Someone once said “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my to-do list”. The exploration gene is one that I imagine many people share – the desire to see something you haven’t seen before can be a strong one!
I often see these posts on Facebook where someone says “describe your life with the title of a song”. I generally answer with “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music. Not my favourite film by any means, but I can understand how this film is the second highest grossing film of all time (inflation adjusted).
Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
‘Till you find your dream.
There are hundreds of mountain ranges in the world, and at some point in the future I hope that circumstance will allow me to explore various other ranges, but as it stands – I live close to a rather substantial mountain range, and there is exploration to be done.
I have been obsessed with khulus basically since I first discovered they exist. A khulu is a 3000m or higher peak in South Africa or on the SA/Lesotho border. People are often critical of the use of lists in hiking – but I find it is a good way to make sure you don’t leave areas out. It is also relevant that the same mountain on a different day may be completely different. Seeing as I have already done the cheesy movie song quote thing, here’s a quote from a song from the movie Pocahontas:
What I love most about rivers is:
You can’t step in the same river twice
The water’s always changing, always flowing
But people, I guess, can’t live like that
We all must pay a price
To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
What’s around the riverbend
So why would I want to do another Drakensberg Grand Traverse when I had just done 2 in reasonably quick succession? One thing I love about a GT is that there are literally infinite variations on the route. You can start at either end, go up various different passes, take different lines through the different valleys etc. Not every GT is the same.
A while back I set myself the goal of doing 3 GTs, south to north, north to south and one on the speed route. I have already completed this, but I wanted to hit two other goals: a few years back I proposed a record for the most khulus on a GT. At the time Stijn Laenen seemed to have the record, something like 30. Tony Marshall also did about 30 on a GT in 2014, so in 2014/15 when Andrew Porter did 63 on a GT, the record kind of had a starting point. I know Andrew will take this record and make it untouchable to the rest of us, but while it is still beatable, I wanted to break it. 63 is tough, but can be done with a concerted effort.
There is another record that is relevant here, Dave Gay keeps record of the youngest GT finishers. To date, four people under 20 have completed a GT, one of whom has done it twice. The youngest was 15 years and 2 months, Guy Solomon in 2011. This youngest record has stood for a long time, but having hiked with Mike van Wyngaard since he was 11, I have felt it was likely to be broken sometime soon. Well, let’s put it this way, if Mike can’t break it, it probably won’t be falling for another decade or two.
Back in September last year I took Mike on a 7 day training hike to see if he was ready for a GT, he was not. Understandable that a 13 year old isn’t ready for an undertaking like this. But now, a year later, I rated it was time to give it a go.
Day 1: no water (Start to Icidi/Kubedu)
We met up with Andrew in Winterton. Before leaving, I checked Mike’s food and got him to buy about 2kg extra food at the local Spar.
Before long we were trying out the new R74, which is actually quite nice, and soon we found ourselves having lunch at Sentinel Car Park. After a lot of procrastination, we left just after 1PM.
The goal was Ifidi Cave, so no pressure – although we both felt the weight of our packs. I had gone through Mike’s pack a few days earlier and removed about 2kg of extra weight, so it could have been worse.
We took the high line up to the chain ladders. It is lovely to do such a busy route on a good trail without the crumbly exposed bits or tons of traffic. It also gets you nice and close to the cliffs on Sentinel, which is good.
We hit the Tugela to find the occasional small pool, but no flow. We had expected this. We stopped for a break here, and had a chat with some locals as they walked past.
We tagged the mother of all non-worthy-khulus, Ampitheatre, as we passed it.
On reaching a dry Bilanjil River, we walked inland around the Amphingati Ridge, trying to find water by the Ifidi/Kubedu confluence. This too was dry, so we followed the river till we found some stagnant water a bit further down. We had supper here in the riverbed. After filling our bottles, and putting in iodine pills, we began to walk up towards Icidi. We found flowing water higher up and decided to camp here.
Day 2: still no water (Icid/Kubedu to Rwanqa)
It’s funny for me to take a route that skips the Ifidi Ridge – after all, Ifidi Peak has arguably the best view of the Northern Berg. We made our way up towards the Icidi Valley at good pace, and decided that we should do some khulu bagging to make sure we don’t finish the day too early. For the record, I told Mike to avoid bagging khulus with me – I knew it would be tough for me to get more than 63 khulus on a GT, and it could easily be the difference between him finishing or not. As it turns out, he is far too stubborn to listen to this council, and insisted on joining me on every khulu I did.
We left our packs near Icidi Cave. The cave isn’t as bad as I remember it being, but it is pretty bad nonetheless. We bagged Icidi Crown, unfortunately the mist in SA was so high that we could only see the top of a few 3300+m peaks. Not even Monk’s Cowl’s summit was visible. We continued along to Ifidi Buttress before returning to our packs.
The stream down that little SA cutback in the Icidi Valley was barely flowing, but had enough water to fill up the bottles once more.
We proceeded up Icidi Buttress, spending a while arguing about which summit was higher, before we noticed some locals walking towards our packs, subsequently followed by us running back to them.
We dropped to the Icidi/Caboose saddle and made our way up our fourth khulu for the day. At this point in time I had 1 goal – knock off my gaps and keep the record alive. I wasn’t going to jeopardise the GT just because of a record we may or may not get.
We stopped for a break on the river below, but it was dry. We tagged both Stimela khulus on the way up the next ridge, getting some good flowing water higher up the river, before dropping down to the Mbundini Valley.
We knew Andrew had stashed something for us in Rat Hole Cave, so we were rather excited to hit the cave (our planned overnight spot). The river in the valley was dry, and after searching in the cave for 20 minutes, we found the lid of the container outside. Someone had beaten us to it, and this had only been here for 5 days.
We went right out on the spur above Fangs Pass to enjoy some great views, before tagging Fangs Buttress (aka Rat Hole Cave Peak), and heading to the river behind Rwanqa Pass. We had no water near Rat Hole Cave, so that wasn’t an option.
We camped near some stagnant water again. By now I knew I would run out of iodine before the resupply, this was becoming a problem.
