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DRAKENSBERG GRAND TRAVERSE
2017/11/04 10:54:30 AM - By Lupi & The Mountain Goat
 
 
200 km of pristine mountain wilderness
In the North: The picturesque Amphitheater and the Tugela Falls which plunges over the escarpment, tumbling almost 1000m down into the Tugela valley in the Royal Natal National park. The area known as the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site -it's status granted due to the great collection of San Rock Art, the magnificent mountains and the unspoiled high altitude wetland river system that provides South Africa with most of its quality drinking water.

In the South: Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest summit in the Drakensberg perched on the escarpment in Lesotho- the Mountain Kingdom and Sani Pass, an iconic mountain pass, famous for its winter snowfall, beautiful views and of course South Africa's highest pub.
 
 
The bits in between....
The only part of the Grand Traverse on a path is where it starts at the base of the enormous Sentinel peak which has it's lofty summit at 3165m - I love that mountain it was my first technical Drakensberg Rock climb and hiking beneath it's massive face is always a little humbling - anyway, the path extends right up to the base of the infamous Chain Ladders and then from the Amphitheater you're on pathless wilderness terrain.

As we reached the escarpment just below 3000m we were greeted by the endangered Bearded Vultures swooping a mere 20m above us. This is a rare experience and we had the unbelievable delight of Lammergeyers accompany us for the duration of our trek sometimes hovering below us as the escarpment plunges into the valleys, other times soaring overhead on the Lesotho highlands.
 
 
On our first night we enjoyed a spectacular sunset that highlighted the dramatic Amphitheatre, home of the Thukela Falls. We opted for a short walk that day, just far enough from civilisation to celebrate our ascent into serenity.

The days that followed melded into a mosaic of spectacular cliffs, superb mountain views and breath taking rivers with their icy plunge pools. Not minding the potential chill, we had elected a Mid May start for our trek. The Autumn-Winter transition being something I love in the Drakensberg, CRISP CLEAR QUIET COLD and aside from a start sprinnkled in snow and 2 days of sleet that's what we got. We take special delight in nature's ice creations in the berg and can never resist the urge to stop and play in ice or snow. Love the sound of ice crunching under boots on a frosty morning...
 
 
I am however not a fan of WIND. We had 48 hours of gale force winds, Holy smoke, 100km+, worth a whinge hey!? Some friends had gone up to measure the wind - ok crazy friends - and so 100+km per hour is verified. We had spent a sleepless night being battered by the tent anticipating gusts of sleet tearing through it. Fortunately no rips, but the mornings challenge was a dramatic stagger up the ridge to Rwanqa with backpacks that turned us into sailboats lurching at the winds mercy. Seriously, it took us hours to crawl - yes, all fours - holding onto each other hoping like mad we were going to stay on the ground and not join the Vultures.

And over the ridge...calm, spectacular views of Hanging Valleys and the trek continued.
 
 
Roughing it
I'm going to gloss over the heavy packs, boot that disintegrated, repetitive food - can't seem to face pasta rice (cringing as I type) and all the standard niggles that accompany crunching up kilometres in the pathless wilderness at altitude.

Because as we hiked past the stone mountain huts of the Basotho Herdsman we were reminded of what really roughing it was about.

A friendly nation the herdsman wear gumboots, a traditional blanket and a balaclava, that's it. To put it in perspective, day time temperatures while we were trekking were below 6 deg. C and night time left us chilly when they dropped to around -10 deg C. It wasn't even mid winter!

These guys look after their family's herd of goats, sheep, cows or horses and they have the coolest dogs; huge beasts a delightful mixture of Spaniel ears, Labrador girth, St Bernard height & fur and brindled Staffie colouring. Humble and polite, when they saw us coming the Basotho took a seat to wait and greet us, if their dogs barked at us, they picked them up so we wouldn't be hassled, on horseback, they'd ride up to us, remove balaclava to greet us like old friends.

Just a note here: This is our personal experience with the Basotho people in the over 30 years of hiking in the most remote sections of the Berg. We have no drama to report which is contrary to some other folks experiences.
 
 
The unexpected
Having said all that, I can't promise I haven't scarred the locals. Day 5 we camped quite early, it was warmish so I decided a to have a mountain shower, hadn't seen a soul in 5 days, but true as nuts the moment I took my shirt off a train of donkeys and herdsmen popped over the ridge. We have a friend who did a lot of solo hiking, he reckons if you're ever lost in the wilderness, take off all your clothes, instantly someone will appear. He tested his theory twice with success. I wasn't lost but hey there seems to be substance to the theory.

