Continuing my series of posting old hike reports that hadn’t appeared on this page – here’s a report from exactly 3 years ago. I actually named this hike report “a walk in the park” – the joke being that technically it is in a national park and therefore technically is a walk in the park. But it is by no means easy!
Where this story starts is hard to tell. I had wanted to do a GT before I knew there was such a thing as a GT. That may sound odd, but before I had ever been to the top of the Berg, I had wanted to walk from one side to the other. It is a curious goal to have, especially seeing as I wanted to do this since I was around 13 years old. At 13 I had been to the Berg twice, and my longest walk was Tiger Falls at RNNP (which I did when I was 7). In retrospect I have no clue how I had come to have this goal, probably something I had heard someone say, or something along those lines.
In 2010 after I caught the incredibly contagious “Berg Bug”, I had chatted to some people and learned more about the GT, it was more firmly on my to-do list. Of course I saw the glory, but none of the work that goes into it. As I worked towards becoming Drakensberg fit, and subsequently moved into the “failed Popple” period.
In 2011 I joined the online forum Vertical Endeavour. One of the first things I remember reading was a detailed story about a 4 day GT completed by Stijn. Oddly enough I have never managed to find this story again. The concept of a fast GT was new to me.
Around the same time, a group of former school-mates were considering taking a shot at the record. I considered joining them, but their plans fell through and nothing became of it.
On 1 May 2012, with great difficulty, I managed to complete my first GT – a south to north 11 day hike of approximately 231km. It was a great hike, but to say I made it through on will power rather than fitness is an understatement!
GT2012 was a turning point in my hiking – I was forced to up my game, and what followed was a steady increase in hiking, and the start of the age where I was actually starting to do what I set out to do.
There is an old saying “if you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room”. In essence – you want to hike with people who are stronger than you. Well, in April 2014, for the first time I hiked with Andrew Porter. His enthusiasm and self-belief are contagious.
Over Christmas 2014 I did my second GT, a 13 day north to south 291km hike with 51 khulus and the Sehlabathebe Traverse variation finish. During this time we had discussed many things, one of which was a question that had been in the back of my head for a long time: is it possible for me to actually do a GT in 4 days?
Since the day I had read Stijn’s report, I had wondered what I was actually capable of doing. Now having discussed what it actually entails, I was starting to wonder about this on a much more serious level.
So time passed, and the idea started to take some shape. Then one day, Andrew suggested a date for actually going and doing this 4 day GT. To me it had largely been one of those things that we would talk about doing, but would probably happen – now it was actually going to happen.
Build-up and training
With just under 3 months to go before this hike would start, I had some serious training to do. I had done some hiking over relatively easy hikes, but I knew that I was not on top of my game.
Fortunately I had planned a 3 day-er with Kliktrak. Greeted by bad weather, we ended up using days 1 and 3 as a walk-in and walk-out to Slab Cave at Bushman’s Nek. Day 2 had been a day of route-finding up a gully in thick mist, exploring the base of Walkers Ridge Pass, and then bailing back to the comfort of the cave. It had been over a month since my 3 day Free State traverse with Andrew, and most of the benefit from this hike had already worn off.
4 days later I found myself back in the Berg. This time with Tony Marshall at Monks Cowl. While the 4 days of the long weekend were well spent hunting khulus, I was clearly still off form. While I have never been as fit as Tony, I shouldn’t have found myself so far short. Nonetheless I pushed through and we had a great weekend, achieving most of what we set out to do.
2 weeks later I found myself at Garden Castle. This time with Dillon – another very fit individual. This time my pack was closer to 5kg – and after all, day hiking has always been my stronger area. We knocked off Bollard and Wilson, along with some khulus – but I knew I was not nearly on top of my game at this stage.