Day 3: still no water (Rwanqa to Nguza)
I got up and said to Hobbit that this water situation isn’t ok. I took all 5 of our water bottles and walked right to the confluence of the Mbundini and Rwanqa streams, where it was flowing quite well. This must have been close to 2km downstream, and took quite some time – but we needed the water. The Mnweni Cutback Highway would be dry in summer of the wettest year, so no hope of water up there.
Starting the day late, we took the scenic line up Black and Tan Wall. We passed a group of 8 that started the Northern High Traverse about 30 minutes after we started the GT – a group of Americans lead by a guy named Carlos. We had seen the group at a distance for a while, but this was the first time we actually talked to them.
We stopped for a break at the top of Rwanqa Pass for a morning break. The broken mist below gave us some pretty dramatic views. The pass doesn’t look too bad from the top, and it must be a rather scenic route! From the khulu we proceeded to the edge of the peak, this has one of the best views of the Pins that I have ever seen.
We followed the highway, from here, detouring to pick up Pins Buttress and 12 Apostles Spur along the way. We passed the NHT team a few times, being passed when we turned off to bag something.
We took the massive detour to Cutback Highway, before hitting Mnweni Buttress and having lunch just below it. A panicking Carlos ran past looking for 3 lost members of the group in light mist.
We proceeded from here to “Tony’s Mystery Khulu”, before following the Senqu downstream in the hope of water. We found a bone dry river, and had to walk a long way before we even found stagnant pools. I made some team with some average looking stagnant water before we continued down.
Near the confluence with the river from Nguza Pass we did find some flowing water. We filled up, downed a bottle each and filled up again. An elderly Sotho man came to chat with us, he had one of the most beautiful dogs I have ever seen. He chatted with us for a bit, in broken English he told us how bad the drought has been. He had a badly infected injury on his finger, and asked if we could help. I gave him some anti-septic cream (although the injury was well past that point) and told him he needs to see a doctor. I fear the infection very well might bring an end to this old gentleman’s life if he doesn’t see a doctor soon.
We walked up the river towards Nguza Pass. There was some flowing water, so the goal was to get as high as possible without leaving this.
We found a good camping spot reasonably high up, it had flowing water near it – and that was all we were worried about.
Day 4: water at last (Nguza to Tseketseke)
We started by slogging up the Ntonjelana Ridge – we had spent a lot of time at Mnweni, it was nice to finally reach Didima. We went up one valley too early, which resulting in us taking a much easier line before hitting a great trail well back of the normal saddle. We followed the trail along the top before dropping down to Ntonjelana Gap. The US team was once again around the same area, although this was the last time we saw them.
I had designated 3 rest days into the trip – a means of ensuring that if either of us were struggling, we could take it easy and catch our breathes again. This would be the first use of this allowance.
We skipped the Ntonjelana peaks, but went up Easter Cave Peak. We checked out the cave – which is clearly a depot for sorting “mountain cabbage”. We found a nice shady spot near the summit of the peak, and had a 2 hour long lunch here. It was intensely hot, but we were forced down due to water running out.
The Kwakwatsi River was dry, so we walked up the bed till we found dirty stagnant water. Hobbit jumped into a pool while I continued searching for usable water. I found some barely flowing water a lot higher up, filled up and returned to Mike.
The heat was really intense, and there could easily have been 500+ animals in this valley. More than 40 shepherds accompanied these animals. It is in situations like this that you realise how serious this drought actually is.
As we climbed up behind Leopard, the water was trickling, so we set up the tent here to get out of the sun. A local asked us for sweets, and when we told him we had none, he asked for condoms. Probably the strangest request I have ever heard!
After filling my water bottles up in the river, I watched a herd of cattle walk through the pool. A dog then proceeded to sit in the river for a good 15 minutes. Needless to say, we knew we couldn’t camp here.
The Tseke valley is dry at the best of times, so we ate supper here before packing up around 5PM. We found good water higher up. We used the Elephant Gully, and bagged Elephant Peak, before finding good flowing water behind False Tseke Pass.
This was by far the hottest and least comfortable I have ever been on the escarpment.
Day 5: I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas (Tseketseke to Upper Ndumeni Cave)
After days of feeling the heat and lack of water, it was a kind of relief to wake up on Christmas Day to mist and rain. Who knew I would ever say that!
We woke up to the sound of rain. I knew we had 2 reserve days to play with, and reaching Tseke put us ahead of plan, so we could actually just sit the day out.
Anyone who knows me will know that I can’t sit still for very long. So by 10AM it had stopped raining and the mist had cleared, so we were off. No long day planned, but to get over Cleft and maybe Ndumeni Dome would be good.
We started up Cleft, and soon found ourselves back in the mist. From Tseketseke Peak, we couldn’t even see the Column or the Pyramid. Mike’s luck had been dodgy at times – he had an amazing view from Rwanqa Pass and Black and Tan Wall, yet missed Madonna and her Worshipers, Donkey and now the Column and Pyramid.
We slowly made our way up Cleft Peak, we followed the cairns, which was easy enough. The hill is rather substantial, as one expects from Cleft, but it is helpful when you know you only need to do that ridge on that day. An icy wind near the top, and a brief hail storm, made us question our logic up there. In the mist I walked straight past the summit cairn, but we realised this 65m later, and walked back to it.
On nearing the Castle Buttress/Cleft saddle, we found some good flowing water and decided to chill here. We had our main meal and relaxed for a few hours.
Once again we got bored, and decided to head for Upper Ndumeni Cave. We filled our bottles and began the slog up the hill. Near Thuthumi Pass we heard lightning. I remember reading that Ndumeni Dome means “place of thunderstorms”, so we raced up, reaching the cave with an ominous purple cloud rapidly approaching.
We sat out the thunderstorm right at the back of the cave. I have been informed that lightning usually strikes cliffs on the side that the storm is coming from – that meant we should be in the clear. I know that caves are not safe in thunderstorms, but there is little you can do when you are on a massive high peak with cliffs all around!
We couldn’t hear most of the lightning, we simply felt the entire cave shuddering. There was a nearby strike where less than a second passed between the flash and the noise, but otherwise not much of concern.
The cave is far from water, but has a great view, flat floor and enough space for up to 5 people. Definitely easier to access than Roland’s Cave, and with a very similar view (if you take 2 steps out of the cave), I rate I would use it again.
