A Winter Grand Traverse - Well, Close Enough!
Words and pics Kai Fitchen & Marine Drouilly
The thermometer in the tent read a comfy minus 6 degrees C. We clumsily dressed inside our ice-dusted sleeping bags, examined our swollen feet and quickly massaged some warmth into our tender quads. I’d underestimated this trek into the ‘Berg. It was only day two of our attempt of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) and we were taking strain.
We’d had decided to give the DGT a go just a couple of weeks previous to our arrival at Sentinel car park trailhead. Marine, my short and feisty French girlfriend, was annoyed I was taking this whole trip so lightly, but I really thought that a map would be sufficient to navigate our way and that we’d manage to do big days with twelve days of food and winter gear on our backs. Luckily Marine decided that this approach would probably see us scrolling off a large cliff in the mist five hours into the trek, so she loaded tracks (which we’d downloaded off Vertical Endeavour’s site) onto her bruised and battered GPS and plotted all the escape routes.
The DGT is one of the more serious hikes that South Africa has to offer. During the trek you’d gain over 9000m in altitude, cover anything from 206km-230km and climb the highest peak in southern Africa. Most of the time you’re trekking above 2800m. It’s pretty badass.
We started the trek from the car park on a sunny yet fresh winter’s morning. We walked slowly and steadily, neither of us willing to admit that the weight of our packs was already draining the life force from our legs. An hour later the chain-ladders came into view. Our eyes scanned the stained rungs, which lay exposed on the vertical walls. Marine was pretty freaked so, as a thoughtful boyfriend, I volunteered to go first. As I climbed the wind picked up and my 30kg pack began to feel unstable and even heavier. I tried not to think of the possibility of this loose ladder flipping due to my weight, rather I focused on my foot placement, every so often shouting out words of encouragement like ‘it’s a piece of cake’ to Marine. We breathed a big sign of relief when we got over the second ladder and began the hike.
I’d always wanted to go to the ‘Berg, but somehow never managed to get myself there. I’d imagined it to be thrilling, however I never expected the absolute magnitude of the place. This realisation came abruptly when the ground gave way to dark cliffs, which glowed with yellows and oranges in the morning sun. The lush vegetation over a thousand sharp vertical metres below contrasted heavily with the dry brown grass of the plateau.
We sipped on tea and even though we felt nauseous from the weight on our backs we shovelled the bulkiest sweets down our throats and headed off. Soon we were lost: other than a few sheep paths, which follow segments of the route, there are no trails, no designated paths or signs. Marine’s GPS came in handy but having no background maps saw us wasting time by climbing unnecessary hills and taking detours which stacked up the kilometres. The Drakensberg is impressive when it comes to making you feeling small. Other than the ridges that drop into South Africa there aren’t really any landmarks; you are always climbing something steep then descending something steeper and if it’s scree, iced boulders or tall grass you never have an easy day.
We’d been hiking eight hours when we set up camp at the source of the Orange River. Our bags were still very full and our legs and spirit felt limp. It was only the second evening and we were suffering. A ‘Berg winter is no joke. As we set up my little tent the wind blasted us in the dying sunlight. We primed the stove and blew into our cupped hands in an attempt to revive our numbed fingers. Pasta and chocolate followed then we tucked ourselves deep into our sleeping bags waiting for the bad weather to hit. That evening we got very little sleep as the snow fell and the wind grew in ferocity. At 3am the thermometer read minus 12 degrees in the tent and we shuddered with disbelief. Marine was even more shellshocked than I was: this was Africa, after all, not the French Alps!
Getting ourselves out of the tent took an extra bit of effort that morning and, ironically, though we were right at the source of one of the country’s greatest rivers, water was difficult to find. Every pond we came across was frozen solid. We used the last drops in our bottles for breakfast and started the hike thirsty, climbing out of the frozen swamplands of the Orange and then descending into a canyon where we were teased by a raging turquoise river far below us. We caught onto a well-trodden sheep track and enjoyed the protection that canyon offered from the pumping winds. We eventually found water later that morning then plunged deeper into the canyon where we followed a gentle stream, which allowed us to avoid some big mountains we’d expected to climb that day. On our protected route we revelled in the sun’s warmth, took off our thick fleece jackets and absorbed some vitamin D.
We found our lunch spot next to a deserted Basotho hut, which the herdsmen use when they trek with their sheep. It was the only sign of human existence that we’d passed since Sentinel. Nougat and rich cheese lifted our spirits then we climbed higher, skipping past frozen waterfalls and green vegetation - a rare find in June. Sadly, we soon had to leave the protection of the canyon and found ourselves once again being blasted by the frigid winds which we’d said good-bye to earlier that morning.
Winter daylight hours are short so we needed to capitalise on what we had. Our routine began before first-light: we’d wolf down some oats and a cup of tea, then, once everything was packed up, head off. We’d have few breaks and a short lunch and then trek until sundown. By day four we’d found our groove, it wasn’t easy at all but this was our life and even though everything was a struggle, from route finding to simply wet-wiping ourselves in sub-zero conditions, it was something both Marine and I desperately needed. There’s something wonderfully purifying about simplifying your life down into a single pack and just walking.
