The upside-down Dragon: GT2012
A grand traverse is commonly accepted as being one of the toughest hikes that one can do in KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, and the south to north variation is considered to be the harder approach. It requires the ascent of two passes and 30 ridges, the stamina and will power to keep going for 12 days, all this while carrying a backpack that is not nearly as light as one would like it to be.
The following is the story of my grand traverse of the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg in late April 2012 with the Mountain Backpackers club. This was my first attempt at a grand traverse and was the south to north route.
Day 1: A bad start (Bushman’s Nek to Mzimude)
And we are off, 10 people set off from the Silverstreams Camping site at Bushman’s Nek. 6 members who have completed grand traverses in the past, 4 first timers (including myself). What will this great journey hold, how many of us will arrive at the Sentinel car park, will there be injuries, none of us know. Into the great unknown we all head.
Day 1 of a south to north grand traverse is particularly hard; you have to climb Thamathu Pass – a pass which is “easy” but very long. After summiting it you have a long walk around Thaba Ngwangwe followed by an ascent of the tricky Isicutula Pass. The planned campsite for night 1 was on the Mzimude River – 20km in total with an altitude gain of around 1.2km.
It has been a dry summer – after passing through the border post which is near a river, heading up towards Thamathu Cave (which is near the top of Thamathu Pass) we knew there was probably no water for some way. Water is heavy and our packs must stay as light as possible. I decide not to put more water into my pack, 1.5 litres should be enough.
We head on up Thamathu pass, we stop at Thamathu Cave which is around two thirds of the way up, still no water. A few members of the group are out of water. Jo attempts to fill her water bottle by placing it on a spot where there is a bit of water dripping down. Its going to be a tough day indeed!
After a short break at Thamathu Cave we head off again, and to our surprise there is a small spring just above the cave, all those who were low on water fill up their bottles and we all feel encouraged once more.
We stop to admire the view looking south from the top of the pass, the weathered sandstone of Bushman’s Nek appears on the cameras of many members of our small group. But as always, time is against us and we must keep going. The walk around Thaba Ngwangwe – a freestanding peak on the watershed – it is a long slog but we must keep moving.
As we cross the first proper river for many hours we see a large herd of sheep and goats, and our first Basutho shepherds. They politely ask us for some food and we oblige. John (the hike leader) gives them a cigarette each and Mavis gives each one a box of matches.
As we continue the long slog towards Isicutula Pass we pass a Basuthu kraal, their dogs barking furiously at us, in the distance we see the all too familiar pattern of a dagga farm.
We stop for lunch by the river, only 5km left today. Jo notices that I am not looking very well, she tells me to eat something. I am not hungry. Altitude sickness is a horrible thing, it drops your blood sugar and your appetite, thus making you not want to eat which causes a further drop in blood sugar. A vicious cycle. I force down a few almonds, but they make me feel nauseated. We must keep moving.
We begin the slog up Isicutula Pass, a pass that starts at around 2600m above sea level and tops out around 3100m, but the pass is not as easy as it sounds. Its steep and rocky, there is no real path to follow.
As we start to ascend the pass I feel worse and worse, every few minutes I have to sit down, the altitude sickness is getting worse. John notices that I am falling far behind the group and comes to work out what is wrong, he immediately realises that I will not get my backpack to the top of the pass, but I cannot stay on the pass. He takes my pack and tells me to get to the top of the pass without it. My strength is going with each step I take, every time I stand up I feel like I am about to throw up. I think to myself that there is a good chance that I will be sent down Mashai Pass tomorrow – this could be the end even though it has just begun.
Mavis comes down the pass to see what is going on. She immediately springs into mother-mode and forces me to eat some chocolate. I feel even more sick than before. Every step I take she tells me not to sit down and forces me to keep going. We reach the bottom of the final rock gulley, step by step I feel worse, but I keep going.
Somehow we reach the top of the pass, I can barely open my eyes, my talking is slurred, but we can’t camp here. I try to stand up but I can’t. I try to open my eyes, but I can’t. John realises the severity of the situation, but doesn’t let me know how bad a shape I am in. Then I overhear him telling Mavis that I am in the early stages of hypothermia. John tells the group to head on to the planned spot and he starts to set up his tent on a flattish spot near the top of the pass. He helps me to stand up and I carry my pack the 20 metres to the tent, he tells me to climb inside and get myself warm. It is at this moment that I understand how easy it is for a hiker with the early stages of hypothermia to just decide to die, it’s a horrible feeling but I know that I must stay positive in order to stay alive.
John gives me a hot cup of soup, I force it down my throat. I follow it up with some noodles, but now I have no water left. I allow myself to fall asleep and hope that day 2 will go well.
Day 2: A decisive day (Mzimude to Sandleni)
I wake up and think about how close I actually was to death the previous day. I feel a lot better, but I have not stood up yet. Myself and John are now 2km behind the group, and we have no water. We get up, get dressed and pack up the camp. Under the light of our headlamps we climb over the not very difficult Mzimude ridge and drop into the Mzimude valley.
At the river I fill up my water bottle, eat some breakfast and admire the view of this amazing mountain range – in a valley flanked by many of South Africa’s higher peaks.
This is where day 2 begins – the Mashai ridge, one of the toughest on a grand traverse. Hoping not to hold the group up I head off early, some snow begins to fall on the way up. Cold but determined to prove that it was not unfitness that caused the previous days trouble, I make my way up this ridge. I reach the top, ahead of most of the group. I look to my right and think “with 200m of walking and 30m altitude gain I could stand on top of one of the highest peaks in the Berg”, then I realise that this is a long day and any such climb would be ill-advised.
We descend into one of my favourite valleys – I look at Tsepeng (the 8th highest peak in Lesotho) and I see snow on it. I look at the many peaks I have wanted to climb for years – Wilson, Bollard, Matebeng, Mlambonja, Mashai and I look forward to the day that I camp in this valley and climb them.
We immerge from this area directly behind Rhino peak – the peak that made me fall in love with these mountains. We slowly work our way up this ridge. Two ridges down for the day, one to go.
After dropping down into the valley, preparing to climb our final ridge of the day. I begin to fall behind. A Basutho shepherd comes to talk to me and I stop to listen to what he has to say. He tells me the story of how he used to live in Pinetown, and then asks me to help him fix his cellphone that he left in the rain. A cellphone? Where did he get that from and how does he keep it charged, for that matter who does he phone – there is no reception up there. His timid dog – missing its middle toe on its front right foot – runs behind its master as I try to pet it. The dog eventually works out that I am not harmful and allows me to touch it – that’s my list of things to do in the Berg shortened slightly!
Now a long way behind the group I head towards the No Mans Peak ridge – not a ridge renowned for being difficult – or so I thought!
Step by step I head up this long slow ridge, I look at the two peaks on the edge of the ridge, I immediately think to myself that both are clearly distinct peaks and the slightly lower one deserves classification as a khulu, its disqualification is based on the distance from No Man’s Peak, but it is clearly a separate peak and thus deserves khulu status. I later had a look on the map and discovered that the map does not indicate its height – a non-khulu it shall remain.
