For 5 days you meander through this mountainous kingdom, alone with your thoughts as the ever changing terrain and rock formations change around you. If you have never done it, this is what it is like.
Six hikers-the only sign of life on the empty escarpment of the Drakensberg as we make our way from the Chain Ladders through to our camp site for the night. My ears are ringing from the silence, broken only by the crunch of our hiking boots on the tufts of hard dry grass. In the valley nearly 1000m below lays the province of Kwazulu Natal. As we peer back towards the South West we get a glimpse of the second highest waterfall in the world as it cascades majestically over the escarpment down into the gorge that makes up the mighty Tugela River. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in June and my primary focus after 5 hours of hiking and nearly 12km of distance is to make our first camp for the night known as Ifidi.
I am hiking with a group of strangers- a motley crew of hikers ranging from 30 to about 55 years of age-no of us had ever hiked in the Drakensberg before, except obviously our South Africa Adventures guides.
In total, the Mini Traverse hike covers nearly 85km of hard mountainous terrain with an average altitude of 3100m. There are no route markers except for solitary cairn put from previous hikers to mark some of the tricky junctions. Other than that, we rely purely on maps and GPS. There are zero facilities!!! You sleep wherever we can find a comfortable camping site-usually close to a river as water id crucial for not only drinking but for cooking as well. And what makes the hike even more challenging is the fact that that we have to carry our own supplies and equipment.
Porters are readily available but we opted for the road less travelled. I shuffle down the final contours into camp already short of breath as my 70 liter and 25kg backpack chafes my well-earned ‘love handles’. My mind is starting to play games with me. Am I fit enough for the mini traverse? Does my last hike of 10km in the Magaliesberg Mountains in my spanking new hiking boots count? And where the heck did that niggling pain in the back come from?
As I kind of do in moments of stress I reach for my trusty iPhone to check my messages. But alas, there is zero coverage this high on the Drakensberg. Our guide mentioned there were a few spots were we could fin signal but until then, it was digital detox whether I liked it or not. We had met up with a fellow hiker in the beautiful town of Clarens the night before who had hiked the Mini Traverse three times. ‘I absolutely love the hike. The best in the Drakensberg’, he mumbled over his umpteenth craft beer. ‘The hike makes me a better person. Once you’ve experienced its magic, you will want to trek it again’. Now I’m sitting at the first camp wondering if he was smoking something stronger than his cigarettes.
Day 1: Ifidi cave (12km)
It takes us about 2 hours to hike from the Sentinel car park and up to the top of the chainladders. Our altitude gain was about 700m. So the worst of the elevation was over. Theoretically from this pint they terrain is relatively ‘flat’ for the next 10km or so. The route meanders to the East to the base of the Tugela Falls-the second highest waterfall in the world. It crashed over the edge of the Amphitheatre into the valley 947m below. As I approached the edge of the escarpment it felt like I was walking towards the edge of the world. It looks like the earth has fallen away in a massive crack.
The Tugela Falls and Amphitheatre hike is the most popular day hike in the Drakensberg and we spent some time chatting to some tourists about our endeavor.
Come late afternoon, the camping ritual is simple. Find a confortable spot, set up the tent, unpack the backpacks, prepare dinner, and talk about the day and hunker down for the freezing night. Temperatures in the Drakensberg in June, especially in the night at over 3000m can easily drop to well below freezing point- so a good quality down sleeping nag, I mean bag is an absolute necessity. ‘So long traffic and smog!!’ says a fellow hiker as he pulls out a hip flask of whiskey which he ensures us is purely for medicinal purposes.
I unpack my biltong and cherish the moment of joy as I munch on it, savoring the taste. Food always tastes better in the mountains. The silhouette of distant mountains is deep against the starry winter skies. Then the cold sets in and we retreat back to our tents for the night.
How to sleep warm
I was totally warm for the duration of the hike. This was my formula. I used my emergency blanket as a ground sheet. I laid that down first in my tent with an inflatable mattress and my -8 degrees Celsius rated sleeping bag on top. I slept in my thermal underwear, a pair of thermal socks, a thin fleece and my beanie and I was as warm as toast
Day 2: Fangs Pass ( 12 km)
I savour my bowl of oats and nuts as if it is Lobster Thermadoire while the magnificent and warming African sun draws back the curtains of cold and darkness to reveal the magnificence of the Drakensberg. Eventually it’s time to get hiking again. After a steaming cup of coffee, we pack up camp and head of into the distant yonder in search of fame and glory. But instead we were met with a grueling 3km slog up a hill that never seemed to end.
We were rewarded with some incredible views as we hit the edge of the escarpment yet again. We had opted for the road less travelled in that we would rather hug the escarpment as much as possible rather than follow the traditional inland route.
