KZN Wildlife

In this third post about my thru-hike on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, I tackle Tseketseke Pass, court disaster near the Ship’s Prow, climb to the highest point in South Africa, and prove wrong an overly dramatic naysayer.

Take a look at Part I and Part 2 to learn more about this incredible adventure in the African backcountry.

Day 4 (cont’d)

Once Chris departed, I spent a few hours at the Cathedral Peak Hotel downloading the last few map sections to my TopoMaps+ app, and generally enjoying the monumental pleasures of a roof over my head, shelter from the wind, and a chair that wasn’t made out of rock.

Eventually, I wandered out to find the trail that would lead me back up to the DGT. The underberg was lush and green as I left the Hotel grounds, a stark contrast to the parched landscape on top of the escarpment.

Ascending toward Tseketseke Pass

Ascending toward Tseketseke Pass

I ran into a couple out for a day-walk near the nearly dry Ribbon Falls. Other than local Basutho herders, these would prove to be the only people I’d see on the trail until I reached the last few kilometers of trail at the Bushman’s Nek border post eight trail days later.

I powered on until sunset and then set up camp above the Mhlonhlo River.

Day 5

I chose to ascend the escarpment via the Tseketseke Pass route, which the map showed as following the Tseketseke River to the top of the ‘berg at over 3,000m.

Beyond a small radius around the various Wildlife Offices and resorts, the trails in the Drakensberg run from “lightly trafficked” to “non-existent.” I was unsure at which end of that spectrum the Tseketseke trail would lie. It turned out to be the latter.

Cairn below Tseketseke Hut

Cairn below Tseketseke Hut

That morning’s hike was a challenging scramble up the dry bed of the Tseketseke River. Once I passed the deserted Tseketseke Hut at 1,980m, the only indication that the way had every been trod by human feet was a few random cairns scattered along the river bed as it climbed.

The map categorized the last section of the ascent as “Difficult/Dangerous” where  “rope may be required.” As a result, I hopped from rock to rock never completely certain that the route was actually passable all the way to the top.

I pushed hard up the demanding trail, yet I knew I could be forced to turn back at anytime. I struggled to ignore the fact that all the effort could be negated by an impassable trail just before I reached the summit and to focus instead on the process, to appreciate the beauty of the scenery and the privilege it was to spend time in such an amazing place.

Summit of Cleft Peak

Summit of Cleft Peak

The trail grew steadily steeper, fully justifying the “Difficult/Dangerous” designation. I found myself alternately scrambling over massive rock outcroppings and struggling through large sections of scree, lurching upward with each step only to slide back again as the loose rock gave way beneath me.

I reached the pass three hours after I started, elated to reach to top. Clouds had moved in during the climb to completely hide the underberg 1,500 meters below. I turned south to follow the face of the ‘berg toward Cleft Peak (one of the eight checkpoints on the DGT), and then on to Organ Pipes Pass, Windy Gap and Thuthumi Pass. Just minutes after leaving Tseketseke Pass, I was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of fog.

The Drakensberg is formed of steep slopes punctuated sporadically with long sections of exposed vertical rock face, like the world’s most irregular wedding cake. Even with a clear view, the vertical rock faces are massive obstructions that often force substantial detours to circumnavigate. As it was, I was trapped inside a white bubble that fully obscured everything but the few meters of ground in front of me.

Kind of like this.

Kind of like this.

I spent hours moving at snail’s pace, walking until I stumbled onto the next rock face and then working my around it, all while trying to keep a general heading in the direction I wanted to go. The progress I did make was largely attributable to the ease of navigating with a GPS-equipped smart phone and it’s cache of detailed topographical maps.

The first scattered patches of blue began to appear overhead as the afternoon wore on. Whenever the clouds lifted for a moment, I found myself running full out, pack bouncing wildly side to side, in an effort to make ground while I could see what lay ahead of me.

The clouds eventually cleared late in the day. My route pushed west into Lesotho and off the escarpment edge, then followed the northern fork of the Tlanyaku River until it reached a confluence with a southern branch of the river.

View from Mzimude Pass

View from Mzimude Pass

I turned to the southeast and headed through the Yodeler’s Cascades.

Now that I could see what was around me, I had a spectacular view of the steep-sided canyon walls with the river bed, dry as most were that close to the escarpment edge, winding below. The trail remained on the Lesotho side of the border with South Africa’s Mdedelelo Wilderness Area lying just across the border below the escarpment.

I camped that night several kilometers upstream from the Cascades, just below the Didima Buttress.

Shadows at The Thumb

Shadows at The Thumb

Day 6

The morning was crisp and clear, with howling winds that kept me bundled up against the low temperatures.

Dense clouds moved in again by mid-morning. I was once more relegated to a crawl and didn’t reach the Ship’s Prow (3,286m), a striking feature that closely resembles its namesake, until well after noon. I wolfed down a quick lunch, then left the Ship’s Prow and began the descent to the river valley below.

As I worked down the rock-strewn face of the slope, I looked down to see a Basutho herder angling his way purposefully from the head of the valley to intersect with my path, which would reach the valley floor further down.