At least once a day we’d have an ‘oh-heck moment’ were the GPS and our map would contradict each other. This would involve me receiving a slight tongue-lashing from Marine for not taking this trek seriously enough then, after anything from 10 minutes to an hour, we’d find our way onto the right path and make up.
It was day five when we realised how isolated we actually were. Marine had strained her knee on a loose boulder field the previous evening and we were about to traverse a precariously steep slope near the grand cliffs of Organ Pipes. The decent was slippery with loose gravel. A vertical drop on our left hand side made us hug the cliff as much as we could; a fall here was not an option. We climbed the slope as cautiously as possible and then gingerly moved along a single track with a dizzying drop. Far below snaked the most dangerous looking path I’d seen for a very long time. It turned out that the path was an escape route, but it was outrageous to think that you’d be able to get safely down without falling to your death in seriously bad weather or if you had a broken leg. From that point we noticed that all the escape routes were just as sketchy, they were basically just designated areas to kill yourself! We were alone and there was little margin for error: with no cellphone signal the chances of being found out here would have been very slim.
Even bigger days followed, but we battled through. We bagged Mafadi (3450m), South Africa’s highest peak, and celebrated with a party-pack of liquorice, but a six-hour trek remained that day. By day six we weren’t worried about big slogs or big climbs, we just moved. The days blurred together as we got closer to our goal, however even though we were better at navigating our way across frozen rivers and through impenetrable-looking passes, we were still losing time. We were at ‘The Tent’ on day eight: it would still take us two more days to get to Sani Pass and then another two to three days until we made it to Bushman’s Nek (the official end of the DGT). Between us and Bushman’s Nek lay huge climbs and gnarly descents including Thabana Ntlenyana (3482m), southern Africa’s highest peak. It means ‘beautiful little mountain’ in Sesotho, but it definitely ain’t little!
On the tenth day we gunned it for Sani Pass. We’d come to the agreement that we didn’t have enough food, energy or wet-wipes to make it to Bushman’s Nek and we also decided that it sounded way cooler and catchier to say that we’ve successfully hiked ‘Sentinel to Sani’!
Dark snow clouds began to creep in above us but our minds were calm in the knowledge that we didn’t have to push for another four days. We climbed the unforgiving frozen slopes of Thabana Ntlenyana and the closer we got to the top the more violently the wind tried to blow us off. We clawed ourselves up onto the rocky summit, took a few pictures and headed down as quickly as our fatigued legs would allow. Our stomachs drove us relentlessly: we knew that the Sani Lodge had cold beer, warm beds and hot-meals so we found an eroded trail and made haste. The soles of our feet burned. As the sun began to fall we wandered past a sun-beaten Basotho herdsman wrapped deeply in his colourful blanket, who was trying to keep his sheep in check. Like the handful of other herdsmen we’d met along the way, he asked us for sweets and a photo of him with his scruffy little pooch. We darted up our final peak and there in the distance we could just make out the latest addition to the Sani Pass, a sleek stretch of asphalt. It was 5pm when we slogged the last stretch of our ‘Sentinel to Sani’ odyssey. We were hurting and both saddened and relieved to see the rusty border post and legendary lodge.
The following day the snows fell heavily. Boy were we relieved to have a roof over our heads.
Tips for those who want to do the traverse:
- Organise a support team: Unless you’re an ultra-marathoner and want to do it in under six days, we’d recommend asking some people to bring up food and fresh clothes.
- If I didn’t make it clear enough, winter in the ‘Berg is bloody cold. So, if you’re looking for a more pleasant time to trek, April and early May are good. During the winter months there’s a large amount of burning taking place on the South African side, which, sadly, makes the views hazy.
- Know how to navigate with a GPS. We didn’t see anyone during our trek other than a couple of herdsmen. Background maps, a clear LCD, and lots of batteries are the way to go. Nonetheless, always take paper maps. You can pick up good maps of the Drakensberg from most outdoor retailers, but if you want to save a lot of cash and you’re in Cape Town, go to the National Geo-Spatial Information (NGI) in Mowbray.
- Notify mountain rescue and officials before you head up, and don’t forget to let them know when you’re finished.
- Passports: Carry one. If you leave the trail around Sani Pass without a passport, be prepared to pay a “fine” at the border post. We managed to get away with not having been stamped into Lesotho, because we stank really badly, but don’t count on such luck.
- Respect the mountain. We saw odd pieces of litter at camping spots, which were obviously used by hikers. Keep your wrappers stashed away securely and don’t do your business near rivers. Don’t forget to bring purification tablets.
- Make sure you’re fit, your gear is tough and you’re prepared for big days.
- Looking for a lift? If you need transport back to your car or anywhere else for that matter, get hold of a bloke called Moses ([email protected]) in Underberg. He’s helpful and very reliable.
- If you need any advice, Vertical Endeavour has a great online forum: www.vertical-endeavour.com or get hold of me: www.mykape.com