While in the cave I sent an sms to Andrew, just to confirm all was still in order. He asked if we would like to move the resupply forward a day. We discussed it, and after much debate, we decided to do this.
Day 6: So cold (Upper Ndumeni Cave to Nkosasana)
With the pressure now on, half a reserve day has been used and the second one is now after the resupply – we “only” have 2 days to get from Ndumeni Dome to Upper Injisuthi Cave. While not difficult, that does mean we have some pressure.
When we left the cave, we could see the Organ Pipes below, so mist shouldn’t be an issue. Then again, this is the lowest escarpment valley, so mist is rather common above Thlanyako Pass.
We begin the slog down the hill. Upon reaching the river, we fill our bottles and do some washing in the river.
We hit the trail down the river, and we hit the mist as we near the Thlanyako River. This part of the GT route isn’t a part I know that well, and the standard route through the town is not something I plan on doing – partly because it is exceptionally boring, and partly because of all the dogs.
We have run out of water, and the Thlanyako is dry, so we walk upstream till we find some water.
We begin climbing towards the saddle, but everything looks wrong. I pull out my GPS and realise we are heading up the route towards the town, so I alter the line, and soon it begins to look correct again.
As we were through the saddle we had first shot for, it begins to hail. We sit out the storm behind some rocks. A few lightning strikes are close, but after about half an hour we are moving again. As all good storms do, it begins to rain and hail about 20 minutes later, so we just push on.
It is misty and windy, so I am worried about the cold. We both have our fleeces and gloves on – in addition to our raincoats. Mike points out that his rain coat is letting a bit of water in. So much for the exceptional quality of Sprayway’s heavy rain jackets. Meanwhile my lightweight Hi-Tec did its job once again.
We soon find ourselves in the saddle between Didima Buttress and Dome – I recognise the Sphynx like rock feature. I had copied two GT GPS tracks onto my GPS before the hike – Tony’s 2014 track and my 5 day GT track, curiously neither was working. I always have the VE track, and this was working. This route follows a similar line, but somehow we kept climbing the hill without hitting that steep gully we came down on the 5 day GT. Eventually by 3200m, I realised we were above Didima Dome and could now start to traverse.
Mike is never one to complain, but I was worried about him – his speech was slurred and his pace was slow. I decided to detour to Didima Cave. We traversed around 3200m, before hitting the saddle and entering the cave (about 40 minutes from starting to traverse till hitting the cave).
I was aware how serious the situation was. I was a tad cold, but not even shivering. Mike didn’t look good at all. On entering the cave, I took his air mattress out of his bag, told him to take off his wet clothes and dry himself. By the time he was done with this, his mattress and sleeping bag were ready and I got him to climb in. I then made him a cup of tea. He bounced back quite quickly. I set up my own sleeping bag – no point in me being cold while Mike is nice and warm.
I knew the following day would be tough from Didima Cave, but could be done. Around 4:30PM the mist had cleared, and we agreed that we could get going again. Mike had been in his sleeping bag for 4 hours, and seemed to be fine. By 5PM we were back in our wet clothes and walking along the Yodeller’s/Champagne in the later afternoon sun.
We somehow did 2h30 from here to the Nkosasana River. The river was mostly dry where we hit it (around 3200m), so we went downstream till we found some flowing water. Even though we only pitched the tent around 7:45, it was light enough to set up via last light aided by moonlight.
Day 7: Khulu Time (Nkosasana to Upper Injisusthi Cave)
Having done the highway the night before, day 7 started off in a rather leisurely manner. We went up Champagne, Ships Prow and Bothlolong before dropping down towards Starboard (we didn’t bag Starboard). We took a massive detour in the valley below, hiking to Molar Spur Peak, giving me a good view of the valley behind the Ape – a valley I had never visited before. After bagging Molar Spur, we stopped for lunch near Leslies Pass.
We took the high line up the ridge from the pass. Apparently there is a movement against cairns in the Berg right now – some argument about how people who don’t know the route shouldn’t be there in the first place, an argument that I rate is elitist and outright dangerous. Many of the cairns up this ridge have been dismantled. We rebuilt some of them.
We were awarded with some incredible views, including a grassy climbing peak (probably Injazacila). Mist came and left as we bagged Sombrero. The overhanging cliffs in the area afford quite a view!
We gradually proceeded, hitting Lithabolong, Mafadi and Injisuthi Dome before dropping down towards Upper Injisuthi Cave. As we dropped down we heard a loud shout. The voice sounded rather familiar.
We couldn’t have timed it much better. As we hit the trail to the cave, there was a familiar face bearing a large pack. We walked into the cave together, and as we had hoped, Andrew had achieved hero-status by bringing along a Christmas cake and some iced tea!
Mike guarded the packs while we collected water. When you have spent the majority of the past week with just one other person, a friendly face is most certainly welcome. When they bring goodies, take your litter and bring food for the next 5 days – that is even better!
Our gas canister ran out at the cave, so Andrew even agreed to take that with him. Big thanks to Andrew Porter for his help with the resupply!
Day 8: Home Ground Advantage (Upper Injisusthi Cave to Durbford Base Camp)
Somewhere between Leslies Pass and Upper Injisuthi Cave, Mike had lost both of his water bottles. So we had gone from struggling with 5 between 2 people, to hopefully making a plan that works for 3 between 2 people. This would make the use of caves very difficult going forward.
Leaving Upper Injisuthi Cave, our packs are heavy, but not as heavy as they were at the start. Andrew will be taking a leisurely stroll from here to Didima Cave – “only” about 35km away.
We start by bagging Trojan Wall, not the biggest khulu in the Berg, but it does come 6th on the highest list. We had missed 8th through to 11th due to the hypothermia incident and not detouring through to Red Wall, but we could at least secure the top 7 from here. We just needed the two KaNtuba Peaks to do this.
We dropped down the gully between Injisuthi Dome and Trojan Wall to find the highway trail that runs towards Judge Pass. The river was still flowing well, although not as well as it had been a few weeks earlier on my previous GT.
We decided to follow the trail right through to Judge Pass, followed by a quick walk up Judge Peak. I had bagged this khulu before, and it is definitely one of the more worthwhile ones in the area. Actually – come to think of it, even though Giants Castle is full of odd and close khulus, most of them are worth the effort.
