconvincingly.
There were a few wet rock shelves, about a meter wide, on the steep slope. Unexpectedly, we heard a soft call sounding from the fog. We jumped up and made for it. In the white, the outline of a boy appeared, sitting on his haunches and looking intently at us. A flurry of English and gestures were answered in Sotho and equally wild gestures. Eventually we found the words “Bushman’s Neck”, but we pointed in different directions. I was sure he had it wrong and he knew I was clueless. Eventually my stubbornness gave way and we followed him to his shelter. Another shepherd boy appeared. They stood like grey-cloaked angels, separating their sheep and goats. Will they help us? Should we camp here in the goat shit tonight? Darkness came on. They ignored us, but started to bridle their horses. “Come”, the oldest gestured, and he led his horse up the mountain into pitch blackness.
Headlamps do not work well in fog, it simply illuminates thousands of water particles right in front of your face, the glare blinding you**. The going was slow. The shepherds led us to a loose path going down the western side of the mountain. We feared for the horses’ safety as stones rumbled down, walking half-blind ourselves. The terrain was wet and steep. We slipped and fell on our bums countless times. We dug our heels into soft ground to slow momentum, and clambered down rocky sections where we could. Three-hours into darkness we reached the Thamathu-river valley. On a level, grassy island between two streams we called a halt and gestured that we will camp there for the night. Our angels looked at us with wide eyes, smiling. They never asked for anything. We never offered anything. We shook their hands many times and gratefully gave each a blue Madiba as they mounted their horses, riding into the night.
*The GPS waypoints were accurate but navigating the sections between waypoints is a matter of reading the maps and the landscape correctly. Losing your sense of direction in low visibility happens far easier than one might think!
**Tip: hold the headlamp in your hand and shine down to your feet – works much better!
Day 11 – Thamathu river valley to Bushman’s Neck
You’re not really having an adventure if you haven’t, at some point, wished that you weren’t there. Sitting in the lap of the mountain the next morning, brewing coffee with clear spring water, we overflowed with happiness as we relived the hair-raising venture of the night before.
“Last night was the best part of this entire trip!” Being lost, being in danger, being cold; taken to where you do not know by people that do not speak your language. The paradox of life – how much joy we experienced only because of the dread that came before it.
Our last morning passed swiftly as we followed the river, turning left into a wide, open vale, and then aiming at the rising sun to the head of Thamathu pass.
We stopped in Thamathu cave at 11am. Suddenly, we weren’t in a hurry anymore. The ancient San shelter covered us. Feeling like stone-age men, we sat on rocks around our stove and brewed another cup of rich, dark coffee – our happy conversation filling the air.
We ventured onto grassy hills lined with rounded rock-shapes in hues of cream and chocolate, beautiful wild flowers growing in pockets and golf-ball shaped mushrooms swelling out of the rich soils. A clear path going down the mountain to Bushman’s Neck border post lay before us.
Around 2pm, we crossed the last river and walked through the border gates, cheering as exhausted yet victorious men. Our bodies were beaten-up in every way, but our minds soared freely in summer skies. We were fully alive and we knew it.
“A man does not climb a mountain without bringing some of it away with him, and leaving something of himself upon it.” – Sir Martin Conway
Drakensberg Grand Traverse Route Description: Click here!