“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.
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