We proceeded from here to slog up Popple, funny to bag this peak a fourth time. Years ago I had failed to climb it on 3 tries, now it is really not that difficult to get up. We followed the top of the ridge from here to bag Auditor before dropping down near the escarpment edge. We stayed high, finding water in the small stream that flows between Auditor and Gypaetus Point. We went on to bag Gypaetus Point before taking lunch just south of Bannerman Pass.
We had hoped to bag Sanqebethu, but with lightning around, we gave it a miss. There was a big storm approaching, and a surprisingly prominent khulu above a massive cliff is not usually where you want to be in a thunderstorm!
We detour up Bannerman Face, get a quick summit shot before practically running down off it. Near Thumb Spur it had begun to rain, I could tell it would be a massive storm, so we set up the tent and waited out the storm in it. This turned out to be a good call as we spent well over an hour in the tent.
When it did eventually clear, we both took a walk up Thumb Spur Peak, and had a proper look at the top of Thumb Pass. There is a possible, but exposed and difficult, line that would top out on the other side of the peak. It would be hard to spot from the pass, but may go. As for the south gully route I had my eye on for years – I rate this would go. Now the question is whether or not I should continue to pursue every arbitrary gully at Giants!
We went back to the tent, packed it up, and tagged Langies Pass before taking a low traverse towards Mount Durnford. At the top of Bond Pass, we dropped the packs and shot up Erskine. We then took the packs to the saddle near Bond and Potterill, and tagged these easy khulus as well. We dropped from here to the top of North Jarding Pass (to get an accurate GPS co-ord, which I failed to do last time I was there), before heading back to the packs.
By 7:30PM we had found a good camping spot near (100m away from) flowing water. A long day, but a productive one! That was 10 khulus in a day – my personal record. Not to mention that 9 days earlier, Mike’s personal record for a day was 3, incidentally he first did 3 in a day when we did Bond, Potterill and Erskine as a day hike car-park-to-car-park.
Day 9: Going Big (Durbford Base Camp to near Terateng Cave)
If you wish to climb every non-technical khulu, there are some easy ones to pick up, and some difficult ones. I knew this day would be a big one.
The tactic of camping halfway up what I believe to be the hardest ridge on the escarpment (from either side) is one I have used before, and would happily use again. Durnford took about 30 minutes to knock off, and did generate vast amounts of sweat. We tagged all 3 summits, concluding that the middle one is easily highest (consensus visually and by GPS altimeter). We agreed the middle summit should still be in SA, but that a second opinion is required as it depends on what the bottom looks like. Based on my photos from North Jarding Pass, it clearly flows into SA and thus the middle summit is the khulu.
From here we followed the escarpment edge, getting Kambule, finding that Carbineer Point (my textbook example of what is wrong with the original khulu definition) actually has close to 55m prominence – I actually sent Mike back down to the saddle to double check this – and we then went onto Katana. I eyed out the top of Katana Pass, or alternatively the fake South Jarding Pass gully, which could be completed by traversing the grass ledge below the peak and then using this summit to top out. While eyeing it out, I noticed a local walking towards our pack, so we headed back to them with great haste.
The river from Long Wall was flowing quite well, lots of animals around, but otherwise no different to how it would normally look in April.
We bagged Long Wall Peak, and I congratulated Mike on his completion of all Giants Castle’s khulus (note that Giants Castle Peak and Giants Pass Peak are both at Lotheni, according to the maps). Mike found some debris from the crash that happened there a few years back. I am surprised I had never noticed this before, I knew it was the crash site, but I had never paid that much attention before.
We traversed from here to Lotheni Peak – the summit was playing host to plenty of shepherds, forcing us to carry our packs up it. We then followed the spur down into the Hawk/Tent valley – thus at least we cut a big corner by staying high.
This valley always feels very long, and after what felt like a few weeks, we eventually hit flowing water in the valley.
We had lunch, including a hot soup each, before heading towards the mighty Tent to bag the khulu. Nearing the saddle between Hawk and Tent, I noticed 2 locals following us. I decided to take a break and let them catch up to us, rather here than where we will stash our packs. Mike’s nose began to bleed, so I walked out to the gentlemen. Their first question was “what witchcraft is this?” After a 10 minute chat, and some chips, they left us. By now Mike’s nose had stopped bleeding. We walked for another 500m, just to make sure the packs were well out of sight. We found 3 different gullies that appear to go between the 2 peaks – a return trip will be required!
Tent is a big peak, but if you follow the southern watershed line, all cliffs are easy to bypass. Some mist was rolling around when we summited, but nothing major.
From here we returned to our packs, traversed around to the saddle between Hawk and Lithabeneng, and once again stashed packs before bagging this khulu. Once again, we stuck to the southern watershed line and encountered no difficulties. As we hit the top, mist came over, but fortunately we had a great view till right near the top.
We walked past the top of Uklebe Pass – which looks like a serious gully, not the traverse top I was expecting – before having lunch on the stream that flows down from near KaMas Pass. We had supper here.
We knew the valley was heavily inhabited, but we didn’t have enough time to get the entire way over Redi and still bag the khulus, so we decided to shoot for Terateng Cave.
Water bottles filled, and supper sorted, we began up the steep climb towards KaMas Pass. The trail is strong and easy to follow.
Near the top of the pass, we dropped our packs to tag Lithabeneng – a khulu I had not bagged before. We tagged the SA summit, and noticed the much larger Lesotho summit about 100m away. We then heard voices on the highway trail, so we ran back to the packs without bagging the Lesotho Peak. The Lesotho peak looks rather big and blocky, actually really awesome – but one for next time. We counted the khulu as a khulu bagged, after all, Murch ignored Lesotho in his definition. But we both knew that the khulu wouldn’t stay on the list when a better definition is implemented, and we both plan on going back for the Lesotho Peak.
It was already around 7PM, so we had no plans for bagging Terateng this night, it would have to wait for morning. We had a look at the ashy floor of the cave, and soon found a lovely flat spot to camp about 200m away from it. The cave looks great, provided you have about an hour to shovel dirt and you have a good ground cover!
The nearest water was a good 100m vertically below us, so we would have to make do with what we had. Fortunately we were out of sight of the highway trail, and we had a lovely view to wake up to!
