Disclaimer: Although inspired by true events, all characters and events in this creative work — even those based on real people — are entirely fictional, imagined and is not necessarily based on fact, except for the parts that aren't. This work of fiction is not intended as an accurate historical portrayal, contains gross exaggerations, falsehood and graphic imagery and should be read with an appropriate attitude. Don't Try This At Home!
Surprisingly I somehow found myself having gently been bullied into a multi-day Drakensberg hike.
I am not so sure how it happened because a few years ago I foolishly agreed to join a “SOAPkidz” effort into the Berg. I was completely unprepared, unfit and overweight and the SOAP-youngsters just kicked dust into my teeth all the way and the trip turned into what felt like weeks of excruciating torture and just general misery which left me as a whimpering mess sleeping in foetal position under my bed for months.…..but that is another (embarrassing) story for another day and hopefully the guides have forgiven or forgotten me by now.
As I write this, three days after returning from our expedition into wild uncharted regions governed by magical mists, unforgettable sunset(s), Provitas and steep ascends that would challenge Alex Honnold, my calves are still screaming at me for the first few steps each time I walk and my quads make me groan like something giving birth every time I stand up from my desk.
Our General was Hanneke Pienaar-Steenekamp and her husband — Van Zyl — though he was second in command.
Most of the team was drafted from the Sport Climbers pool at LC de Villiers.
Promises was made and they included; “Being gentle on us” and “Taking us on a beginners/easy route” but then as soon as we signed the contract, we were instructed to start training, as a qualifying test will be given, before the hike, with a goal of doing 5km in under 30min. Underachievers would be (horror) made to do it again.
So much for being gentle.
Some time passed and as you know, time in Gauteng has wings, so somehow I could not get around to establishing a training regime and suddenly the day of the “Info-braai” and qualifier was upon us.
We assembled at the training camp where General Pienaar-Steenekamp demonstrated what and how to pack for the trip. And more importantly we were clearly instructed on what NOT to pack.
Van Zyl acted as a buffer and interpreter to explain the precise militaristic commands and technical terms in every-day lingo to us.
We were also shown some squiggly mappy things that apparently indicated mountains, passes, dungeons of doom and the black-hissing forest of despair. I am sure it had a dragon in the corner.
We discussed accommodation, transport and food arrangements and our forces were divided into smaller, more movable Squads that might be safely sacrificed, if necessary, without affecting the remaining forces too badly.
We then slaughtered a sacrificial bull and feasted on its flesh till the rising sun forced us to seek shelter.
Soon thereafter D-day arrived. The coach alighted at my place of employment, I kissed the last goodbyes and we departed for the temporary bunker from where we were to stage our incursion, do our final preparations and rehash our plan of attack.
By this time I have managed to think of some reasons for my trepidation (having “some” excuse made me feel like less of a “sissy”) and one of them was that I managed to decipher the little numbers on the arcane squiggly mappy things. It seemed that our esteemed leader was planning to flog us up 1601m of elevation over a 17.5km distance!!! In ONE day!! Surely this was not humanly possible??
When raising this little fact at the barracks, I was stared down by the rest of the troops and the girls snickered at me. I quickly assumed the stance and the chest beating and started to participate in the manly topic of conversation of how heavy our handbags backpacks were.
SHOCK….most combatants weighed in at 8-12kg and MY pack clunked into the ring at a hefty 16kg….without water. Although I won the competition hands down, I was dubious of this accomplishment and it was at this point that General Pienaar-Steenekamp directly took charge and demanded to know my secret. I had to unpack my pack for inspection and she confiscated my inflatable mattress, redundant first aid kit and my “pantoffels”.
But my secret remained unrevealed bwwwaaaahahaha.
* see the not so embarrassing note below.
** see the embarrassing note below.
With all the preparations made and the vehicles repacked, we retired for the evening to awake at dawn’s crack the following day. The big day. Faces were washed and breakfast scoffed in haste and we then started our assault.
Less than one hour later we arrived at the car park where the gods denied us a clear view of our enemy. Water bottles were hastily filled and the last visits made to porcelain.
After a short warm-up lap (in full combat gear) in an attempt to report our arrival to the authorities, we departed in high spirits. The initial march was done in ease and the 6km to the contour path lulled my fears to a slumber. We were surrounded by gentle slopes of the greenest green possible but protectively covered by a white fluffy blanket floating 50m over us. This was not so bad, but surely the worst was yet to come?
We took numerous little breather breaks and soon our path T’d into the contour path where I had a momentary panicky thought. “Was the fight going to start here?”
We took a nice long break and some droplets sprinkled down from the heavens. I would say we got about 16inches, or rather, the drops were 16inches apart.
Although we could still only see the gently rolling see of green (with its golden sheen) and the underbelly of the fragile looking clouds, I was sure the monster was lurking somewhere close at hand. Another easy 4.5km later we reached a little hut where we took an early lunch on the manicured lawns next to the bubbling brook.