Two thirds of the way up John comes up to me and offers to carry my pack, I refuse and he says that that is fine with him. I finally reach the top of the ridge and hear the group arguing about which peak is No Man’s Peak – I point out that the one peak is much higher than the other and thus must be the khulu due to how close the two peaks are.
We head down the ridge and come to camp on the river that heads down to Sandleni Cave. The spot has an amazing view and I get lots of photos.
Some time later on the hike John told me that if I had let him take my pack on the No Man’s Peak Ridge he was planning to send me home once we reached Sani.
Day 3: Sani and the Blizzard (Sandleni to Senhlohlong)
I wake up at 3:00 and hear the soft sound of snow on my tent. 5:15 my alarm goes off, I look out my tent and the ground outside is covered in snow. Some good photos are coming today!
I get dressed and then get out my camera and start getting photos. After a short time I notice the tents are already being taken down and I realise that I have no time to cook my breakfast. I munch down some nuts and get ready to set off.
The Sandleni ridge doesn’t prove to be too difficult, even with the snow. We reach the top and get sight of the mighty South Hodgeson’s ridge – that looks tough indeed!
We descend into the valley near Hodgeson’s and I soon realise that this massive ridge also includes a huge gulley before we even start climbing it. But as always, you just keep on moving forward. On reaching the river at the bottom of the gulley it begins to snow. There is a fairly gentle breeze and the snow is hitting the side of my face – not a blizzard, but I know that if there is a breeze in a small gulley, there is a gale by the top of the Hodgeson’s ridge.
As we climb out of the riverbed the snow stops, it wasn’t a major snowfall, but it was enough to make a hiker cold and wet – especially when you discover that the Solomon Gortek hiking boots you are wearing are somehow not waterproof in the snow.
We stop just below the steep ridge of the South Hodgeson’s Saddle in nice bright sunshine and I make a joke about how some people refer to a blizzard being an event where snow moves perpendicularly to the ground as it falls – it also seems to do this in a gentle breeze. Any superstitious person would say that I should have kept my mouth shut.
As we head towards the South Hodgeson’s ridge the snow starts again, this was combined with a decent wind – I would not call this a blizzard, but the word was thrown around by some members.
Fortunately the snowfall didn’t last that long and we just hiked through it. Slowly but surely I continued to watch my fellow hikers get further and further ahead as I slowly climbed this monster of a ridge. When I reached the top they were all waiting for me, on seeing me they all set off, impatiently trying to reach the promise of a hot fire and a warm meal at Sani Top Chalet.
I stand on top of the Hodgeson’s ridge and immediately I feel my feet moving with the snow – fortunately the snow was still soft enough to cushion my sideward fall.
Across the saddle between the ridges we go and onto the side of the North Hodgeson’s ridge we walk. And then we see it – Sani – here comes a lunch break in a warm environment with food which we haven’t had to carry. Although we all realise that our packs are about to become the heaviest that they will be during the entire hike.
As I walk down the slippery ridge towards the marsh just south of our upcoming lunch stop, I talk to Andre – one of the most experienced hikers in the group. He tells me that he is actually surprised that I made it as far as Sani after the start I had, he also points out that I need to start walking faster up the ridges and must stop falling behind so much, or consider leaving 10 minutes before the group so that we can summit the ridges at the same time – admittedly this was a matter of concern on my mind, I hate making people wait.
We reach Sani – one big burger and chips with a nice hot cup of Milo is exactly what I needed. After an hour and a half of warm relaxation on a comfortable chair near the fireplace we set off into the mist of the Sani Flats.
A Basothu dog decides that it should follow us for some time, maybe its not use to being petted and not being shouted at. Eventually we chase it away – a dog always know the way home.
As we approach our last ridge of the day, energised after a full meal, the sky begins to darken and the winds begin to pick up. Surely this can’t be, we have already seen so much snow on this day. As we begin to ascend the ridge that comes before the infamous Thabana Ntlenyana ridge it begins – a full scale blizzard.
What can you do when there are no suitable shelters nearby, just put on your raincoat and hope for the best, exercise is the best way of staying warm anyway.
We complete the ridge and descend to the river in order to camp for the night. All my clothing, other than my shirt is wet – even my gloves. The tents go up and the gas stoves get going. I think to myself how fortunate I am that Jo has given me some soup that she didn’t need – something to warm the hands and the stomach.
Day 4: Thabana Ntlenyana (Senhlohlong to Hlathimba)
Time to get up, I look around outside and see the snow is still in full force. Today is a big day, we climb the highest ridge in Southern Africa and John plans on taking us to the summit of Thabana Ntlenyana – the highest point south of Kilimanjaro.
As we prepare to leave, one of the two Ruans says goodbye and I overhear John asking him if he knows how to get back from here. I know what the group is thinking – they thought the member pulling out would be me.
We all speculate as to why Ruan pulled out, he told us that his ankle was sore, but apparently he had spent the last day asking the experienced members of the group whether or not the hike got easier from here. It was sad to lose a member, but as always, we have to keep going. Time is against us and this is our longest day.
We head off, the long hard slog up the highest ridge in the Berg ahead of us. Fortunately this ridge is fairly gradual, although we all know we must gain approximately half a kilometre in altitude. The ridge proves to be easier than expected – although if you expect the worst, you should rarely be disappointed.
We reach the saddle through which we must pass to gain access to the northern side of the ridge in thick mist and strong winds. We all take our packs off and walk the few hundred meters required to gain access to the mighty peak. We summit it, there are cairns everywhere, we find the highest cairn and get a group shot, a rare moment to pause and reflect on what we are doing. I get John to take a photo of me standing on top of the highest cairn in Southern Africa and he makes a joke about me being the highest person in Southern Africa – well aside from the drug addicts.
No time to hang around – we must move on, there are still two ridges and almost 20kms to cover in the remainder of the day. We start to move off the summit and the clouds start to clear – I look down over the valley half a kilometre below me, what a view!
We get off the icy peak, the mist now completely clear. We get out of the wind we begin to take off our raincoats and jackets – warm sunshine at last. We pause for a break on the slopes of the mountain, I manage to force some food down. Slowly it hits me that I am now acclimatised to this harsh environment, its not so difficult to get food in any more, but I must keep eating, I cannot afford a repeat of day 1.
We head down along the Mohlesi river and I have a realisation – we have completely avoided the Vergelegen region of the escarpment, we were deep in Lesotho and we are now emerging in Lotheni.
A Basothu path leads us around Ngaqamadola Peak (3166m). I want to bag its summit, but I know today is a long day and we have a long way to go yet.
We stop for lunch at the Mohlesana river knowing that we still have two ridges to cross today, and the Litsiketseke ridge is no gentle hill. I decide to take my shoes and socks off, wash the weary feet in the river – this is the first time it has been warm and sunny enough to do this, then I remember how cold Berg water is. It is still nice to get some sun on the feet though.
We begin the slog up the Mlangubo ridge, the guys tell me the ridge is easy, I prepare for the worst, but am pleasantly surprised as the ridge gives up its summit without much of a fight.
As we descend into the Hlathimba valley at around 3:00PM we realise that our goal of passing the Litsiketseke/Redi ridge is not possible, its actually happening, we are about to fall behind the target. Tomorrow will be another long day!
