Undiscovered South Africa in Drakensburg
At the end of the Bushman’s Nek Road, we reached the border to Lesotho, barely guarded by two young isiZulu men, and offloaded all of our gear.
A hundred and one adventure stories have begun this way; arrival and departure.
This was a unique experience however because we were headed where no one had ever been before.
It is rare nowadays to say that such places even still exist, yet the mountains of the Southern Drakensberg still remain relatively mysterious.
With only Basotho stock thieves or the farmers a hundred years ago out on horseback truly explored.
The reason for this being the rugged terrain, challenging angle of mountains, and altitude of almost 3000 meters above sea level.
It is not for the faint-hearted and the chance of being lost out in the valleys, which stretch out endlessly before you, is a very real possibility.
To reach the border, you pass through the charming town of Underberg. A famous town in South Africa, despite its size, for its passionate outdoor culture and host of events such as the Drak Challenge, Sani2C, and other challenges which call on the best of the country’s sportsmen to come out.
Most famously it is the home to the Sani Pass, one of the more tactical 4×4 drives in South Africa, leading straight up to meet the Maluti mountains.
These mountains have been at the focus of eager adventurers from all around the world for centuries.
However, there are fissures, cracks in the layers that have not yet been discovered.
To reach this end of the earth, travelers must follow the road past the few shops Underberg has to offer– mostly food, liquor, and sportswear.
Out onto the first dirt road right, headed toward Kokstad. Once on this incredibly uneven, pothole-ridden strip, the driver can head straight on until they reach the border.
We met up with an eclectic group of people who would become the best of company during this expedition.
A seventy-year-old from Yorkshire, who hiked with locals regularly throughout the week and probably had the most experience of the group.
A thirty-odd Afrikaans meisie, who loved chocolate and to flirt. The father-and-son duo who between them had trail hiked and run these mountains since birth, the son recently having returned from his greatest climb yet across the Himalayas.
A hippie couple who never admitted they were romantically involved and an Arabian-horse racer whose most recent accomplishment was a 120 km endurance race.
All in all, it was an impressive bunch with years of diverse outdoor experience.
Then there was me, the newbie, and the youngster. At 23, recently having returned from cycling expeditions across Germany and Europe I was not unaccustomed to their taste for adventure and adrenaline. Hiking though was a new sport and interest, the next forty-eight hours would prove a test of both physique and psychology.
Five Km Instant Climb
We set out with an instant climb of five kilometers, unending but guided by a reasonably well-kept path. Eager and excited, I led the way with my youthful naivety and vigor.
The Drakensberg is superb for its ever-generous supply of fresh, cold drinkable groundwater which trickled out of small estuaries across the journey.
The first leg was easy, and I thought myself foolish for having feared anything at all– walking was no comparison to the difficulty of cycling I remember thinking boastfully.
Then we turned off trail. Any experienced hiker reading this would agree that the difference between trail and off-trail is immense.
The ground suddenly seemed determined to trip me up. Grass with spiked edges poking through my socks and then just a continuous climb over miniature mountains atop the larger one.
It became a balancing act. I call it ‘the zone, it refers to the state of mind a sportsman enters after being physically active for a period of time.
Similar to tunnel vision, everything around the edge’s blurs away. All you are able to focus on is right in front of you, the feeling of your body and keeping your breath even. One leg in front of the other. Still, we were on schedule, making good time walking at approximately 2km per hour.
The air was getting thinner and suddenly the breath in your lungs feels oddly empty. Lacking in something substantial. We take a pause and I ask the guide; a seventy-year-old beef farmer with more vigor and energy than anyone I knew my age,
“What is the pile of rocks for?” It was a tradition you see, to pile sandstones as high as possible.
“Mist warnings because when it settles over the mountains you can’t see three feet ahead of you. The sandstone piles are a caution that there is an edge up ahead.
Don’t fall off it,” was his response. After that, we passed several more and I made sure to add the biggest sandstone I could find.
Seven Kg on Your Back
At this point, the 7kg sack on your back really started to bite at the hips and pulling down on the shoulders if it’s not snuggly fitted in.
We found another trail, made by a herd of elands, and follow the U-shaped hoof prints all along until we reached the first stop.
‘Painter’s cave’ is an exquisite overhang, overlooking what is referred to as the Giant’s Cup Trail, and is home to beautifully preserved Bushman rock art.
The stories told here of great wars between tribes, times of illness which wiped out their horses (depicted as painted upside-down animals), and great large men who must have been the white colonialists who invaded these lands.
The depth and detail of each story are riveting, and any hiker can let their imagination run wild with the possibilities of history. We ate. We moved on. Things turned terribly askew after lunchtime.
“Shouldn’t we cross over there?” Asked the most experienced hiker of the group. I agreed with him, the crossing over a deep trench over and onto the next mountain appeared better up there where we would be met with a flatter edge to walk across.
“No, we gotta head lower down,” explained the Himalayan-hiker. Age over adventure? I went with adventure and followed the adrenaline junkie across the ravine and onto the other side. The other side turned quickly to torture.
Ankles bent sideways as they tried to balance on the tufts of wild grass growing all along the embankment. The Himalayan was quick as lightning, bounding over the earth rather than sinking into it. Within a blink, he was gone.
Scrambling over Rock and Stone
Leaving the rest of us scrabbling over rock and stone, breathless and gripping to the tufts of grass to prevent from sliding down the side of cliffs! I could see the world, hundreds of meters below, veering up to meet me. Keep your eyes forward as vertigo played illusionary tricks.
The guides kept insisting we were just five kilometers out, but the father and son soon separated. One bounding ahead and the other desperately trying to recall whether we were to head higher or lower. One kilometer, on a razor-edge without any distinct trail was biting into my knees, ankles, and carves.