After a biltong and wine gum break we start the rest of the hike. The terrain is beautiful and touched the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. Wine gums are pretty much a necessity as we bump into the Basotho shepherds who are looking after their sheep. Sharing of wine gums is the n awesome ice breaker and always guarantees a smile or two. One shepherd even hauled out his witch doctor remedy that he proceeded to rub onto the tip of my head to prevent me from getting hit by lightning.
A fair swop if you ask me. We eventually reach our camp for the night-Fangs Pass. Also considered an ‘emergency’ exit if the need arises. After hearing that we still had 3 days to go with even steeper, longer and harder days to come I was tempted to fake an injury and escape to the valley below for a beer or 10. But alas, something deep inside of me kept me on the Mini Traverse. Before I pull my beanie over my head and curl up in my sleeping bag I glance out over the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho and I am at peace.
Day 3: Mnweni (15km)
We hit the trail early as we have to negotiate around the Mnweni cutback. We were earned the night before that today would be a challenging and long hike due to the fact that we were so close to the escarpment. The hiking menu for the day was up and down for about 15km. And when we say up, we mean a 200m up followed by the same down followed by a 200m up and then down. I lost count after what seemed like the300th rise. There is a rule in the mountains-it is always further, higher and longer than it looks. And man did the Mini Traverse teach me that lesson today.
I’m finally getting into a rhythm though. At lunchtime we had a nap by the river, washed some socks and discovered how to make the best meal combo: salami and wine gums. Hunger is the best cook so they say. The views of the Hanging Gardens of the Mnweni Valley below us were mind blowing. All of a sudden the pain and suffering were overwhelmed by the magic of this place. Our conversations are also changing. No longer are we talking about politics, religion and men’s wives. We are now chatting about how your perspective on life changes the further we hike. My mind has eventually become calm and empty.
All I was consumed about was the present. To eat. To keep warm. To survive. “Is it the bars or the space in-between the bars that keeps the tiger trapped in its cage?”, was our guides contribution to our introspection. This was officially the longest I had ever hiked in one day with the added bonus of carrying a heavy back pack mind you. After we set up camp in a beautiful meadow at the top of Mnweni Pass with Rockeries visible in the distance, I lie motionless in my tent. I know I should put some warm clothes on, find my headlight and puff out my sleeping bag but I was just appreciating the moment of relaxation and sense of accomplishment.
My whole body aches and it feels good!! Dinner is pasta and biltong which is wolfed down with a spot of whiskey. We all sit around thinking of the three things you will never hear on Mini Traverse hike in the Drakensberg: “Wow, I am so nice and warm in my sleeping bag!” “My blisters are all better thanks” and : “wow that was an easy hike today”.
Day 4: Twins Cave ( 18Km)
There is something evil lurking around camp. It goes by the name of chafe. Most of us are walking like cowboys. And of course no one remembered to bring the Vaseline. So we were just going to have to “man mode’ the rest of the trek. We are past the half way mark-A physiological milestone. The hike today is long but not as elevated as the previous day. The latter part of the day brought with it the mystical mists infamous to the Drakensberg. It was incredible witness the precision of the guides navigation in these conditions. I mean, there were times where we could only see a few meters ahead of us.
After nearly 6 hours of hiking we filled dup our water bottles for the last time today as Twins Cave is virtually waterless. And as always, the mountain had the last say. We were met with a grueling 300m rise to the edge of the escarpment where the access point to the cave was. We then descended another few hundred meters down some pretty steep terrain into our humble abode for the night: Twins cave. At least we did not have to put up tents!!Someone asks what day it is. No one can remember. We have been lost in this wild and beautiful odyssey.
Day 5: Cathedral Peak via the Bell Traverse ( 27km)
Okay so this was going to be the granddaddy of pain and suffering. If we thought the last 4 days were challenging, we had another think coming. I mean, we are going downhill. “Can’t be that bad. Right? “Wrong!! The first part of the hike sees us traversing in what is probably the MOST scenic part of the Drakensberg ever!!! But I tell you what. You need to have your wits about you. There are some pretty hairy drops on some pretty narrow ledges that first need to be negotiated. And then there is Bugger Gully. Need I say more?
We were soon to find out why it’s called Bugger Gully. But as we do, we survived and come out the other side unscathed. Exhausted yes. But unscathed. We had lunch at the base of Cathedral Peak and then made the 18km hike down to the Cathedral Peak Hotel. “This is the hardest thing I have ever done” say a few of my fellow hikers. We drop or backpacks and head for the pub where I gulp down the best tasting beer ever. It seems weird seeing clean, nice smelling and well-dressed tourists. I don’t think you can hike the Mini Traverse without something fundamentally changing inside of you. I think it is good for a human to suffer sometimes.