We find a nice camping spot near the river and enjoy the view towards Duart Castle. Neil and I decide to do some exploration of the tops of the nearby Hlathimba passes. We head off towards the south pass.
As we approach the top of the pass we watch helplessly as mist fills the entire valley, but what can we do, the mist will probably clear soon. We make a note of the direction towards the campsite and we look at the passes. So far the visit has been worthwhile. Neil gets cellphone receiption and decides to phone home, I begin to get nervous as the sun sets and the mist thinkens. We had wondered over to the North pass by now.
We head off towards the campsite in the planned direction, and then we get a shock as we reach the top of South Hlathimba – clearly our directions where wrong. No compass, no GPS, fading light, no torches, no warm clothes, this may not end well.
I look at my photos of the area, there are two rivers and we are camping near the confluence of them, so if we find them, follow them and can see footprints in the wetlands near them we can get a pointer to the campsite. We walk for a while, no rivers to be found. We then realise that we are on the wrong side of the watershed. We walk across the ridge, but still no rivers. I see a distinctive rock in my photos, but there are about five rocks that may be it. Its official, we are lost.
We take a decision, walk downhill until we find water. I pray for a safe return to camp. Then we bump into a marsh with footprints, but their direction looks wrong so we stay along the river. I whistle, no response. We start to get really worried as the last light of the day begins to fade away.
Starting to lose hope, Neil shouts out “John”, we hear a response “here”, we follow the sound and within seconds we see the silhouette of our fellow hikers. We are back! We soon realise that no one was even worried about us, here we are concerned that they may be coming to look for us in the mist and they don’t even know that we are gone (and yes, we did tell them where we were going before we left).
I get some warm clothes on and enjoy a nice hot soup. What a day! Total distance – 29km and we didn’t even reach our goal.
Day 5: A bad day (Hlathimba to Langalibalele)
One ridge behind – the goal for today is the Bannerman valley. My hopes of climbing Popple may be gone if we don’t reach this valley by the end of the day. That makes this a four day ridge – basically an impossibility considering the fact that all four ridges are big ones.
We head off, the Litseketseke ridge proves to be tough and sustained, but slowly melts away as each step brings me closer to its summit. I reach the top a few minutes behind my fellow hikers. They are all sitting behind a rock band in the sun enjoying the view. I look to my right and see a small hill with a cairn on top, I say to John “Isn’t that Redi?”. He laughs and points to a peak in the distance and tells me that this isn’t anything. Interested in this peak I ask him to check the height on the map, I refer to the scrunched up paper in my pocket and discover that this is the Litseketseke Spur – 3267m, the 38th highest khulu. Not a chance that will go unconquered. Tony and myself climb it, my first GT Khulu!
We soon head off again, walking on the spur of the ridge that is the watershed, Redi getting ever closer. John tells me that if I stay ahead of the group we can climb Redi – the 22nd highest khulu. I reach the base of the khulu behind two other members of the group. Andre and Ruan aren’t interested in climbing Redi so they keep going, the other seven of us start the fairly easy ascent up the final stretch of this peak – having stayed on top of the Litseketseke ridge we are fairly close to the summit of the majestic peak, but lugging up the packs to the saddle is still not easy for us wary hikers.
Our group summits the khulu and gets a few photos, after some action shots of everyone jumping up to get back to their cameras shortly before the self-timers had gone off.
We keep moving, dropping down past Tarateng into the valley that plays host to the large rocky outcrops of the Tent and the Hawk. The massif of Giant’s Castle paints a large silhouette in the distance on this moggy day, the air is still and quite.
We stop for a break near the Hawk and then move on towards the ridge behind Giant’s Castle. As we approach this ridge I see some smugglers in the distance carrying a fresh load of the poison they trade in towards the passes of one of my favourite areas of the Drakensberg.
My Achilles tendons on both sides are beginning to get really sore, every step I take my pack jabs into my lower back, its only day 5 and the pain is already very intense.
The ridge proves to be very long and difficult, I fall very far behind the group. A rather unfriendly Basothu man starts harassing me for food, money, equipment or cigarettes. I give him some of my raisins and tell him I have nothing else to give him. He gets annoyed and drops back. A few moments later he walks behind me and then walks up the hill to harass John. John gives him a cigarette but he still won’t leave us alone.
I catch up with the group and find them at their lunch stop near the river on the north side of the monstrous ridge. The Basothu man is standing with the group. After a few minutes a friend of his who is much more friendly comes and joins him. The second Basotho has two puppies with him – the ladies of the group go crazy and start asking how much they can buy the puppies for – practicalities of hiking aside.
As we set off from this spot it starts getting cold, but wait, where are my gloves – they were in the side compartment of my backpack a few minutes ago. Well now I know why that unfriendly Basothu man walked behind me. 7 days of hiking to go and no gloves, hopefully the snow won’t make a comeback.
We descend further into this valley. John tells me that the Durnford ridge is easy, but as time marches on it becomes apparent that we will neither make the Bannerman valley today, nor will it be an early stop for the day.
We start ascending the Durnford ridge. Every step I take the back of my heels and my lower back gets worse. I think to myself that this is the best part of a Grand Traverse for me to use to pull out, I am half way there in distance so I can say that I stuck with it for a while, and I can go down Langalibalele Pass in the morning, an easy quick route that means I can have lunch at home tomorrow.
We reach the top of the ridge, but wait, that’s not Durnford’s gap, so we drop down a bit and keep going. The pain is excruciating. Is it worth sticking with it and risking a permanent injury? Thoughts of a nice warm bed and a proper meal are racing through my mind as we keep going up, but not finding Durnford’s gap.
In the thick mist we plod on, searching for a gap that must come eventually. Step by step the pain gets worse and we seem no closer to finding the gap. Can I really endure 7 more days of this?
Eventually we reach Durnford’s gap and drop into the Jarding valley. I try not to let on to the group about the pain I am in, I joke about how Bond and Erskine should not both be khulu’s, they are fundamentally the same peak, I get a “nobody cares” kind of response from my wary fellow hikers.
We drop down to the river at the back of Langalibalele Pass and then ascend to the campsite below the ridge that’s home to Bannerman Cave. I am exhausted. In the morning I’ll decide whether or not to keep going.
Day 6: Popple (Langalibalele to Leslies)
We wake up to find our tents covered in frost – the guy ropes are still wet from the snow and thus are bent into a shape that will fit into the tent bag. I now realise that the old jokes about folding frozen guy ropes are actually not jokes.
Today is a big day – will I finally get to climb Popple – the 13th highest khulu. In 2011 I had three failed attempts on this majestic peak. The first defeated by the weather, the second by rock throwing Basothos and the third by an unfit fellow hiker. Could today finally be it?
After the pain of the previous day I got some advice, Lorinda showed me how to tie my shoelaces in a way that my Achilles tendons would survive and Jo reset the straps on my pack to stop the pain that the pack was causing – my pack feels 5kg lighter!