It was probably about 11am and so far the going has been easy. I decided that General Pienaar-Steenekamp must have been telling the truth and that this will be a nice, easy beginner’s expedition from which we would all return safely. I chided myself for having so little faith in the kindness of my fellow man and made a mental note to buy her a nice fluffy present or new combat boots to apologise.
After lunch we picked up our bags and OUCH…my legs seemed a little stiff and my hips a little bruised. But this was fun so lead on my General!!
We rounded the hut with me close to the lead. The terrain was notably steeper than the previous 10.5km that bought us to this point and naively I thought this would be the worst of it. Passing the hut I felt some pressure on the top of my toes and immediately my extensive training kicked in. I stopped, dropped and, sat down very rapidly, took of my shoes and rearranged my socks to get rid of the pressure point. Bravely I took up my burden again and started marching up the hill. Most fortuitously I soon looked backwards (to check if the sweeper could keep up with me) and was rewarded with a view that made me grab for my camera…..which was not there. I again took of my pack and walked back the 50m to the scene of the crime to find my camera waiting where it had slipped out of the pouch on my pack’s hip belt. Cool. Things were going great.
I joined the tail end of the troupe and it soon dawned on me that this just got real. The slope simply would not let up. My rest breaks became more frequent and I was grateful that the rest of the crowd also seemed to have to take breathers more often. With the exception of some “power bunnies” that pirouetted and skipped up the slope laughing and pointing fingers at us.
The slope got steeper and steeper to within degrees of us needing powers like spiderman to cling to the ceiling. The guys with GPS’s exclaimed that the rest intervals was falling from every 200m to 100m or less with vertical rises of just about the same. After each break, it was harder to start moving again.
We skirted boulders, forged raging rivulets and pulled through overhangs. After what seemed like an eternity, the mountain ran out of large rocks and theoretically the going got easier but the slope was still murder and we were knackered.
Just as I was speculating who to eat first, if we never get out of here, the mist lifted and showed us a little edge of what could have been the top...we were nervous that it was one of those cruel joke false rises. IT WAS NOT. Jippeee we made it!! We crawled of the face of the mountain and after a lifelong journey of another 50m to a nice flat slab of stone, we collapsed for a well-deserved break.
It was now around 3pm.
Here we observed a mysterious phenomenon. It seemed that the mountain was playing hide-and-seek with us. From the bottom we could not see the top, or even 60m up. And now we were staggering around on the top, where the sun finally reached, and we could not see the bottom.
Fascinated we stared at mist that behaved like a live thing out of a Dean Koontz book. It was rolling and swirling as if winged beasts flew just below the surface and long tendrils of it reached out over the edge, hungrily searching for us only to dissipate harmlessly when stretched too thinly from the main body.
It was pretty spooky.
Some of us made coffee, some went to fetch water, and some fell into an exhausted sleep. The worst was over.
An hour or so later the crack of whips, sharp commands and a fear of being left behind stirred us back into slow and agonising activity. Can you believe that the orders were to hike another 4.5km?? I thought (hoped) we might camp here and my body seriously argued the point but the chiefs-in-charge jabbered some nonsensical things about exposure to wind and water supply and stuff.
We were in what seemed like a clear spot but a creepy mist has risen and was circling us slowly. Like a flock of mutated vampire H2O, watching us but keeping a safe distance. Sometimes ganging up into denser packs and swooping in, in mock charges.
Madame Hitler was oblivious to our pleas and after a very, very stern warning to always stay within sight of each other, else the mist might “get us”, we trooped off again.
We were tired but after the cliff we just scaled the following distance, with a rise and fall of about 300m, was dead easy and quite enjoyable.
The mists left us to search for easier prey and an hour or so later we chucked down our bags for the final time that day. We were on a flat plato covered with soft tufts of grass and close to a running stream……and also reasonably close to some kind of edge. (The flock of mist has returned to take another look at us).
Some searching and debating ensued followed by a flurry of tent pitching during which the mood of the tired troops was raised considerably by the thought of food, rest and of course the wine we lugged up. It was still very early at about 6ish but the stoves that were initially meant for coffee and tea within minutes started heating more substantial sustenance.
Drinks was passed around and backpacking meals compared (I think I won again ;-P ).
The breeze picked up and the temperature dropped, so soon after the very early meal, the troops also started dropping like flies.
By 8 the camp was all asleep and let me tell you, tufts of soft grass are over rated. They soon turn lumpy and then the contortionist act starts in the search for a comfortable rest.
Somewhere during the night I was awoken by a distant sound. I wormed out of my sleeping bag and, for answering natures call, I was rewarded with the sight of a glorious (almost) full moon drifting in and out of thin misty clouds, bathing everything in stunning silver. If I was not freezing my nuts off I would have liked to pull up a chair to marvel at it some more, but I headed back to my warm bed.
My next sense of awareness was a hard jab/poke to my leg. What the hell??? There it is again... lifting my weary head I found my bunk mate staring at me.
“Do you wanna see the sunrise?” he said.
“Take a photo for me” I said.
