Spence Green

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I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Backpacking in The Drakensberg, South Africa

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14-18 Jan 2007

The Greyhound gate was staffed by an obese, indifferent woman who punched tickets mechanically with absent regularity. Conversely, I was in both excellent condition and an elated state, for I was to start a five-day, 75km hike in the Drakensberg this afternoon. But I was late, and although my ticket had been punched and my seat reserved, I couldn’t board the idling bus outside. With characteristic carelessness, I had forgotten my camera, and had sent my friend Carl racing off to his house to retrieve it. I paced anxiously, observing seconds becoming minutes, and minutes accumulates in groups of ten and twenty. As the last person passed through the gate, the attendant looked up and assessed me grimly. “You’s responsible,” she said, before hoisting herself from a burdened stool and shuffling off. I mumbled anxiously, calling down curses on myself like Peter at the Gate, as the last porters loaded bags into the bus’s little cargo trailer. Suddenly, Carl burst through a crowd of people, clutching my camera and grinning mischievously.

“Across town and back in 20 minutes! Sure,” he said, which, when articulated by a South African, sounds something like, “Sshaww”. I thanked him, then hurried to the bus, hoping onto the first deck, then taking the stairs two-at-a-time to the second level. There, I found my seat partially occupied by the sprawling hips of an enormous African lady. Excusing myself diffidently, I lodged myself between her and the window. A film began on an overhead screen, but I from my enviable perch was content with the images of South Africa in summer that appeared through my window: vast tracts of farmland, made fecund by rolling sprinkler systems; women, carrying water on their heads drawn from nearby ponds; the sky, which has a particularly diaphanous quality in Africa, whose people have not scarred it with chemicals. These sights I cannot describe adequately, for some things were made to be seen and others to be read about. The South African countryside clearly belongs to the former category.

Three hours later, Colin McCoy, my guide, found me dozing in the midday heat at the bus stop in Harrismith, a quiet, provincial settlement south of Jo’burg. Short, with a ruddy, sun-burnt complexion, he had the lean build of one unfamiliar with the “9-to-5 thing.” We wasted no time, immediately setting off for Sentinel Peak, where our trek would begin. The trip lasted two hours by car, and along the way he introduced me to the area. The Drakensberg (“Dragon Mountain” in Dutch) range runs some 250km, north to south, from the Royal Natal area toward the Eastern Cape. It is characterized by an almost uninterrupted escarpment, portions of which rise above 3000m. The escarpment forms part of the border between South Africa and Lesotho, an independent, sovereign state enclosed completely by its accommodating neighbor. Lesotho’s inhabitants call themselves Basotho, and converse in Sasotho. Discomfited by this capricious nomenclature, many have elected to label the whole affair “Sotho”. This stratagem I adopted enthusiastically. We probably won’t see anyone, he said, save for some Sotho herdboys tending their flocks of sheep, goats, and horses.

Colin’s father guided the car onto a winding, dusty track that crawled south toward Sentinel Peak. My ears popped repeatedly as we ascended to 2500m. At a carpark there, Colin paid the R125 park fee as I reviewed my gear. Better authors than me, starting with Herodotus, have catalogued the things men carry with them on voyages and into battle. I thus feel no need to describe our proceedings at this stage, other than to remark that I forgot a pen. The absence of this instrument makes me feel more naked than missing trousers. This log then comes largely from memory, and if it has been embellished by my mind, then I plead with a certain Dutch philosopher that, “…a fictitious idea cannot be simple [that is, clear and distinct], but is formed by the blending of various confused ideas of various things and actions existing in Nature.”

