Doubling back

Back in 2016 I had a rather odd idea – to do two Drakensberg Grand Traverses back to back. On a cloudy Thursday in January 2017 this goal was completed. It had been the hardest hike I had ever done, and I decided to take 6 weeks off hiking to let everything recover from the 463km of hiking I had just done over 16 days.

The question of “what’s next?” always comes up after doing something big. Always a tough question. A good place to start is to work on fitness, and while I had trained by doing over 800km of hiking to prepare for the Double DGT, I knew I wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be. Thus the idea of the Double Giants Cup Trail arose. After two attempts ended in injury, in September 2018 a very tired solo hiker touched the offices at Bushman’s Nek after covering the 117km in 36h14.

Within days of finishing what was supposed to be a form of training, but in itself was one of the most difficult things I have ever done – it occurred to me what I had to do next. The Drakensberg has three established thru-hikes: the Giants Cup Trail, the Northern High Traverse and the Drakensberg Grand Traverse. I had done two out of three back-to-back, it was only logical to go for the double hat-trick.

So Chris, Warren and myself set off from Cathedral Peak Hotel in cloudy warm conditions with the goal of finishing the Northern High Traverse twice in 3 days. It would be challenging, but most certainly doable.

The Northern High Traverse is a hike between Sentinel Car Park and Cathedral Peak Hotel. There are various different lines usually ranging from around 65km to 80km. This route has featured on many lists as one of the best hiking routes on Earth – and it is easy to understand why.

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The weather forecast had looked very wet, so we were happy that it was fairly clear and there were no signs of this changing.

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We made very good progress up Neptune Pools Ridge. There was some mist around when we reached the contour path.

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We took a break at the base of Mlambonja Pass. At this point we were still well on track to hit our target for the day, Ledger’s Cave, in daylight.

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Around halfway up the pass it started to rain. Initially this was nice as it had been quite a warm day. But as we got higher and the wind picked up, it became more and more unpleasant. The overgrowth lower down in the pass was also not great – we found ourselves getting very wet in these conditions.

We discussed heading to Twins Cave and waiting the storm out, but decided that Bellevue Cave was better suited for this as it was still on route.

We had lunch in the cave, sitting in our sleeping bags to warm up.

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The main concern with fast and light hiking is exposure to the elements. For the most part, any trip in the mountains is exposed to bad weather – you can’t sit out a storm on Mlambonja Pass in a tent, so there isn’t really anything that we could have carried that would have helped us in this situation.

After about an hour, the rain lightened a bit and we made our way out on top. We managed to get across Ntonjelana Ridge easily enough. Nguza Ridge is usually avoided on the speed line of the Northern High Traverse, but seeing as we were heading to Ledgers Cave, we had to cross it. Crossing a ridge in the mist is always an interesting test of your memory. Luckily I had a GPS track from the last time I crossed it, which came in handy.

We covered the last 1km to the cave in the dark. Hiking by headlamp in mist and drizzle is difficult. The light illuminates the drizzle really well, so you can’t really see your feet. A bit like driving in thick mist with your brights on. Tripping over rocks and stepping in puddles becomes fairly normal. It also isn’t ideal when you are trying to find a narrow gully at the top of a massive cliff band!

Luckily we found the gully to the cave fairly easily – entirely thanks to the GPS. We couldn’t see the summit cairn even though we were practically standing on top of it.

Ledgers is not the most sheltered cave around, and with thick mist wafting in, we knew it was going to be a wet night.

When the alarm went off early the next morning, we could see conditions weren’t getting any better, this was going to be one of those cases of the mountain winning.

Around 8am we all reluctantly got out of our sleeping bags and back into our wet clothes.

We reversed the GPS track from the day before and followed that back over the Nguza and Ntonjelana ridges. Just above Ntonjelana Gap we bumped into a group that was attempting to run the entire SA/Lesotho border. We had a brief chat with them – as it turns out, they also bailed down Mlambonja Pass and finished just behind us, although we didn’t see them again. They had been aiming for Grays Pass.

We opted for Mlambonja Pass over Bell Traverse due to the exposed sections being possibly dangerous in wet conditions. Chris did suggest Camel Pass as an alternative, which would have been more pleasant, but we decided that we wanted to get off the top as soon as possible.

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My knee was quite sore coming down the pass, and every bush we passed was dumping a lot of water on us. The walkout was very unpleasant and felt like it took an age.

Overall the hike had been one of the least pleasant I have ever done, and we only covered half the distance we had hoped to cover. We covered 65km with 2.5km in altitude gain and loss over the two days.

As with all things in life – if you always achieve them on the first try, you probably aren’t setting yourself hard enough goals. I will be back and I will complete this!

One comment

  1. Nice read. We, the group doing the #LesothoLoop, had hoped that the icy band of wet cloud would dissipate but alas, the mountain will be there for this weekend when we continue our journey from Cathedral to Injisuthi.

    That weekend was meant to be the start of the cold Esther. It didn’t disappoint.

    Possibly let me know when you doing the Double NHT. Wouldn’t mind starting out with you. 🤘🏼

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