We set off, today has three ridges, Bannerman – a high steep ridge that includes Bannerman Face (3235m) and Sanqebethu (3301m), our route heads through the saddle between these peaks. This gets followed by a drop into the deep valley above Bannerman Pass and is followed by a climb up the steep approximately 450m high (base to top) Popple ridge, and the final ridge for the day will lead us over Mafadi – the highest point in South Africa. Today will be a tough day indeed!
The Bannerman ridge is slow and long, but the crest of the ridge has an incredible view. The very familiar sights of Bannerman Pass, Bannerman Hut and Gypaetus Point quickly find their way into JPEG format on my SD card. We pause for a ten minute break above the high cliffs of Bannerman Face. I admire the view of Popple Peak and notice Mafadi poking its head out in the background.
This is probably the Drakensberg valley I know best, so John asks me to lead the descent and says we will stop for a short break near the river in the valley – finally some sunlight to dry the old tents out.
We walk past the top of Bannerman Pass and Tony makes a joke about pulling out of the hike as he tries to get a photo from a few meters down the pass. There are horses on the side of Gypaetus Point. We reach the river and stop for a brief break.
I think to myself, I know the way from the river to the summit of Popple, this ridge will be long a sustained and if I take too long I probably won’t be able to summit the peak. I tell John that I am setting off. After walking a few hundred metres I see the group leave their sunny spot on the river. Now I need to keep my pace up, I cannot fail on this peak again.
The Popple ridge is very long and unrelenting. The group is now far ahead of me, I look up at the mighty peak and try to go faster – this is really tough. I look up again and some of the guys are already on the summit, I must keep going.
I am almost on top of the ridge now, I look back at the valley I just came from, Senqebethu is almost at eye level with me – this is high indeed! I look up and see my fellow hikers climbing off the peak, my heart begins to sink, this can’t be happening. I finally summit the ridge and look over the amazing view, so many khulus, many I have never seen from the escarpment before.
I walk to where Andre and Ruan are sitting (neither of whom intended on climbing the peak) and I leave my pack with them. I don’t ask John if there is enough time, I don’t want him to be able to say no. I look up and realise that I must still gain over 50 metres in altitude if I want to summit the peak. Jo tells me to hurry up as I start to walk up the steep slopes. I reach the rock band, I see a route up and I get going. Suddenly I see the summit – I am actually about to stand on top of Popple! I walk to the cairn where Tony is waiting; he shakes my hand and congratulates me on finally summiting. He takes a photo of me on the summit and I joke that my old nickname “Popple” should no longer stick.
Yet again I can’t stay and admire the view, we have to keep going. I quickly get some panoramic photos and count the khulus I can see – 18 excluding the one below me. All too quickly I am off this peak. I will have to climb the Auditor some other day.
We descend and pass the Judge and the Corner. Next peak opportunity is Mafadi, maybe the Injisuthi Dome, and on a slight off chance, the Trojan Wall. We walk along the smugglers path for around an hour and then we begin the fairly gentle ascent to South Africa’s highest point.
About one kilometre into the climb we stop by the river for an hour long lunch break. I use my pack as a pillow and lie down, munching on some cashews as I enjoy the view looking south at the peak I most recently conquered. John shares some tinned ham with the group. He had hidden it near Popple on a hike earlier in the year.
We continue the ascent of the long high Mafadi ridge. The path passes below the Injisuthi Dome and I begin to realise that we will not be climbing the Trojan Wall or the Injisuthi Dome today. As we reach the saddle between the highest and second highest khulus we see a large group of smugglers packing their horses in a small overhang right by Mafadi. Not wanting to get anywhere near them we deviate from the path and head over the ridge above them. Only half our group is interested in summiting Mafadi, the balance keeps going. I reach the summit of the highest point in South Africa. A Basutho on a horse is keeping watch on the summit, he keeps a close eye on us, no food or cigarette requests. We get a group shot on the summit and get going again.
About a kilometre later John asks me if I would like to climb Lithabalong. Naturally I say yes, the group stays on their course, but the two of us walk up a slight incline to a tiny cairn – can this place with a view blocked by a ridge on three sides and a cairn of six rocks be the fourth highest khulu? Apparently it is. Tony comes to find what is going on, I point out that it is Lithabalong. At this point I realise how special Popple actually is, it is one of very few really high khulus with a view.
We follow the ridge and I decide not to ask if I can climb Shepherds Ridge – another statistically significant khulu on this ridge. Three khulus in a day is good enough, I must not fall further behind the group, daylight will soon be fading.
We eventually reach the bottom of the valley, we find a suitable camping spot on the river, still two kilometres short of where we were supposed to camp. We will catch up soon – the resupply is coming up and we cannot still be behind when this happens.
Day 7: That looks like the Yodellers Valley to me (Leslies to Yodellers)
Today we will be close to the summit of some of the highest khulus – all three Champagne Castle peaks, Ships Prow, Botlolong, Pampiring and the three Yodellers. I am hoping to get some more khulu bagging done, especially after five khulus and Lesotho’s highest point in three days.
We set off in strong winds under a beautiful sunrise. The wind is coming from the South-West, the clouds are dark and big, this could only imply one thing – more snow is coming. We all know that it almost never snows in the Northern Berg out of winter, so we all feel the need to reach Didima soon, none of us want to be in falling snow again on this hike.
We follow the valley past the gully that leads to Leslie’s Pass and we slowly start climbing our first ridge for the day. The wind is heavy and raincoats are worn by all. The ridge we are climbing is not that hard and we soon reach the top of it. We follow the side of the ridge and avoid the loss of altitude as we head past a lookout site overlooking the mighty Ships Prow Pass – I see why people say it’s the toughest non-rock pass in the Berg!
We continue the long climb up the steep ridge, aiming for the top of the Ships Prow gully. My new K-Way hiking pants keep partially falling down and exposing my lower back to my backpack – the aching spot from a few days back begins to ache once more. I had been wearing my First Ascent hiking pants for most of the hike so far and they had been performing well, I thought I should give these pants a shot as we were past halfway – clearly this was a poor call. I will be visiting Cape Union Mart with some strong complaints when I get home!
I meet up with the group sitting in a gap in the rock band – a spot from where they plan to drop into the final few metres of the pass. I tell the guys I need to get changed, I ignore the jokes about how useless some of the guys think K-Way products are, and after finding that my tent is not so waterproof and my pants can’t be worn with a backpack I don’t really have a good come back line.
We head to the top of the ridge – what is that that I see in the distance, it can’t be the Eastern Buttress, its only day 7. It is indeed, the tooth like shape next to it gives it away, it’s not quite the finish line, but I refer to the end being in site, Ruan points out that it is the wrong side of the Amphitheatre, a fact of which I am well aware. It is an encouraging sight either way.
The wind is still howling and unfortunately our route takes us on the not very scenic but very windy side of the watershed. We must follow this ridge for most of the day before dropping into the Yodellers Valley.
We follow the ridge, the wind keeps blowing, but the traverse is fairly uneventful. We pass many khulus and with the time constraints I don’t even bother asking the group to wait for me to climb them. We pass Pampiring – the tenth highest khulu. Next up is the Yodellers peaks. John decides that I can climb Yodellers Ridge Peak – 3301m. I climb it, khulu bagged, but not much of view from it.