Another 2 weeks went by, and I couldn’t find anyone who was keen for long hard day hikes with an early start. I knew that exhaustion can lead to hypothermia, and when you have practically no gear, this easily leads to death. I was not willing to risk this on a 4 day GT, so I knew that I needed to go to the Berg – with or without someone else. After reading gloomy forecasts, I instead decided to climb the hills around PMB – hypothermia is much less likely to be an issue here. After walking about 10km and realising how boring it is to walk up and down the same hill multiple times, I gave Hobbit a call. He was keen to join me, and about 2 hours later we drove to Didima for an early start and an attempt at bagging Cleft in a day. He came close, stopping at around 3050m between Castle Buttress and Cleft.
The following weekend I roped Hobbit in once again, this time for a much harder goal – Mafadi in a day. When my car was stolen 3 days before the hike, it looked likely that I would have to cancel my plans, but I knew I had to make a plan to get there and make the hike happened. Once again, Hobbit came close, but missed out after bagging Injisuthi Dome and Trojan Wall – not bad for a day trip by a 14 year old!
The hike was getting close, momentum was good, I was feeling strong – perhaps the answer is that I can do a 4 day GT? One week to go, and I met up with Andrew at Didima. He was about to do his cycle GT and I needed to drop some things off with him for the finish, and he needed to drop off his things for the start. With yet another early start, we did Cockade/Bell Traverse as a day trip, bagging 3 khulus and 1 Pudding along the way (well Andrew got 2 Puddings). I was still feeling strong, but I had not been as fast as I would like on this route.
Finally the time was here – Andrew had reached Silverstreams a day early, I had finished up my work for the week, and I was on the road to Bushman’s Nek. We met there in the evening, and at 3 the next morning we were off again. Bagging all 3 Knuckles as well as Thaba Ngwangwe as a day hike, and getting back to Silverstreams before it was completely dark was a great way to close preparations. We had planned to do another hike the next day, but logistically it made more sense to start the GT a day earlier. So while I took the day off, Andrew took a light stroll over to Rhino Peak.
Sunday was an interesting day. My mother had come down with me so that my car wouldn’t remain at Silverstreams while we did the GT. So at midday the day before the GT, we found ourselves at Silverstreams, with some food for supper and breakfast, but otherwise only what we would take on the GT. We walked across to the hotel for an afternoon snack, and almost got caught in the rain on the walk back. How “funny” would it have been if we had to start the GT in wet clothes because we were caught in the rain the day before! As we reached Silverstreams, the rain became a hail storm. Fortunately we were mostly dry and all was good.
Day 1 – A Good Start, Silverstreams to Sehonghong Shelter, 56km, 3089m ascent
2:30AM and we are up. It is finally here. I am not sure if I am more excited or afraid. Whatever the emotion, in 30 minutes time we must be moving. I ate 2 bananas and an apple – my last fresh fruit for a while.
It is strange to walk the first km of the route before the clock is even ticking. One could moan about starting at Caravan 1, Silverstreams – probably the furthest point from the start that one could be at Silverstreams – but there is no reason to complain about it.
At 3:02AM we found ourselves touching the fence at the border post. The world was dark and quite. We had a long way to go, and had to get going. We hoped to summit Isicutula Pass by 10, Andrew described this as the crux of the route. I probably made some joke about how that would be the Chain Ladders for me – although the content of ones conversations at 3AM are rarely remembered.
It was getting light as we approached Thamathu Cave, but in thick mist, we knew it would take longer for our headlamps to find their way into our packs. To be entirely honest, barring some conversation about the Ottoman Empire and sickness spreading through the world, I recall very little of that first morning before the sun came out.
As we reached the watershed we saw a number Vultures tearing apart a dead horse. I made a joke about how I used to go under the nickname “the bearded vulture” – seeing as I was an auditor with a beard at the time (the beard may remain, but I don’t do much auditing these days).
We soon found Lesotho to be sunny and warm. The layers soon came off as we thawed in the sun. This was short-lived as we soon found ourselves in the shadow of Thaba Ngwangwe, a mountain covered in frost. Silverstreams had been icy cool the last few nights, the frost being the legacy of the cold.
