Christmas Rocks!

Last year at the Longtom Marathon Event in Sabi, AJ, a fellow volunteer, asked one of the staff from the backpacker, “Is there any good rock climbing in this area?” His response was, “if you want serious rock climbing in South Africa, bra’, you need to check out Waterval Boven.” So that’s exactly what we did.

Rhonda, Craig, AJ, Susie, Benjamin

Initially our party was only only AJ, Susie and myself but as soon as Rhonda heard word of rock climbing she was all in.

After backpacking in the Drakes we asked everybody what were their plans for Christmas. Craig said that we was going to be with his host family at a game park for a few days before Christmas but on Christmas day he may just be hangin’ in his little thatched outside room. This was unacceptable! Even though Craig had never rock climbed before and was a might concerned by heights we convinced him that he needed to make the hour journey from his home in Nelspruit out to meet us in Waterval Boven. More new outdoor adventures for Craig with the Barr-Wilsons!

A beautiful hike we took around Waterval Boven… it was an adventure; ask us about it sometime

This time our gear was truly thin. Suz had her harness and shoes and AJ would have had his shoes, harness and chalk bag but he had some complications on his way back from climbing Kilimanjaro the week before. When I say complications I mean Tanzania Air went bankrupt and shut down. AJ and his little crew of three had to find other means to get back to South Africa from Tanzania all so that he could come out climbing with us. Needless to say it took him a few extra days to get back, but he made to us right on schedule.

Getting ready to repel down into the Tranquilitas Crags

We rented what gear we didn’t have and hired guides to show us the ropes… and rocks for a few days. After getting acquainted with the area we chose to make our own way out to the crags to climb. We even went climbing on Christmas day, now that’s a Christmas to remember.

Susie and Rhonda showing us the way

We didn’t forget to celebrate. Suz and Rhonda found some cute toys and decorations at the local mart in town, unbeknownst to the guys, and on Christmas morning we awoke to find four Christmas sacks duct taped to the mantle. We enjoyed a Christmas breakfast, played with our toys and waited for the rocks to dry off after a night of light rain.

We climbed all afternoon and then came back to the backpacker to prepare our Christmas feast. AJ and Rhonda made curry and rice, Susie made fruit salad, and Craig and I attempted to make candied yams (or squash). Let’s just say we didn’t have any measuring tools so we had butter, cinnamon, squash, marshmallow soup but it still tasted good as long as you used a slotted spoon to get out the “yams”. Craig also did a number on our Christmas decorations so the table looked fabulous.

Christmas morning… Santa even found us here in South Africa

Enjoying our Christmas morning

Our Christmas feast

AJ, the most experienced climber of the crew, led the way, but we were quick learners and both Suz and I did our first lead climbs. Rhonda challenged herself on slabs of the like she had never faced before and Craig… well he made his first assents ever and truly mastered his fears as he enjoyed some fabulous climbs.

Rhonda on “Little Bonsai”

Craig’s first crag

We managed to stretch ourselves with our greatest attempt at a 5.10a. Suz, AJ and I all managed a full assent on a 5.9 and the rest of the crew was able to solidly climb a 5.8.

AJ attempting the “Endless Blowjob”

Benjamin chimney-ing up  “Jackie Chan”

Suz climbing to clear “Little Bonsai”

All in all we had an awesome time and wish we were still out on the rocks. I know that I for one am hooked. There just is something about being out in the beautiful wilderness and getting up close and personal with mother nature.

Nuff said!

Check out the entire photo album at  Rock Climbing 2008

Where did you spend your Christmas holiday??

“Green,” she said… “all I want is to go somewhere green.”

In the scorching heat of northwest Limpopo we triple lined our backpacks preparing for rain. First our clothes and gear went into gallon sized Ziplock bags. These went into durable garbage sacks and into our packs. Finally we got our duck backs ready to go around the outside of the pack as the first defense against the much anticipated precipitation.

The Drakensberg Mountains jut out of the flat farmland of Free State, surround the country of Lesotho and spill down into Kwa Zulu Natal. They beckon the ones such as ourselves who live in the dust with their vibrant green lushness.

We had seen a picture or two from fellow volunteers who had braved this gem of South Africa last year, but alas most of these photos were taken from inside the clouds so the vistas were mear mist.

Suz and I had found a small crew of volunteers who were willing to take a walk on the wild-side, to head up into the clouds where the dust of Africa has come alive with vegetation.