Day 10: Going Bigger (Near Terateng Cave to Nhlangeni Base Camp)
We began the day by hauling our packs up above the highway, bagging Terateng, and then going up Redi. We went up both the main Redi summit and the false pointy top nearby. No reason why we “had to” go up both, but for the sake of completeness, we did.
From here we shot up the easy Litseketseke Spur before dropping down into the Hlathimba Valley.
The river on the north side of the valley was completely dry. He had had just over 2 litres of water between the 2 of us since around 6PM the night before, and all 3 bottles were bone dry by now.
Fortunately the river on the far side of the valley was flowing solidly, saving us having to complete another ridge without water. We went up Mlahangubo Peak along the way, before holding the escarpment edge line through the top of the next valley. This line adds a lot of distance and altitude for a view that isn’t particularly amazing – so I do understand why people don’t normally do it – but I had bigger fish to fry. 3024 and 3166m fish to be specific.
We had an early lunch on the escarpment edge. Even when the spot isn’t as spectacular as the top of Leslies or Rwanqa, it is still a good view. Mike decided to have oats and pilchards for lunch, which made me wonder if he was about to run out of food. He explained that he didn’t have oats for breakfast due to lack of water, and he had extra pilchards after having the resupply a day early. Seeing as we were on track to comfortably finish a day early, I didn’t stress about this.
We walked around the base of Ntsupenyana, traversing higher as we went, before stashing our packs in the Ntsupenyana/Ngaqamadolo saddle to climb the peak. The peak is usually very far out of the way on a GT, but our line through the valley made it possible. At 3024m, it isn’t very high, but has well over 100m prominence due to how low the surrounding valley is – thus making it quite an effort.
When we returned to our packs, we decided to take them up further so that we could traverse higher around Ngaqamadolo – after all, there is a kraal quite high up on the Lesotho sister peak, so there was likely to be a good trail. This could also easily cut off 2km.
Like we had done on the Hawk and the Tent, we stayed on the watershed line, this time climbing the eastern Arête line. The cliff bands were easily negotiated, but the mountain did take an age to climb. When we got near the top, the large chasm separating the highest point from the ridge we were on began to bother me. Fortunately it can easily be walked around once you are near the top. Lightning was striking around Thabana Ntlenyana, and I could see a lot of rain coming – so we got some photos before racing down. Logically we should have carried our raincoats up, but we hadn’t. We also didn’t cover our packs – Mike has a black cover, so no problem there, but mine is bright orange, so I am always concerned that it will attract attention if not well hidden.
We reach our packs as the rain hits. Rain coats and splash covers are on before anything gets wet, so no harm done this time. I look at the time to realise that it took over 2 hours to bag this particular khulu. And that was without packs!
We traverse around as the rain begins to pick up. I was right about the trail, and soon we are nearing around 10 dogs, but their shepherds keep them quite. Once we are around the corner, we drop down to the lower trail.
To my horror, the Mohlesi River is dry! We find water in a side stream, and we decide to stop here for supper. I knew I wanted the big khulus, so I had kept this day short – so this wasn’t a problem.
As we were cooking, it began to rain again. We quickly finished cooking, gulped our food down and soon started walking again. Near the base of Nhlangeni we found a pretty rubbish campsite without much concealment and not that close to flowing water – but Mike had had enough, so we set up our camp here. It was raining, but Mike and myself have done so many drills on setting up a tent in under 5 minutes that the tent is up in no time.
When I get into the tent, Mike finally tells me that he has run out of food. I had kept my extra day of food in reserve, so this wasn’t a massive problem – but I knew that this could result in him not achieving the status of youngest person to complete a GT. After all, the rules require that he carries all his own supplies.
After him showing me everything he had left, I realised that all I needed to give him was a sachet of tuna, a cereal bar, 4 pieces of dried fruit and a packet of chips. 400g at most. But I explained to him that it was possible that he wouldn’t get the record because of this. This clearly upset him, but what can you do?
Day 11: Looking ahead (Nhlangeni Base Camp to Mangaung Pass)
We began the day by slogging up Nhlangeni Peak. Anyone who has seen this peak will know that it is a monster. We followed the southern Escarpment Edge side, getting a great view of King Kong on the way up.
We had had a slow start to the khulu chase, but after missing most of the easy summits at Mnweni and Didima – we were not looking on track for the record. Having bagged almost everything at Giants and Lotheni, and on track to take everything at Vergelegen, Nhlangeni had put us on 52. This meant I had broken my personal record, but we knew we had to bag almost everything from now to the finish if we wanted to take the record.
The last 2 days we hadn’t gone far, and this would be another shortish day – meaning that from Sani to the finish we would have no more reserve days available.
We decided to take a funny line through the Mohlesi region – we were already so far around, so we found a traverse line into Mohlesi Pass. It was a bit exposed, but we hit the pass above a large boulder. It was clearly possible to traverse out on the other side, but we stayed in the gully to the top of the pass. The pass is shown as “may require ropes” on the map, and David Bristow says it shouldn’t be called a pass – but from above it looks like the obstacles can easily be avoided by the grass slopes true right of the pass. I doubt I would even bother staying in the gully if I did the pass.
We topped out, passing a decent looking cave on the slog up to Mohlesi Peak. When we reached the top of the peak, there was a large group of locals with bags giving us the evil eye, so we didn’t tag the saddle, just got quick summit shots and moved on.
We sat in a nearby saddle and found yet another decent looking cave, this one has clearly been used before, with a stone wall outside. It looks like it wasn’t used recently, though, as it was a bit overgrown.
We proceeded to climb the false Sehonghong Peak (which we climbed on purpose, we knew it wasn’t the correct one), and then climbed the actual Sehonghong.
We had lunch in the saddle between Sehonghong and KaNtuba Buttress. The view from this spot is great, and being yet another short day, we had no real urgency to get moving again. I knew the next 3 days would be tough, so I didn’t want to put the pressure on at this point.
We left our packs below KaNtuba Buttress and had a long stop on top of KaNtuba Buttress. It has to be the highest summit where the cairn is within 1m of the escarpment edge – well worth a visit and clearly visible basically from Giants to Mashai. We had cellphone signal for the first time in a week while here (previously Upper Ndumeni Cave), so I got off a few smses, including one to move our pickup plans a day earlier.
