Hiking in the Drakensberg – Part II
The next morning we woke up to another constant drizzle outside. The rain simply was not in any mood of stopping. As we made our way out of the tent to see how it looked like outside, we heard some shouting and commotion in the far distance. Immediately our guide also got out to see what was going on. Later he explained what we had seen. Apparently some of the locals regularly smuggle a weed called Dagga from neighbouring country Lesotho through the mountains into South Africa. And they often mistake hikers and tourists for cops. So, the commotion we had heard was them spotting our tents and then making a run for it. They don’t come and attack or anything, they just run as far away from onlookers as possible. So we had a nice chuckle about this. The guide also showed us smoke billowing out from some sections in the mountains where this weed was being smoked.
Walking in the mountains is actually not as difficult as it appears to be when one stares at a mountain. All mountain slopes have wide enough paths that the locals have been using for years to cross. So we kept walking along the long and winding paths, up, down and around one mountain to the next. On the way we passed caves (where hikers usually take shelter and even stay the night), interesting rock formations, beautiful waterfalls, steep drops and lots of heavy mist floating up and down the valley, seemingly having a mind of its own. We were reminded of Tolkien’s misty mountains and many a Led Zeppelin song. The scenery was stunningly beautiful and the mist made it look even better, although we knew that the more the mist, the more the chance of the rain not stopping. But the rain did stop in the middle and we were actually somewhat hopeful of making it all the way to the summit.
Finally when we were not all that far from Rockeries pass, the guide showed us how the mist was very heavy around the pass and that it may not be safe to cross if it suddenly decided to rain again. We were a bit disappointed of course but we thought it is better to be safe than over-ambitious on our very first trek. So we stopped right there for about half an hour or so and had some boiled eggs, an apple and some fruit juice. After taking plenty of photos in all possible directions, we started on the journey back to the base camp.
The rain started steadily increasing again and we could hear some thunder too from time to time. As we made our way back, there were a few places where either the mud was very slippery or there was hardly a wide enough path in front of us. So at certain times we had to grab hold of as much grass as possible on the mountainside in order to not slip. Our shoes did a great job though! Just before this hike we had bought good quality hiking shoes and this return journey provided plenty of proof why it is so important to get hiking shoes and not try to manage using running shoes.
As we reached the camp site, our main guide said to us that a big storm was coming and that soon the whole area would be covered in snow! Originally we had planned to camp for one more night but we had to modify that plan. Otherwise we would be stranded in the snow for god knows how long. Also, we had some winter clothing but it was not quite enough for a storm of this size. And so almost immediately we started on the journey back to Mnweni Centre. Both guides folded up the tents and we packed our bags. The plan was to back-track the whole route and maybe stop briefly at the river where we had had our breakfast the previous day.
When we reached the river, it was overflowing. The rain was heavier now and the water flow was much stronger than before. So, instead of crossing the river and taking the same route as before, we took an alternate route. This route proved to be one of the most adventurous things in the whole trip! It went on and on forever and walking in the freezing rain was becoming harder and harder by the minute. To make things worse, we suddenly came to a part of the mountain where there was no distinct path at all in front of us. We literally had to grab hold of as much grass as possible on the mountain side and slide down to the next faintly visible path below. It felt like we were going to slide down the mountain in a free-fall.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally got to some relatively level ground not that far away from the homesteads that we had passed on our way here. My legs were killing me at this point! Thankfully I did not have any sprain or fracture, though I did slip and fall a couple of times. But my knees, especially the right one for some reason, were aching continuously with every step I took. I think what had happened was, we got no rest whatsoever from the time we came back from the higher mountains to the base camp. As soon as we reached the camp, we had to start walking again immediately because of the approaching storm. So all this took its toll on my legs and I basically limped the whole way back to the Centre. My wife surprisingly seemed fine compared to the state I was in. But both of us were clearly visibly exhausted from the hike, the freezing temperature and the endless rain. Meanwhile, we saw our guides happily walking back with the same 20 something kilos on their back as if nothing had happened. I suppose that is what regular hiking in the mountains does to you!
As we walked back, we turned around to see that the mountains were now completely covered in mist. As we got further and further away and back on the road to the Centre, snow started falling over the mountainous horizon. What a sight it was! Every time we turned around to look, more snow had fallen on the slopes. They were getting whiter by the minute and it was getting easier to distinguish the mist from the snow. The place where we had camped overnight was now covered in white! We were thankful to the guide for having good judgment and saving us from the storm. But a part of me still wished that we had camped in the snow. Nonetheless, a brown and green landscape with snow-capped mountains in the horizon was the image lingering in our minds as we reached the Mnweni Centre.
So that’s the story. Sorry for writing such a long account but I wanted to describe our first hiking experience in detail. There are still things that I have left out but I could go on and on if I wanted to. The bottom line is that, despite the fact that we ran into unexpected and unfriendly weather which cut short our hike from 2-1/2 days to 1-1/2 days, we still enjoyed it very much. Even if we don’t head back to the Drakensberg for a while now, we want to start doing more day hikes in our own area. After all, it is a great way to stay healthy at a reasonable cost while also catching some lovely scenery along the way.