For many years I have had a strange obsession with the Giants Cup Trail. It is a gem that somehow remains largely unknown. It is one of the few hutted trails in South Africa, and yet, unlike the others, you generally don’t have to book it months in advance. In most cases, you could probably book it the day before you start.
For those who are unfamiliar with the route – the Giants Cup Trail is a 5 day trail from the Sani Road to Bushman’s Nek.
The one difficulty of the trail is logistics – it is about a 60km drive from where you start to where you finish. Naturally arranging transport can raise certain challenges and additional costs, so the notion of doing it back-to-back had always been in my mind. But the main reason for wanting to try this configuration was simple: I had a theory on an approach to a Drakensberg Grand Traverse where you break the hike into two 30 hour sections with a 10 hour break in the middle, and this would be the easiest way of testing the theory, with the option of bailing at various points if it doesn’t go according to plan.
In 2017, I had two attempts at this. The first ended 46km in when I had an ITB strain, and the second ended 14km in when my team mate had an ITB strain. So when my hiking plans for the Heritage Day long weekend fell through, this seemed like a natural choice.
This would be my 3rd solo hike ever, and by far the longest distance I would attempt solo. As with the other two tries, I started at the end of the trail, intending to do the route backwards first. This wasn’t as much of a tactical choice and a practical one – there is nowhere to park at the start of the trail, and the Sani Road is far too rough for my car.
So after signing the mountain register and getting my start-line selfie, I began the long slog up Langalibalele Hill.
The weather looked ominous, but I figured I would be caught in a storm at some point, so no point in waiting it out. This idea backfired when I reached the first checkpoint – Bushman’s Nek Hut – 1.5km in and I ended up spending just over 10 minutes waiting out a thunderstorm!
After the storm abated, I began the slog up to the highest point of the trail. Seeing as the trail is designed to be done in the opposite direction, the roughly 400m in vertical is covered in under 4km – which makes it a fairly steep start.
The advantage of starting with the hardest part of the route is that it is out of the way early on. This first hill is much easier the other way around, seeing as the ascent is spread over three sections with a fair amount of distance between them.
The rain picked up when I was on top of the ridge, so my shorts and shoes were soaked, but my raincoat did its job nicely and I was mostly dry.
The short hill from the Mzimude River towards Swiman Hut passed by with no trouble, and I was at Swiman Hut just over 3 hours after starting. Not the fastest start I’ve ever made, but good if you consider that I waited out a storm for 10 minutes right near the start.
There was no sign of anyone at Swiman Hut, so I sat at the hut for a few minutes while having something to eat and drink, and then set off again.
The weather was very hazy, so the mountains where largely silhouettes for the majority of the route. Too hazy for decent photos, but the mountains are still spectacular.
Leaving Swiman Hut requires backtracking for 1.5km before taking the trail up the Garden Castle Ridge. In reverse, this day of the trail is one of the easiest. In the correct direction, this section of the trail is rather difficult. The reason for this is that day 4 of the Giants Cup Trail starts around 1600m and finishes just above 1800m, and has a highest point of just over 2000m.
It continued to rain on and off, and my rain coat continued to be taken out of my pack and put back. It was too warm to hike in a rain coat. Eventually I just ended up leaving it off.
This section ends with Black Eagle Pass, which is fairly easy to descend, but can be a bit of a pain to ascend. I tried to avoid thinking about the fact that I would have to climb this again in the not too distant future.
I usually don’t carry my phone on hikes, but on this occasion I carried both my phone and a power bank. I knew it would be a long time to spend alone, so I had been posting regular whatsapp statuses with updates. The messages of encouragement that my friends were sending were very helpful.
There was a group of people at Wintershoek Hut, so I had a brief chat as I got something to eat and drink. They offered me some food, which I had to turn down as this was an unsupported hike, meaning that I couldn’t use anything that I hadn’t brought myself – baring water from the rivers, taps at huts and showers at the huts.
By now I had made up the time I lost early on, I was feeling strong and as if I could beat my target of 30 hours by possibly as much as 2 hours.
The next section, usually day 3 of the trail, begins with a small hill and then a long road section. I knew I wouldn’t have phone signal for a while after this, so I posted a status update, replied to a few messages and put the phone away.
Bamboo Mountain is one of the harder sections of the trail, and starting it with 30km on your feet is never easy. Nonetheless, I managed to get up fairly quickly, and at this stage knew that I would probably be around 43km in before it got dark – which was very good news.
The top of this ridge is the home of Crane Tarn. Usually you won’t find swimming spots on top of hills, for obvious reasons. In summer, this is a great spot – you get to the top of the hill and can wash the sweat off in the tarn. Being September, the tarn was about 20cm deep at its deepest.
I made good time down the hill and saw 6 eland as I approached Mzimkhulwana Hut.
I reached the hut just as another group of people arrived at it. As it turns out, two of them had signed up for my 5 day Giants Cup Trail hike last year, but had to bail due to illness. I told them how I should be back at the hut by 5am the next morning and would probably stop here for a 30 minute snooze.
