South America, North America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and now Africa. After months off the trail, I’ve finally had the chance to tackle the Drakensberg Grand Traverse (“DGT”), the sixth of my seven major hikes around the world.
It was worth the wait.
The DGT is an incredibly scenic and challenging thru-hike that loosely follows the border of South Africa and Lesotho as it works its way north-to-south across the Drakensburg range. I discussed how to plan your own DGT adventure in my previous post, “How to Tame the Dragon.” Here, I’ll describe life on this wonderful and unique trail.
I arrived in South Africa expecting to hike the entire DGT solo. I lucked out, however, and my friend Chris, whom I met at the Golden Gate Challenge, a 3-day trail run in the mountains of Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa’s Free State, decided to join me for the first section of the hike.
The Drakensberg is remote and transportation options in the area are limited. Since I would need a food drop to complete my twelve days on trail and Chris had to come off the trail early, we spent an entire day before the hike racing from one park to the next delivering my food and then Chris’ car before hitchhiking our way to Royal Natal National Park.
We spent the night before the hike at Royal Natal’s pleasant Mahai Camp. We were still a day’s hike and over a thousand meters in altitude from the DGT’s official trailhead at the Sentinel car park but, after the long weeks of preparation, I couldn’t wait to finally get my feet dirty.
We started our DGT adventure in stellar fashion: my first major navigational error of the hike! It was going to happen at some point so might as well get it out of the way early, right?
Our maps showed few trails in Royal Natal. The one trail I was certain would ascend the escarpment would have required us to backtrack 5-6 km from Mahia. The other option was to follow my phone’s GPS map that showed a trail charging straight up the escarpment but ending well before it reached the top. I have learned to accept, and even enjoy, diffcult off-trail hiking over my last few thousand trail kilometers so I decided to see if the GPS trail would take us up the escarpment and to the carpark via a more direct route.
It didn’t. Three hours in, we’d left the trail far behind and found ourselves sweaty and dirty hacking away through a rock-strewn riverbed clogged with thorn bushes and vines.
Our little misadventure started to turn south when Chris walked through the biggest spider web I’d ever seen (but he never did) and became unfortunately intimate with its aggressive-looking owner. My short-cut completed its descent into ignominious failure shortly after when we ran smack into a series of massive unscalable boulders surrounded by vertical walls covered with impenetrable bush.
We spent fifteen minutes proving to ourselves that the impenetrable bush was indeed impenetrable before turning tail and heading back the way we had come to take the “indirect” route that we had declined hours earlier.
We found our trail and spent the next few hours enjoying stellar views as we ascended the escarpment. We reached the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge and the top of the escarpment just before sunset and then knocked out the final 8 km to the Sentinel car park in darkness.
We decided to camp just off the edge of the decidedly not-camper-friendly car park. This proved to be hazardous for my gear. 15 minutes and three broken tent stakes later, we finally had the tent secured and we nodded off to a fitful sleep as a howling wind blew outside and bone chilling fog swirled around us.
The first day on the official DGT dawned sunny and clear. We topped off our water from a sketchy looking bucket offered by the Sentinel bungalow attendant, then made our way toward the Sentinel and its infamous chain ladders.
We worked our way up the ZigZags (South African for “switchbacks” apparently) and rounded the corner to come face-to-face with the chain ladders. They were just as intense as they’d been made out to be. The pair of vertical ladders, one around 20 meters tall and the other maybe 10, hung precariously off the cliff face. We clambered up, buffeted as we ascended by an intense wind that battered us from side to side.
That challenge successfully conquered, we headed off toward the Amphitheatre (South African for “Amphitheater”), a stunning landmark that is a highlight of the DGT and a common day-hike destination for visitors to the Drakensberg.
The sun baked down as we left the Amphitheatre and crossed into Lesotho. With the cool morning turning quickly into a scorching afternoon, we grew concerned about the availability of water.
We’d known water would be scarce on the escarpment and had even delayed the hike by several weeks hoping that the long-delayed rains would arrive. The intense drought plaguing the region had persisted though and as we passed one dry riverbed after the next we became increasingly uncertain of where the next source of water would be. Making matters worse, we had absolutely no confidence in the foamy, opaque water that we’d gotten at the car park that morning.
We pushed on warily, following the dry bed of the Kubedu River, before reaching the welcome sight of a stagnant pool of murky water. Fortunately, we had my trusty Sawyer Mini, a fantastically effective, if somewhat slow, filter. We set about dumping the nasty chemical water from the morning and refilling with “fresh” water from the stagnant pool.
We set off, freshly hydrated and with three liters each on our backs, hoping to reach our planned camp site at Rat Hole Cave. The afternoon wore on and the kilometers passed under our feet until suddenly the sky to the west turned a deep brown as dust laden clouds swept in.
With almost no warning, an intense thunderstorm slammed down and whipped us with stinging rain and dust. We huddled miserably behind a rock outcropping until the worst passed, then continued on in the frigid wind and rain for the next few hours.
The storm gradually lifted as we hiked on through a gorgeous river valley that took us back to the edge of the escarpment. We stopped just short of Rat Hole Cave as the sun began to set. That night gave us our first taste of the dramatic sunsets and epic starscapes that the Drakensberg would treat us to throughout the rest of the hike.
A second storm with even stronger winds hammered us throughout that night. It was the first big test of my new Sierra Designs Flashlight 2 and, fortunately, it passed with flying colors. A third front moved in just after dawn and kept us huddled in the tent for several more hours.
When the storm finally broke, we decamped and hit the trail with a vengeance. We left the edge of the escarpment and headed deeper into Lesotho, dodging several more storm fronts along the way. We completed the turn through Lesotho and worked our way along the Koakoatsoan River, back toward South Africa and the escarpment edge.
The rest of the day was a monotonously gorgeous hike along the edge of the escarpment. Favored with great weather the second half of the day, we stopped time and again to admire the amazing views of the edge of the escarpment. The long day on the trail finally brought us to Mlambonja Pass, where we pitched camp and got ready for a big descent the next day.
We rose with the sun. We had a 1,500 meter descent in front of us and wanted to get as much as possible out of the way before the day warmed up.
We were underway by 5:30 and flew the down the incredibly steep first section of descent. Our pace slowed as the trail leveled off and turned into a series of rolling hills hugging the banks of the uMlambonja River.
We reached the Cathedral Peak Hotel six hours after we started. Without breaking stride, we made for the Resort’s restaurant and smashed a pair of huge bacon cheeseburgers. They disappeared so quickly I can’t really tell you how mine tasted, but they sure looked good.
Sore yet sated, Chris and I basked in the joy of four great days on the trail. All too soon, we were both on our way again. Chris off to the car park to begin the long journey back to Johannesburg and me back to the trail to finish off the rest of this amazing hike.
That’s it for now. Check in soon for the next installment of my DGT adventure.