Tickling the Dragon’s feet (a tale of crunchy punches, flying crows and chain- smoking shepherds…)

Last year, Duracell and I tackled a section of the much revered Drakensburg Traverse, which my dear friend and coach Linda Doke successfully completed in 2015, together with Ryno Griesel.

We only managed a miniscule section of it over three of the planned four days. Violent thunderstorms meant we sadly had to cut our trip short by a day. The bug had bitten, however – and for much of 2019 we discussed returning to explore some more.

This year, we decided to return to this magnificent wilderness, but to focus on the lower berg – the “foothills” as we affectionately called them. They would doubtless offer us gentle, rolling hills, well-groomed contour paths and excellent views of the escarpment above.

Or so you’d think.

Duracell (navigational aficionado and GPS addict) started planning the route months ago. Hours were spent pouring over vast maps of the ‘berg and at the end of it all, he proclaimed he had a watertight 110 km route from Sani Pass to Injesuthi – contouring along the “foothills”. I did not get too involved and trusted his meticulous planning and route selection, thinking he would have factored in my current rather negligible fitness levels (coming off a hip injury etc.)

We drove our rented car north to Injesuthi – one of the many beautifully positioned and well run Ezemvelo camps – where we spent a night. That evening we repacked our rucksacks for the umpteenth time, sorted out our clothing and food for the next four days, parked our little car under a tree and were picked up by a transfer company based in Underberg. We were driven to Himeville, where we hopped aboard one of the many 4×4’s that wind their way up the outrageously rocky road that is Sani Pass.

We spent a night at the very stark, but comfortable accommodation at Sani Top, and woke up super early the next day to get the show on the road.

Day 1:
The journey started gently enough with us striding out along the appropriately named and very gentle “Sani Flats”. After about half an hour, we veered off the flat stuff and headed up. And up some more. We headed onto the escarpment, missioned over two major ridgelines, and after a few hours, turned eastwards and headed towards mKhomazi Pass.

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A chilly Mquathsheni peak – 3 276 m and looking down into SA.

Mquatsheni peak – our highest part of the day at 3 276 m – offered some truly epic views looking back over Sani flats and east into South Africa. It was pretty chilly though, so we didn’t hang about too long up there.

One of the aspects of hiking along the escarpment in Lesotho is the fact that you will almost always meet up with sheep herders and their vast, roaming herds of hardy goats, sheep and cattle. They are quite possibly some of the fittest, leanest, toughest humans on the planet – living in extreme conditions, often just with a handful of dogs for company, with their white gumboots and a woolly blanket draped over their shoulders.

The guys we have encountered have always been friendly and harmless, although one hears stories of less friendly encounters – some of which end badly. We took two boxes of cigarettes along with us this time, and dished these out as friendly gesture gifts to the guys. Our first shepherd was an absolute delight, greeting us with much enthusiasm, high fives and infinite gratitude. When Duracell offered him a clutch of fags, his face broke into the most exquisite smile. He was over the moon and was literally clutching our hands in his and kissing them.

He apparently did not have matches on him, so we all hunkered down to create a buffer from the wind to light the one. In his very broken English, he offered me one if his goats (meat for tomorrow, he said). Many “TANK YOU’s” later, he bombed off with his three scrawny dogs up into the cliffs after his herd.

He would doubtless have had to chain smoke the lot that morning, in order to make the most of the one lit cigarette. It’s possible the smoking would have eased away any gnawing hunger pangs. One imagines these guys probably go without meals for days on end.

Remarkable endurance, stamina and toughness all round. All in rabid contrast to the bloated, soggy, slip-slop brigade we had encountered a few days earlier in the heaving pre-Xmas shopping frenzy at Ballito’s main shopping mall.

We met three other shepherds after that – not quite as effusive as our first chap, but they were also handed smokes, and were equally unthreatening.

We eventually turned our backs on the escarpment, bade farewell to Lesotho and headed down Mlahangubo Pass towards the infamous “foothills”.

This is where we encountered the first of the “contour path hiking” stuff. We were probably about 4 hours into what turned into a 12 hour day at this stage. The “contour path” was non-existent, despite being a reasonably clear line on the map. We navigated our way over saddles, up onto ridges, down into valleys and up onto saddles again.

We put our heads down and buggered on. We were just below the escarpment the whole way, until we eventually popped up onto a westerly running ridge line with the Hlathimba River below to our left.

It was probably around about 2 pm that the wheels fell off – for me. Just a bit. I am not a huge fan of bundu bashing, and when it was casually mentioned that we still had about 12 km of the same terrain to go, I lost the plot rather spectacularly.

It hit me fairly early – on Day 1 – that I am NOT built like Duracell, I do NOT have Duracell’s madcap energy or stamina and that I may just end up being a collosall handbreak for the poor bugger on this adventure. Dare I say it – he may even think I am “soggy”…..vs “crunchy”.

The man is driven to live “crunchy”. This essentially means that in order to have fun, or to appreciate life to the full – you must suffer a little. Or a lot. He has a quiet disdain for those who appear to live “soggy” lives – who lounge about all day or do predictable, touristy things on holiday….

I realised then too (albeit too late) that at some point I may need to assert myself more in the holiday planning phase.  There were some pretty choice words bellowed across, over and around all the ridges, spurs and valleys. Many a “faaaaaaaaaaaak” reverberated up into the craggy cliffs, down into Lesotho and back. Even our chain-smoking shepherd would’ve heard it all.

I’m not f*cking doing this with you again” I howled.

This would, of course, all generally met with abundant optimism and profoundly positive observations such as: “We just have to head to THAT ridgeline there!”..he’d invariably be pointing to a ridgeline waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay over there, with about 10 000 valleys and as many spurs, cols and saddles between…. “I’ve looked on my GPS….it’s only about 5 more kays that way, as the crow flies!!!”