We reach the top of the ridge and John tells us to descend into the Yodellers Valley. As we descend I say to Tony that I am happy we are going down this ridge and not up it, he replies that he thinks we are in the wrong valley. We keep going down. Eventually John checks his GPS and tells us that we went south instead of north.
We were going to have an early finish today and finally knock off the deficit which we had since the Litseketseke Ridge, not any more. We turn around and start to contour back up the ridge. We have a good few hundred metres of altitude to regain, each step more painful than usual due to the fact that it was not necessary. Eventually after an agonising half an hour of ascending we regain the top of the ridge and drop down the other side of it. This is much less steep, much easier on the knees.
At around 4:15 we reach a suitable spot – still two kilometres behind schedule, and the resupply is tomorrow so we can’t afford this deficit. Fortunately tomorrow is a shorter day so we should be able to catch up.
As I walk into camp I notice Lorinda (who I have been sharing a tent with) and Jo are looking for something. I ask what is going on. I hear that the inside part of my tent has fallen off her pack. My tent that has only been used eight times is now a rather heavy paperweight. At least tomorrow we can probably loan one of the resupplier’s tents, a good thing this didn’t happen a few days later. I arrange to share a tent with John and Lorinda arranges to share with Andre (both where on their own in their tents).
Day 8: Resupply (Yodellers to Tseketseke)
We set off before sunrise – not because we are setting off before our usual time, just because the Yodellers Valley includes such high ridges on either side that it has shorter days than the surrounding areas. The air is still and quite, no wind. I think to myself how ironic it is that the resupply team will think we have had such perfect weather when we really haven’t!
Today is the day of our second resupply. There had been trouble getting a team together, but once a leader had stepped forward, a team of 17 was put together. The team voted on which pass to use, and a 16-1 vote determined that they should come up Tseketseke Pass. As the norm was Organ Pipes Pass, we had a shorter day planned for today, but with this change in resupply pass we would have a longer day than planned, but still a shorter day than normal. I like this fact, it means that we will be one ridge ahead, if we maintain this lead we can finish a day early – not that I am in a hurry to get off the mountain, but I am looking forward to a hot shower and some food that wasn’t cooked on a tiny gas stove.
The team knows that we only have to cover around 15km today, our pace is slow and excitement for seeing new faces is up. We head down the beautiful, but un-sunny Yodellers Valley. We eventually pass over the small ridge – that we did not have to climb due to special efforts not to drop altitude – and come towards the Thlanyako River. We drop down to the river and stop here for a fifteen minute break. I look towards the stretch of hiking that was my qualifying hike for this Grand Traverse and remember the hike that we had – good memories.
We set off up the valley behind numerous peaks, Little Saddle, Didima Dome, and some others. After about two kilometres we stop again. I take this opportunity in the sun to wash my hair and some clothes. This is a first, we have a warm sunny day, basically no clouds and no wind. And to top it all off, we are in no rush whatsoever. I think to myself how the water levels are so low after having seen the same river in February – this must have been one dry summer.
We get going again, we slowly get closer to the Ndumeni Dome, a peak I enjoyed climbing some time back – what a view that peak has, and when a peak has a view, it has a steep ridge. As we reach the top of the valley we start to move closer to the escarpment edge. It becomes clear that the world below is in the mist, but the clouds are patchy, we can see Thuthumi Hut and the hotel, but not much else.
We stop for yet another lengthy break with a view of the Cathedral range, Mnweni and the Eastern Buttress clearly visible in the background. We have cellphone reception and I use John’s phone to SMS home – the first time I have done this since we began.
We then begin a curious route; Tony says to me “this is what Intrepid always refers to as Smugglers Pass”. Wait, “pass”, I don’t like the sound of that. As we walk out on this exposed side of the cliffs below the Ndumeni Dome it hits me – John is taking us up the final gully of Thuthumi Pass! I watch as this sinks into the rest of the groups minds, most of us are not happy about this. We drop into the proper pass and start the climb over the ridge that proceeds the main gulley of the pass. I look at Organ Pipes Pass and can see why they say that Thuthumi Pass tops out 100 metres higher.
No Point in standing around and looking, I start the slow climb. I am fortunate to see a member of our group is behind me, as long as I finish ahead of him, no one can say that I held the group up. I take many photos as we continue this slow ascent. I take a look at both of the lower Ndumeni Caves – they don’t look very sheltered, but they may be suitable shelter for an emergency.
Surprisingly the top of the pass is reached sooner than expected, maybe the fact that a South to North GT includes effectively going up and down a pass every day for the first 6 days has made this seem easier than it actually is.
The group is waiting at the top, John and Tony are off looking for something and some others are taking a walk to Roland’s Cave. I decide to take this opportunity to climb the obscure unnamed rocky outcrop near the top of the pass. The climb is simple and there is no cairn on top. I name the feature “Ghaznavid’s Finger” and build a cairn on top. I could plausibly be the only person who has ever climbed this unusual feature – it is not high, not challenging and has no view, thus why would anyone else have ever climbed it? After my descent, Tony tells me that I need some lessons in cairn building – a fact that I can’t really dispute!
We drop down into the valley and pass the top of Organ Pipes Pass. I smile as I realise that we are now finally ahead of schedule – the first time since we fell behind on day 4. We walk past Castle Buttress and take a break at the base of the intimidating Cleft Peak ridge. We stop here for lunch. John asks the group if anyone else wants to climb Cleft Peak, and as it is just me, the group decides to take the route around the peak.
We slowly start the ascent of the Cleft ridge. The ridge is long and slow, but our packs are light and we quickly reach the top – well quickly compared to what I was expecting! Near the top I admire the view of the Ndumeni Dome, it is one prominent peak.
As we walk over the long crest of the Cleft Peak ridge we notice some tents in the valley – our resupply team is waiting for us. The faces of the entire GT team lighten up, none more than Mavis whose daughter is in the group. We begin to drop down the valley towards the campsite. As we get close some members start walking up the hill to greet us.
We reach the camp site, we are greeted by a sea of smiling faces offering homemade biscuits and congratulating us on the progress made so far. I think to myself how lucky we are to have such a nice group of people helping us out, they carry our food up a tough pass as a favour to us, and it’s almost as if they are thanking us for involving them, when in fact they are doing us such a great favour.
I finally get to meet VE members Elinda and Redbeard. They ask how the hike has been so far and I tell them of the blizzard, the stolen gloves, the lost tent, the summiting of Popple and numerous other stories of our eventful trip so far.
After reaching camp so early, tents are assembled and many photos are taken. Myself and Neil then head up Tseketseke Peak. As we walk past a large gully I realise that I am looking at False Tseketseke Pass, I then look at the small cairn up the hill and I realise how easy it is to be mistaken as to where the pass actually tops out. I climb the 3024m khulu – the lowest khulu I have ever bagged. The view from the top is amazing, the Pyramid and the Column are straight below me, Cleft nearby to the right, Cockade and the Elephant to the left, the Cathedral range in the distance on one side, the Cathkin range in the distance the other way. It is windy on this peak, but the view has been well worth it.