Day 2 of the Giants Cup Trail is generally the easiest day of the route, but fatigue was starting to catch up with me. I had made amazing time to this point, and was on track for a time of around 12 hours on the first half – which is significantly faster that what I was shooting for.
Because of the moonlight, I was able to keep my headlamp off for a while. But as storm clouds gathered, I was forced to use it.
This section of the route went down fairly easily, although my pace had slowed dramatically and I was definitely feeling the distance.
A group of mountain guides were staying at Pholela Hut. I had a brief chat with them before taking a nice hot shower and disappearing for a 30 minute nap. I spent more than an hour at the hut, which was necessary considering how tired I was.
The next section of the trail starts with an easy flat 2km before climbing up a fairly large but gentle hill. From there it contours around before dropping very steeply down to Ngenwa Pool.
By this point I was really struggling. My feet were sore, I had a bit of a headache and I was lacking energy. When I walked out of Pholela Hut, I had already passed my previous best on an attempt at the double Giants Cup Trail – bailing would be so easy (well, aside from having to hitchhike back to my car).
Somehow I managed to get myself up the hill and down to Ngenwa Pool. There is a bit of a scramble to get up from the pool – which is easy when you are 4km into the trail, scrambling up and you have daylight. When you are 53km into a hike, it is almost 11PM and you are trying to scramble down in the dark – it is rather tricky!
After managing to get one of my feet in the river, I was safely past the pool. I didn’t really notice the wet foot, I was reciting poetry in my head to take my mind off the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere, in the mist, nearing midnight and was all alone. In these situations, your mind plays tricks on you. Every now and again you see two eyes as your headlamp shines on some animal and you wonder what is looking at you in the dark. A bird flies out from near the trail and makes you jump.
My progressively slower advance finally came to an end as I reached the Sani Road at 00:03 – meaning that I did the trail in 14h34. My previous best was 15h58 – so I was very happy with. Your approach has to change when a hike doubles in length, so my pack was heavier and I had stopped more than I had on my Giants Cup in a day hike in October 2017 – which is when I recorded my previous time.
I didn’t feel great, and based on my attempt at a selfie, I suspect I was in a worse state than I realised at the time.
From a checkpoint point of view – this section is a bit odd. The sign and the road are both checkpoints, but are about 20m apart. So you get checkpoint 6 (the sign), checkpoint 7 (the road) and checkpoint 8 (the sign a second time) in a very short space of time.
By now I realised that I wasn’t going to make it back to Pholela Hut without stopping. The hill between the Sani Road and Ngenwa Pool felt ten times bigger than it actually is, and I was stopping every few minutes to catch my breath.
Around 1:20 I reached Ngenwa Cave and I knew I needed to take a 30 minute nap here. So I took out my bivy bag to avoid my sleeping bag getting dirty and set a 30 minute count down timer on my phone. As I was nodding off, I heard a rustling in my chip packet. I thought nothing of it.
When my timer went off and woke me up, I saw that there was a thunderstorm outside. Well – no point in setting off in that. Timer set to another 30 minutes, and back to sleep. The alarm goes off again, and it is still storming outside – so I took a third 30 minute nap.
15 minutes into this nap, I woke up, sat up and asked myself “what the heck are you doing?”. I knew I could easily sleep here all night – but I didn’t come here to sleep. I started packing up, just as a small mouse ran out of my chip packet (luckily it was almost empty at this stage, I knew the food could be contaminated and I could no longer eat from that packet).
I started moving again, and felt a lot better for having slept, but overall didn’t feel great.
At 4:30am, I realised there was probably signal on top of the hill – so I posted some nonsensically worded whatsapp status and posted a photo on the MCSA KZN whatsapp group. They say you shouldn’t message when drunk – I think it equally applicable when it is 4:30am and you have only had 2 hours of sleep in the last 66km of hiking! Luckily the message was sort of coherent, so no harm done.
I reached Pholela Hut as it was starting to get light. I could barely stand, so I decided to take another 30 minute nap.
I tried to avoid waking the people in the hut, but they had locked the first two doors I tried to open. Luckily the third was open. We had discussed my stop when I was at the hut the night before, but unfortunately the spot they had asked me to use for sleeping was also taken, so I picked another spot. About 20 minutes into the nap, I was woken by their alarms. Probably a good thing – I really needed to keep moving.
By this point my feet were very sore, I had no energy and really wasn’t sure how I was going to finish this.
Luckily I was back at day 2 – the easiest section of the trail.
I got up the hill fairly quickly, but found that I was taking far too many breaks. It was a beautiful clear morning, so I took plenty of photos.
I arrived at Mzimkhulwana Hut somewhere between 8 and 9. The group from the day before was still at the hut, so we had a bit of a chat, and Stuart commented about my post from 4:30 – which felt like it happened a few days before, not a few hours before.
The downside of being at this point on the trail was that there were no easy days left – each day had a big hill, and each is higher than the last.