The walk around Thaba Ngwangwe has always been my least favourite part of a GT – it is long and, quite frankly, boring. On this occasion it really just came and went. We took a short break at the base of Isicutula Pass before making a slow steady pace up the pass. I always find it interesting that this pass bottoms out around the same altitude as the top of Thlanyako Pass. Surprisingly quickly we found ourselves on top of Isicutula Pass – a full hour before the planned time!
So day 1 was going well, we bagged Isicutula Peak – not because it was a requirement, simply because it was there.
As we topped out the Walkers Ridge, we discussed some of the high peaks of the great Mountain Kingdom. How beautiful this day was turning out to be!
The Leqooa Ridge fell surprisingly easily as well, although we had last seen flowing water back at the base of Isicutula Pass – so the lack of water on top was clearly going to be an issue.
We stopped at the river between Bollard and Wilson, at least finding a bit of flowing water this time, before moving along. From here the route differs from that of a standard GT route. We crossed the Verkyker Ridge a bit further inland, although still came out at roughly the same place. For No Mans, we went well inland before crossing, and by the time we reached a bone-dry Pitsaneng River, we were well inland of where I have been before.
The hills had an odd whitish-brown discolouration. As it turned out, this was some form of flower that had invaded the hills. It was quite a sight, thousands of tiny flowers everywhere!
Just above the Pitsaneng River, 3 medium sized dogs looked rather hungry, not responding to our threats of throwing rocks at them. It is a strange thought – we all pick up rocks to throw at the dogs, yet if they come close and you do thrown the rock at them, what do you do next? Pick up another one and exposing your weakness to the animal? Fortunately we didn’t find out as the owner threw some rocks at the dogs and they went running off. In exchange for his services, he earned himself some sweets.
From here we continued to climb and traverse around the Hodgesons Ridge. This route took us well inland, and took a long time to get over – but our pace was good. Perhaps we would reach our goal early enough to get a good night sleep.
We eventually found ourselves on a jeep track, rolling up and down minor ridges before climbing up to Sani Stones Lodge. We had been discussing what it means to do an “unsupported” GT. As it turns out, so much as using the bathroom at Sani Stones would constitute cheating, and thus I was very happy to see the back of the lodge. From here we followed the road till we hit the Sani Road.
The Sani Road has been tarred, but the sides are sand, so I rate it will start to collapse quite quickly.
We crossed the Sani Road at sunset, we knew we had about 30 minutes of light left today. First priority was filling up our water – you don’t want to have to hunt down water in the dark during a drought!
Sani River – bone dry. Fortunately the Phinong River had a small flow that we could use. We filled up our water and set off towards the ridge that I now referred to as the Sehonghonghonghonghonghonghong.
We crossed a few more dry streams in the valley before it was completely dark. I had been assured that the shelter was close, so I disregarded trying to look after my last energy and tried to motor my way up the hill. BAD IDEA! In the dark you don’t have a true sense of time, distance or altitude. I guess the brain uses visuals to run its internal calculations, and a small square illuminated by a headlamp doesn’t help much. Some moonlight did reveal the shape of our surrounds, but it isn’t helpful on a ridge that I really don’t know.
After what felt like an age, we finally stood under the tiny shelter we would sleep under this night. Andrew took a photo as he had promised, and somehow managed to make tea, supper and get to bed in the space of time that I drank one cup of tea. If you want to know one of the secrets of how Andrew can do what he does, just watch what he can do in a 5 minute gap!
About 20 minutes later, I too was ready for a night of tossing and turning uncomfortably in a tiny little shelter that is barely big enough for 1. I was happy I brought my Klymit Static-V air mattress, the number of rocks under me would have rendered sleep impossible. The confined space was bad enough as it was!
Day 2 – Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Sehonghong Shelter to Bannerman Cave, 51km, 2608m ascent
2:20AM an alarm goes off. Neither of us has slept well, but day 2 is here.
Somehow, in the time it takes me to drink tea and pack up, Andrew can do that as well as eat a large breakfast. My strategy largely includes eating my breakfast as we walk – probably not my best call ever, but it is hard to get ready in 40 minutes.