With little fanfare, we bid Colin’s parents farewell and started south, climbing with Sentinel Peak to our left. Several passing day hikers remarked at the burdens we bore, and carried on relieved that they were not testing themselves in a similar way. After a 1.5km walk, we reached a rusting chain ladder strung from a recess above. Climbing this, we mounted the escarpment, and walked toward the Amphitheatre, emphatically marketed by KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (e.g., “the man”) as “the world’s second highest waterfall.” Today, the world’s second highest waterfall was also its second highest trickle, though I suspected that the pregnant rain clouds to our backs would revitalize this alpine wonder. After filling our water bottles–Drakensberg hikers are blessed with an abundance of clean water–we retired to a drafty, stone field hut and gourmandized a frozen stew sent by Colin’s mother. Outside, a howling wind blew down from Mont-aux-Sources (so named by the nearby inception of four rivers) and across the flat escarpment.

Next day we arose at 6:30, leaving the hut by 8. We walked along the amphitheatre and past Ribbon Falls, youthful conversation turning quickly into meditative silence. We saw a few grey rhebuck, which are like small deer, grazing on the hills. Cresting a ridge, we looked down along a 10km trench bisected by a river. Basotho herds grazed on both slopes, and we saw the herdboys sitting nearby. Animal husbandry has remained a staple of this society, and these boys, whose ages range from pre-adolescence to mid-twenties, maintain a considerable amount of community wealth. Colin remarked that despite their poverty, their herds alone must be worth great sums. Indeed, I noted a few beautiful horses among the herds, and was transfixed as a herdboy came bounding down from his perch, mounted a horse bareback, and galloped after several wandering animals. In the evening, the herdboys move their animals into “craals”, which consist of a rectangular area adumbrated by a low stone wall. Occupying the craals center is a circular stone hut about 2m in diameter caparisoned with a thatch roof. We saw at least twenty of these structures, many of them abandoned, during our journey.

We passed a variety of landmarks, which I list here only for posterity: Ifidi Pass and the Pinnacles, Stimela Ridge and Stimela Peak, Mbundini Pass. By 4:30 a ‘Berg storm, characterized by intense lightning, had come up, so we elected to find shelter. Rat Hole Cave, our preferred destination, was not in its expected location; we observed it dolefully from across a deep ravine. We could not even locate Fang’s Cave, the next convenient stop. We thus quickly found a flat patch of ground–careful to avoid line-of-sight from the escarpment edge (the Basotho boys are not always innocent)–and pitched our tents, crawling in just as the rain came. The wind screamed across the ridgeline, and my tent shook violently, as if in the grip of a strong man. Later, we had a surprisingly sating meal that consisted of pesto and, of course, tea. We passed a quiet evening, our tents illuminated by the watchful moon.

The same routine ensued the following morning: tea, exercise (for me, that is), and packing. We had an uneventful walk toward Mponjwane, stopping to bathe in a spring-fed pool. A pack of crackers bought me a picture with some jocular Sotho herdboys just after lunch. We chased a troupe of baboons up a short ridge, whose arresting screams, which have a human quality, made us wary. That evening we slept in Mponjwane cave, a dry crevice made comfortable by decades of travelers. One thoughtful person had lined the floor with straw. Another had built an enclosing wall, leaving a half-consumed candle attached to a rock. Colin spoke of a climber who in 1996 had proposed to his girlfriend in the cave. The following day, as he began to abseil from the top of Mponjwane, the boulder to which his rope was attached broke free. He fell 100m, mangling his face and legs as he crashed into the peak’s side. Still conscious, he lodged himself in a small recess while his buddy climbed down for help. It took more than a day for his friend to hike down, alert the emergency authorities, and hike back. The man survived and is happily married today. Nonetheless, such a proximate tale did not make for pleasant dreams.

I awoke around 3AM covered in water. A mist had come up, the only form of moisture that could enter the cave. Colin was awake a few moments later, and we laconically set to work on the tent. Several hours later I rose again, unsure if I had slept or not. The mist had not cleared, and we set off that morning with 10m visibility, an ominous portent for what would be an eventful day. My boots were soaked 15 minutes into the journey, and I sloshed along miserably until midday. Colin navigated by sight as features appeared, though as a general rule, one can proceed correctly by walking south and staying east of the escarpment. After lunch, we paused and Colin puzzled over the map for several minutes. The features ahead of us seemed indistinct to him. Finally, we turned east and scrambled up a 3100m ridge. Halfway down the other side, Colin realized his mistake. But now nothing seemed clear: not the river below us, not the abutment to our left. Colin took bearings and looked at the terrain from various positions. We aren’t lost, he said. You can only get lost if you don’t know where you came from.

