When nothing else but survival matters. Fighting the Dragon.

20/10/2011.

This blog doesn’t have anything to do with music or The Sick-Leaves, but since it was such an epic experience for me, bear with me to share it here.

I haven’t hiked in the Drakensberg since a year ago when it was cut short after 3km due to shin splints. In the past 7 years I have hiked all of the north Drakensberg passes from Cathedral Peak to the Sentinel at Witsieshoek, apart from the Icidi, Ifidi, Mbundini and Nguza passes. We did attempt Nguza once from the escarpment but there is a huge vertical rock drop about 100m from the top, and due the fact that we’re not rock climbers we had to abandon it.

So a trip was conceived where we (hiking partners Johan and Nico) would attempt Ifidi up and Mbundini down. Ifidi is a rock pass and on the map it is indicated that you need rope for the last 100m of ascent. Just like Nguza, Mbundini also has no trail, but due to its layout and advice from other hikers we didn’t think it would pose much of a problem or challenge.

Cathedral Peak & The Bell

We set off from the Mweni Cultural Centre at 8am on Friday morning, 14 October, heading up the Ifidi valley towards our first camp spot just beneath the Ifidi pass, 15km away.

From Mponjane Tower to Ifidi.

Barrier Of Spears (Mponjane Tower to Ifidi)

The path was clear and we made it to the camping spot at about 4pm. It was a beautiful late afternoon and Ifidi was an eerie silhouette against the setting sun in the west.

Ifidi silhouette

After a good night’s rest we set off, with the unknown, towering 1100 meters above us.

Ifidi just after sunrise.

The route to the escarpment is by boulder hopping up the river, that eventually becomes a gully filled with billions of rocks. At first it is quite fun, but as the gradient increases and the steps become larger, you start to realise that this is going to be a tough day.

Nico taking in the view at 2400m.

After 4 hours of climbing we reached 2500m, and it was here that the serious stuff started. What lied ahead was a 500m rock gulley at a gradient of about 1:1. The gulley was flanked by vertical rock cliffs all the way to the escarpment and the rocks had become living room-sized boulders.

View from Ifidi gulley towards Cathedral Peak & The Bell.

What amazed me was that despite the maze of rocks and boulders, there were always a crack, gap or step to get through the maze of rock to the top, some more difficult than others.

Last 100m to the escarpment.

The reason for the rope section on the map became apparent 100m from the escarpment. There were two separate steps that were impossible to climb on your own with a back pack. We negotiated them with rope and topped out at 3000m at 3:30pm.

Cathedral Peak, The Bell and Cathkin Peak.

A howling wind greeted us there and we headed down the valley into the teeth of the wind to find a camping spot for the night and protection from the wind.

Due to the cold setting in at sunset, we headed to the tent for some warmth. The big mistake though was to leave our food for supper, outside. At about 8pm we heard footsteps outside with a pot falling onto a rock. My immediate thought was that we were being robbed and that my shoes (that I left foolishly outside with my back pack) were gone.

There have been numerous accounts over the years of hikers being robbed by the Basothos. Panic set in because without hiking boots there’s just no way you get off of the mountain. As we scrambled out of the tent we realised that the meat was gone.

In the pitch blackness we had no hope of seeing where the perpetrator had fled to, but then we saw two bright eyes in the torch light, about 40m from where we stood. The jackal got us good. For the record, the meat was vacuum packed. It just shows how amazing these animals’ sense of smell is. That night we would sleep without eating, but it didn’t matter too much to me…at least I still had my boots.

Crime scene.

As dawn broke we realised that a lot of work lay ahead if we wanted to sleep at 5 Star Cave (15km away and 1300m lower) that night. There’s the perception that the landscape in Lesotho is very flat, or at worst, a bit hilly. Some of these “hills” rise as high as 400m above the valleys and in the thin air it is an energy sapping exercise to climb and descend them. Because we were pressed for time we left at 7am and made a bee line for Mbundini pass, which meant going over three of these hills.

