The Grand Traverse of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is the ultimate South African hike, and one of the best treks in the world in my opinion. It is a formidable experience for the intrepid hiker: your fitness will truly be tested, whilst the ability to navigate, pre-plan, and have a strong mental aptitude and sense of humour, along with good teamwork are all essential elements of completing this bucket-list hike. Add the unspoilt natural beauty and majesty of the Drakensberg, and you have all the ingredients for a world-class experience.
Below is my account of doing a variation of the 220km Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) with my brother and two friends just after Christmas in 2012. We chose an alternative start, gaining the escarpment via the incredibly scenic Fangs pass. For the rest, we endeavoured to tick all the compulsory peaks on the DGT route – Cleft Peak, Champagne Castle, Mafadi, Giant’s Castle and Thabana Ntlenyana. Torrential rain the three days before our start also added a lot of spice to the first couple of days.
DGT via Fangs – December 2012
“A dragon without fangs is only a lizard”, I mused when Matthys and Werner raised the challenge to do the 220km Grand Traverse of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. These two fit adventurers were looking for a real test, our Colombian friend Federico wanted to experience the best the Drakensberg could offer, and I have had a love affair with Fangs ever since my eyes wandered up that spectacular pass in 2004. And so, it was settled: The Drakensberg Grand Traverse – Fangs variation.
Day 1: Mnweni Cultural Centre to Mnweni River Crossing
On 26 December we made a late arrival at the Mnweni Cultural Centre. Agrippa, the manager of the centre, asked us to not try and cross the Mnweni-river after I boldly informed him that we’ll sleep in Five Star cave that evening. He shook his head and muttered something about “too much water” when I mentioned Fangs Pass in the next sentence. We didn’t listen.
We had a late afternoon start, carrying 30+kg backpacks with food, clothing, shelter and a few comforts for 11-days. The swollen Mnweni-river rumbled in the valley. We took to the trail at 4pm, chasing the setting sun. A muddy, slippery and slow 3h30min later we pitched tents in swathes of green grass on the shoulder of a hill overlooking the river, deciding to tackle the crossing at first light.
Day 2: Fangs Pass
At 4:45am we were up, looking at magnificent cliffs perched upon steep green slopes, glowing in peach and gold, as the first sunrays struck the mountain walls. We hopped out of our tents, packed up and dashed down to the river. We were stopped in our tracks by a 20m wide barrier of rushing, rumbling waters. We could not cross the river with any hope of control or safety, let alone taking heavy backpacks with us.
As good fortune would have it, we found an unlikely-looking but passable crossing: the main stream drops sharply and funnels through a 4m wide opening between two house-sized boulders before exiting onto a stony bed – the saving grace a natural “eddy” (backflow) behind the far boulder. You jump into the narrow flow, swim like mad to cover the 4m across to the eddy as the stream sweeps you down, and suddenly the backflow pushes you onto the far shore. We managed to toss our backpacks from the near boulder straight into the eddy (a survival bag keeping them dry). It was scary, but we all got across safely and our gear was mostly dry. We hit the trail to Five Star cave, and from there into Fangs Pass.
Fangs is the quintessential Drakensberg Pass – beautiful and remote, without a clear path for most of the way which requires one to read the landscape as well as adapt to the seasonal changes in the terrain. We made our way westward into the valley that breaks away from the Mnweni river at Five Star cave. The path became increasingly vague, and we had to find our way through the undergrowth and up the river for 4km to the confluence of the Fangs and Mbundini tributaries, from where we followed the pass up the Fangs tributary.
The mountain was not in a benevolent mood. In drier times, one simply boulder-hops up the riverbed, enjoying the jaw-dropping views of walls, towers, spires, pinnacles and famous rock formations like “Madonna & her worshippers”, and at the end slog up a steep grassy ramp into Lesotho – a half day’s work if you’re fit. From the outset, we knew we were in for a fight. The fast-flowing water tore at our legs as we waded, almost waist deep, up the stream. We struggled through thick undergrowth where we tried to stay on dry ground, often clambering up large boulders and near-vertical banks.
Around lunchtime, we were halfway up the pass and faced a precarious situation: steep black rock slabs, carved by the stream and normally a pleasant scramble, were glistening wet and slippery. We went off-route onto the steep banks, heading up at a 45-degree angle, slogging through Jurassic-park sized creepers and gargantuan nasturtiums. The only way was up and above the stream. Clinging to tufts of stubborn grass we inched up ever steeper terrain, traversing slowly to the west in the hope of finding a gully back down to the river. Our little exploration eventually forced us to traverse over very steep terrain, where a slip-and-fall would have had dire consequences. We all made it across safely, a little shaken by the exposure and really coming to grips with the challenge we had signed up for.