Finally, he identified the Kwakwatsi River by the direction of its flow. Viewed from the south, the river flowed east, meaning that we were east of the escarpment. The only river flowing east in that vicinity was the Kwakwatsi. One problem remained: we stood some 500m above the river. Having lost two hours already, we elected to scramble down a nearby ravine. The run did not seem precipitous until viewed from the bottom. Standing below with necks craned toward the sky, we meditated silently for a few moments on what we had just done. Then we hurried off, following the river for 5 grueling kilometers.

By 430 we had a decision to make: camp now or go for the Tsektseke Hut, a shelter at the bottom of a mountain pass some 7km away. Sore but still energetic, we immediately decided to try the pass. Colin reasoned that we could reach the pass’s head by 630, which we did. I had walked ahead as he fussed with his map. Famished, I had started consuming the following day’s lunch, which we likely wouldn’t need. I stopped myself, though, for it is wise to reserve an extra meal for emergencies. He approached and, after taking some food for himself, looked north, soberly assessing a thickening storm on the horizon. We both unpacked our rain gear and headlamps and then staunched our bags. “It’s like we’re gearing up for an epic,” Colin said. “God.”

We took the pass. The hut was visible at first, a tantalizing 3km away. Then the storm came up, bringing lighting, rain, and opaque mist. Grass, dampened by the rain and flattened by the wind, hid the trail and we slid down the first kilometer in the gloaming. Night came and we switched on our lights, which illuminated the fog in the narrow pass, creating a broad, ambient effect. Our feet found only boulders, whose glabrous surfaces made for rough work. After another kilometer and another hour, the hut still had not materialized. My fatigue turned to panic, not for my own safety, but for ours collectively. Colin fell hard several times, and I knew that if he were to become injured, I would have a difficult time finding help. The trail was indistinct save for “cairns”, piles of rocks left by previous hikers, some of which were misleading. Another hour and half passed, and I finally demanded that we desist. The rain still came, and I could find only a viscid patch of alluvium upon which to lay my soaked tent. Colin went off to fill the water bottles. “Don’t die,” I grumbled, as he stalked off. His headlamp disappeared, and I was left alone to consider myself. Never have I discovered such a foul odor originating from my own person. Mud ran from my knees to my feet; decaying vegetation stuck to my pants and shirt; 14 hours of sweat had evaporated, condensed and evaporated again inside my jacket. My boots had begun to separate from their treads, and water sloshed inside of them. It was in this lachrymose state that Colin discovered me, grinning widely. “I found the hut,” he said.

We had stopped less than 50m from it, and he had seen it immediately when he went down to the river. I dropped my bag inside, stripped down, and walked down to water, entering it and feeling the frigid current envelope me. Presently, I felt better. We ate together silently and crawled into our sleeping bags. We had walked 25km over the last 14 hours, the last 3km of which had taken nearly four hours.

Next day we slept in until 7. Sunlight poured in through the hut’s window: it was a refulgent day. We covered the last several kilometers in about three hours. From a distance, we saw the Cathedral Peak Hotel, its staff busy with morning chores. Birds, absent at elevation, made song in the morning heat. A golf course, freshly cut, stretched before us. Rain fell as we crossed the park border and hiked down to Colin’s car. We were tired, wet, and jubilant.

Later, I sat outside at the Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge, with the whole Northern ‘Berg stretched before me. The Sentinel’s familiar outline was visible to my right; Cathedral Peak peered through clouds to my left. I was once again armed with a pen but, looking toward Mponjwane, again covered in mist, I found that I had little to write other than, “I was up there.” This, I suppose, is the satisfying observation that heals many wounds and inspires future achievements.

Guide: PeakHigh Mountaineering

Written by Spence

February 5th, 2007 at 8:32 am

Posted in Travel

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