Back breaking trek to Mbundini.

Mist was creeping over the escarpment from South Africa and moving deeper inland as the morning progressed. Luckily we had a GPS on hand to guide us towards the pass.

There has been stories over the years of people getting completely lost in the mist on the Lesotho highlands. After a very hard and tiring hike we at last found the gully that led down the Mbundini pass.

And then the fun started… Due to the visibility being down to 15m, there was no way to see where trouble lay down below. There is no foot path, so the idea is to keep on the right shoulder of the pass all the way down to about 2000m. In the mist it felt as if we couldn’t reach the right shoulder of the pass; that we were going down the middle with endless ridges obstructing our way towards the right. The gradient was extremely steep with a lot of loose rock, which meant that with the additional weight on our backs, keeping balance and not falling into oblivion was an extreme challenge and outright dangerous.

The mist also made the rocks and grass extremely slippery. For someone to slip and turn over an ankle or break a leg was not that far fetched. We stopped after 100m of descent to try and make sense of what we were faced with and decided to press on downwards, with the hope of maybe breaking through the cloud at 2500m. This was not to be. After 3 hours of slipping and sliding down rock scree, traversing 60 degree grass banks and fighting through bushes and thorns, we stopped again. Things were starting to look a bit ropey. We were now fully committed for the descend as an ascend back to the escarpment was unthinkable and we would not make it before nightfall. We still had not broken through the cloud and were now starting to encounter more foliage and water. The concern was that we would walk into a dead end like a waterfall or rock band and that the back tracking would consume time that we didn’t have.

We mood was tense as we filled up with water and a bit of food to scramble together the last bit of energy we had for hopefully the final push. We embarked on another dodgy traverse, clinging to grass polls and thorns, crossing two gulleys, moving towards the right, when suddenly we hit a grass bank that was burned during winter. Although the slope was still difficult, we could suddenly move much faster and then to everyone’s relieve we broke through the cloud. The pass’s river was probably 300m below us to the left and we were very close to the shoulder of the ridge.

I couldn’t believe our luck. We wouldn’t spend an evening against the slopes of the mountain in the wet and mist. After 5 hours of continuous descend and expending all that energy to stay on the mountain our legs were thoroughly busted. The most intense emotion was a sense of pride and confidence to know that we kept pushing on amidst the difficulties and that we were rewarded for our risk, and in a sense, stupidity. A few times during the descend I was so utterly exhausted that the temptation to just sit down and wait was overwhelming, but each time the realization and motivation came that no one else apart from myself could get me down that mountain.

It is extraordinary what that realization does for your mental state in such a situation. After looking at the satellite image of the pass, I realised that we were on the right hand bank of the pass all the time as we should have been, but in the mist it felt as if we were in the main gulley. Another lesson how disorientating mist can be. I do think though that we kept too high throughout the descent, but that was impossible to gauge while in the mist.

Nico & Johan refelcting on a tough day in 5 Star Cave.

We still had 4km to navigate through and around the Fangs river towards the sanctuary of the cave but made it there with an hour’s daylight to spare. We were shattered, but very glad to be out of the rain and looked forward to having a bit more space to sleep in than was the case with the tent. We were in bed very early and left for the Cultural Centre at 6:30am the next morning. The mountain was still covered in cloud, but the 400m descend, 14km hike was a breeze compared to the previous day’s exertions. With tired legs and sore shoulders we reached the Cultural Centre at 10:30am and had a few cold beers to reflect on the past 4 days, but also dream of setting foot again on the Barrier Of Spears.


This entry was posted in Blog, Drakensberg, Eksteen Jacobsz, Hiking, Lesotho, Photography, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • wow, awesome! doing this route next weekend. did you use the rope in fangs pass to lift the packs up or to actually climb?

  • Hi Pieter, we took a rope with but didn’t really use it. Definitely not for climbing. There are two sections close to the top where you need to scramble and have somebody help you with you pack, but apart from that, it’s just plain boulder hopping all the way to the top.