With the end now in sight, we went up SA’s 5th highest peak – KaNtuba. For the second year in a row, I bagged this peak on New Years Eve in the rain – although this year included hail as well. When the rain calmed, we took summit shots, before dropping the packs and bagging Manguang (3401m) – a Kgolo in Lesotho (KaNtuba Peak on Peak Bagger). It doesn’t count for the GT khulu record, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.
Looking down at the Phinong Ridge Gap and knowing how close Sani is, it took great restraint to not just make a dash for it. We agreed that we would only reach Sani around 5PM, and would have to stay there for the night. Being New Years Eve, that would mean noise till the early hours, and we needed to keep our focus for the task at hand.
We went back to our packs, and held the escarpment edge on our way down to SA’s Manguang Peak. There are a few gullies around Manguang Pass, they all look like they go from above. Manguang Pass is south of the khulu, I believe the one north is Dykes Pass, but I am not 100% sure.
We camped a bit around from the top of the pass. Once again we set up the tent to avoid the rain, although this time the rain only came an hour after we set up. I sent Hobbit on a 1km walk for water – after the walks I had done for water in the first half of the traverse, I had made up for this by getting him to do all the water collections. The rules require a 50:50 share of all work, including cooking and water collection. Andrew reminded me of this at UIC, so I made sure Hobbit did basically all cooking and water collection from there to the end. Well, that was the excuse I used anyway!
It did eventually rain quite heavily, but we were already in the tent by then, so we didn’t care.
This was New Years Eve, the end of 2015. The morning would bring Sani – we had washed our clothes in the river, cleaned off properly. We were ready to be as presentable as people who have been on a mountain for 12 days could be. I didn’t know the exact stats at the time, but I was ending 2015 on 1227km of hiking in the Berg – shattering my record set a year earlier. Not just shattering it, but over a third of my total Berg distance was in 2015. We both went to sleep knowing tomorrow would be a good day.
We had some “natural fireworks” during the night – a very loud thunderstorm welcomed in the New Year for us that night.
Day 12: Bullets and Thunderbolts (Mangaung Pass to Sandleni Cave)
A 4:30 alarm clock officially welcomed us to the new year. The smell of hot food at Sani was in the air, on this occasion it was easy to get going quickly.
Before Sani, however, there were some khulus to bag. We started by shooting for the peak I refer to as Nshinshinshinshinshini – although it is actually just called Ntshintshini. There are 2 summits for it, we climb both, getting the prominence off each. The higher one is the khulu, with a rather interesting narrow cliffy top and a large spire just below – who says the Southern Berg has no rock climbing peaks?
We proceeded up to Mqatsheni – bagging both the SA summit (which is currently a khulu, although I fear, not for much longer), and proceed to tag the Lesotho high point as well. As we hit the Lesotho summit, it begins to rain.
My GPS says that Sani is 3.6km away, although also roughly 400m vertically below us. Rain coats on, splash covers on, Sani ahead, and march! It was 6:42 when we left Mqatsheni, and we motored it to Sani from there. My GPS track shows a surprisingly straight line once we drop below 3000m, only significantly altering our course upon reaching the outer wall.
We drop our packs inside at 7:30 – we had hoped to be there by 7, as that is when breakfast opens, but fortunately basically everyone is still asleep after the early morning celebrations, so no trouble finding space, and the good food isn’t finished yet.
We must have had 4 full plates of food each, the food was really good and fresh! Thank you Sani Mountain Lodge!
After an hour of eating, I try to hunt down our resupplies. No one seems to know where they are, but the manager will know – when he eventually wakes up. Apparently Brian only got to sleep at 4 that morning.
By 10AM, I am starting to plan alternative arrangements for what we can do if our resupplies aren’t there. Sani to Bushman’s Nek in a day is quite an ask, but if we can get some food from Sani, we can at least hit Mashai Shelter for the night.
Eventually our resupplies are found, and at 10:45 we leave Sani in bright sunshine.
We give Sani Peak a skip (not to be confused with the large unnamed conical summit next to North Hodgeson’s). On our way up towards North Hodgesons we meet a British teacher on holiday from Malawi – we lead him up North Hodgesons as the mist rolls in. On the way up we hear 3 very loud gunshots. Well, they sounded more like surface-to-air-missiles, I have no clue what calibre the gun must have actually been – but I have never heard the round through the air like that before. As much as I know my World War 2 tanks – the difference between an M4A3E2 and an M4A3E8 isn’t lost on me – I really can’t identify guns by sound. So what it actually was will remain a mystery to me – all I know is that it most certainly wasn’t a SAM! Perhaps the echo in the valley resulted in that particular sound.
Anyway – we dropped our packs, but in the saddle between North Hodgesons and that conical peak behind it, we saw 4 Basothos – not very interested in us though. I was immediately worried about where we left our packs, but when I saw them going for that saddle, I worried less.
We bagged the khulu, due to the mist, the British man decided to skip the south summit as we shot back to our packs. The 4 men had mounted up while we were summiting and were now galloping around and shouting in Sotho to each other. Our packs were fine, although they were very close to them when I got back to them (I actually ran the last 200m).
As we dropped into the valley, I saw some men walking through the valley with large sacks, and there were more gun shots. About 5 shepherds in the valley were scrambling to get animals and were running away from Masubasuba Pass. I realised this was actually quite a bad situation to be in. In the back of my mind, the recent mugging on Masubasuba Pass was also a thought. I decided to follow suite of the shepherds and we walked downstream to a concealed position where we waited for about half an hour.
By this point, my mind was struggling to differentiate gun shots and lightning – I did not want to be in this situation, I wanted to get as far from this valley as soon as possible. When we left, we saw another group coming over the South Hodgesons ridge with large bags, so we soon sat down again to wait for them to pass.
Eventually we set off, found a trail and traversed the ridge. The gap we took was much further inland than the normal gap – I used the gap on the VE GPS track, but my camera stayed firmly packed away. No reason to make people worry about me.
As we neared the saddle, I local was hiding behind some rocks, I asked him if it was ok to keep going, and he said yes. Not sure if he was a look out, but seeing him did admittedly make me jump!