Surprisingly there is no cairn on the peak. I question whether or not I have climbed the peak I wanted to climb. I then remember the photo on VE showing the false pass the real pass and the peak in the middle. This must be the peak. I build a cairn on the top and get the customary khulu bagged photo. I later checked the map and determined that it was in fact the correct peak.
Back at the camp I get given my resupply packet – I look at my supper for the night with great anticipation. I give almost one kilogram of rubbish to the resupply team, as well as my part of my tent which weighs a further two kilograms. I take my three kilogram resupply and think how my pack is barely increasing in weight, only the weight of the half of Mavis’ tent which I will carry for the remainder of the hike as I share a tent with her for the rest of the trip.
The resupply team is camping with us tonight. One of their members’ tents had been torn by a Berg wind at the base of the pass the previous day, fortunately, like us, they had members who were not sharing tents, so the problem was easily resolved.
I had failed to bring soups on the hike – a poor judgement call on my part. From the first resupply, Jo had given me her spare soups and I had eaten one per night. Last night I ate my last soup. I was very fortunate that Mike (Redbeard) had brought up three spare soups which he gave me, combined with Jo’s two spare soups from her second resupply, that is enough to get me to the finish line without a soup-less night!
A special thanks to the resupply team for all their assistance, not just in carrying up our food, but also for brightening up our hike. A special thanks to Redbeard for those soups – you have no idea how needed they were! A special thanks to Elinda on the offer of the gloves, even though I did not take you up on it, the sentiment was greatly appreciated.
Day 9: Mnweni at last (Tseketseke to Senqu Valley)
The resupply team is planning on descending Cockade Pass, so the first kilometre of the day will be done by the combined group. John decided that we should get some extra time to sleep this morning, so the planned departure time is 7:30 as opposed to the customary 6:30 for 6:45. It’s funny how you slowly get into a rhythm. For the first few days you scramble to get ready on time, but day 9 you are eating a bowl of porridge at 6:15 before you have even properly woken up. By 7 all the GT members are packed and ready to go, most of the Resuppliers haven’t even started taking their tents down yet! Then again, we have been practicing this for days. We set off to a beautiful sunrise, the Elephant eying us with a golden glow.
Today will be the day that I finally get to enter the Mnweni area of the Drakensberg. After all I have read and all the photos I have seen, this area has a lot to live up to. We say goodbye to the resupply team at the top of Cockade Pass and we begin the not particularly difficult climb up the Elephant ridge. As we approach the top of the ridge it becomes apparent where the name of the peak comes from.
I hear comment “the resupply guys can’t see us anymore, right? Good, we can start walking slowly again!” I think to myself how ironic it is that for some reason we walked faster than normal this morning. Pride is a funny thing, I guess subconsciously we all wanted to look like we were still fresh and energetic after our many days of walking. Really we were more energetic this morning than usual, but our enthusiasm would soon return to its normal levels.
On top of the ridge, metres from the summit of a khulu – 3202m on the watershed, we stop for a break. John asks the group if we all agree that we should arrange to camp at Witsieshoek on Tuesday night, and we all agree. We take a half an hour break and John makes the necessary calls. While this is happening, Tony and myself climb the peak. We both thought it was the illusive Mahout, but on inspection of the map and the khulu list it appeared that it is not. After completing the GT we discovered that this peak is in fact Mahout.
Yesterday, Peter – the leader of the resupply team – told me that in his experience the ridges on the last few days of a grand traverse all just kind of melt together and you really don’t remember them. I begin to realise that he is right. Fortunately, armed with my camera, so my memory can easily be refreshed!
We drop into the valley behind the Elephant. Tony and myself debate which gully is the top of Xeni Pass. We don’t stop to look at a map. It’s amazing how the first few days of a GT include so much urgency and you don’t stop often or for very long. By day 9 you are through all the long days, and the Northern Berg is much easier to traverse than the Southern and Central Berg, no big long ridges, not many deep gullies, and much more ridge walking. The pace of the group is definitely down, and we are stopping for numerous long breaks. We come across two groups of hikers this morning. The one group is very friendly, they tell us of their three day trek from the Chain Ladders to the Bell Traverse – well they tell us that this is their plan. The second group shouts something from the other side of the river, but we can’t hear what they are saying.
We keep walking for a kilometre or two, and then stop for yet another break by the river. I trade some cashews for some of Ruan’s provitas. He offers the group marmite and we all realise that he has been carrying a good half a kilogram marmite since the start of the hike. We all enjoy the process of helping him reduce the weight of his pack!
We continue walking, John points out Easter Cave Peak to me, that means we are more or less behind the Cathedral range right now. Some good photos should be coming on the next ridge. The Mnweni Saddle comes into view in the distance. Our original hiking plan listed the base of the North Peak as our camping spot for tonight, so despite our many breaks we are in fact making good progress.
As we begin the ascent of the next ridge the north view of the Cathedral range comes into view, it looks so different, but as always, once the Inner and Outer Horn come into view, the identity of the range is given away.
The ridge is fairly long, but not very steep, but just as you think you have reached the top, you realise that there is still a long way to go. We reach the rock band and traverse away from the escarpment edge, looking for a gap in the rock. We eventually reach a rocky ramp which we ascend to find some more ridge in need of climbing. As the top of the ridge gets closer, in the distance the Cathkin range comes into view. This could only mean one thing, this is actually a fairly high ridge.
John asks if we would like to take a break here and the group declines, upward and onward we must go. We reach the top of the ridge and bump into yet another group of hikers. You can tell that it is a 5 day weekend for those who taking the Monday off as leave! We stop at the top of this ridge for a lunch break. Its only 12:30 and yet we are within an hour range of our planned stop for the day. Although we all know that we must continue on from where we planned to stop if we wish to finish a day early.
The view from this spot includes Swinburne, Harismith and Van Reenen’s Pass, not to mention the northern regions of KwaZulu-Natal.
We set off into the great Mnweni. As we descend into the valley behind North Peak, Ruan spots two Reedbok. They run away before my camera manages to capture them. We follow the fairly gentle drop into the valley and reach the spot at which we planned to camp for the night. John asks if we are all willing to go on, and no objection is heard. I think to myself how it would be nice to camp here, bag some khulus and get an early day, but I must not hold the group back, after all, I too want to finish early.
We cross the river and begin the ascent of the North Peak ridge. The ridge is high, steep and long. This is the first time in a while that a ridge has actually been difficult, but the ridge is not nearly as difficult as the ones in the south. The top is eventually reached. The summit rewards us with a view of Rockeries and Mponjwane. There are vultures flying in the distant valley that hold Rockeries Pass.
We descend into the Senqu Valley and find a suitable spot on the river. This is the source of the Orange River. The water levels are low and filling water bottles is slow, but otherwise it is a good spot for camping. We enjoy supper under a clear [freezing cold] starry sky.
Day 10: That looks easy (Senqu Valley to Icidi)
We set off to a clear morning – first stop for the day will be a lookout point over the Hanging Valley. The first minor ridge for the morning melts away without much difficulty and before I know it there is an amazing view of the Mnweni valley, and more importantly, the Hanging Valley. I recognise Manxome Pass in the distance and suddenly I have the Jabberwock poem ringing in my head, “He took the Vorpal sword in hand, long time the MANXOME foe he sought, he rested by the Tumtum tree and stood a while in thought”.