We also discovered enigmatic stone cairns, hidden pools and fascinating kraals, never mind the unique vegetation. If you're keen on picking up eye catching stones, then best you eat all your food quickly, because there are fantastic bits of amygdale, agate, quartz crystals and geodes. Actually eating all your food quickly isn't difficult to do, we got hungrier and hungrier by the day and were desperate to break into our emergency food rations in the last few days
 
 
Now the Mountain Goat and I have a good hiking partnership. He chooses the route, I complain about it. I choose the route he finds a way to change it so I can complain about it. The complaints aren't completely trivial, I'm a contour kind of girl, he's a 'Oh look there's a hill let's go over it, wow a river lets cross it', kind of guy.

So, I got my way just after our restock (read heavy pack) I admit, a poor choice; instead of a quick climb over the hill, we contoured past Yoddlers cascades on what felt like the never ending path, a path that lost a lot of altitude.

And then, there was THAT hill.

We'd been marching merrily along the river when we turned a corner and both stopped dead in our tracks. Can't explain why but the serene image of a symmetrical vibrantly green hill with a 2 huts standing sentry on either side of it gave us goosebumps. Without a word we turned, backtracked and waded across the icy river. Talking about it later we couldn't describe the eerie feeling that pervaded 'the hill' and to this day we have not been able to find it again. It was near Witches peak.

Just saying...
 
 
In an age of instant gratification it's soothing to succumb to the steady tempo of a trek. Setting your sights on a statelypeak like Cathederal, Monks Cowl, Giants Castle, climbing to the crest of one of those enduring uphill's, peering at your goal on the horizon and a few days later turning back to see the South side of it before setting your sights on the next majestic peak.

The scenery is dramatic, on most treks you'll walk along the base or climb a peak, in the Drakensberg you hike up onto the escarpment and look down on colossal peaks that have broken away from the main plateau, it's a magnificent experience. The environment is pristine, the water genuinely crystal clear and delicious while in the clarity of the Drakensberg evenings, the the stars vibrate with tangible brilliance.

We were fortunate with our birding, aside from bearded vultures, we saw plenty of Cape Vultures, Jackal buzzards, Rock Kestrel and two surprises; the owls we heard at night and amazingly a pair of Secretary Birds that joined us at our lunch spot at a high altitude tarn near Sani. In the distance we viewed Grey Rhebok, Klipspringer, baboons, and Dassies (Rock Hyrax), while closer - actually almost under foot- a lazy Berg Adder didn't move a muscle when the Mountain Goat stepped over him, probably too cold and the high pitched whistle of the Sloggerts Ice Rat sentries sent the colonies scurrying as we traveled through their territory.
 
 
We climbed to the top of Mafadi, South Africa's highest peak 3450m and also Thabana Ntlenyana 3482m the highest African peak South of Mt Kilimanjaro, it's in the Drakensberg range but is actually situated in Lesotho.

Unfortunately T. Ntlenyana signalled the end of our trip, it's a day's walk from Sani Pass but it took us a long time to get there, we were dragging our heels. We puzzled at how fast cars were travelling in the distance along the Sani Pass Road, puzzled because the road was so potholed it was almost impassable at that time, later we realised we'd adjusted to life at walking pace, 40km per hour was speedy in comparison. It had been so easy to immerse ourselves in the rhythm of the wilderness, it took quite some effort to relinquish our freedom and return to civilisation.
 
 
A Trek not a Trail
This trek is not found on Trail Guide South Africa - why? Because it's a wilderness hike, which means: no designated or marked path, no rangers patrolling, no infrastructure, no camp sites, no civilisation and not completely in South Africa. To do this hike we recommend you take a qualified, registered Drakensberg mountain guide or if you have superb navigational skills (ie not just following a gps) and solid experience in wilderness hiking and camping, plus a deep respect for the environment and that you're guests passing through the home range of the Basotho people you can plot and plan your own route.

It is a strenuous trip with heavy bags as you'll need to carry all your gear and food with you and the average altitude is 3000m. The Drakensberg like any other mountain range has notoriously fickle weather so you also need to be prepared for any conditions, it's known to have snowed every month of the year in the Drakensberg and even though it's Africa sub zero conditions are common. Also, not much telecom.

Having said all that, this is my favourite trek and if you have the opportunity to indulge, it's a rare mountain experience in an unspoiled environment.
 
 
 
 
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