By around 3 we are walking again. I have been over this Sehonghong ridge once before – on my 2012 GT we crossed it in falling snow. On my 2014/15 GT we crossed the ridge right on the escarpment edge, there the ridge is barely noticeable.
I can feel blisters have formed on my feet, the bottom of my feet are also feeling sore. The hills are feeling tougher today, but you can’t stay fresh forever.
After a while we finally summit the Sehonghong ridge. My joke of calling it the Sehonghonghonghonghonghonghong isn’t seeming so funny now, it did kind of go on forever! We begin to drop down into the next valley. The starlight of the late night is illuminating the shape of the Thabana ridge – our next monster.
We drop quite sharply to the river before starting the very long slow slog up the highest ridge in Southern Africa. I don’t know what to say about the ridge other than this – it is consistently nagging in gradient and goes on forever! We finally hit the top of the ridge as the sun rises. On paper it would be quite special to watch the sunrise from the highest point in Lesotho – but in reality it is quite a hazy day and the sunrise wasn’t the best I have ever seen.
We finally find ourselves standing on the summit. On top of the Drakensberg’s only Ultra-Prominence peak, we can see right back to the Leqooa Ridge and right forward to the Mafadi ridge. The distance we covered the previous day is far more apparent from here. It is windy on the summit, so we move off before taking a break.
The lack of sleep was clearly hitting me, on a few occasions I had been nodding off while actually walking. I had experienced this once before – on Kili with our midnight start. This is not a good sign.
We are now moving into new territory for me. We soon switched through a saddle before dropping into the Tsolo Valley. We got down this valley quite quickly. It is a beautiful valley. There was flowing water, so for the first time during the day, the shoes came off and I realised how dirty I actually was. A bit of cleaning off, and quickly a 5 minute break became a 20 minute break.
As the valley flattened out, the monster khulu of Ngaqamadolo is clearly visible in the distance. As we go behind the Mlahangubo Ridge, the shape of the valleys one uses on a normal GT become far more apparent.
Once this valley flattens out, the valley becomes relatively monotonous. The river eventually joins the Mokhotlong as some kraals are reached. From here we finally began the slog up the Mokhotlong. This section of the GT was easily the least enjoyable. Aside from being rather low in altitude, this wide valley goes on for a long time, the views don’t change much and the feet were really taking strain.
I can’t really say much about the Mokhotlong aside from the fact that it really felt like it would never end. When eventually it did end, we finally saw the Tent, Hawk and Redi. The big detour up Giants was near.
We left the valley by slogging up a ridge to meet the high trail the goes past Giants Pass. The day had been tough, and while Bannerman Cave was relatively close, I knew that Giants would be a slog. We had discussed using Giants Cave (the one above the pass) if Bannerman Cave proved too far. There had also been talk of a shelter near the large rock pool on the Jarateng River – as this would allow us to use the Jarateng shortcut the following morning.
Andrew suggested that we use the high approach to Giants, rather than the longer slog through the valley. We gradually made our way towards Giants Pass Peak, contouring around the high cliffs to come out at the top of the unnamed variation rock gully on Giants Pass. We left our packs here, taking out our cameras and Andrew taking along his GPS. Unfortunately the Yellow Brick GPS Transmitter remained in Andrew’s bag as we continued up to the most eastern Khulu.
It was very windy on the summit, but we soon found ourselves sitting on the large blocks of rock that mark the summit. Andrew had never summited Giants in clear weather during the day, and my only prior summit of it was on a hazy day – so it was great to enjoy the view for a few minutes.
We returned to our bags, greeted by a bit more rain – although nothing serious. We slogged over the Long Wall ridge to find the trail down the Jarateng. We passed my tiny cave in the valley before agreeing to push for Bannerman Cave.
My goal had been to be through Durnford Gap before it was dark, and somehow we managed this with 20 minutes to spare. We got down the valley quite quickly, dropping below 3000m before the headlamps came out. It is still slightly light around 7PM, and a discussion regarding the difference between astronomical and nautical last light followed.