We started the slog up the last 400 vertical metres slowly and methodically, panting in the thinning air and resting our burning calves every 3 or 4 steps. We topped out as the sun slipped behind Lesotho’s hills – a 14-hour day behind us and the Grand Traverse before us. We pitched our tents as the full moon rose in the east. An epic start to an epic journey.
Day 3: Fangs Pass to behind the Saddle
We woke with stiff joints and the dull headache of mild altitude sickness. Our bodies had taken a beating and it takes time to adjust to the oxygen deprived air. Our heavy packs ate into our hips and shoulders. Our legs and arms were full of scratches. The day broke golden-green in the Lesotho hills; a slight breeze wafted in my face as I poked my head out the flysheet and optimism started rising.
We made good progress on the relatively easy terrain, our spirits lifted by freshly brewed coffee and the prospect of a straight-forward day. Near the escarpment, the wide-open hills and valleys of Lesotho are used as summer pastures by the Basotho. Cattle trails connect the valleys, offering easy walking for some sections. We had our first encounter with friendly and enthusiastic Basotho shepherds. Dressed in their traditional garb of gum boots, a weather-stained blanket poncho and a wide brimmed hat, their dogs faithfully by their sides and their smiles broad. An excited shepherd asked, in a mix of gestures and fragmented English, if we had a cell phone. Why, we wondered? His face beamed as he gestured: “Oh please would you play me a ringtone?”
After a quick interlude, marked by tinny cellular ringtones, we made our way around to the magnificence of the Hanging Valleys. Then on to the source of the Orange River; Mponjwane Tower and the Rockeries forming a fitting backdrop to the springs that feed a vein of life running across the breadth of South Africa. We followed the Orange down a long, sloping valley, our strides lengthening on easy terrain and the increasing supply of oxygen.
The confluence of the Orange and the Koakoatsoan rivers is a delightful spot – a steep hill, with a stone lookout-shelter on top, drops sharply to flat grassy banks; the rivers meeting each other and then running down a steep, smooth, stone slab. “BUMSLIIIIIDE!!” A quick swim followed, cows looking on curiously. We sundried in minutes under the high-altitude sun and started on the cattle trail, going up alongside the Koakoatsoan river in a south-easterly direction. We marched in single file for a couple of hours, witnessing the rising fog stream into Lesotho whilst ominous cumulus nimbus clouds rolled in from the west. Suddenly the 25km of the day, the scorching sun and our tired bodies caught up with us. Sunburnt, shaking & fatigued we dropped on a patch of flat grass next to the river. The day was almost out, and so were we.
Later that evening, Matthys wrote: “I went down to the river to take a bath. The sky to the right is storybook duck-egg blue; the last sunrays painting the high clouds in hues of gold, orange, pink and purple. From under the sunset a pure white mass of cloud marches towards us led by a low bank of mist. Night falls. Fireflies dance. To the east: shining stars. To the west: the white bank of cloud has turned sinister, unveiling a threatening storm brewing just off the escarpment.”
Day 4: The Saddle to Windsor Castle
Another promising day broke on Lesotho: bright & sunny. We were ready. Feeling some pressure after losing a day with our late start and then battling up Fangs, we decided to try and cover 30km. The mountain was in an amicable mood, yielding to us in a gently-sloping valley with good, clear cattle trails.
Crossing the first ridge we entered the jaw-dropping domain of Cathedral Peak – an enormous peak-riddled ridge that breaks out of the escarpment at a right angle; lining the horizon with the Mitre, the Chessmen, the Inner & Outer Horns, the elegantly shaped Bell and Cathedral Peak standing proudly at the end of the procession. One of the great hikes in the Drakensberg, the Bell Traverse, winds across this scenic barrier – a prospect for another day.
We continued down a long slope into the valley that gives birth to the Kwakwasi river. Around lunch, we reached the Elephant – a sheer big-wall looming in its pachydermal shape over the valleys around the Cathedral Peak hotel. We walked across its innocuous looking top to a drop-off, dead vertical and breath-taking: near a thousand meters of air below you, the river but a silver thread winding into the distance, the updraft fluffing your hair as you peer into the void.
