Submitted by Leanne Mills
Disclaimer: Dragon's Wrath is actually a pretty cool (read: mortifying) book about climbing and accidents in the Drakensberg. Thankfully our story isn't filled with tragedy. Rather, it's a story of adventure in the face of adversity; with some important lessons along the exciting, and rather rocky, path of mountain exploration.
My trail running buddy, Jonathan, and I had just finished up an exploratory running trip to Lekgalameetse Reserve in Limpopo. We're both smack-bang in the middle of our training blocks for our respective 100km trail races later this year. But let's be real, running around Joburg is boring. There are no mountains. Elevation training requires running up and down steep-ish suburban roads; or the ever-popular Westcliff Stairs. So, we have to dream and scheme ways to get to the mountains. And what better way to get decent mileage and elevation training than a big Drakensberg mission?
Plan: Mnweni Cultural and Hiking Centre to Ifidi Cave via Ifidi Pass (+- 20km)
Reality: The lesson here is to pay attention to the difficulty rating for Escarpment passes on the map…
We started our hike from Mnweni Centre at 10am, having driven through from Joburg earlier that morning. With a relatively big day ahead of us, and around 1900m of elevation gain, we tried to move fast. As we moved closer to the escarpment, excitement welled in me…there was still snow up there! I could see pockets of white stuff buried in the shady faces of the peaks. I’ve never hiked in snow before! Now just imagine a 10 year old kid in a candy store; and mom has said “have at it” …there were stars in my eyes.
At around 2:30pm we arrived near the base of the pass. Only 4.5km left to the top; plus another 1 km to the cave. But here’s the thing about Drakensberg hiking paths - they exist and then abruptly cease to exist. We meandered up and down a ridge above Cycad Cave. After some deliberation, Jonathan suggested that we rather find a lekker camping spot near the “river”, and tackle the pass tomorrow. We only had about 2.5 hrs of light left and no idea what the conditions were like in the pass (it looked very steep and snowy). With about 1000m of elevation to still gain, it would be unwise to attempt to reach the top of the escarpment. We ended the day on 16kms.
Ever so slightly disappointed that we didn't hit our goal for the day, we searched for a place to camp (even ground; sheltered from the winds that invariably blow down from the escarpment; somewhere near to water). What we found was straight out of a fairy tale. A small grove of real Yellowwood proved to be the most comfortable and picturesque night sleep I have ever had. Picture this; a soft, green, mossy clearing, surrounded by ancient trees; snow blanketing the outskirts of the little hollow; and the sounds of water trickling down a tributary. The pictures we took cannot do it justice. I didn’t know how my first experience of wild camping can ever be topped.
Original Plan: Ifidi Cave to Pins Pass (21.5km on the escarpment, with obviously not much in the way of elevation gain).
New plan: Get up Ifidi Pass and onto the escarpment. Maybe head to Mbundini Cave or Fangs Cave if possible (around 10kms).
Reality: The mountains don’t care about your plans. And always pack a rope!!!
*Soft chuckle* Well, a pass that we thought we could do in half a day ultimately took 2 days of fighting through a snow-choked, steep and rocky chasm, with boulders so big that, once scaled, turning back wasn’t really an option to consider. The going was slow. There was so much snow that you couldn't see the rocks underneath you. Treading with the utmost care, we creeped our way up. If you were too hasty, you could wedge your leg between some rocks and, well, neither of us were too keen on having to call MSR.
I lost count of the number of times we had to take our packs off to negotiate huge boulders blocking the pass. Stemming your way between a boulder and the pass wall… all I will say is that Drakensberg rock doesn't make for the most confidence-inspiring holds. When one of us would reach the top of a boulder, the other would have to, while balancing on the proverbial precipice, hoist the 22kg and 17kg packs way above our head while the other sits in a precarious position and pulls the packs up without falling off. No one can ever tell me that CrossFit and weightlifting are pointless. Clean and jerks for the win.
At 4pm, exhausted and unsure what lay ahead, we again decided to throw in the towel on the day's plan. We knew we weren’t too far off, but we couldn't risk fumbling up slippery boulders, with heavy packs and decreasing temperatures - in the dark. An uncomfortably slopey night of sleep on snowy, stoney ground; knowing the summit was within our grasp, was torturous. My second experience of wild camping - physically and mentally painful. Exciting times.
Original Plan: Pins Pass to The Saddle and tag North Peak (3153m) and South Peak (3118m)
New plan: Just get out of the damn pass and find a cave to sleep in for our last night!
Reality: Always pack a tent
With very little sleep, we waited in the tent for the sun to rise. We didn’t even take the time to make coffee. Sacrilege! But we just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. The summit and the escarpment turned out to be only a couple 100m (and 50m of vert) away. But the terrain was so tricky that calling it quits the day before had been the smart and safe decision.
Less than 2hrs later, we emerged from the cold shade and into the gorgeous sunlight. The blood and bruises were worth it. Usually, this time of year, the summit is cold, bleak and desolate. Now vast snow fields stretched into distant Lesotho valleys, and blanketed the small and unassuming peaks. Heavy snowfall on the escarpment is not unheard of in the Berg - but we did not anticipate this much. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Thirsty, but relieved to be at the top, we moved a little faster on the escarpment. With no plan but to just walk (frolic in my case) and enjoy the views, we only ended up covering around 13kms. Once we got to what we thought was Fangs Pass, we decided to set up the tent. Jonathan had promised me that we’d spend at least 1 night in a cave. We never reached any of them in time. But I did get to sleep in a tent, on the escarpment, with snowfields as far as the eye can see. The biggest reward, a sunset to end all sunsets.
Even though nothing about this mission went to plan- and we encountered obstacles at EVERY turn - I wouldn't change a single moment. I’ll leave you with this: Accepting fate, not merely bearing what is necessary, but loving it can make a tough situation the most rewarding.
This adventure was a bit akin to life, I think. To borrow a beautiful turn of phrase: 'Life is more like some dance between a stoic discipline and a dopamine-drenched pleasure bomb. One ain't better than the other."
1. Plan your route carefully - check multiple maps to see the difficulty grading of passes; and whether the trails are clear, disused or possibly non-existent. We used the Slingsby Map of Drakensberg North (Map1&2). Always have a back-up/bail-out plan if things don't go to plan.
2. Pack a tent or bivy in case you can’t find a cave or suitable shelter. You want to have some shelter from possible foul weather.
3. A trekking rope! It comes in handy in many ways!
4. The mountains don’t care about your plans! Be prepared for anything and everything!