A Basutho Herder

A Basutho Herder and a bag of my banana chips

These meetings had started off as an interesting cultural aspect of the hike. I had by now, though, met nearly a dozen Basutho on the trail and the interactions had almost entirely lost their charm.

Each encounter involved a few stilted words of greeting followed by an insistent request for food, sweets or cigarettes. It didn’t help that many of the herders were noticeably high on the copious amounts of pot they are known to smoke while they spend long days looking after their herds. It felt uncomfortable giving food from my limited supply to guys just trying to take the edge off their munchies.

With this on my mind, I was frustrated as I watched the Basutho man heading to cut me off. The feeling was compounded by the fact that, due to the miserable weather, I had made slow progress over the last two days and was anxious to keep moving and get some in solid kilometers.

Succumbing to the frustration, I threw off my pack to pull out the bag of food that I knew the herder would inevitably request. I continued down the slope and, pasting a smile on my face, gave the teenager a bag of food before rushing on to make up for lost time.

Night near Rat Hole Cave

Night near Rat Hole Cave

The karmic loop on my self-centered reaction to the herder’s hunger closed shockingly quickly. Ten minutes out, I reached down to get my bearings on my phone’s topo map. There was nothing there.

I knew instantly that my phone had slipped out of my hip pocket when I threw my bag down to get food for the herder. I backtracked across the valley, kicking myself, and climbed 100 meters up the slope I had so recently descended.

The entire mountainside was distressingly identical – long dry grass, small rocks, random outcroppings – and, focused as I’d been on the “onerous” burden of giving the hungry herder a bag of food, I had no clue where on the massive slope I’d had my little tantrum.

I spent the afternoon scouring the slope for my phone with no luck. From now on, I’d be forced to navigate through the thick Drakensberg fog, which had by then rolled in once again, without the use of GPS.

Evening near The Ape

Evening near Mahlabatshaneng (“The Ape”)

I left the scene and crossed the valley for a second time. With the little light left in the day, I plowed straight up and over several large features on the edge of the escarpment before reaching Mahlabatshaneng (“The Ape”). Heavy clouds moved in again and I called it a night.

Day 7

I got an early start despite the thick layer of frost that coated the world outside my tent. My route took me near The Molar, and then on to Injisuthi Pass by 8:30am.

I worked south past the Red Wall and then ascended to the summit of Mafadi, the highest point in South Africa at 3,450 meters and the next checkpoint on the DGT. Turning east, I crossed a valley to arrive at Judge Pass by late morning.

Summit of Mafadi

Summit of Mafadi

A roller coaster of large formations along the edge of the escarpment/border followed until I reached the upper reaches of the Sanqebethu River and the short climb to Bannerman Pass. Then things got interesting.

The clouds returned and I was once more fully enveloped. My world shrank to a tiny white circle. The solid ceiling above me gave not even the slightest hint that the sun continued to shine. I hiked on, completely blind to the world around me.

Using my map, compass, altimeter and watch, I managed to keep relatively close to my planned route. This was not too difficult at first and I successfully navigated several major features.

What a view!

What a view!

Ultimately, the difficult circumstances won out. After turning southwest, I believed I was working my way around a specific small peak near the Bannerman Face. I grew less certain as time dragged on. Minutes turned into an hour, which turned into two, and my uncertainty grew.

By the time I had circled around to face due north, still enveloped by a dense wall of fog, I had to admit that I had no clue where I was. I hunkered down behind a rock wall, somewhat protected from the biting winds, and prepared to wait until the fog cleared.

Two hours later, the first brief patches of sky broke through the cloudy ceiling. I left the shelter of the rock wall and climbed to the summit of the feature I was on. The clouds eventually parted enough to get a glimpse of my surroundings.

I was on a small peak south of the Bannerman Face, just short of The Thumb. Somehow, I was still on the feature that I’d started around nearly four hours earlier. One that would have taken mere minutes to cross under normal conditions.

The sun was now low in the sky and I was only a few short kilometers from Langalibalele Pass, which would lead down the escarpment to the Giant’s Castle KZN Wildlife Office and the package of food I had left there the week before. I quickly found a good spot to camp and pitched my tent.

View of The Thumb at Sunrise

View of The Thumb at Sunrise

Day 8

I rose at dawn and sped toward Lagalibalele Pass several hundred meters below. I reached the pass at the edge of the escarpment (2,921m) by 6:00am and followed the trail along the Mtshezi River as it worked its way down the face of the escarpment.

Five hundred meters below, the trail flattened out and then followed the river to the Giant’s Castle KZN Wildlife Office (1,700m). I walked in to claim my food bag and gave an effusive greeting to the office staff. I relished the shocked reactions from the staff, who had been universally skeptical of my plans to hike the DGT when I dropped the food off the week before.

My most enthusiastic greeting went to the KZN staffer who told me, “[y]ou’re going to die,” when she’d realized I would be hiking without a guide. Proving people wrong is always enjoyable, but it was particularly satisfying in this case. Especially because, you know, it meant that I didn’t die.

Giant's Castle KZN Wildlife Office

Giant’s Castle KZN Wildlife Office


That’s the end of Part 3. Look for the fourth and final installment on my Drakensberg adventure soon.

Return to a Country I Never Left
Food Drops and False Starts on the DGT