Friday, May 1st, 2015
in Featured, Travel, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg.
“Quathlamba! A mass of spears. Named thus by Zulu warriors before the white man came. Today called the Drakensberg, mountains of the dragon. A name given by the Voortrekkers. Evocative names, both equally applicable to South Africa’s mightiest mountain range with its spear-like peaks – reminiscent of the saw-toothed spine of a gigantic dragon.”
I found this quote at the front of the first book I ever bought on uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, which most South Africans know as “The ‘Berg”. The book was “A Camera in Quathlamba”, a black and white photographic book published in 1980 by R.O. Pearse, who was a legendary explorer of these mountains. The photos in the book blew me away, and being a Cape Town boy who loved Table Mountain, I made up my mind then to get to know the ‘Berg better.
Subsequently I explored the lower Drakensberg several times during my Year in the Wild projects, and hiked the large river valleys, up to the base of the huge basalt cliffs. But I’d never missioned up the steep passes to the top.
Then, two years ago during winter I went hiking for four days in the Mnweni area of northern Drakensberg mountains in South Africa with guide Caiphus Mthabela. We spent four very cold days and nights at 3 000 metres in one of the most spectacular landscapes I had seen in Southern Africa.
This northern part of South Africa’s largest mountain range made a strong impression on me, as it has on many other photographers and nature-lovers – it’s very photogenic and it’s wild. The sort of place you can go for weeks at a time without seeing anyone except a Basotho shepherd. (You can read my article for British Airways Magazine here.)
And so, this year I planned to go back. This time we’d walk for six days from The Sentinel Peak near Witsieshoek in the far north, to Didima Gorge in the Cathedral Peak area further south. The route would traverse what almost all the Berg experts rate as the most beautiful part of the Drakensberg.
The route would include Mnweni and it’s dramatic basalt towers, which I had fallen in love with two years ago. It would include the iconic Amphitheatre, with its five-km long basalt wall of cliffs and Thukela Waterfall, the second-highest in the world. It would include the impressive rock formations of Rockeries Pass, and it would include some of the most impressive rock paintings on Earth.
I roped in my friends and neighbours Miguel and Abigail Ferreira-da-Silva, and being adventurous souls themselves, it took them exactly five minutes to book their tickets to Durban. I also picked up the phone to Caiphus, who knows these mountains better than most.
(You can go hiking in the High Berg on your own, but it’s not always safe for a variety of reasons: not only are there Basotho dagga smugglers and renegade shepherds who may relieve you of your heavy backpack, but more importantly, this is a vast, complicated and rugged landscape, which combined with the unpredictable weather can make hiking dangerous if you don’t know where you’re going. It’s easy to get lost – especially when the mist, rain and snow sets in.)
We knew our hike would be tough physically. We’d be carrying all our food, our tents and clothing. We’d pitch camp where the landscape allowed. We’d hike an average of 10 to 12 kms for about 8 hours every day on average (except the last day, which turned out to be a 12 hour and 32km day). We’d be hiking at around 3 000 metres most of the way, and we’d swim in the streams and go to the loo behind a suitable rock. The nights would be cold, probably down to minus 5 or ten degrees Celsius.
One thing I did not realise beforehand is how rugged the landscape is on TOP of the escarpment. From below, the escarpment looks mostly flat. Yes, the hikes up the passes to the top are very tough and steep, but the ridges on top of the escarpment are also high and long, and they’re no joke. (But it does help to laugh while you’re trudging up hill!)
So, we were expecting an adventure, and the Drakensberg certainly delivered! This is a long blog, because it covers 6 days of adventure…
Google Earth screenshot of waypoints on our six-day hike in northern Drakensberg.
The morning of our first day…about to head off for six days on the high mountains of the Drakensberg. This photo taken just in front of Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, where we stayed the night before.
Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is a great place to start any hike in the far northern Berg, especially if you want to walk to the top of the Amphitheatre via the chain ladders.
Abi and Caiphus at the start of the trail, near Sentinel Peak. We would be walking in one direction, from north to south, so we arranged for our vehicle to be transferred from Witsieshoek to Cathedral Peak Hotel, where we would finish our hike.
There were still some summer flowers, like these everlastings, but the chill in the air was obvious and hinted at a cold winter to come!
Migs, Abi and Caiphus enjoying the view of the Amphitheatre from halway up the walk to the top of the escarpment.
Migs taking a break on the trail to the top of the escarpment, on the way to the chain ladders.
Walking along the base of the cliffs towards the chain ladders which give access to the top.
Caiphus and Abi climbing up the chain ladders to the top of the escarpment. The ascent is about fifty metres over two series of ladders. If you’re scared of heights, just don’t look down!
Caiphus and Abi coming up to the top of the second set of chain ladders.
Crossing the source of the Thukela River, which at this time of year is really just a stream. During the height of summer rains, it pumps.
