Hiking in the Drakensberg – Part I
We’d been wanting to hike in the Drakensberg mountains for quite some time, so we finally went and did it last weekend. This was our second time in the Berg. The first time though, was purely a tourist visit to Champagne Valley and Monk’s Cowl. My mom and sis were visiting at the time, so we did not want to attempt any hectic hikes. Ever since that first visit when we saw the stunning beauty of the area with our own eyes, we had been dying to come back for a proper hike. It finally happened in September 2012.
I took a Friday off from work and we set off on the road Thursday afternoon. It was roughly a 5 hour journey covering 450 km to the small town of Bergville. From there it was about 35 km to an area called Mnweni and this included 17 km of unpaved dirt road. After getting a bit lost (which seems like a normal occurrence now especially in the Drakensberg) we finally reached the Mnweni Centre where we met with our guide and porter. The plan was to stay the night there and then start on the hike the following morning. We had our dinner quickly, which consisted of sandwiches that my wife had packed for the evening and then went to bed in our rondavel (traditional African hut). Though there was no TV in the room and no plug points, it was good, basic, reasonably priced, self-catering accommodation.
The next morning we woke up early to get ready. A light drizzle had started outside. After having a quick breakfast of oats we started on the hike with our guide and porter. We had found the guide from the internet and he arranged the porter, a local from the area who also acted as a guide as well. Both my wife and I had backpacks weighing 5 kilos or so and these guys had huge backpacks weighing maybe 20 kilos each. They brought everything for us, food for the journey, cooking utensils, tents to sleep in, sleeping bags, air mattresses and so on. At around 8:30 am, we headed from the Centre on the dirt road towards the mountains.
This was my first time out on a proper hike. I had done a few runs and walks before but they were all on level ground. This was in the mountains. Makes a big difference! After walking about 5 km or so I was already tired from the weight of the backpack and the uphill road. Thankfully we stopped every now and then for 5 or 10 min and took photos and stuff. So it wasn’t too bad. The scenery got better and better as we reached closer to the foot of the mountains.
We passed several settlements and homesteads, all sporting the typically round huts, a rooster and some cattle. It was interesting to see how the locals lived in this area. One thing that was funny to see was that some of these homesteads, no matter how rural and impoverished they looked, had visible satellite dish connections. I guess that’s the scene in a country which is both developed and developing. Also, our guide explained that these people get utilities like water and electricity as well as other things like education and medicine all subsidized by the government.
After about 11 km or so of walking, we stopped for a quick brunch by the banks of the Ntonyelane river. The guide prepared some buns with cheese and tomato and gave us 2 hot mugs of coffee. That was a much needed break.
Then we headed on towards the area where we would camp for the night. The path was really interesting and the mountain scenery just kept getting better and better. Since it was in-between seasons, we saw plenty of brown and green. In a few areas in the mountains, the demarcation between dried brown grass and lush green grass was striking and this made it look beautiful from a distance.
Finally we reached a relatively flat area where our guide decided to put up the tents. It was a lovely spot with more scenic mountains ahead of us and a cliff to some distance to our right overlooking the same river that we had crossed earlier. Actually we were going to camp even further along the route but the ever increasing rain and the fact that we were inexperienced hikers made the guide decide to stop where we were, even though it was only around 2 pm now. For the rest of the afternoon and evening we spent our time in the tent, reading books, sipping on coffee or tea, having noodles and generally staring at the rain and wishing for it to stop.
Staying in a tent overnight was quite an experience! As the sun set, it got pitch dark outside with nothing but the sound of birds and the occasional growls of baboons high up in the mountains. Our guide assured us that these baboons do not come down the mountain towards humans, unless we specially attract them with fire or food. So we were not that scared or anything but it was still a bit unnerving sleeping on a grassy mountainside out in the wild. The one thing that we missed dearly was a starry night sky. The relentless rain had covered the sky up with clouds. That’s the thing with the weather in the Drakensberg. They say it can change in a matter of 5 min. Anyway, since we were in a well-protected tent, we did not get too wet or anything. Plus, we had raincoats. In the middle of the night if we had to pee, we had to go outside the tent in pitch dark, quickly finish the job and scurry back in. And of course, twisting and turning around on the thin air mattress did give us its share of back pain. But one can’t complain too much. That is what you get if you want to experience sleeping in the wild.