As we dropped towards the Pitsaneng River, I was very happy to not see anyone else around. Lightning picked up as we dropped towards the river, but I kept walking in as straight a line as possible towards Sandleni Cave! Seems this day warranted a lot of straight lines!
It was pouring with rain, lightning crashing all around us – but we were both still full from a big breakfast, so we kept on going. In my mind, Sandleni Cave is the best choice for this night (it was the original plan anyway). The cave faces away from the escarpment and is far from where the action was. At this point I was really wishing I was there.
We reached the cave around 4PM – our earliest finish since Upper Ndumeni Cave. The main cave was mostly soaked, but the tunnel caves looked worse. We found a large dry patch right at the back.
I repaired some of the drainage channels from the prior year, and we set up a clothes line near the entrance. The flow of water at the back of the cave was fast enough to fill a 750ml bottle in about 10 seconds with very fresh, clean and icy cold water. What a luxury that flow is!
It had been a very stressful day, but at least it was over. It cleared up around sunset, the views below were great – and more importantly, Thamathu Pass Peak was visible. What other encouragement does one need!
Day 13: Mist Opportunities (Sandleni Cave to Mzimude Cave)
Day 13 started slowly. There was mist around, but it looked sunny above the cave – so I ended up waiting on top for Mike to finish packing up. When he arrived, I reminded him about his splash cover, and he quickly popped back down to get it. So, for the moment, the tally of lost gear is still only 2 water bottles for the trip. He had bought a 500ml Poweraid at Sani, so at least the bottle front was looking a bit better.
We set off across the valley in the mist. Like a year earlier, the Sandleni valley was a large marsh. Probably more from the days of rain than anything else, but I will not complain about too much water during a drought.
We slowly made our way up No Mans Peak in the mist, following the VE GPS track. The mist cleared briefly near the saddle, just enough for us to bag the khulu. The summit cairn has been trashed, but otherwise I could entirely believe that there is a massive dropoff right next to me.
We stopped just below the peak in a patch of sun. Well, it was sunny for the first 20 seconds. From the top of North Mzimukhulu Pass we could switch to the Speed GT track (which had only loaded on my GPS between Bannerman Cave and the finish line due to a system error). I knew I wouldn’t find Verkyker’s summit in the mist without a degree of luck, so we opted for agreeing to do Andre’s Knob instead on the last day. No Mans was our 61st khulu, so 3 more gave us the record – but we knew that Lithabeneng and Mqatsheni would be suspect, and unlike the other suspect khulus on our list, these 2 weren’t on Andrew’s list. We also needed to account for the fact that Ifidi Pass Peak was disallowed in Andrew’s 63 (actually 64 khulus plus 1 kgolo with Ifidi Pass Peak and Thamathu) – so we needed every khulu we could get.
We met some very friendly Basothos near the top of North Mzimkhulu, they walked with us for about 1km before we went our separate ways. They pointed us to the saddle that Andrew’s GPS track pointed to – so we took the easy way over the Verkyker Ridge. We also met a very well dressed man on a horse, probably the chief, or chief’s son, he spoke very good English and couldn’t understand why we didn’t just catch a taxi. He also warned us that it might be dangerous for the two of us to hike without anyone else, but I told him I wasn’t worried. He smiled and went off.
The saddle Andrew uses on the speed GT cuts some distance and comes out right near the bottom of the Mlambonja Ridge, so it made sense on this occasion. Our choices were a harder line in the mist with no GPS track, or an easier, shorter line in the sun with a track. The difficult choices we have to make at times…
I had hoped to race through the valley behind Rhino, with all the troubles we had had here in the past. Perhaps it was the massive purple cloud engulfing the high ridge, or maybe our timing was good, but we only encountered 3 very friendly Basothos in this valley on this occasion. None of them even asked for anything.
I gave Mike a brief geography lesson on topographic rainfall (which was happening in front of us) and an oxbow lake (which we crossed just after crossing the main river). Always important to pretend that hiking is an educational activity…
As we began to climb Mashai, Mike was behaving strangely. He then said he needed to take a walk so he could look for something. I suggested that he should take my GPS in case the nearby mist makes it hard for him to find me again. He spent a good half an hour looking before he returned to me, it turns out that he dropped the fleece I loaned him and couldn’t find it. I was not happy that he went so far to look for it – he had a raincoat, so if it rained he should be ok, but what if he was attacked or injured and I couldn’t see where he was. So after a lecture about looking after gear and not going that far away from me on a trip, we set off up towards the saddle again.
We took a while to get up, but were soon standing on top of yet another peak in the mist. I suspect I could go the entire way from Garden Castle to the top of Mashai in the mist without much difficulty, so doing the last 100m in the mist was easy. Hobbit was looking a tad blue, probably feeling guilty about losing the fleece I had loaded him, so to try and cheer him up we did the supposedly traditional Green Jelly Bear Song chant:
The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see – hey!
The other side of the mountain was all that he could see
So he went back over the mountain to see what he could see – hey!
The other side of the mountain was all that he could see
After about 3 tries, he finally went along with it and was looking much brighter.
From here we tried to stay as close to the escarpment edge as possible. We knew we were still going to struggle to break Andrew’s record, so Mzimude was a must. We took a good break before dropping packs and heading up the khulu. We took a funny scrambly line through the top cliff – let’s call it the western arête, probably about C grade, although very wet on this occasion. We checked the large cairn and the actual summit cairn before taking the easy way down the north face (no scrambling required).
From here we hunted for Mzimude Pass Peak in the mist. We climbed 3 summits before I settled on which one it was. I recognised the Michelin Man rock feature from the prior year, so I knew I had it. Actually I only really knew I had the correct peak the following morning, but let’s just pretend that I was ultra-confident finding a very arb bump in a large valley in thick mist! The summit cairn wasn’t what I remembered, but looking back at my GT2014/2015 photos, it was the same top.
Anyway – as it turns out, my GPS co-ord for Mzimude Cave was gone, and I had no co-ord for the pass gully, so I had to figure out where it was in the mist. Fortunately the mist cleared just enough to spot the cave as I had concluded that a particular gully was not the right one – when in fact it was the correct one.
The water below the cave was flowing slowly, so no water problems for this day.
The mist was so thick that night that we couldn’t see anything outside the entrance to the cave. Not even the cliff literally 5m outside the cave. Easily the thickest mist I have ever been in, and I lived in Hilton for 7 years.
