After months of planning myself and four other keen hikers were finally on our way to the Cathedral Peak region of the Drakensberg. Rian, Stephen and myself were driving down from Gauteng and we were to meet up with two Durban okes, Carl and Mark in Winterton. We made the mistake of taking Oliviershoek pass, or rather what’s left of it, and we ended up with a flat run-on-flat tire. Some kind folk in Winterton were happy to take in the car and see that it gets fixed by the time we come down from the mountains 6 days later. It was already 9pm, but nothing would stand in the way of our hike and we continued to Didima camp where we checked into the mountain register and one of their staff took us to the top of Mike’s Pass with the mountain taxi.
And so our hike started at 10pm on a Tuesday night in thick and cold mist. The group comprised one full-time photographer, 3 hobbyists and one victim of our passion who was just there for the experience. The plan was to follow the jeep track to a flat clearing where we could pitch our tents for the first night. After walking for about 90 minutes and obviously not finding anything other than jeep track, mist and darkness, we decided to pitch our tents in the middle of the road. Spirits and energy levels were high; we had dinner and retreated to our tents.
Starting on a misty night
We awoke to the same thick mist and a soft rain the next morning. If Rian (our navigator) didn’t know the mountains as well as he did then we would have had no option but to stay in the tents, but we packed up and started heading uphill to get to the bottom of Organ Pipes Pass. Rian told us that two or three hours up there is a mountain hut in which we could take a proper break and have a solid warm breakfast, so we slogged up the little berg in the mist looking forward to a warm brew and oats. Worse than the physical effort of going uphill is the psychological effect that the mist and hills create in the little berg. You ascend a ridge thinking that you’ll see the Basalt cliffs in the distance, but the mist just reveals another blind ridge. Endlessly. As with the flat area the previous night, the hut was never found and by the time the mist cleared slightly we realized we were very close to the top of the escarpment. We had been hiking for 6 hours, everyone was soaked from underwear to socks and gatvol, to put it politely.
Ascending above the mist near the base of the cliffs
We had a good meal, mustered what spirit we had left and continued up behind the Organ Pipes via Tuthumi pass. It was another 2 hours from our break spot that the mist fooled us yet again on our way to the top. What we thought was the escarpment edge was the neck behind the Organ Pipes and we could see that it was at least another hour to the top. Everyone was properly exhausted, we had one member feeling slightly sick and having ascended 1200m, two of us had a headache from the altitude. We had been walking for 8 hours and the photo-opportunities to the North were amazing, so we made the call to pitch camp.
A fleeting moment of magic as the upper clouds let some light through and the mist pulled away from the escarpment
As we were putting up the tents, there was a slight moment of perfection. The mist pulled away from the escarpment and the upper clouds opened to let some light through. There were strong rain clouds sitting quite low and it felt as if we ad ascended into another world. Changing into dry clothes after 8 hours of walking was certainly welcome and buying thermal underwear for the hike was a good call. Carl and I went up onto a ridge in anticipation of the clouds giving us a break, which it did momentarily. He got one great photo of me standing on a ledge overlooking the mist and that was to be the only clearing for nearly two days.
Image by Carl Jason Smorenburg
The next morning revealed the same thick mist we had become accustomed to. While we were disappointed, we did need the rest and Rian said we could stay in our tents until it cleared. It rained most of the day and even put down a proper amount of hail. That day was spent sleeping, chatting and being optimistic about the weather. Hopes were high as night fell, but we kept a realistic mind and it was very possible to have another day in the mist.
Setting up camp in the neck behind the organ pipes
Rian woke me very early the next morning and I was expecting to open the tent door and look at the same cold mist of the past two days. Opening the door revealed a star-filled night sky and a frosty breeze. As dawn approached the skies revealed mid-level cloud that was certain to make for a good sunrise, which it did. With some great shots on everyone’s memory cards and the sun climbing in the sky, elation was in abundance. The neck of Tuthumi pass looked like a squatter camp as everyone’s whole kit was spread out on the grass and rocks to dry.
Brilliant sunrise made for a cheerful start to the day
With everything dried out and bags repacked, we set off aiming to get to the Cockade. It was a perfect day in the berg and we hadn’t walked 500 meters when the first amazing photos started presenting themselves. Just before the last ascent of Tuthumi you have Cleft peak on the left, the spires of the Organ Pipes on the right, and the cathedral spur in the distance. There was mist in the valleys and the clouds overhead cast fleeting shadows through the foreground of our images. Snap snap snap.
The view through the organ pipes
After taking too many photos, the cameras were packed away and the uphill started. Climbing a steep pass is never a pleasant experience and it isn’t made any more pleasant by a 25kg backpack. Add to that the altitude of just over 3000masl and it’s a physical experience you can compare to those school sport fitness sessions you had to endure when the coach was having a bad day. Nonetheless I had done some dieting and training prior to the hike and most importantly, I was motivated. To the rest of the guys it may have looked like I was dying, but as long as I maintained my 20 steps, 30 seconds rest pace I always got to the top.
When I finally did Rian posed for us on a ledge and we got some dramatic shots of him dwarfed by the scale of the pass descending into the mist. It was about 11am and the thunderclouds were building. Looking across the plains of Lesotho, we could see the neck behind the mighty Cleft peak that we had to go through. Conditions were lovely and we got going at a strong pace. After an hour we took a break at a stream to refuel and before we got to the bottom of the neck we had descended about 200m into Lesotho and it was time for another hellish uphill. 20 paces, 30 seconds break, 20 paces, 30 second break…and we eventually crested the neck at just under 3200m.