Boy I was lucky, dropping my head took a fraction of a second, he used that fraction of a second to push open the entrance of the tent (that he has already unzipped) and I caught a glimpse of what is surely one of the wonders of the world. Then I was bereft of the glory and dumped back into darkness as the tent flap slid back into place.
I had to see more!
I painfully struggled upright and, still in my sleeping bag, shuffle forward to poke my cocooned feet out of the tent. With the tent flap open enough for me to see I lay back to enjoy the view... and it took me perhaps 20 second to realise I was missing something magnificent so I kicked off the lethargy and sleeping bag, grabbed my jacket and I joined the rest of the troops on the Verge Of The World.
Words cannot explain it, so you will have to look at the picture.
With sudden 20-20 hindsight I realised that our leaders knew EXACTLY what they were doing when they picked this campsite.
It was breath-taking and also very recharging. The 12 hours of sleep, vista and glory of creation and life soon had everyone in a great mood and just “lus-vir-die-lewe”.
After lots and lots of photos of the view and even more selfies, we drifted back to the tents to wash our teeth, brush our faces and prepare breakfast. Breakfast soon deteriorated into a frenzy of packing as the General reminded us of the instruction that the march will start at 8am.
Lifting up my pack was less painful than I expected (thank you M) and we headed out over easy terrain to go find the start of our descend route. The day’s walk was much less strenuous then the previous day but going downhill has some other risks, factors and considerations. The path was mostly gravel and clay and there was quite a bit of skidding and careful stepping.
There was some short breathers but the first real stop on the descend was at a waterfall where most of us plunged into the ice cold pool. This was made less impressive than it sounds by the fact that the pool was only big enough for one person at a time and we actually stood in a line.
The valley/pass soon opened up and deposited us on top of a ridgeline. We enjoyed amazing 360 degrees views and I had some distinct and disturbing “Titanic” moments (you know…on the bow if the ship, face in the wind and arms wide open).
Although the walk really was an easy one, numerous 30 second stops was taken, for photos, to pick up crystals and to give our toes a break (it was downhill all the way).
It was long and warm and it was great to finally see the camp (end point) in the distance and to know that you were nearing the moment where you could put down the backpack and not have to lift it again for some hours.
But even looking forward to the end, I could not help turning around a lot to look back at what I was leaving behind. And to take photos that could never, ever represent the magnificence, splendor, size, “presence” of it all.
What a weekend!!
I WILL start jogging this year and I WILL get backpack fit.
I hope to be back in the embrace of this Dragon again soon. (hint-hint, nudge-nudge, wink-wink dear leaders)
* I own a backpack that weighs something like 3.2kg even before I pack anything.
** While unpacking my backpack at home, I found that the inner “document” pocket, the one against your back where the frame also sits, still contained some pamphlets, guides, booklets, slips, etc. from my Thailand holiday…..about 1kg worth of paper to be exact (blush)
The above is written in a humoristic fashion that might leave you hungry for facts so here goes:
- We hiked up Bannerman Pass and down Langalibalele Pass. With a bit of easy walking on top of the mountain of 3-4 km linking the two.
- This really is a beginners friendly hike with the vast majority of it being on very gradual inclines over long distances. But this gradual incline leaves a very sudden and sharp rise to get to the top and this bit is the meat of the shlog. I would say that the bottom third of Bannerman Pass, after the hut, is still okay but during the last 2 km you gain about 800m on seriously steep and bouldery stuff. The last bit of the second third is very steep at probably 60 degrees and so bouldery it feels like kloofing uphill. Then the slope drops to perhaps 45 degrees and the boulders make way to grass and zig-zags all the way to the top.
- The group had a total of 18 people.
- There was a dedicated leader setting the pace and a dedicated sweeper making sure no one fell too far behind.
- The drive from Jhb took about 7.5 hours for which most of us managed to take half of Friday off work.
- Friday evening we stayed at White Mountain lodge at a cost of R150 each.
- We started the hike at 8am to reach the top of Bannerman at about 3-ish.
- Coming down we started at 8am and finished at about 2pm
- There was enough water on the route for us not to worry about it.
- We were completely lucky and blessed on this weekend:
- We had cool but dry weather for the first day during which all the hard work was done. We also did not get the expected afternoon/evening rains. We had a really warm day coming down that would have killed us on the ascent but it afforded us the most splendid views (that we missed on the ascent due to low mist/clouds).
- And we had the best guides ever. I know for a fact that Hanneke and Van Zyl are fit and fast hikers that get frustrated by slowness and just sitting around while there is still daylight and distance left to burn. They were very conscious of us and the pace they set was nice and slow and steady with lots of breathers. In the spaces where we could not get lost, they let us walk at our own pace so the slower people fell back a bit, BUT they also let us catch up and really have a rest instead of just jumping up as soon as we reach the pack and rushing off again. On the misty and more exposed parts they kept the group tightly together and kept a good eye on everyone and everything. AND we were well prepared, coached and equipped with knowledge before the hike.
It was an awesome experience guys and I can’t thank you enough for taking me on it!