Onwards to Cleft Peak, the first of our “compulsory” peaks. Near the top of Cleft Peak, we were treated to a most unusual and truly wonderful phenomenon: the bright afternoon sun angled over our shoulders into a gully filled with dense fog, projecting your shadow onto a white sheet and drawing a perfectly round rainbow around it. The “Brocken Spectre” took our breath away, fuelling us with delight as we added our stone to the cairn on top of Cleft Peak.
The day’s end closed in on us as we passed Thuthumi Pass. Our decision in the morning was now yapping at our heels, having to cross a last high ridge to reach the target distance. We knew the general direction across the ridge, but had no path to get through the labyrinth of steep, wet stone slabs. Winding up the slope we had to keep faith, the sun starting to set behind us as we committed ourselves to the last push of the day. It was unnerving but we took the right course. Following a blind shoulder below an immense cliff, we sounded out “barbaric yawps” into the valleys below in the sheer joy of adventure, before we started descending into a mist-bank.
While descending to the campsite, Matthys realised that Fede was missing in the mist. The noisy streams droning out his calls, Matthys waited. After a while, he thought he heard a tune, then he heard clear, happy and content singing – a Colombian children’s song playfully sounding in the fog: “me sake moko, lo mira poka poko…”.
Day 5: Windsor Castle to near Ship’s Prow pass
Early morning, we set out deep into Lesotho, following river and valley. The vegetation started changing to Karoo-like shrubs dotting the steep hills. Stone kraals & rondavel shelters appeared. We kept bumping into shepherds, keen for a bit of human interaction. We passed a traveller on his donkey, trotting down the stony footpath. “Downkiii….doo-ônkey….donkey” he kept on repeating until we nodded in agreement, wide smiles all around.
A spectacular yet uneventful day passed – the turquoise pools of Yodler’s Cascades (the boys could not resist a quick swim in the clear, cool waters), green banks speckled with bright yellow flowers, our path winding through steep banks and under craggy cliffs. Late afternoon we made our obligatory stop on Champagne Castle Peak, the dense rising fog blotting out all views. There was more relief than excitement in getting to the top and making our way down again to flat ground & a stream; ready for a good night’s rest.
Day 6: Ship’s Prow Pass to Jarateng river valley
My cell phone’s alarm shook me from dreamless sleep. 5 am. Grey morning light was seeping through the tent’s canopy. We stopped short yesterday and wanted to make up time. Mafadi, the highest peak in South Africa was our mid-day goal, and from there to who-knows-where the sunset will catch us.
We crossed a ridge first thing, and then dropped into the valley from which the Moremoholo river springs: green and lush with flocks of sheep, goats, cows and the odd horse dotting the landscape. An exceptionally wet summer rendered the land boggy. We often crossed vast stretches of spongy turf, pools forming beneath our steps, and other times wading through hip-high reed-like grasses. Fountains of clear water sprang from the ground in random spots; bubbling up cool, refreshing waters which we sipped straight from the eye. Late morning the customary fog started spilling in, and when we had moments of unobscured vision we saw cumulus nimbus storm cells developing all over the area.
We rose above the fog onto the high ridges around Mafadi. The highest peak in South Africa is rather unintimidating: a small crown of cliffs, perhaps 2m high and 50m across, perched on a long, steadily sloping ridge. A Basotho came past on his mule, sounding a brief greeting and then hurried on as he looked skywards at the gathering thunderclouds.
We clambered onto Mafadi’s crown, congratulating each other. Out of nowhere a tempest arose and hit us head on. The wind nearly pushed us over as heavy rain and sleet came pelting down. Thunder rumbled overhead and then a blinding lightning bolt crashed nearby. Terrified we ran / hobbled to lower ground as fast as we could, not bothering to find a path on Mafadi’s steep southern slopes. The storm pummelled us for 15 minutes, and then dissipated as suddenly as it appeared. Golden sunrays caressed us as we stood like bedraggled chickens on the mountain side. From across the valley an enthusiastic, waving herdsman greeted us with “AAH-HEEEE!!”
It was the last day of 2012 and Werner’s birthday evening. We pitched tents at the confluence of two streams, with a Basotho hut and kraal on the opposite bank. Mere minutes passed before we had a couple of visitors and a crowd of dogs. Fine rain trickled down as Werner whipped up a glorious dinner: Thai curry made with coconut milk; fresh onions, chillies, garlic & coriander; dried Portobello mushrooms and chicken. We rolled some fine tobacco into relaxing smokes. Drank whiskey to the tunes of Mumford & Sons. Had condensed milk and chocolate for desert. A hard day and a fine evening – we were satisfied.
End of Part 1
Click here for Part 2