Day 14: Bacon and Cheese (Mzimude Cave to the finish line)
The final day of the GT was here. There was some low cloud, but I could see we were in for a hot day.
We started by getting up to the final saddle of the High Berg Escarpment (well, aside from the top of Thamathu Pass). We dropped the packs and shot up Walkers. The summit of Walkers is actually in Lesotho, so we made a point of bagging the Lesotho summit, and the tiny SA summit with 2m prominence (about 20m apart). Walkers was our 65th, so we had the record if dodgy summits are included. If Ifidi Pass Peak is taken off Andrew’s list, and our 2 dodgy peaks are taken off as well, we were on the record at this point – 63 khulus each. Technically Walkers is a dodgy peak too, but unlike the others, Andrew’s record also included it.
We dropped back to our packs and started down the ridge. Near Isicutula Peak, we dropped below the cliff line on the SA side, using the fissure gully that lines up with Isicutula Pass, Walkers Pass, Sandleni Pass, Dykes Pass and eventually Giants Pass. We traversed from here, and after about half an hour we were standing on Andre’s Knob. How to word that better? We climbed Andre’s Knob? No, that’s worse. Anyway – juvenile jokes aside – we now had the record irrespective of how you classify it. I hoped to beat Andrew’s record by enough of a margin that we would withstand a reclassification of khulus, and hopefully the likes of Tent, Hawk, Ngaqamadolo etc. will have helped with this, but we both knew the haul would be in danger. We returned to our packs before bagging the last freebie khulu – Isicutula.
We dropped down Isicutula Pass quite quickly – stopping for a break near the bottom. Water was flowing well from quite high up on the pass.
From Isicutula Pass to the top of Thamathu Pass is always quite boring, but the smell of cheese sandwiches kept us going well. This was my first time coming down Thamathu Pass (my 4th time on the pass though), so views were different to normal, but with the heat baring down on us, we just kept going.
As we neared Mushroom on Thamathu, Hobbit was looking very flat and had slowed considerably. It turned out that he was out of food and water. I had some food left, but for reasons I can’t explain now, I didn’t offer any to him. I gave him some water, and we were soon off again.
As we hit the river crossings we agreed that it was too hard, we should bail and just head back to Sentinel.
As we crossed the last river, my mother (who was collecting us at the finish line) was waiting under a tree.
We tagged the border fence around 1:15PM, meaning that our time was around 13 days and 15 minutes. My mother had brought all the leftovers from Christmas lunch, so we had a good meal before we set off. We then stopped at that place between Silverstreams and Bushman’s Nek Resort (not sure of the name, it has a large sign about paintball outside it) for some cheese toast and chips.
A good hike indeed!
So which is easier, 5 days or 14 days
You would think I would have to think about this, but I really don’t. If you put in the proper training for either, the 5 day GT is far easier – well for me anyway. A light pack and long days vs a heavy pack and slightly shorter days but for almost 3 times as many. The challenges of both differ greatly, and a normal GT does afford you more exploration time. The routes are quite different, and I would propose that the easiest way to go a GT would be over 6-8 days and without a tent (perhaps taking a bivy bag in case you don’t reach your caves).
I sent the info of the assistance I gave to Mike (the food and occasional water) along with the submission for the record regarding youngest individual to complete a GT. Dave Gay defined the rules for a youngest GT record, and has confirmed that Mike did meet his requirements. So let’s have a round of applause for the new GT FKT, when measured from birth, of 14 years and 332 days.
While I know Andrew Porter will slaughter our 67 khulu record some time soon, let’s give Mike a further round of applause for pulling off that feat. The record was tough for me, and I had done almost 500km of training in the 2 months preceding the GT – including another GT. He had only done 1 overnight hike in the preceding year! I suspect that myself and Mike will be the first team where 100% of the khulus were done together by the full GT team on a GT khulu record trip. This record can currently be broken with a degree of concerted effort – I rate up to 80 can be done quite easily on a 14 day GT (if you slaughter the Yodeler’s/Champagne ridge, which none of the 50+ trips did).
I am going to go ahead and define a 3rd record for this trip – in the space of 48 days I went from starting one GT to finishing another (required to be on foot). I assume this too is a record. I am not that worried about having this record for myself, I simply hope that Andrew will take the bait and break it by doing 2 GTs in a week [subsequent note: a year later Mike and I returned and did back to back GTs in under 16 days]
I didn’t record most of the track (aside from summits), but generally a khulu adds 1km, and peaks like Ngaqamadolo and Tent most certainly add much more than that. So if we take the standard 230km track, plus the 68 khulus and kgolos we did, that means our GT would be 298km long. During that time I took 1580 photos!
Special thanks go to many people, but especially to:
Andrew for helping with logistics, the resupply, the 2 Christmas cakes (even though we didn’t get to the first one in time) and encouragement. Your contributions to this GT made it possible!
To my mother for logistical support and the meal at the finish line. Especially the meal at the finish line!
Sani Mountain Lodge and Sani Pass Tours for arranging the second resupply at no cost!
To Hi-Tec SA (and especially Ben) for the gear you provided, you guys are legends! I suspect that those Flash Lite shoes are the first Hi-Tec trail shoes to complete 2 GTs.
To Mike for joining me on this rather epic GT and putting up with my barking of orders in the pouring rain!
To Roger M for offering to help with the resupply – even though it didn’t work out like that, your offer allowed us to plan to do something more difficult than what we had at first planned.
To everyone else who encouraged us, who reads this report (or even just looks at the photos) – it is great to know that we don’t hike alone!
As to the question of whether or not I will do another GT any time soon – I suspect I wrote that I wouldn’t roughly a year ago, so who knows. But 3 GTs in 13 months, probably not doing that again! But really – my very long list of Berg goals has been reduced to 3 remaining goals, so perhaps I will calm down in 2016 and just do chilled stuff. Maybe just go for my remaining non-technical khulus as day hikes.
For everyone who hasn’t done a GT, a GT is a really worthwhile hike – if you can’t do the full trip, see if you can make a plan to do it in stages over a few years, but don’t just leave big chunks of the Berg. Every bit of the Berg is special in its own way. There are so many hidden gems that many people will never see.