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Ridges, valleys and spurs the order of the day.

We’re not f*cking crows” I mumbled….

In the afternoon, we saw plenty of Mountain Rhebok, quite a few soaring Bearded Vultures and even a black-backed jackal at one point – so that lifted the spirits!

Our accommodation for Day 1 (Christmas eve) was to be Shelter Cave….a lovely spot identified off the map by Duracell, somewhere after a 4 km hike along a ridge. Our only challenge was that we had a 250 vertical meter scramble to access it. I have an inexplicable fear of heights, steep slopes and abrupt edges of any kind, so this elicited a whole new barrage of flowery language and I essentially slid down into the cave on my arse, mumbling and cursing to nobody in particular – as Duracell was way ahead scouting the route.

The combination of vertigo and fatigue was lethal, and I was a bit of a blubbing mess by the time I reached the cave.

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Christmas Eve accommodation – the beautiful Shelter Cave.

I was thus immensely grateful for the fact that the night before I had poured much of the gratuitous OB sherry from the Sani Top chalet into an empty 250 ml UHT milk carton. While Duracell was way down in the river valley below – kaalgat in the river, having a wash and bellowing with delight – I downed the lot.

It calmed my shattered nerves and I was able to greet the Christmas evening dehydrated meal and entertainment with humour and composure. It had been a fairly taxing 12 hour day with some decidedly gnarly terrain.

A wood owl sat in the tree above us and serenaded us into sleep…the sleep of the dead.

Day 2:

The next day dawned bright and early. We shook out our sleeping bags, rolled up our mats, brewed some tea and contemplated the route out of the valley. There was only really one logical option open to us. Once I had bum-slid my way down to the river, we were to bundu our way up the other side.

I recalled looking at this section on the map two nights before and asking what Duracell’s plan was, given that it was remarkably devoid of paths, and looked oddly impenetrable – if only for the use of dark grey by the cartographer.

Duracell uses a particular word on such occasions. It is one that strikes fear in my heart. I have heard it before – on similar expeditions. Ones where we have essentially traversed hostile terrain in pursuit of an all elusive path….

The verb is “to punch”…. as in, “We will just punch through that section….and that should get us to the next summit/ridge/valley”. No matter if you scratch your limbs to shit and possibly even lose one – we will get there. Eventually. By punching.

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What a “punch” looks like on the map.

So on Christmas Day, we woke up to the prospect of a giant bloody “punch” to get ourselves out of the Hlathimba River valley. This particular “punch” is shown above, and marked out in red below. We chose the path of least resistance in this instance, and managed to avoid most of the sheer cliff edges, so that was a relief. I adopted the very wise philosophy of “don’t look down, don’t look up, just look at your feet”. It worked beautifully, and we made it to the top with no loss of limb, pride intact and not a single swear word from me.

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Pointing out the route with huge enthusiasm to the one who doesn’t really do heights.

We crossed over a spectacular field of quartz crystals, and I resisted the urge to pocket it all….and then ventured off along another mysteriously absent “contour path” over several ridges and valleys in an easterly direction towards Lotheni valley. There were several pretty epic “punches” down towards the camp and again, involving some very interesting bum work by me.

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Duracell looking pensive after the final “punch” down into the Lotheni Valley and after a welcome swim in the river.

Day 3:

Due to the epic heat and bristling sun experienced the day before on our final punch, Duracell announced on the evening of Day 2 (Christmas Day) that we were to rise at 4 am and be on our merry way by 4-30.

The first part of the hike was thus by torchlight – the robin chats, black and red-chested cuckoos are just starting to revv up for the day. We crossed a rickety suspension bridge over a tributary of the Lotheni river and worked our way for 4 km as dawn broke. We spooked a large herd of magnificent Eland and came across some of the most beautiful waterfalls and pools. Enough to make us want to return and explore all those gorges and kloofs for a day.

We climbed up a ridge that took us to the top of Taylor’s pass which separates Lotheni and Giants Castle valleys. The route was a lot easier and more hikable, and the mood much lighter on Day 3. I even took time out to smell and photograph the roses. There were so many different plant species, I became entranced with the colours and diversity.

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So much colour and variety – a botanist’s dream!

We eventually reached Giant’s Castle camp via Oribi Ridge – a real oasis of “civilisation”, where we could shower and wash some clothes and enjoy a bit of a rest that afternoon.

Day 4:
We left Giant’s Castle camp at 4-30am, and followed Bannerman path up to the contour path which led us to Bannerman Hut for our first tea break. We then followed a helluva long contour path which wound its way below some of the better known features such as Popple Peak, the Judge and the Trojan Wall.

We eventually reached the somewhat worse-for-wear Centenary Hut and from there followed a spur (and a good, clear path) which dropped steeply into the eMbovaneni Valley. We then entered the most spectacular Injesuthi Valley, with its vast, tall forests, heaving with cuckoos and small raptors.

The final push into camp felt wonderful – and the skies opened literally as we reached the camp gate. Glorious fat drops of rain to welcome us home!

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Could not get over the dense forests and birdlife in this spectacular valley we made our way down into Injesuthi camp.

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I took a shine to this glorious tree fern

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With 110 km in the bag and 4 pretty solid days of hiking in the bag. Relationships and bodies intact….only just!

This is a vast and magical wilderness, which really gets under your skin. We want to return as soon as possible to explore all the hidden gems, secret gorges and glorious waterfalls. In the four days we were there, we only saw one other hiking couple (on the very last day), doing a night out from Injesuthi. For the rest, we were completely alone out there just drinking in all that solitude, silence, big skies and big mountains. That makes an adventure such as this – with all its “crunchy punches”- a complete treat and privilege

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