The Thukela Falls, supposedly the second-highest in the world after Angel Falls in Venezuela. But the Thukela Falls are really a series of cascades, so I’m not sure one can claim it to be the second-highest?!
Going for a swim at the top of the Thukela Falls in the clear, cold rock pools. One of the best swimming spots I have been to! (It would make my shortlist of Top Ten for sure!)
Migs and Abi enjoying the views and suprisingly warm water. The Thukela River flows over the edge of the cliffs just in front of Abi, and eventually this river becomes one of the biggest and most voluminous in the country.
Abi and Migs enjoying the surprisingly warm water of the rock pool at the top of Thukela Falls.
Our campsite on the first day…at the top of the escarpment, above the Amphitheatre. As soon as the sun set, the temperature dropped quickly.
Enjoying the last light of day with a hot cuppa tea and coffee. At this stage of the hike, and unbeknown to us, Caiphus had some serious toothache, so he spent the first two late afternoons recovering in his tent. He hadn’t told us about it! Caiphus, you’re a tough guy man!
The Google Earth screenshot of the terrain on Day 1. The Thukela Falls can be seen just below our Camp at 2948 metres above sea level.
Heading off on Day 2, leaving our camp at the top of the Amphitheatre.
The official border between South African and Lesotho is the watershed on top of the escarpment. Of course, this is a bit of a guess, but Caiphus and Migs and Abi are keeping one foot in each country. Technically, you have to carry your passports, because on our hike we traversed again and again into Lesotho.
Caiphus and I looking down Icidi pass on Day 2.
We came across this Basotho shepherd on Day 2, who was really happy to see us, especially when we gave him some chocolate. These guys are tough – they live in a very wild, remote place, in an extreme climate, at high altitude, and all they wear are shorts, gum boots and a blanket.
Descending to where we would camp on Day 2, above Fangs Pass and the so-called Madonna and her worshippers, which are tall rock pinnacles.
After setting up our tents, Migs, Abi and I headed down a little to check out the views Fangs Pass below. Madonna and her worshippers are the rock formations to our left.
Early morning the next day – Abi checking out the sunrise near our camp.
The views of the northern Berg are difficult to capture on camera! Here Abi takes in the sunrise near Fangs Pass.
Our campsite above Madonna and her worshippers, near Fangs Pass. Yes, that white stuff you see on the gound is frost! My K-Way Nerolight two-man tent was very good in keeping the dampness and frost off me, but I must say that it’s definitely NOT a two-man tent. I am 183cm and the tent was just long enough for me. Also, the tent is not wide enough. If I lay down in the tent on my back, my shoulders had about 20 cm of free space on either side of me, not enough for two people. Also, in the Berg you want to sleep with most of your gear INSIDE your tent, because Basotho shephers and dagga smugglers have been known to steal gear that is left outside. So I’d say that my tent was great for me, but there wasn’t enough space for two people.
The Google Earth snapshot of Day 2, showing our camp near Fangs Pass at 2998 metres.
Caiphus standing above the spectacular Mnweni cutback…this is where the scenery started getting seriously impressive…which is saying something, given the whole area is boooootiful.
Abi and Migs parading in their K-Way thermal underwear. Ja, things start getting weird after a few days of high altitude, hiking and two minute noodles!! Thermals are a must in autumn and winter in the Berg. In fact, at any time of year. Snow has been recorded at some point in every month of the year here, even in the height of summer. Migs and Abi’s Cape Union Mart tent was bigger than mine, and was much better suited for two people.
One of my favourite views in Southern Africa. Looking out over Mnweni Pass towards the Mnweni Pinnacles. Late afternoons were our favourite time of day. We found a good spot to enjoy the views, poured ourselves a sizeable whiskey (preferably a single malt Scottish whisky like Caol Ila! VERY important!), and just connected to everything around us. I was really happy to share these times with Migs and Abi and Caiphus…in places like these, it’s easy to talk about real stuff. About what’s most important.
As the sun started setting (and as we drank more whisky), the Mnweni Pinnacles seemed to come alive. Although JRR Tolkien moved to England when he was just 4, he may have seen the Berg as a young boy (he was born in the Free State), and I can’t help but think that these mountains may have subsconsciously inspired him when writing Lord of the Rings. (Although I doubt he ever saw these pinnacles at Mnweni).
Abi checking out the views of the pinnacles the next morning…That mist in the valley below eventually rose up right to the top of the mountains.
One of the most critical gear items. A decent stove! I used this red MSR Whisperlight stove, which can use any type of fuel (I used Benzene, which is apparently the best, although it’s highly flammable). Migs and Abi had a Kovea stove with a regulator, which worked just fine too. Whatever you do, don’t use a gas canister stove without a regulator, because the cold and high altitude means that it will struggle to burn hot (I found this out last time I was in the Berg). My MSR stove was a bit finickity to get started, but once you have hang of it, it’s a very hot, efficient stove, that I highly recommend.
