Tramping the mountain trails

I was first introduced to the joys of true wilderness hiking when I met a friend who was very keen on it and had been to the Drakensberg with a buddy of his. This is our nation’s highest and longest mountain range. I’d been on three easy hikes before with youth groups. Only one of these was to the Drakensberg, but we stayed in the foothills on a demarcated hiking trail with good paths and slept over in proper hiking huts equipped with pots and pans, toilet facilities, showers and fireplaces. This time it would be different: we’d be camping in tents!

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The three of us, who were all roughly 22 or 23 at the time, spent three December days in the upper foothills of the “Berg”. The rivers were full and we spent the nights in a tent on the flattish tops of steep grassy hills known as spurs. There are hundreds of these between the many streams which cascade down from the mountainside amid a battlement of boulders. The scenery was absolutely beautiful from the word go, and because it was the rainy season, the grass was emerald green and thick. The nights were windy and the tent flapped around like a bat tied to a board and trying desperately to escape.

During this first hike I tripped on a tussock of grass and twisted my left ankle. I had torn the ligaments in my left ankle, but was not aware of this until a couple of days after we returned home and I saw the doctor. My friend’s buddy was training to become a vet, so he patched up my ankle, which I am sure added to his practical experience. It was below the calf, which would be in roughly the same place at the bottom end of a calf’s calf.

I was okay to hike out, especially when my ankle got wet during the many river crossings, but the vet carried my backpack as well as his, which made my first wilderness trip relatively easy.

My ankle was encased in plaster for several weeks following our arrival home, which was a good experience to undergo in retrospect.

The second Berg hike we did was some four months later during the Easter weekend. This time there were four of us. We hiked up to the Escarpment, known colloquially as the “Top”, a comparitively flat and barren tundra-like terrain which is on average 3000 metres above sea level and totally treeless. It’s mostly wide flattish river valleys, marshland, grass, rocks and various lilies. It is also a major watershed dividing the rivers flowing east and west. Views over the Escarpment edge, which towers 1000 metres over the foothills, are spectacular, especially in the North around the Sentinel and Tugela Falls. We ascended by way of the comparatively easy but very rough, bushy and boulder-strewn Tseketseke Pass, which follows a stream most of the way to the top. The ascent took several hours but luckily we were fresh, having spent the night at the corrugated iron Tseketseke Hut, which nestles in the river valley just above the Contour Path.

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(acknowledgement to vertical-endeavour.com for use of this image.  The website has among the best pics of the Berg you’ll find.)

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(above is one of my own pics of this trip)

The next morning we began descending Organ Pipes Pass, which seemed easy as well as very scenic being filled with the rock formations know as the Organ Pipes. But after a few minutes we left the main southward path and took a left turn which traversed along a slope. Suddenly we were faced with a steep descent between two man-high solid rocks, the so-named Windy Gap. It took a while to convince me that this was where our path back to civilization lay. The real problem was not the rocks, but the short traverse just below them. For two or three metres there wasn’t even any grass on our level, just a gap before the comforting and solid-looking footing of grass and rocks could be seen. I was dressed in a bright orange cagoule due to the mist. There was another party of hikers just behind us. I failed to spring far enough to reach the solid-looking part of the path and felt myself beginning to slide on the muddy nothingness. I began to slither down the steep hillside. Before I knew it, a hiker from the other group was yanking me back up by my orange cagoule! I’m not sure how far I would have slipped, whether my life or merely my limbs would have been endangered, but the mist prevented me from getting a better view of the lower lying land to which I may have very quickly been consigned. Strangely enough at the time, my thoughts seemed more concerned with getting my cagoule muddy than with what may have happened had another hiker not been so close behind me!

The rest of our descent down Camel Ridge was comparatively uneventful and filled with stunning views of the mist-clad heights above us from whence we came.