Each member of the team was focused on their own survival and I kept chanting, ‘if he can do it. I can do it watching the seventy-year-old struggling across the ridge like a mountain goat.
After an hour with only have managed a few hundred meters, I was ‘kaputt’ as they like to say in Germany.
I then continued to eat the sweetest things I could find in my pocket, worked up a lekker sugar rush and practically sprinted the last stretch. The sun was typically African; blunt, burning and absolutely unforgiving.
With my forehead slick with sweat I reached the others and rested under the shade of oversized boulders. The Himalayan came bouncing back, smiling, and lost.
He hadn’t found the cave but had uncovered white horse paintings somewhere nearby. Where was his father? Who knew? We were running two hours behind and water was running low.
“Sleep with the Horses”
“If they can’t find it. We’ll sleep with the horses,” the seventy-year-old smirked. He didn’t look like he was going anywhere soon… or ever.
“Come on!” hollered the Himalayan. Very well, I was 23 after all and had something to prove. This wasn’t as hard as cycling, but after seven hours of non-stop movement, the argument was somewhat soft at this point. I clambered over the last bit, crossed a stream, and topped up with water. Here we go. My breath was heavy, my back ached, my head was splitting. I was disappointed in my ability.
“It’ll be worth it, there’s a waterfall,” he promised. That made me pick up the pace. The promise of water. Cooling off, swimming endlessly in a reflective pool. Around the corner, 2 km of a corner before reaching the other side. I was grateful to the baboons who had carved their way along this edge, whose narrow way we used to balance and prevent ourselves from slipping.
Edge of the Earth
Disappearing off the edge of the earth. The cracked edges of caves all dotted alongside the parallel valley. Keyholes where wicked creatures hid away during the day, only to come crawling out in the evenings. My imagination was playing tricks on me.
I began seeing the mountains getting up off of their haunches, great giants standing upright before loping off into the distance. The sun had begun to take its toll. I wasn’t alone in seeing things. The hippies swore the white horse paintings had walked across the walls and transformed into a startling Pegasus, whom they rode to reach the cave. Well believable, as both had been red-faced and breathless when we’d left them a few kilometers back.
“Nobody Has Been Here”
“Nobody has been here before,” he remarked, I was on his heels. The promise of that waterfall on my lips, the dream of dipping my feet in ice kept pushing me forward into the eighth hour.
“Have you ever been a tour guide?” I joked as he tried to sell us the end-goal after all of this confusion. The guides had forgotten the way, couldn’t remember around which ridge we were meant to be headed toward. Now he was certain, but I had lost almost all trust. It was down to praying.
No signal, sun setting, and sleep calls. The cave emerged as a great kingdom. She stood ten feet tall, a giantess with caramel skin marked from thousands of years of experience. The roof stretched out curving down toward the ground as though it were fighting against gravity and losing.
Moisture in the air and the sound of water, a lot of it, flowing. I began to run. Tripping over my feet, I slid down the dusty cave floor and into the hollow where rooms had been made up. The Basotho had set up round areas demarcated by layered rocks. They laid down dry grass for padding. The walls were carved out in craters, exposing rich colors of ochre and turquoise. I had died and gone to heaven.
A path carved its way through the thicket, bonsai structured trees forming an archway which finally allowed me to enter the garden of Eden. In the center, a skyscraper-tall waterfall. Stripping. Without care. My body collapsed into the ripples only to WAKE UP INSTANTLY!
The water was five degrees, freshly melted snow, and every nerve in me went from exhaustion to tingling with ice-fire. It shocked me back to the living. Crawling over the pebbles I finally closed my eyes, lay out like a lizard on the hot rocks and slept. Somebody found me like that, a fellow concerned hiker.
“Are you okay?” She asked,
“Are you God?” was my reply to which she only laughed.
The evening was spent sharing stories, sharing soup and tea, and above all, recuperating and prepping for the next day. We all had something to say. The time he went paragliding and broke his ankle. When he got stuck in the snow for three days without food, hunting thieves who stole his cattle on horseback.
Flirting and Dirty Jokes
Flirting, dirty jokes, and glances across members of the group were not uncommon given the shared fear of earlier that day. I really had thought for just a moment, the cave was mythical. A figment of an old man’s mind that had led us all astray. Only exacerbated by the young and obviously gung-ho son.
All of us were cut from the same cloth- we’d been pushed to the edge and somehow ended up loving living there. We are rare and few in between. The lost ones. We prefer to sleep in caves with dragons than down on earth with the rest of the world.
We escape into the unknown, and rush forward to the temptation of death because it is here where we feel most alive. Waking up at five am after an insomniac night I climbed back over the trail, a few boulders until I reached the corner. The mellow oranges, dull peaches barely waking up.
Everyone had always wondered why I woke up at five am in South Africa, seven am in Germany. It was always with one purpose–to meet the sun. It raised itself up. Red. Glaring. Lighting up every crevice and imperfection that made this wondrous cave breathtaking.
Then, I was not alone. For the first time, there were others to join me at this crazy hour. We stood alongside, not quite hand-in-hand but close enough. Immersed in the sense of unity. I had been searching for this sense of something beyond myself.
I found it in the hidden caves, the challenges, and the people of the Southern Drakensberg. Who stand strong and unbeatable.
JC Delport is an anthropologist who has studied and conducted research extensively in Europe and Southern African countries including Germany, Greece, the UK, Mozambique and her homeland of South Africa. Her writing always incorporates rich history and geographical detail. Currently, she attends Münster Universität in Germany working toward completing her Master’s degree and work part-time as a vegetable Farm Assistant.