John Clemo, Kristy Gilijohan, Craig Grundwald, Susie and Benjamin

We were an assorted crew of  5, made up of experienced hikers and those who hadn’t set foot on a backpacking trail in their lives. As we all had come half way around the globe our equipment was limited and some had to beg, borrow and steal to assemble usable gear. Even so, some of our packs and “boots” were not originally intended for multi-day mountainous terrain.

Suz and I had come to SA ready to head out into the wilderness so we made sure that others had the essentials for a 4 day 3 night excursion into the wilderness but even the day of the great trek we were lucky enough to borrow a mountain guides sleeping bag and mat for our fellow compadraes . So with a well packed medical kit and Suz our own personal Wildness First Responder we set forth onto the trail.

Okay, so our first night in the the Drakes we spent at Inkosana Lodge, a beautiful backpacker created to be a basecamp for those who were headed into the hills. After a long drive from Pretoria we got to our room took a shower or two and then began distributing the gear, and the waterproofing bags, everybody needed to be ready.

The next day we got up to the trail head by 7am and the heavens looked stormy. The mountains above us were wrapped in an ethereal mist. Numerous campers who were pitched at the campground at the trail head paraded past questioning our decision to head out considering the probable showers. (Showers are what I dream of every night so I was overjoyed by their worry. I mean if a couple Washingtonians can’t handle the rain who can?)

Packed and ready to brave the elements

Suz stands next to Crystal Falls

We hadn’t been on the trail for more than an hour or so when the hills above us began to disappear into the fog.

Hiking into the mist

Donning our rain gear we prepared for the worst. Our hike into the Drakes was shrowed in mystery. At times were were able to glance a chance view of the green hilsides along which we assended but most of our travels were something out of a storybook. Our map was good but the verbal description of the forks in the trail that we needed were, shall we say, less than steller. Luckily we listened keenly to those who were leaving the Drakes like sopping lemmings shivvering down the trail. They described our hopeful path with anicdotal accuracy that we needed (or at least we thought). Along our path we came across a team of college age folk who were heading in the opposite direction, apparently they had been attempting to find Zulu Cave for the past few days and were rather lost. This made them rather chipper to see hikers who had recently come from the way down. We wished them well and continued on our way.

Cloud walking

I had brought my trusty GPS along. We used it constantly making sure we were following the right contour lines and ensuring that if worst came to worst we always had a way back from whence we came. Along our way it became clear that our intended destination was too far away for our journey through the wet so we altered our course and attempted to find Zulu cave ourselves.

A glimpse through the fog… its photo time

Wet, yet still smiling

Taking the second fork to the right off the main trial we headed down into a deep river valley where our trail quickly disappeared. Splitting up Suz and I searched for the continuation of the trail across the full creak that made its home in the valley floor. By this time we were fully drenched as we walked through tall grasses that had colleted the clouds thoughout the day and the daylight was quickly begining to wain. We approached our comrads who were huddled together at the last remnants of the trail with the news that it looked like this was going to be our camp for night number one.

As we got out our tents and began to set up the heavens opened up and the rain came. “It’s hailing,” someone said as enormous raindrops pummeled us from above.

Craig, our beloved city boy, was chilled to the bone shaking from head to foot. As soon as I could get under the rainfly to the tent in the vestible I had him get out of his wet clothes jump into the tent, dry off and get into his sleeping bag. As he did this we set up the tent around him. John quickly followed suit and I put on the finishing touches.

Suz and Kristy on the other hand had a second tent and were making due on their own as the rain poured down from above. That evening after everyone had warmed their bodies we cooked our eveing meal (in the tent – I know we are bad people not following safety protocal). Warm food truly helped get the blood flowing and by the time we were ready to turn in spirits overall where reasonably high.

Craig confessed to us the second day that he was truly wonderin

g why anyone would  put themselves though such an ordeal until he unzipped our tent for the first time in the morning. The sunshine poured in and so did the most breathtaking view of the mountains one could ever hope for. All at once that doubt was washed away and we were made anew amidst the beauty that held us in the palm of its hand.

Zip open the tent and the mountain splendor washes over us

A window far above us through the rock

Drying out everything

Day two we dried out and explored our little valley. Day three we found the trail to Zulu cave and even though it was occupied we camped just down along the river that had previously just spilled over its mouth. By the time we headed back home we had truly drank in the freshness and fullness that the Drakensberg Mountains have to offer. I think Suz and I could have stayed out there for a week more but time was short and we had other adventures on our plate for the week ahead.

Zulu Cave in the distance

A view from inside Zulu Cave

Two very happy hikers

Check out the full photo album at Drakensberg 2008