Migs pouring us some hot cappucinos! Nothing like it on a cold autumn morning at 3 000 metres! Nestle make cappucino sachets which work like a bomb.
Please note that Migs is smiling AFTER he’s had his first sip of coffee.
Our campsite near the source of the Orange River, near to the top of Mnweni Pass. This river still had deep enough pools for us to swim in. (Remember to use biodegradable soap!)
Caiphus showing Migs and Abi our route on the fourth Day. The best maps to use are the offical uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park maps pubished by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, who is the conservation authority of the World Heritage Site. But be warned. While the maps are generally accurate, they’re not precise, and several paths are not accurately marked. So always take a GPS with you. I use a Garmin Oregon 550 which combined with the map is very useful. I also took a satellite phone, sponsored by Globecomm in Cape Town, and I’d say this is another essential item to have, especially in an emergency, because there is hardly any cell phone reception up top.
The Google Earth screenshot of the terrain on Day 3, showing our camp near Mnweni Pass at 2900 metrres.
Leaving camp on morning of Day 4, and heading towards top of Rockeries Pass.
Caiphus standing on a cliff at the top of Rockeries Pass.
The views of the peaks in among the clouds were just incredible. While the lower Berg was covered in early morning mist and cloud, the top of the escarpment, where we were hiking, was generally clear and sunny – but still cold.
Migs and Abi looking out over the edge of the escarpment at the mist and cloud rolling in. In the far back left of the photo you can just see the Mnweni Pinnacles, where we had camped the night before.
It was a beautiful, powerful scene: The clouds and mist rolling up and over the escarpment, surrounding the peaks.
Caiphus, Abi and Migs looking out from the top of the escarpment towards Cathedral Peak and the Bell Tower.
Basotho shepherds Hape Farelani and Pezulu Habayani
Pezulu Habayani and his shepherd dog Payena – tough man, tough dog!
Caiphus Mthabela, mountain guide. He lives near the bottom of Rockeries Pass with his wife and kids, along with several cows, goats and horses, plus a few fields of maize. He was once a dagga smuggler, and got to know the mountains while transporting dagga during the nights down the steep passes. After some time in jail, he returned to the Berg, and signed up for a community mountain guiding course. Today he is one of the most respected and trusted. You’re in safe hand with Caiphus.
Caiphus admiring the cloudy views of Cathedral Peak and the Bell. I like this quote which I found in the iconic book Barrier of Spears by R.O. Pearse. “I believe that if we are ever to regain our sanity, if ever dignity, quietude and integrity are to return to this earth of ours, we will have to realise once again our kinship – our oneness – with the creatures of the wild. Here the earth is rich; the winds blow clean and strong from the mountains; and the clouds march endlessly over wind-swept skies; and here life, the true life of nature, goes on its way untroubled. These things spell healing.”
Walking past some cows on our way to camp on Day 4.
Getting aquainted with the local shepherds near our camp on Day 4. These guys were happy to stick around and chat in their broken English.
Migs and Abi were missing their dogs Ubu and Manna which they had left at home in Cape Town, so when this shepherd’s dog came up to say hello to Abi, she was very happy!
Basotho shepherd and his dog.
Photo of the landscape surrounding our camp on Day 4. This was probably the least spectacular setting of our camps, but was still pretty impressive!
The stars at night: I found this quote on a painting in Cathedral Peak Hotel when we finished our hike: “When a sorcerer dies, his heart comes out of the sky and becomes a star. His heart feels that he is no longer alive; therefore his body, in which he was alive, becomes a star, because it feels that he used to be a sorcerer. Therefore his magic makes a star, in order to let his body in which he lived walk about. For a sorcerer sees things which we, who are not sorcerers, do not see.” – Na!Kwain – a !Xam man
Google Earth screenshot of the terrain on Day 4, showing our camp at 2888 metres.
Migs checking out the amazing views of the mist and clouds in the valleys below, surrounding the peaks of the Berg. This is near Mlambonja Buttress, The Elephant and Cockade peaks.
Caiphus admiring the views of The Cockade, with the escarpment cliffs extending south-east towards Organs Pipes pass. “I am not bound to win but I’m bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed but I am bound to live up to what light I have.” – Abraham Lincoln.
Making lunch at the top of Cleft Peak (3277 metres), one of the highest in the Berg. The walk to the top was tough! The highest mountain in Southern Africa is Lesotho’s Thabana Ntlenyana (3482 metres, meaning “Beautiful little mountain”), followed by nearby Makheke (3461m). But neither of these are on the watershed, so technically they are not part of the actual Drakensberg. The six highest peaks on the watershed are: Injisuthi (3410m), Champagne Castle (3246m), Popple Peak (3331m), Giant’s Castle (3314m), Mont-aux-Sources (3282m) and Cleft Peak (3277m).
