Chalk pastel illustration by Diane Shearer
6 Adventure hungry friends headed out for another hike in the Drakensberg. The extent of our planning for our hikes consists of reading the little blurb about the hike in David Bristow’s book ‘Best walks of the Drakensberg’. Anyone who has done an over night hike in the Drakensberg knows that it is best if you know as much as possible about what you are getting yourself into. For us that is not the case, and no we will probably never learn from our mistakes. Every hike we have done, we just read the grade descriptions saying ‘Extreme, very extreme’ and we just shrug our shoulders and say, “how bad can it be?” (We are quickly hit with the realization of, “oh its pretty extreme” how could we make the same mistake again and again?)
One sunny Friday evening after work we all jumped into our cars and headed along the N3 towards Natal and the Drakensberg. After leaving Harrismith we drove into some rain and the roads were extremely misty. It turned out that we were in for a wet weekend. We woke up to a light drizzle and thick fog with no sun. Rules of the mountain, so we just accepted the cards the mountain dealt us and we got our bags ready for the next 3 days in the mountain. We made sure we had our rain jackets and a change of clothes. As we signed the register and were ready to head off into the unknown we met Harmann (With 2 n’s) whose partner cancelled on him at the last minute and asked to join us. Considering we had absolutely no idea what we were getting ourselves into, we decided to wait for him as he has hiked this pass many times (We thought he would come in handy).
We started off with an easy hike for the morning. The path was fairly clear, but we still had to proceed with caution as the rocks were very wet and we couldn’t see very far in front of us because of the mist. It was a little bit disappointing that we couldn’t see the spectacular views the Drakensberg offers us. At some point we were greeted by the sight of the top of the mountain way up in the sky as the wind blew the mist away (we didn’t even know there was a mountain until the mist cleared). It was actually quite scary how these giant cliffs just suddenly appeared next to us.
As the mist cleared we could see our next challenge, Greys Pass that was a 1,8m climb to the top. We weren’t sure if we would get up before dark but we decided to push. It was a strenuous steep climb where we would take 5 steps then stop for a breather and then go again for our next 5 steps. At times like that covering 100m felt like an eternity. Every now and then clouds of mist would sweep passed us turning the air white as though we were staring at a white piece of paper. We had no idea how much further we had to go because we couldn’t see the top. As the chilly wind picked up and the sun was setting we were sure we were getting near the top but couldn’t see where it really ended until… all of a sudden we were at the top after 4 hours of hiking. What a relief. We all got our headlights out and quickly found a flat area to set camp.
After a night of festivities huddled around our gas cookers drinking whisky and OBS to keep warm we woke up to a cold but clear morning, ready to tackle the interesting and strenuous Ships Prow. From talking to other hikers we met on the trail, they described Ships Prow as being one of the toughest passes in the Drakensberg and they said one only hikes the Ships Prow once. We were advised to go back down Greys Pass but as usual, how bad could it be? I think there is always a level of exploration, it doesn’t matter that someone else has been there before, for us, it was our first experience and we wanted to know for ourselves. We like to test our nerve and skills in some pretty hectic places. At that point we lost our ‘guide’, Hermann, because one of our fellow hikers ‘broke’ him the night before and he decided to head back down Grays pass.
After walking along the escarpment between South Africa and Lesotho, we got to the beginning of Ships Prow; before we had a chance to change our minds we started to descend the steep slopes. We looked up and saw Lesotho men with their dogs sitting on the rock above watching us. I think watching people walk down Ships Prow is their version of watching TV, possibly the show ‘I shouldn’t be alive’ on discovery channel.
We suddenly entered a very thick patch of vegetation, the type that scratches and stings your legs and every now and then you get wacked in the face by leaves and branches. The vegetation seemed to get denser every minute. Eventually it became so dense that we couldn’t see more than 2 meters in front of us. We all whistled as we climbed over branches and crawled on our hands and knees to make sure the other hikers knew where we were. We followed each other by sound and not by sight. We occasionally would pick up a semblance of a path but our cheers were short lived as we hit another dense patch of vegetation, joking that we needed a Fanta… I mean panga to get out (from a distance panga sounds like Fanta, or maybe it was just our hysterical minds of being trapped in there forever).
We were very tired of struggling our way through the bush that we decided to follow the river down, but that came with another consequence of keeping our feet dry. After a long 18 km hike down hill with many injured knees we stopped at the first flat area we could find, because a couple of the boys were popping pain killers like no bodies business. We were all very tired and started supper early as we asked ourselves “why we were doing this again? next time we mustn’t just ignore the word extreme on the route description”. As it got dark we saw headlamp lights on the trail we just came down, but they were still very high up. We were nervous that they were the Basotho people coming down at night (The Basotho’s are known for smuggling bags of weed across the border at night and we have heard stories of hikers been robbed). It was the only explanation as you would think no one would be that stupid to hike down there in the dark. We nervously watched the lights for a while, but because they were so far up we couldn’t see if they were moving or not so we decided to head to bed. We expected to be woken up by people walking passed our tents. We woke up in the morning and nobody heard anything during the night. We later found out that it was a party of hikers that had to be rescued by the helicopter and they suffered sever dehydration and exhaustion.
The final day of our hike had come as we all whined, moaned and screamed as we tried to get out of our tents with stiff legs. Once we got standing we didn’t want to sit because it was just too painful to get back up. We all limped along the path with about 16km of mostly down hill ahead of us, but thankfully the worst was over. The day was warm which quickly welcomed little midges on our sweat covered hats. We stopped at a beautiful pool for lunch and a chill to the bone swim. One of our not so clever hikers decided to do a bomb in a pool that was probably shin deep, he later found out that he had broken his coccyx. He hiked about 5km before he asked for a painkiller, that’s pretty impressive. But thankfully we were on our home stretch as we could see the campsite in the distance (we always say, “if you can see it, you can walk to it”). We turned around and looked at where we came from and that was the point in which we named the hike ‘The hike of ignorance’. If it wasn’t for the mist on the first day we would have seen where we were going and probably would have never gone up there (Or maybe we would have, but it still blew our mind). Nothing stopped me from running the last bit (it was less pain on my stiff legs) followed by 3 hop-a-longs whistling and singing from all the painkillers.
Walking back along the dirt road to our cars from a hike in the Drakensberg is always a sad thing. Although we felt relieved that the hard hike was over we were also sad that it was over because it meant that we were heading back into reality. There is no better feeling than the feeling of accomplishment while lying on the grass with your shoes off in utter exhaustion, what you take away from a hike in the Drakensberg goes well beyond the satisfaction of pushing your limits.
Content originally written by Diane Shearer for her blog I Wear Red Socks