South Africa: Hiking in the Drakensberg

11th June - 22nd June 2002


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The person who recommended the Inkosana Lodge to me also told me about an overnight hike he did to the Zulu Cave and said it was a beautiful hike and a really peaceful place to spend a night. Before Rebecca and I headed out into the mountains we decided to go on a day hike to warm up for our two-day trek. Ed had some good ideas for a day hike and dropped us at Monks Cowl in the morning with a basic photocopied trail map. There is a good system of well-marked trails radiating out from the park headquarters at Monks Cowl and we set off for Nandi Falls, a secluded waterfall at the top of a gorge on the Mpofane River. From there we followed the Hlatikhulu Forest trail that lead us through some patches of indigenous forest north along the base of the escarpment that towered above us. Ed recommended that we take a path that looked seldom used, which followed a heavily forested gully up the side of the escarpment. The path was tricky to follow, there were very few trail markers on the way but after a steep climb through the forest we reached the grassy slopes above where we stopped for a late lunch and admired the view below us.

The Natal Drakensberg covers an area of approximately 250,000 hectares and forms the border between KwaZulu Natal and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. At the low altitudes the mountains are made up of near horizontal sedimentary sandstones, mudstones and shales. These are topped by basalt flows that reach up to 1km thick and form the main escarpment. There are also outcrops of dolerite, which have been pushed up through fault lines in molten form and occur as straight dykes across the landscape. The lower sandstone zone forms multicoloured cliffs from almost black and grey to brown and pink sandstones to shales of blue and red and mudstones of cream and yellow. This zone is known as the Little Berg where weathering and erosion has formed many caves that were inhabited by the San people who left their mark with cave paintings at a myriad of sites. Above the Little Berg is an area of relatively flat, rolling grassland that leads up to the sheer walls, buttresses and scree slopes of the main escarpment. The summit of the main escarpment is characterised by jagged peaks and steep passes.

There are 1,800 known plant species in the Drakensberg, 350 of them endemic to the region. The vegetation forms three main belts that coincide with the main topographical features of the mountains. The montane belt is found below the sandstone between an altitude of roughly 1,200 to 1,800m. The greatest variety of plant communities and animal life are found here. On south facing slopes there are beautiful montane forests with tall yellowwood trees. On the drier north-facing slopes protea woodlands grow. On the scree slopes where boulders have fallen from the cliffs above, which provide some protection from fire, small patches of woody plants grow, including the tree fushia and the sagewood.

The sub-alpine belt occurs between about 1,800 to 2,850m between the montane of the Little Berg and the alpine of the summits; this zone is covered by grassland. The grasslands vary with altitude and aspect; temperate evergreen grassland characterised by the spiky festuca costata on the moist south-facing slopes and on the scree slopes and shorter highland sourveld grassland with themeda triandra, which goes red in winter, covering large areas. Woody vegetation is largely confined to sheltered slopes and valleys and consists mainly of leucosidea sericea scrub or sub-alpine fynbos. The Drakensberg cycad is found here and is more common in the northern Drakensberg than the southern. In most places there are large colonies of dwarf proteas, which survive fire by having most of their growth underground in the form of large rootstocks. Closer to the sandstone of the Little Berg taller protea species form open woodland. The alpine belt is found between about 2,850 to 3,500m and consists mainly of heath-type vegetation dominated by erica and helichrysum species. The vegetation is sparse and there are no trees.

The night before our trek to Zulu Cave, Ed sorted everything out for us and showed us the route on the map; we also arranged to borrow a couple of sleeping mats. The days at the Inkosana Lodge were bright and sunny, the skies clear and deep blue, not a cloud in sight; the nights though were very cold and there was a frost on the grass by sunrise. I was worried about how cold the night might be in Zulu Cave; it had the potential to be absolutely freezing. My sleeping bag was only rated as a one and a half season, but after surviving cold nights at altitudes on the big mountains of East Africa I convinced myself it wouldn't be a problem. On my journey through Africa this was the first trek I had been on that I didn't hire a guide and just went off independently into the mountains armed with a map and a compass. As we were only going to be out in the mountains for one night we didn't bother taking a stove with us and instead took a loaf of Ed's bread and stopped at the shop on the way to Monks Cowl to buy some cheese and other sandwich fillings.