Rian posing just below the crest of Tuthumi pass
The wind was pumping on top, but we found a sheltered spot and took a break before heading down towards the Cockade. As we came down around the Northern side of Cleft we saw the Pyramid and Column sticking out of the mist. Upon seeing it there was just an immediate consensus that for photography’s sake we wouldn’t be carrying on to the back of the Cockade. The skies were thick with building thundercloud and below us was a carpet of mist cloud swirling up the escarpment wall in a cool mountain breeze. About 500 meters from the main escarpment wall was the pyramid and the column rising out of the mist like watch towers at earth’s edge. We hadn’t seen other people in 3 days, behind us lay the wilderness of Lesotho and the scene in front of us seemed like the frontiers of existence. That afternoon was one of my lifetime highlights.
The Pyramid and the Column rising out of the mist
After filling a memory card, we had to find a spot to pitch our tents. The wind had picked up and we were on an exposed plain, not the ideal place for a tent. We carefully selected our spots and set up camp. Tent pegs were weighed down with rocks, as were the edges of the outer sails, a small bit of extra effort that would prove vital later that night. It was about 5pm and the wind had pretty much died down. The skies were just getting better and we could hear the rumble of thunder from the hills of Lesotho. Far out from the escarpment the horizon over Natal was full of vast mushroom clouds. Most of the sunset was spent running around between compositions as the light peaked.
Last light of the day slipping in below the approaching storm
We gathered at the tents for a chat over dinner as butane flames whistled away, everyone was recalling what an amazing day it had been. The rumble was coming closer, but there was no wind and I mentioned how lucky we were with the weather, foolishly. Everyone was done eating and the first rain hit us just as we got into our sleeping bags. Softly at first with little wind, then as darkness fell the skies started lighting up and the rumble was getting louder. Within 15 minutes the soft drizzle had turned into hell, Stephen and I could barely hear each other as a torrential downpour rattled the tent sail. Gusts of wind bent the tent’s aluminum poles almost down onto our chests and the rumble had turned into a bombardment of deafening crackles. We were holding up the main pole with our arms in fear of the wind snapping it and in doing so the cold got to us very quickly. Luckily thunderstorms move quickly and we were waiting for it to let up any moment, but it was the perfect escarpment storm and it lasted…and lasted. After about two hours we decided to give up the fight and let nature do what it wants to. The storm died down somewhere between 11 and 12pm and I spent the rest of the night trying to get warm again.
Soft dawn light on the Cathedral Range
Peering out of the tent the next morning it felt like the whole storm experience was a dream. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky from Lesotho to the Eastern horizon. Breakfast was made, bags packed and plenty of jokes were going around about the storm. Rian and Mark had spent most of the night with their boots and rain gear on, ready for the tent sail to give in at any moment. We were all unharmed, rested (sort of) and it was another beautiful day in the berg. We were to make a call at the head of uMhlambonja pass. Head for Easter cave or go all the way down to one tree hill. We arrived at the pass eager for a good lunch, when Rian revealed that we had walked too far. We all took a 5 minute break, except Rian who immediately went off in search of the pass. Waving arms confirmed the correct neck and we all sat down amongst the cairns for a proper lunch before descending the never-ending pass.
The escarpment wall stretching off to the South East
The descent was done one careful step at a time, down zigzags in the grass, then over boulders. After an hour of boulders and zigzags we reached the river. We crisscrossed the stream over and over as the trail widened and narrowed from level paths to ledges along a gorge wall. At places we had to give each other a hand to climb up and down steep sections. The discomfort of the descent quickly trumped the beauty of the uMhlambonja valley and about 5 hours after starting we reached the bottom of the contour path. We had a wash and a snack, and we started the last section, our destination was a 30-minute walk at a soft incline away. Backs aching, we crested the hill only to see that one tree hill was at least another hour away along a deep cutback. Next to us was a large flat hilltop with soft grass and there was no deliberation about what to do. Backpacks were thrown off to huge sighs of relief after just over 10 hours of walking.
After 10 hours of walking the faces convey a deceitful message!
We were back down at a comfortable altitude; the air was warm and the breathing easy. The whole of the escarpment stretched out in front of us, we had the cathedral spur at the back and the previous night’s rains were still coming down every valley in dramatic waterfalls. For the first time on the hike we didn’t have to flee for the cover of a tent after having a meal. We made dinner one last time, reminisced about the storm and laughed at Mark who still had enough food to last a month in the mountains. The next morning was a pleasant 3 hour walk down to the hotel, but the prospect of taking the backpacks off for good set a motivated pace!
The pyramid and column below stormy skies
The car’s tire was fixed, we parted ways with the Durbanites and we headed back up to Gauteng relieved to be returning to our modern comforts. Make no mistake that hearts were heavy as Monday waited on us all and we wouldn’t be back in such nature for months. In the days after the hike it really hit me that despite all the physical hardship and horrible weather it was still one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It’s the effort that you put in to experience it that makes you appreciate it. It’s effort that the absolute minority of people, even nature lovers are prepared to invest. It is thus an appreciation of nature that few people share, but it is certainly the most amazing one that I have shared. Of all the places I’ve seen and experienced in my search for the ultimate photos, hiking the Drakensberg takes the prize by a long haul. Hiking may not be for everyone, but getting atop the Drakensberg is something every South African has to do at least once in his or her life