There are lots of unclimbed pinnacles in this area, many easy rock climbs with no cairns on top, but it’s doubtful that it would be worth a rock climbers while to climb many of these small detached bits of former-escarpment when there are majestic pinnacles, needles and towers all around.
The Mnweni area has been carved more prominently by wind erosion than water erosion – a fact that can be clearly seen by the way the land is shaped; this is the cause of such rugged beauty. I get lots of photos each time we stop, this area is different indeed!
As we summit the following ridge that eye-sore of a mine comes into view. That kind of takes away from the “untouched beauty” label given to this region by most hikers. We follow the ridge for a while. The view into South Africa is amazing, the eye-sore in Lesotho is best ignored! The heads of the Mnweni Pinnacles are just visible over the top of the ridge.
We drop over the ridge and stop for a short break at the top of Pins Pass. We all realise that we are now so close to the end that the easiest “pull-out” route is down the chain ladders. Baring some serious injury, we should all get to the end. Andre has been coming down with a throat infection for the last few days, fortunately his perseverance and prayer is paying off – the infection is getting better.
We continue our trek behind the ridge that holds the summit to Rwanqa Pass and the Black and Tan Wall. The ridge is largely uneventful – after such a dramatic start to the hike, the last few days have been largely uneventful.
We continue to the top of Fangs Pass. We stop for a brief break looking at the view of the Donkey. We all know the end is close, there is a fine balance between fatigue from what we have done so far, but excitement for the completion of the hike.
We continue for a short distance, a visit to Rat Hole Cave is made. The cave proves to be larger than I expected. A short distance later we reach the view of Madonna and her Worshipers. We stop here for lunch. I “help Ruan lighten his pack” by trading some more nuts for provitas and marmite. The lunch stop is pleasant, no real wind, clear sunlight. Tony manages to complete his quest of finding Skylight Cave, but the stop is otherwise uneventful.
We continue around the Mbundini Abbey. We begin the climb up the not-very-difficult Stimela Ridge. A view of Mponjwane and the “real Mponjwane” next to each other comes into view, fortunately my camera with its 18X zoom is up for the task. As we summit the ridge the Icidi Ridge comes into view. The end is really in sight.
John points out that we are now in comfortable striking range of the finish line – any spot that is suitable can be our camping spot for the day. It is still fairly early in the day and we have no real reason to stop, by day 10 of a GT you are so much fitter than you were on day 1, but this is combined with fatigue and aches from the reason that you are fitter!
As we drop into the valley we see some baboons, hopefully they won’t be giving us trouble later today. We follow the ridge as closely as possible to avoid losing altitude, but before we know it we are ascending the ridge that extends from the Icidi Buttress. As we reach the top of the ridge I notice the massive gully in the valley – this valley drains into South Africa, that is unusual indeed.
We drop down into the valley that includes the Icidi Back Ridge, Icidi Crown, Icidi Cap and the Icidi Buttress. The river is very low and there is no suitable spot near the river. We continue up the northern bank and drop just over the watershed, a nice flat spot is found.
After setting up, Tony, John, Ruan and myself head up to check out Icidi Cave. The cave is easy to find and well sheltered, but the roof is very low and there is not much space. John heads back to camp, while the rest of us head up the Icidi Crown. As we pass a gully we get a clear view down to the Icidi Pencil. Tony and I discuss how it is remarkable how well John Hone has survived with Leukaemia, not many people survive two blood transfusions. At the time of writing, the bitter irony of this timing is now apparent, such as sad loss to the hiking community – atleast he is no longer suffering with this painful disease.
We continue the climb to the summit of this khulu. The name – the Icidi CROWN is very appropriate. The view from the summit is amazing. We can see the entire Northern Drakensberg from the Cathkin Range, Cathedral Range, the Mnweni Saddle, Rockeries, Mnweni Needles and much more.
The wind on the summit is strong, we start descending the peak. I discuss climbing the Icidi Cap, but no one else is interested. I decide to climb it anyway. Access to the summit requires a small amount of rock scrambling, but the large flat summit is easily reached. The view of Icidi Pass from the peak makes the climb worth it, but the view doesn’t match the view from the Icidi Crown. On the way down I find a route through the rock band without any rock scrambling.
I reach camp as the sun sets behind the Icidi Back Ridge. I borrow a wind shield to cook some food, the wind is strong and my stove is difficult to light, but it soon gets going. As I take my soup off the stove I discover that the wind has caused my stove to heat my handle more than the soup, I spill a third of my soup trying to avoid my hand getting significantly burned. Fortunately the burns aren’t bad and it’s late enough in the hike for this not to cause any major issue.
Day 11: All good things come to an end (Icidi to Witsieshoek)
My alarm clock goes off, and without thinking about it I achieve a status of being ready and packed. I get some photos of the red sunrise. It’s amazing how you are completely in a rhythm by the end, even Neil who usually makes us wait is ready before the planned departure time. We joke about not leaving till 7AM. We end up leaving at 6:58.
John tells us that we have 2 options, walk around all the ridges for the day, get to the Sentinal car park early but forfeit the views, alternatively we can follow the escarpment edge and enjoy the view. We all agree that the escarpment edge is a good idea. We head over the nearby ridge and drop into the valley near it only to realise that we could have walked around it and got the same view.
We begin the ascent up the Ifidi ridge, I leave the group so that I can climb Ifidi Peak. The view from the summit is incredible. As I begin to descend only to see John indicating that I am about to reach a high rock face, I turn around and climb down the side I came up. But wait, where is the group?
I begin to drop down on the Lesotho side of the ridge, but I don’t see anyone from the group. I walk to the ledge on top of the ridge and still don’t see anyone on either side. The strong wind blowing into Lesotho makes the prospect of shouting to try to locate the team a pointless idea – even if they can hear me I still won’t be able to hear them call back. I continue to drop down the ridge.
About half way down I begin to get concerned – not that I won’t find them or that I may be lost, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the route to the end from here. I decide to try the other side of the ridge once more. I hear my name shouted by someone, there they are, sitting behind a rock band far up the ridge. No wonder I didn’t see them!
John, Tony, Neil, Andre and Ruan have gone in search of the many caves above Ifidi Pass, the rest of the group comes down towards the altitude at which I am standing. I meat up with the group near the escarpment edge. “Don’t go wondering off like that, we thought you were lost” Jo shouts at me, I try to explain that I couldn’t see them hiding behind the rock band, but she will hear none of it. Admittedly not the response I was expecting! On the bright side the group was going to be waiting for the other guys anyway, so no actual harm was done.
They guys return one by one after finding Ifidi Cave and False Ifidi Cave. Ruan heads towards the Singati Wall ahead of the group to buy some time to take photos of the Tooth and Eastern Buttress. I decide to follow suite, the weather is decent for photos. The group will smell the end soon, so our pace is unlikely to be this slow for long.