We filled up our bottles from the confluence of the stream down from Bannerman Cave and the Langalibalele River. The slog up to Bannerman Cave would always be long, but at least it was home ground, so I knew what I was in for.
We eventually hit the cliffs of about 3100m, before realising the GPS co-ord we had wasn’t exactly correct. I sat down while Andrew walked around looking for the cave. I was finished, but very relieved when we walked into a cave that was larger and dryer than I remembered it being.
As at the end of day 2, we were still well on track for a 4 day time. I was exhausted, but the fact that I had managed to walk past Langies Pass without feeling an urge to take a closer look, was a good start!
Day 3 – Breaking Point, Bannerman Cave to Didima Cave, 40km, 1960m ascent
After my “sleep walking” on day 2, we agreed that a 3AM start time was a bad idea. So at 3:30 the alarm went off, and by 4 we were moving again. Today was scheduled to be the longest, and easily hardest, day of the route. It was already starting to get light by 4:30, and headlamps were already off as we began our descent into the Sanqebethu valley in the mist.
We climbed the Popple ridge by the spur near the SA/Lesotho border. It is odd to walk past my favourite khulu without bagging it, but this wasn’t the time. It was nice to be walking on the trail between Judge Pass and Mafadi again, and as we discussed the Battle of Manzikert, one of the highest ridges in the Berg began to melt away.
After bagging Mafadi, we descended into the mist. In the mist our line was not optimum. Andrew is great at navigation, but it is always slower in the mist.
We eventually found our way to the low saddle that leads to Starboard Base Camp. Near the top of this I felt absolutely dead. I would be lying if I said that Ships Prow Pass was not incredibly appealing at this point in time! We had initially planned to hit Easter Cave this night, but we were well behind schedule for this, and had already revised the target to Ndumeni Cave. Ndumeni Cave to the finish was still possible – but this meant doing Mont-Aux-Sources and the Chain Ladders in the dark. Reality regarding the difficulty of the goal was starting to hit home.
I told Andrew that I needed a break. I was still eating my food from day 1, I had eaten too little for more than 2 days now, and the effects were really showing. I told him that I would not stand up until all my chips and rice cakes from day 1 were eaten, so I sat there in silence, and forced the food down. We discussed the goal, and Andrew admitted that he had been doubtful from the start that we would achieve a 4 day finish. I had suspected this when he had suggested that we get permits for an extra day, and carry an extra day’s supply of food as a precaution. The reality is that he knows this game too well, and he was quite right.
So after much discussion, I admitted that a daylight finish at Didima Cave would be great. After all, a 5 day time is better than bailing, and at this rate, there was no guarantee that I would even be able to finish. We had covered enough ground for the last 3 days to be relatively easy – all around 40km – so it was just a question of securing the finish.
Having consumed a lot of food and water quite quickly, I was beginning to feel slightly more human again – baring the blisters and sore feet. We got up Champagne slowly, but fairly efficiently – the summit being just above the clouds.
Andrew wanted to try a new line higher up Nkosazana to hit the highway. The mist made this a bit harder, but we soon found ourselves on the highway, and much faster than one would via the side slope traverse usually taken. Andrew checked his GPS to find that we had begun to walk the highway trail in the wrong direction. We soon corrected this before heading along the famous Monks/Didima highway.
In thick mist and strong winds we detoured up Yodeler’s Ridge Peak – Andrew hadn’t done it before, so it seemed like a good detour. At first I doubted my selection of the summit, mostly as the summit cairn had been knocked down, but Andrew’s GPS confirmed the magically 3301m height, so I must have been correct.
Without a GPS co-ordinate for the cave, we had opted to find the ridge that runs from the saddle between the Western U-Bend peak and the 3323m Yodeler, follow the ridge down to the saddle, and then go on to the cave.
Seemed logical to bag the 3338m khulus while we were up there – kind of makes sense when just a few hours ago we had decided that this quest needed an extra day added on. One way or another, adding extra khulus was always a way to make the trip better!