From the park headquarters at Monks Cowl, at an altitude of approximately 1,300m, we began walking up hill towards the Sphinx. The trail lead through some small woodlands in the gullies at the bottom of the mountains, crossing over small, crystal clear streams. The gradient wasn't too steep as the path contoured up the escarpment climbing steadily. We reached the Sphinx, a large outcrop of rock that slightly resembles the Sphinx in Egypt, at an altitude of 1,700m. We stopped for a few minutes on top of this rock outcrop to take in the view of the undulating landscape stretching away into the distance below us. The weather was absolutely perfect, the skies blue without a cloud in sight and the warm sun shining on our faces. The climb became much steeper from the Sphinx as the trail lead us up onto the grassy plateau above the escarpment of the Little Berg. Once on the plateau we crossed over the breakfast stream and carried on to Blinds Man Corner at 2,100m a distance of 5.5km from the park headquarters. Rising up in front of us were the impressive peaks of Sterkhorn, 2,972m, Catkin Peak, 3,148m and rising up behind them to the south, the flat-topped Champagne Castle, topped with ice and snow at 3,245m.

My original plan on this hike was to climb Sterkhorn on the second day on the way back from Zulu Cave. Looking at the mountain now it looked very challenging, the trail up the ridge to the summit looked very steep and narrow, the summit surrounded by cliffs of shear rock. I began to have second thoughts about this climb especially as we didn't have a guide with us. From Blinds Man Corner the path contoured along the base of the main escarpment, the peaks to our west. The hiking was easy as the path twisted in and out of gullies and across small streams that formed tributaries of the Sterkspruit River as they flowed down valleys to the east. The grass was very dry now as it was the middle of winter. The parks authority had been carrying out controlled burning and had used the path we were walking along as a tracer line and burnt a stretch of grass about 20m below the path. This had left a huge black scar burnt across the landscape along the base of the escarpment, which wasn't the most appealing view to the eye. We passed by the Turret at 2,670m to our west and after 2.5km from Blinds Man Corner we reached Hlathikulu Nek in a saddle between two low mountains, a valley falling away in front of us, roughly to the north that concealed the Zulu Cave.

We stopped for lunch before heading down into the valley that snaked off into the hazy distance. In the far distance to the west was the distinctive Intunja Mountain at 2,408m; Intunja in Zulu translates as 'eye of the needle' and the summit of this mountain had a hole right through it, a geological feature I had never seen before. This is where I found a discrepancy between the map Ed had given us and the actual landscape before us. The map marked the trail leading off the main path and along the eastern side of a buttress between two valleys, which joined to form the valley where the cave was situated. I could not find the path anywhere, so with the good visibility I plotted a route 'off road' down the buttress to where the valleys joined below. The walking was not that easy through the lumpy, long grass and the pace was slow. We stopped about halfway on the way down to the valley, where I turned around and saw the trail looping around the western side of the buttress and down the hill behind us. We joined the trail once again and soon made it to the point where the two rivers met, the sides of the valley towering above us and on the ridge to the east a distinctive V notch in the flat ridge. It took a bit of searching to pick up the trail across the river, again the trail was in a completely different place from where it was marked on the map but we soon found it leading down the side of a waterfall and then across the river and up the steep bank on the other side. From here on it was just a case of following the trail along the base of the valley, across a couple of small tributaries and then up a side valley to Zulu Cave. Along the way I almost stepped on a snake, later identified as a Berg Adder although at the time I thought it was the deadly Puff Adder, which was sunning itself on the dusty path. It's camouflage was excellent and I am still surprised that I spotted it when I did before I trod on it.

Zulu Cave is along a tributary valley to the west at the bottom of an escarpment. The cave is a huge rock overhang, a river cascading over this overhang forming a waterfall and a curtain of water across the middle of the cave. The park headquarters say that this cave could sleep twelve people, but the reality was that you could sleep three times this many. This afternoon we had the cave to ourselves and no one else turned up. It was a wonderfully peaceful location hidden away in this valley, we felt like we had left civilisation a long way behind, it was perfect. I am so glad a ran into the person who recommended this hike to me all those weeks ago, whoever he was, he was certainly right about this place. We sat on a rock admiring the view in the last warm rays of the afternoon sunshine; the sun disappeared early behind the ridge above us and the temperature soon began to drop. Just before it got dark something caught my eye in the distance to the east, a couple of streaks of high cirrus cloud. I tried to ignore what I had seen as this type of cloud is typical of a weather system approaching, but the chances were that by morning it could be wet. Later in the evening, after we had eaten our monster size sandwiches, I noticed that the stars were no longer visible and that this high cloud now covered the skies above us. Looking on the bright side, at least it wouldn't get so cold tonight with this blanket of cloud above us trapping some of the days heat in the atmosphere. It was still chilly though and by 19.00 we curled up in our sleeping bags on a bed of dry grass and Ed's sleeping mats, leaving a candle burning into the night illuminating the gloom around us, the sound of the cascading water sending us to sleep.