I look over the ridge and realise that I really do not know the peaks in from of me that well, and the old Singsby map is of little use in determining what I am looking at. I know the Eastern Buttress, the Tooth, the Inner Tower, no sign of a Toothpick and I don’t know which peak is Mount Amery or the Singati Wall. All I know is that according to the MCSA khulu list of 1994, the Singati Wall is a rock climbing khulu, not one accessible from the escarpment.
After admiring the view for a bit I head off towards the saddle between the 3160m unnamed peak that is most likely a khulu and what is probably Mount Amery. On reaching the saddle I leave my pack with the three ladies and Ruan (who beat me to the saddle), and attempt a final khulu for the GT. As I begin to climb I realise that there is a large gully half way up this ridge, I backtrack and climb up around it. I find myself just below the knife edge of the ridge only to see a roughly 100m deep gully between me and the summit itself. Is this the Singati Wall I wonder, but no, there is a way around. I look back to see the entire group waiting. Maybe I should leave this one for next time. I head down. Subsequently I reviewed the map and I now believe that I was looking at the correct peak.
As we walk down the ridge I notice a large prominent peak on the Amphitheatre edge, there is no name for it on the map and no spot height that I notice on the map. I later figured out that this prominent tower is 3019 on the Singsby map (I am yet to buy an Amphitheatre EKZN map), this must be Amphitheatre Peak.
We continue high on the ridge overlooking the back of the Drakensberg’s most famous rock wall. The view is good, but not as impressive as what we have seen in the past few days. We begin to descend onto the flat plains on the summit of this prominent region. In my mind I liken the region to the plains of Gorgoroth – flat, rocky and basically no vegetation (and right near the end of a very long story). In the distance the Crow’s Nest and Mont-Aux-Sources are now clearly visible.
As we reach a lookout spot I get to see something I have wanted to see for years – Tugela Falls from the escarpment. I first saw this majestic statistically significant waterfall was on 24 December 2004. The falls were heavily overflowing and it was a beautiful clear day. This time I looked at it and remarked “wow, there’s the second highest damp rock face in the world”. It took a while to figure out where the falls where supposed to be.
We stop for a break by the falls. John phones the Witsieshoek Resort and arranges transport from the Sentinel Car Park to the resort. We will be picked up at 1:30, that gives us 2 hours to reach the finish line.
We continue over the ridge near the falls. A troop of baboons run away as we pass nearby. We then descend into the Tugela valley. We briefly pause at the hut, just long enough to get some photos of the fairly shoddy looking hut – not as bad as I expected though. We keep moving towards the chain ladders.
I think to myself how I originally got into hiking partially with a goal of getting over my fear of heights. The chain ladders will be a real test of how well this ploy has worked.
We slowly ascend up the path which is almost wide enough for a car, this route is clearly as heavily used as they say. Today is 1 May, a public holiday, a fact of which we are reminded by the huge volume of people who don’t even have backpacks on. I think to myself how easily the weather turns in the place and how easily these “hikers” could end up in real danger, no water bottles, no food, just shorts and a T-shirt in late autumn.
As we drop over the ridge I get a good view of the Free State Drakensberg. In front of me there is a massive cairn which promptly gets that little bit bigger as I add my stone to it. And then I see the top of the chain ladders. The drop off on the side of the mountain makes them seem higher than they actually are. We have a brief discussion as to whether or not this constitutes a pass, I conclude it does, some of the other members of the group agree to disagree.
I stop to put my trekking pole and camera away before my descent. I wait a few minutes and then I go to the far chain ladder to begin the descent off the escarpment that has been my home for the last 11 days. I look down, that’s not far at all. I start the by no means vertical descent. I feel my pack shifting as I take my first step.
With each slow step the slope gets steeper until it is eventually vertical. Initially I was able to put my entire foot into the rung, enough that the groove of my shoe could make my stance very stable, but now only the front of my shoe fits it. The rings on the ladder no longer hold it far enough away from the rock and every step I take the entire ladder shifts.
I reach the bottom of the first stage. I know the lower section is longer. I probably should not look down, but how can you reach the far ladder without doing this. The far ladder is a mission to reach, the slope is steep and the surface is slippery. I reach it facing forward. Once I have the top of the ladder to hold onto I manage to turn around and get a proper grip on it. Each time I look to see a foothold I see the bottom and remember just how far down it is. I feel like I have been on this ladder for a while. The group is waiting for me at the bottom.
After what felt like a good half an hour – although apparently it was no longer than ten minutes – I reach the bottom. In a short distance I will have done it, a complete South to North Grand Traverse. I joke with the guys that I have had enough of this; I want to turn back and walk to Bushman’s Nek! You know that the other members of the group are tired when you just get a strange look at a comment like this, either that or they may just be tired of my sense of humour.
We begin the walk to the Sentinel Car Park. I look at the mighty Sentinel. What an impressive lump of rock it is. As we walk along we pass the Sentinel Caves, Beacon Buttress Gulley and I scramble up the ledge between the Sentinel and the Buttress to get a view of the Amphitheatre. What a view!
We continue along, stopping for lunch just below the Sentinel. This is a quick stop, we only have half an hour to reach the car park. We continue down the Zigzags, past some tourists who think it’s a wise idea to climb the Chain Ladders after midday with no supplies whatsoever, not even water bottles.
We then reach the section below the Witches. John gets a call asking if we are almost there, our transport is running late – perfect, more time for photos. I have long since given up on the dream of 3000 photos, but I must make sure I reach 2000 at a minimum. But, as always, I will not take photos just for the sake of taking photos. Near the car park I visit yet another lookout point – the Amphitheatre is definitely more impressive looking up than it is from the top.
We reach the Sentinel Car Park – the end is here at last. Now 4 of us are about to get into the car for which we are all paying a total of R150 – this for an 8km trip (talk about abuse of a monopoly), the other 5 will walk, although all packs will go in the car. I am not looking forward to walking on a road.
We all shake hands and congratulate each other on the completion of this tough quest – a goal I had set for myself while still in primary school now accomplished.
One of the guys comes over and tells us that a person who is about to drive back can drop us off just short of resort. Relieved, 5 of us jump into the back of the bakkie. It’s a long drive and we are happy not to be walking it. The driver apparently changes his mind about not stopping at Witsieshoek, and takes us right up to the front door. The gesture is greatly appreciated by us and we offer to pay for his drinks, he declines.
We all get together for the group shots. Lorinda (who had left her car at Witsieshoek in order to avoid driving back to Karkloof and then reversing the route on her way home) says goodbye and heads off home. The rest of us set up our tents, enjoy a nice hot shower and get some food.
A large burger and chips followed up by a fillet steak and chips seems to be the appropriate way to celebrate the completion of a very long and eventful hike – not to mention my three plates of breakfast the next morning…
Distance walked: 230km
Altitude gained: 11.45km
Total photos: 2011 (and 2 videos)
Totals khulus bagged: 11
Total kgologos bagged: 2 (Mafadi included)
Time taken: 10 days 6 hours and 2 minutes – maybe a South to North speed record 🙂
Weight lost (after eating the ridiculous amounts of food listed above): 12kgs
Will I do it again: that’s a stupid question!