This is an article I've written for the Mountain Backpackers club newsletter.
The hike was listed in the fixtures list as “exploratory”, but I hadn’t expected to be precariously balanced above certain death, clinging only to tufts of grass. Indeed, my expectations were far off: I had only been in South Africa for 6 weeks and was still under the illusion that Africa is always hot and sunny like in the photos: it was a last minute decision to bring a tent instead of a bivvi bag on the hike.
My happy illusion didn’t last long: we heard thunder for a long time before the rain finally caught up on us, luckily I knew that the “Chi Chi Bush Camp” was not far away. For the last section we had to walk up the river bed, and I was somewhat surprised when John stopped at one point and announced that we had arrived. We appeared to be standing in a very rocky riverbed, and there was no campsite in sight! Only on closer inspection did it become apparent that the small section of gravel we were standing on was roughly level, and that a tent could potentially be squeezed onto it. After further searching two other similar spots were found nearby.
The following morning we walked up a very steep slope for a couple of hundred vertical meters to reach the traverse into the gully of Manxome pass. This traverse started off as a very steep grassy slope, and as we moved around the ridge it became an even steeper grassy slope, before finally becoming a cliff, but with tufts of grass instead of normal hand and foot holds. I would probably not have crossed this section, but I didn’t want to have to go back over what we’d just done, and John, who was showing no fear at the almost certainly lethal drop, volunteered to carry my bag. We all made it fine, but there is no way I would ever do it again. The pass after that presented no problems; it was simply a 700m steep slog, although a very dramatic one between vast cliffs and affording excellent views back across to Mnweni pass, which looked quite tame in comparison.
We hiked around the Mnweni cutback, stopping to take in the (somewhat cloudy) view from the top of Mnweni pass. We intended to stay in Mponjwane Cave, but first needed water. I became worried when Tony and John, who were walking slightly in front of us, walked straight past the first stream: it was dry! Christine assured me that there was another stream close by though, and that it never dried up – it had. To my huge relief, as I had a slight dehydration headache, we did find flowing water further down the stream. We decided against the 200m climb to the cave, and camped at the stream instead, setting up the tents just in time to avoid the rain.
Sunday’s weather was horrendous, at its worst we were walking towards the top of Ntonjelanja pass in cloud, high winds, hailstones and with thunder all around us. I had no gloves or hat, and my hands were beyond cold. As I struggled to put on my fleece, my only warm layer, my only consolation was that Tony must be having a worse time than me: he was wearing short shorts which his poncho failed to cover. When he learned that we had all been getting wet inside our waterproofs (mine were useless) he felt a little better though.
Ntonjelanja pass was dramatic, picking our way past donkey bones with glimpses through the cloud of the drop below us. The Waterfall Cave at the bottom was no less spectacular: exactly as it sounds, we slept with water pouring down in front of us. I had been told in Bush and Bundhu that I would only need one pair of socks, and that I could dry them in my sleeping bag overnight. Sleeping with wet socks in your sleeping bag is not fun, and does not dry them!
The walk out the following day was without incident, if a little painful from 3 days accumulated foot problems. I made my first ever trip to a Shebeen, and had time to reflect upon how the Drakensberg had defied all my expectations. I’ll be back, but I’ll check the weather forecast first next time!