From the western U-Bend peak we followed Andrew’s GPS looking for this ridge that never appeared. His GPS said we were right near it, but we couldn’t see it. Eventually we hit a large steep downward scramble followed by a large cairn. I was confused, but fortunately Andrew’s mind wasn’t as tired as mine and he pointed out the obvious – that this was the saddle by Didima Cave. We went around the corner, and there it was.
Most of the day had been spent in the mist, it was a miserable day for the most part, but for the first time I could get to bed before 8PM – with plenty of time to get ready for bed. Andrew set off to fetch water for both of us, while I sent out some messages before climbing into a nice warm sleeping bag.
Day 4 – New Goals, Didima Cave to Ledgers Cave, 41km, 1826m ascent
3:30 and the alarm goes off again. For the first time on the trip I feel no urge to throw Andrew’s phone into the nearest river
We agree to try an idea Tony Marshall had mentioned a while ago – instead of heading back up to the highway and down into the Yodeller’s Cascades, we contour around towards Didima Buttress. Along the way we see the lights of the Litseng Diamond Mine – I never knew it was visible from here. We decide to detour up the khulu, watching the sunrise form this well placed khulu.
I imagine that Andrew and I are not alone in our dislike of large fluffy mammals “yodelling” at us, so we decided to skip dog-central, and took Tony’s gully down the front of Didima Buttress. This route was absolutely incredible, steep, but the views were exceptional. We traversed along the ridge of Didima Dome, resisting the urge to bag the khulu, and soon found ourselves in the mist by the Thlanyako River.
The mist abated quickly, and we were greeted by many a bark up the next valley, but these were quickly quieted by their masters. Lesson learned – if you hit dogs early in the day, their masters will usually be with them. Amazing how they alternate between being fierce man killers and cute puppy dogs depending on whether or not their masters are around.
We stopped for a break on the river, mostly to clean up a bit. Our socks and shoes were soaked from the mist during the morning, so I took this opportunity to wash my socks and the lower part of my pants (which are convertible into shorts).
The rest of the valley behind Little Saddle fell surprisingly quickly. Ndumeni Dome was not as bad as I had expected, and I even about half of the way up Cleft before needing to take my next break. The day was looking good.
As we discussed solving logic problems on our way down towards the Elephant ridge, we found ourselves back in the mist. We rose above the mist on the slopes of Mahout, the slog up the third ridge of the day was taking its toll. Perhaps the toll had been the 3 previous days. It’s amazing how one day you can do Bushman’s Nek to Sehonhong, and just a few days later, Didima Cave to Mahout feels like a real mission.
The valley that followed was long, but posed no trouble. We had hoped to hit Rat Hole Cave this night, but that ship had sailed by now, and Ledgers had become the goal.
The Ntonjelana Ridge proved to be quite heavy, but a break and forcing some more food down seemed to do the trick. We found the correct Ntonjelana Gap this time, as it turns out there is a trail the entire way to it…
We stopped on the Nguza River for a break. This was the last water for the day, so we both filled up. We had planned to take the low saddle over the ridge, but opted to do it properly and go for a khulu neither of us had bagged – Nguza Pass Peak.
Having realised that I get up hills much easier when we chat about something – mostly because my focus is taken off how sore my feet are. So walking up this ridge we discussed the story of a dentist appointment.
About half way up we found a great spot for checking out the north saddle. The entirety of Nguza Pass is visible from here – I had never realised how high the traverse section was on the pass. Overall the pass doesn’t actually look that bad – perhaps it is one for my to-do list.
The khulu itself provided a great view of the Rockeries, well worth the effort.
As we made our way down into the valley, we found a great trail. I began to notice an odd feeling in my right leg – it turned out that my 3 hours in shorts had backfired badly. My one leg was very red, and my pants rubbing against this was becoming quite painful. I converted that side back into shorts. When we later hit a stagnant pool, I washed the leg off and put some gauze over it to prevent irritation. This worked for the remainder of the hike – although it is admittedly still sore right now…
We hit the ledge above Ledgers Cave as it was getting dark. We somehow walked straight past the massive cairn as a thunderstorm hit. We eventually found the gully, and with rain and lightning all around us – very aware that this isn’t where you want to be in a thunderstorm – we eventually entered the cave at about 7PM.