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Having survived our second trip intact, I sought membership of the Mountain Club and went on the obligatory introductory trips with them. My buddy and I also had a go at climbing in the Magaliesberg, which mostly consists of so-named kloofs, very deep steep-sided rocky river gorges with many boulders and waterfalls, and with names such as Tonquani, Grootkloof and Castle Gorge. Although this mountain range is low, more like a range of hills, the beauty of the kloofs, especially on a hot summer’s day, are something to value. They are only an hour’s drive or so from the hectic hustle of two major metropolitan centres, and a welcome retreat from the world of shopping malls and traffic fumes.

I have now been to the Drakensberg on at least twenty occasions and seen everything from rain and mist to drought, hail and snow. One trip we had already pitched the tents (fortunately) and then I went exploring the Escarpment area with another guy. We returned to the tent and hadn’t even sat down yet when it began to hail, the cold stones pelting the tent, but fortunately not us.

On another occasion three of us went hiking on the Escarpment and when we woke up in the morning, everything was covered in snow – breathtaking.

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On another occasion I went with when a Mountain Club member took a bunch of University students. I wasn’t really prepared for the late night before the hike commenced, camping at the Parks Offices and remember students pulling (dead and defeathered) chickens apart by hand as they had no knives available to do the job more professionally.

On another occasion a call of nature allowed me to view a comet (Hale-Bopp?) at the dead of night in the company of the club’s most evident eccentric, with whom I shared a tent.

He was quite a character. On one occasion he volunteered to lead a weekend Magaliesberg trip. However, only two of us turned up: myslef and a friend from the boarding house. As no-one with transport turned up, we had to walk to the leader’s workplace, where he tried without success to start either one of his two 1960’s Fords. As they refused to respond to any attempts to start them, the trip was aborted. He was actually quite a green character as he rode his bicycle everywhere, even pedalling home late at night after club meetings, which usually ended late as they never began on time anyway. He never wore long trousers, even on the coldest of snow-chilled days in the Berg. In his late fifties he eventually married a devoted female admirer, despite telling everyone prior to this that he had “had a lucky escape.”

There’s something about being atop a mountain that feeds the human spirit. The solitude, the fickle weather, looking out over the foothills below, enjoying the silence of the snow and the mystique of the mist.

The river valleys and the sandstone caves down in the so-named Little Berg have their own charms. The sound of a running river also assuages the deepest part of the wistful spirit and washes away fatigue, mind grime and mental malaise.

There is a real physical and mental challenge in ascending a steep rocky pass where it takes four to six hours to complete an ascent of a thousand metres, . All your senses are sharpened and everything you currently possess is on your back. You feel small as you zig-zag through the grass and stones between massive buttresses and frowning abutments of rock.

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Some of the memorable highlights of my mountaineering experiences:
– Watching a lammergeyer effortlessly lift on the air currents against a towering red rock face.
Walking on snow for the first time.
Swimming in cold, crystal clear water.
drinking the cold, crystal clear, running mountain water.
sleeping in caves like our distant ancestors of the past – saves putting up tents and taking them down again in the morning!
– Admiring the considerable variety of flora such as blue squill and red hot pokers.
Enjoying the mountain air almost as fresh as the air our distant ancestors filled their lungs with.

During a rather memorable Berg trip, three of us guys set off early from Waterfall Cave to begin the long ascent of the switchbacks of Ntonjelana Pass. After a few hours of slogging along between the beautiful folds of the main massif on either side, we began to slacken the pace and take a break or two. Not long afterwards, one of the women caught up and there was no sign of strain on her face or body. Eventually we just saw her sunshade bobbing merrily in the distance as she zigzagged upwards towards the crest of the pass. She arrived about two hours before anyone else, affording her the opportunity to admire the stunning view on her own until she was joined by the rest of the party.
Not in the mountains as such, but on my very first Berg trip with the Mountain Club we were travelling in the Free State when we overtook a van which had a pot-plant swinging merrily to and fro in the back window as it proceeded along the road.

I’m so glad I’ve had the experiences described above. Although it’s been years since I’ve been on a hiking trip, I am ready to pick up my backpack and make the next ascent anytime when I get the chance again. Even though the way may seem steeper and the rocks as well as the tent floor harder, I will always enjoy my sojourns into this comparitively unspoiled and pristine territory.

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