Considering where we were I had a reasonable nights sleep and slept far better that I thought I would of. The night wasn't nearly as cold as I feared it would be, but as day broke I could see why, the valley was enveloped in a heavy mist and drizzle. It was 07.00, I had been lying on the floor of the cave for twelve hours and my back hardly ached. We waited for a couple of hours to see if the weather would lift or if the rising sun would burn off the mist. It didn't, so we packed up camp and walked back out into the valley. We also abandoned any plans of climbing Sterkhorn today, it would be far too treacherous to attempt a mountain like that in this weather; what would be the point if you couldn't see any views from the summit? The trail to the Zulu Cave was rarely used and the long grass encroached over it. The one thing I hate most about hiking is long, wet grass; you don't stand a chance of keeping your feet dry. Today was no exception and within a couple of hundred metres our boots were soaked, our socks squelching. There was nothing else to do except put one foot in front of another and get off the mountain as quickly as possible and back into the dry, warm Inkosana Lodge.

Rebecca and I walked on mostly in silence thinking our own private happy thoughts; mine for some strange reason centred on what would taste good with a jug of hot custard. As we walked back up through the valley towards the contour path it looked as though the weather was lifting as the visibility improved. This didn't last long though and soon the hike became reminiscent of a wet hike across Dartmoor in the southwest of England. By the time we reached the contour path between Hlathikulu Nek and Blind Mans Corner the drizzle intensified and the conditions became depressing, the water squelching out of my socks with every step. This was the worst weather I had encountered while trekking on this journey across Africa. I suppose it had to happen eventually but luckily we were walking off the mountain and were not stuck hiking between two huts. We walked on at a fast pace, hardly stopping and after three and three quarter hours were back at the park headquarters at Monks Cowl feeling cold and very wet. The arrangement with Ed was to phone him and he would send someone to pick us up. I think Ed must have been surfing the internet today as the phone was engaged for about an hour and a half. Because of the weather there were few other hikers around and only one car in the car park, so trying to hitchhike back to the lodge was not much of an option either as the park headquarters are at the end of the road. Meanwhile we stood and froze and waited until finally I got through to Ed who told me the bad news that his pickup was out collecting firewood and probably would not be back for half an hour. During this half hour a couple of hikers returned off the mountain and they kindly gave us a lift back to the lodge, passing Ed's pickup truck along the way. It was time for a hot shower, warm clothes and a large pot of tea.

One of Rebecca's plans while in Southern Africa was to go to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. I had never intended to visit this small enclave in the heart of South Africa and didn't know much about it but as we did some research, this tiny country began to intrigue and fascinate me. We made plans to travel to Lesotho in a couple of days time, but first we took a day off to do some laundry and also to watch England play Brazil in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. We was robbed and lost 2-1, the dream once again lay in shatters all around me in Ed's lounge; I was distraught especially as we would of had an easy semi-final against Turkey to put us through to the final against Germany. Why oh why does this always happen? Surely it was our turn again to be world champions; roll on 2006 when we will have to suffer all this agony again. It didn't help either that a certain Australian girl I was travelling with did not understand that this was more than just a game; it did matter who won. Looking back on it at least we were beaten by the new world champions.

The next day Rebecca and I bade farewell to Ed and his dogs and hitchhiked back to Winterton. We planned to cross the border into Lesotho at the Caldenspoort crossing, just north of Butha-Buthe; a journey that we guessed would take all day. It was a day of changing minibuses from Winterton to Bergville to Harrismith to Qwa Qwa to Bethlehem and finally to Fouriesburg, 10km north of the border.

Continue reading this journey: Butha-Buthe and Roma