The thunderstorm went on for a while, strikes hitting all around us. It is all good and well to say that one should not be in a cave, especially not Ledgers, in a thunderstorm – but staying on top of an exposed plateau above a massive cliff wouldn’t have been much safer.
Day 5 – Finishing Strong, Ledgers Cave to Sentinel Car Park, 36km, 1328m ascent
Once again the alarm went off at 3:30. I had become used to this by now. We could have had an early start again, but seeing as we definitely wouldn’t beat 100 hours, or even Gavin’s time for that matter, we agreed to get some extra sleep and enjoy the final day. My feet were feeling much better now, I had a feeling this would be a good day.
Lots of distance to go, but only 3 hills. The final hill would be deadly, but I was not prepared to think about the finish just yet.
We passed Mnweni Pass as it was starting to get light. Andrew pointed out the well-hidden peak known as “Tony’s Mystery Khulu” as it grew lighter. We decided to bag the Outer Mnweni Buttress on our way to the Cutback Highway. When your pack is about 7kg, the first hill of the morning is always a freebie, but this time it had actually gone quite fast.
We had spent the week looking at our average speed (including breaks). It had gradually dropped day-to-day, but was at 3.4km/h by the time we hit the Black and Tan Wall saddle. We could hear explosions at the Litseng Diamond Mine – admittedly it sounded more like thunder, but you rarely get that with a clear blue sky!
We dropped down to the river behind Mbundini and soon found ourselves climbing a ridge again. I guess I was faster as I had no reason to try and preserve myself for a long day. It was time to go all out and finish this quest.
From the top of the Mbundini/Stimela Ridge we were greeted with great views. A traverse along a ridge and a bit more climbing soon ended in hitting the Kubedu River. This was our last water for the trip, but I didn’t feel like carrying much extra weight over the final hill – so I filled up to 500g of water.
The sight of the Sentinel from the top of the ridge was rather encouraging, but Mont-Aux-Sources was clearly still very far away.
We gradually made our way up the valley. Eventually it becomes necessary to start climbing properly. Naturally your altitude is low when you start climbing, and the summit above is not exactly SA’s lowest summit. According to my records it is SA’s 33rd highest, and more importantly, it held the status of being the highest khulu that I hadn’t bagged yet. I wonder how many people have ever reached 119 khulus without bagging Mont-Aux-Sources. Or for that matter, how many people bagged this summit for the first time on a fast GT.
It took forever to get up, but at 12:50, we found ourselves walking up to the summit cairn. We shook hands, from here, finishing is basically a formality. We got a summit shot, had some food and water and agreed to wait till the 1PM signal was sent before leaving the top. This would be our last break.
We made our way down towards the Tugela at a good pace, and bumped into a few people near the top of the chain ladders. These were the first hikers we had seen since we started. I guess this makes sense when you hike on weekdays.
The Chain Ladders have always been something I have found moderately scary, and going down them is worse than going up. On this occasion I really didn’t want to do them, but I didn’t have much choice. I had hoped that fatigue would allow me to go down without thinking about it, but instead I found them harder than normal. Nonetheless I plodded on and eventually found Andrew waiting at the bottom.
We had agreed that running was not allowed on this trip, and the plan was to reach the car park within an hour (it was exactly 2PM once we were done the chain ladders). So we walked as fast as we could, and on this occasion we were the rude hikers asking others to let us through. We took the high trail from below Standard Route through to the Zig-Zags, partially to avoid bits on rock where I would be slower, and partly to not have to find our way past others. About 1km from the finish it began to rain. Andrew pointed out that we shouldn’t change into our dry clothes till we have washed up, so we briefly stopped and took our raincoats out.
At 14:53 (incidentally 1453 is considered by many to be the end of the Middle-Ages, as the Byzantine/East Roman Empire fell in that year) we tagged the gate at Sentinel Car Park. That gives us a time of 107h51.