Descending down from Cleft Peak towards Organs Pipes pass. The downhills were as tough as the uphills – especialy with a 20kg pack on your back!
Caiphus taking a good break – and smiling again after the first few days when he had tooth-ache. And he’s carrying my tripod! Which is graphite, so its really light!
Icicles found on the side of a cliff near to the top of Cleft Peak.
Top of Organs Pipes pass, about to descend to our campsite on the valley ridge below. And my camera was about to fall down the mountain…
Descending Organ Pipes pass…spectacular.
Migs and Abi with Organ Pipes pass behind them. Steep!!
Superb scenery on Organ Pipes pass…
Migs and Abi climbing again after descending part of Organ Pipes pass, which is behind them to the top of the escarpment.
Taking it all in. It was amazing how fit and strong you get in just a few days of carrying your pack and hiking. By Day 5 we felt tired, but fit and strong.
Caiphus near the bottom of Organ Pipes Pass, admiring the views north towards Cathedral Peak. This is the last photo before I dropped my camera…which rolled down into that valley below. I was walking and stumbled, and my Canon 5D Mark 2 and 24-105mm lens dropped out of my hand…and rolled and rolled, and smashed on rocks as it went down…we watched it roll until it was so far away down in the valley below that we couldn’t see it anymore. Caiphus climbed down straight away to see if he could find it…but after an hour or so he came back empty handed. I tried going down as well, but the terrain was really steep and dangerous. I’m not sure how Caiphus did it. So, I was pretty depressed, because all the photos from Day 4 and 5 were on my memory card in that camera (fortunately, I had swapped memory cards, so I still had my photos from the first few days). The next day – our last – Migs, Abi and I carried on towards Didima Gorge, and Caiphus went back to look for my camera…and he found it! Totally smashed, and with no memory card! But he looked for another hour or so, and the good man found the memory card…which worked! What luck. Thank you Caiphus – Siyabonga!!
Setting up camp at the old Fire Lookout below Organs Pipes Pass on Day 5. Fortuantely Migs had a Nikon Coolpix Camera which I could use on the last evening and following day.
Our camp on Day 5 at the old Fire Lookout. Caiphus had already gone down to the river below to get water for us to cook and drink that night. Good man Caiphus!
Abi checking out the views after descending Organ Pipes Pass, and near to our camp at the old FIre Lookout on Day 5.
Google Earth screenshot of Day 5, showing our camp at the old Fire Lookout at 2316 metres. My camera fell between Organs Pipes pass and Day 5 Camp into that big valley to the right.
We didn’t take too many photos on our last day, mostly because we walked non-stop for about 11 hours, covering 32 kms, much of it off track. We stopped for a 30 min breakfast at the Didima River, and then a 40 min lunch break at Elands Cave. This was definitely the highlight of our day. There are more than 40 000 individual paintings in the Berg, across 500 caves and shelters. Elands Cave is maybe the finest, with more than 1 000 individual paintings. It’s off limits to the public, but you can apply for a permit from Amafa, the heritage agency that is responsible for the protection of the rock paintings in these mountains.
The spectacular Elands Cave near Didima Gorge. We walked 32 kms on our last day so that we could get to see this beautiful area, and to see what is probably one of Africa’s finest rock painting sites. The Drakensberg is one of a few World Heritage Sites worldwide that is proclaimed as such for both cultural and natural reasons: the rock paintings are a big part of this, as well as the unique natural scenery and uniqueness of its plant species.
Abi admiring the numerous paintings of eland antelope on probably the most impressive part of the sandstone shelter which is called, unsurprisingly, Elands Cave.
A fish eye lens perspective of Elands Cave, looking out from the cave. There is a river that flows over the shelter, which we showered in – the best shower ever!!!
Elands Cave, where we had lunch on our last day. Note the river flowing over the cave…
Enjoying a well-deserved lunch break at Elands Cave. We had been walking for 7 hours already, and we still had another 5 or so to go. What a great day! We eventually met up with Caiphus again on the road to Cathedral Peak Hotel, after he had gone back to look for my camera.
My camera, after having rolled down the mountain. Caiphus found it, but the lens had disintegrated almost totally, but the body of the Canon 5D Mark 2 wasn’t as badly damaged, yet still was a write-off. Most importanly, my memory card was still working…happy endings!
Contact Caiphus Mthabela on +27-73-603-9107. He charges about R600 per day, depending on the size of the hiking group. You can also email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge on +27-58-713-6361.
Contact Cathedral Peak Hotel on +27-36-488-1888.
Scott Ramsay of Love Wild Africa is a photographer and writer in protected areas, national parks and nature reserves in Africa.
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