I started the slow slog up Bamboo Mountain, spending lots of time enjoying the view (more accurately described as sitting and catching my breath).
Crane Tarn proved to be a perfect spot for a fairly long break. My feet were very sore, so I had taken to rubbing them down every hour or so. The mud in the tarn provided a very effective massage – words cannot describe how good that felt!
My progress down the hill was slow. I found another spot to soak the feet in the river. My feet were incredibly sore and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep this up. It felt as if my pace was on par with a snail in peanut butter. But I knew I could bail when I hit the road, if necessary, so I could reevaluate the situation then.
On reaching the road, usually the halfway point of the trail, so three quarters distance for me, I got the phone back out and replied to a few messages. The phone provided a welcome distraction from my feet. My knees had been doing a bit of complaining of their own, but nothing compared to my feet.
I took a break at Wintershoek Hut, ate some food and filled my water bottle. Black Eagle Pass was going to be a pain, and I was struggling to find motivation to keep going. At least I could bail at Swiman Hut if necessary – once you reach the road section near the end of day 3, there are lots of bailing options.
What’s strange in all of this is that I don’t think I ever really contemplated bailing, but it was at the back of my mind almost constantly from 9PM on the first day.
Black Eagle Pass went better than expected, but I still took a long time to get up.
On reaching the top, I thought I could make up some time and go a little faster – but every time I started to make good progress, I found myself sitting on a nice flat rock and enjoying the view.
I had been in a strange headspace for a while, and it wasn’t getting better.
At 3:04pm, I saw a nice flat rock and thought I could get a bit of a break on it. I just rested my eyes for a moment and suddenly it was 3:20pm.
Like what had happened at Ngenwa Cave earlier that day, although it felt like it had happened years earlier, I asked myself “what exactly are you doing here?”. I had worked so hard to get to this point, and here I was messing around and barely covering any ground. Another thought occurred to me – the sooner I’m finished, the sooner I can get some sleep.
Seeing as I wasn’t coping very well with the pain in my feet, I knew I needed a distraction. So I took my phone out and opened Pokemon Go. This worked surprisingly well, and I arrived at Swiman Hut in fairly good time.
There were a lot of people at the hut, but the hot water wasn’t working – so my notion of a shower wasn’t going to happen. All the beds were taken, so my idea of a final 30 minute nap was also not an option.
I forced down as much food as I could and set off. My phone battery was dead, and it looked like it was about to start raining – so I had to find another distraction from the pain.
What’s nice about leaving Swiman Hut is that you don’t really have any more bailing options – you have to finish. It was only once I was about 4km from Swiman Hut that I realised I started to believe that I would actually pull this off.
I was keeping my mind occupied by running through the lyrics of songs in my head. When I have been in this space in the past, I have used conversation as a distraction – but that wasn’t an option here. I remember discussing dentistry with AndrewP on the Nguza Ridge on my first speed GT – not because it was an interesting topic, but simply because it was the only way to ignore the fact that my feet weren’t up for the task at hand.
A thunderstorm was hovering around, but luckily it moved off to the east, and missed me entirely.
The final hill went off far better than expected. I had decided to disregard the notion of self-preservation, all I could think about was getting this over and done with. It felt like I was walking around 6km/h, but the fact that it took just short of 4 hours to do the final 14km tells me that it was much slower than that.
I had had this notion of a meal at Bushman’s Nek Hotel, but by this point all I could think about was getting into my sleeping bag. The top of the ridge was in thick mist, and following the trail on the freshly burned grass proved tricky. Luckily I had recorded a GPS track on the way out, so I could ensure I was still on track.
On the way down the final, I heard a loud noise. I couldn’t figure out what it was, till I noticed the silhouette a large number of (presumably) eland on the ridge right near me. They were running off. It felt like it was about 20 or so, but it could have been any number above 4 – I really wasn’t in the frame of mind to try and count animals.
I took a bit of a nasty fall as one of the rocks I stood on gave way – this would normally have been a non-issue, but my sore ankles really didn’t approve of this. Based on what my left ankle looks like at the moment of writing this, I very well might have twisted it.
The trail splits near the bottom of the hill. For the rules (which I defined) of this route, you have to cover the entire trail. The only feasible way of doing this is to go past Bushman’s Nek Hut one way and skip it the other way – unlike all the other huts where you don’t miss part of the trail by going to the hut.
As the lights of the border post got closer, my mind wasn’t on what I was doing – they were entirely on the fact that I could finally get some sleep. I touched the end point – the Ezemvelo offices – at 9:43PM, giving me a time of 36h14.
I only really realised how bad a state I was in when I proceeded to walk the roughly 50m from there to my car to pick up my tent. I posted a finish line selfie onwhatsapp – and couldn’t get over how trashed I looked. Admittedly I did feel really trashed.
So the final distance was 115km, with just over 4km in altitude gain and loss. Overall I was slower than I had hoped for, but I have to admit that I massively under-estimated the difficulty of this task.
Will I do it again? Based on how I feel right now, I highly doubt it. But I have said that about other things before!