According to Andrew’s GPS track, we did the last 7.7km from Mont-Aux-Sources in 1h51 at an average of 4.2km/h. From the base of the chain ladders to the car park was 4.4km at 4.9km/h with a total stopped time of 38 seconds!
If I was to do one of these again, I would set the target at 6 days – that gives you 35-40km days, meaning that you can start around 4AM, and finish by 7PM. Otherwise I would do everything else the way we did it on this occasion.
Would I do it again? Probably not. [that’s funny to read – I have completed 3 more grand traverses since this happened]
Would I recommend it to others? Definitely!
Am I happy I did it? Obviously!
Do I think I could actually do it in 4 days? Probably, but I would have to really up my fitness, and more importantly, stamina.
Those who know me will know that I am neither the fastest nor strongest hiker around. This isn’t a hike just for very strong or fast– it is a hike that can be done by anyone that is willing to put in the training, and willing to sacrifice some comfort and sleep for a few days.
Some of the lessons learned
1. An air mattress and good sleeping bag is never a luxury item, a good night sleep is worth more than 2kg of weight.
2. Find food that works for you – something you can eat while you walk. For Andrew it is energy bars, for me it is chips.
3. It is very hard to burn the candle at both ends – a 3AM start and 8PM finish is really tough. A 4AM start and 7PM finish is much easier to sustain.
4. If your feet are getting sore on a hike, take your shoes off and give your feet a good rub down.
5. Chatting while hiking is a great pain killer when your feet are telling you that you have walked too far.
6. The amount of work that the likes of AndrewP actually have to put in what they do. Even small things like using a 10 minute break to eat, drink, fill up a water bottle and clean up. Breaks are where most of your time will disappear.
7. Most importantly – a 5 day cave-to-cave GT is something that anyone reading this can do. Yes, that includes you, don’t give me that look! It requires some planning, some training and the willingness to endure some discomfort for a few days. It is not something to go into lightly or to do without some good Berg experience, but if you are willing to put in the work – it is not actually as difficult as you might expect.
My gear list was as follows:
1. Icebreaker thermal vest
2. K-Way long sleeved shirt
3. K-Way Challenger fleece
4. Hi-Tec Hard Shell raincoat
5. Mr Price Sport Trail pants
6. 2 pairs of socks at once (no extra pairs)
7. Hi-Tec V-Lite Flash Force i trail shoes
8. A beanie
9. A UV buff
10. 2.9kg food
11. 2 water bottles
12. 200g first aid kit
14. Light weight camera
15. 2 spare AA batteries for my camera and 3 spare AAA batteries for my headlamp
16. Sunscreen (which weighed 38g at the start, and 31g now)
17. A tiny toothbrush and toothpaste
18. Lip ice
19. A tiny space blanket
20. Mountain Hardwear Pinole 20 Sleeping Bag
21. Klymit Static V ground mat
22. Nokia 100 phone
23. Osprey Talon 33 litre pack
Andrew carried his Jetboil for both of us and I carried my first aid kit for both of us, otherwise we each carried our own items and (aside from the occasional exchange of food) we didn’t share anything.
Special thanks to
Many people contributed in some way towards this hike, a special thanks goes out to:
Stijn for initially inspiring me to do this hike many years ago, for the advice you gave me and for the running commentary.
Kliktrak, Tony Marshall, Dillon and Hobbit for joining me on my training hikes leading up to the hike.
My mother for helping with logistics at the start of the hike.
To everyone on VE who provided encouragement before the hike, and who followed our progress during the hike.
Hi-Tec for sending me the trail shoes to use on this route.
And most importantly, to Andrew for actually getting me to go out and do this, advising me on how to prepare, what to take and what to leave behind, joining me on 2 training hikes and actually doing the hike with me.
According to Andrew’s GPS track:
Altitude gain: 10199m
Altitude loss: 9283m
Average moving speed: 3.42km/h
Total moving time: 64h08m52
Total time – including Silverstreams to the start: 108h02m03
Total stopped time – including sleeping: 43h53m11
Photos taken: 338