It's funny how often epic tales emerge from misadventures. From the "oh no" feeling routed in the pit of your stomach. One month and zero hikes apart, I was vessel for this feeling. This is a story of inexperience; one that any hiker will read and think: What on Earth were they thinking? You do not do that. April and May 2016.
April 2016: The first adventure posed no threat; but led to a tale I enjoy telling.
My friend Ingrid messaged me:
We're going to do Mafadi in two days. Want to join? Usually people do the hike in four days- but we will manage.
Of course I would join.
56km in two days, reaching an elevation of over 3400m.
Miguel Kember(this was to be his first ever hike), an experienced mountain goat Bruce and myself headed up on the Friday evening to join Ingrid, Chris and Ryan. Driving through Engodini and Engonyameni at sunset Bruce told stories of previous attempted hijackings and other incidence that had occurred in the area. With our neck hairs raised we reached the injisuthi gate- only to find it locked. There is no signal in the area and a 5km stretch of road between the gate and the campsite. What now? We got out, tried to open the gate, called for a guard and then retreated back to the car. It was decided that Bruce and I would run to the camp while Miguel guarded the car. After a gruelling barefoot run and countless estimates of "how far is that tree" we reached the campsite. About another half an hour of locating and negotiating with camp staff. A frightful hour and a half passed for Miguel. We were then driven back to the gate to find the man with the keys- who throughout this debacle had been camping just above the gate.
At midnight we started our fire and made a unanimous decision that we would only set off just before 8am the following day. Now, I know better. We started along the Little Tugela River and up Heartbreak Hill to Centenary Hut. Chris's navigation was trusty and we were making good pace. At Centenary Hut we bumped into a pair of hikers who advised us to use the Northern Ridge option of Corner Pass.
It was a blazing day and our water supplies were running low. Never mind though- we would hit water in Corner Pass. Around noon we started up the hill behind Centenary Hut and began zig-zaging our way south to Corner Pass.
After about a 200m elevation gain, Bruce was not looking good. When I say it was hot- it was HOT. Dehydration. He opted to trot down to Centenary Hut and spend the evening with our new friends. The rest of us continued up.
I was out of water. But it was okay: Miguel had been carrying my emergency bottle of Game. Miguel was out of water. Oh, and he had finished my emergency bottle. Ingrid was out of water; Ryan too. Chris had a little left. As we started boulder hopping up the Pass, there was no water to be seen. We had missed it. Descend 400m to fetch water? No. At the first scramble- usually the site of a small waterfall, there was one drip. We sat there for an hour- with Migs drinking our resupply as soon as it was the width of this finger. Deciding that we needed to continue up, we left the drip having sulvaged about two sips each- Migs 10. We topped out of Corner Pass just before sunset and I sprinted down to a stream. Tadpoles. Muk. It was completely stagnant. I filled up my bottle and returned to the group, hopes slightly sunken.
Just over that hill; and then we are there. That hill: Trojan Wall. Okay. By this stage the group morale was rather low. We were off the path, boulder hopping. My headlamp trustily warning me that the batteries were running low with its ever more frequent turning off. Why hadn't I packed spare batteries? We were moving very slowly, trudging along in Chris's trustworthy steps. I remember sitting down at one point, thinking that I was happy to stay there. If I woke up the next morning I would work it out then. Ryan was feeling ill. Ingrid a tad disheartened. Looking up we caught a glimpse of Chris's light on a cairn. Okay.
We spoke about juice, ice cream, glorious water. I drank some mouthwash. Another, why? And then around 8pm we happened upon Upper Injisuthi Cave. 8 hours of no water. The cave is magnificent, hollowed out into "rooms" and sheltered with a man-made wall of rocks. It comes with the bonus of a reliable stream 300m away.
The next morning's sunrise: well, it still takes my breath away.
A quick summit of Mafadi, descent down Judge's Pass and contoured walk back to Injisuthi camp followed.
Bruce had left a note under our windscreen wiper notifying us that he was fine and had headed back with the other chaps. Again, it was dark by the time we left the campsite. This is when I thank Bruce. The road was blocked with boulders. Big ones. Lined across the entire width of the road. A hijacking attempt. Without a second's hesitation, Migs plunged the car into the ditch on the side of the road. Thank goodness we were in a Ranger. A few seconds later we were back on the road, unscathed. This is when I thank Migs.
The challenge that this hike posed hooked me. Long, hard days. Large elevation gains. Incredible views. Even better humans. Welcome to the Drakensberg.
May 2016: Rolands Cave attempt
The wind battered the tent distorting the poles and sweeping me up and on to my neighbour. Five of us were crammed in a three man tent. Our boots were solidifying under the sub zero skies while I continually pushed the thought of our bags rolling down the pass out of my mind. I really needed the loo but the sharp cold and 70km/hr winds deterred me. Please just let this pass.
We had arrived at Cambalala House late on the Friday evening; after missing the turn off from Mike's Pass, driving over gates and following the sherpa jackal. Snuggled in bed, we woke to frost and mist. There had been warnings of a severe cold front, but we were keen and chose not to listen. Mugs in hand we debated whether to tackle Organ Pipes Pass in these conditions. Only two of our party had been to Rolands Cave- our leader Greg - a solid twenty years back- and Ingrid - with the mantra that she just walks and enjoys the view without noticing where she is. I was desperate to go to Rolands. Around 11am we made the call: the mountains were calling. The cold, misty ascent began.
The mist was so thick that we didn't even see the Old Fire Lookout when we passed it. Jason promptly earned the name Leboon- the Lebanese Baboon- for his classic antics and countless baboon summons. Up, and up and up. Hours in, we were completely disorientated, unsure of where we were. It was around 4pm when the path forked. I now know where we went wrong. Instead of continuing along the contouring section of Orange Pipes Pass, we headed up an unnamed hillock, dipping towards Thuthumi Pass.
I'd been to upper escarpment twice and knew that it generally is platued. When we reached the top, it dropped straight back down on the other side.
So we continued.
Up another hillock.
Met with another drop.
The sun was setting, pulling the temperature down with it. What to do : go back down and camp somewhere feasible; or carry on up. Much to my dismay we opted to continue up.
Greg had a three man tent on him- he always carries a tent in case of an emergency. I do too now. Eventually we reached a crest that was wide enough to pitch a tent, plus some pudding. We erected the tent, shoved our packs into an emergency bag and squeezed in.
Greg told some stories that Ingrid was not a fan of. Jason pulled Greg's finger, intoxicating us all. Squeezed head to toe, I won gold with an end spot...or so I thought. I didn't sleep much that night, with the constant battering and being flung up onto Miguel. I was dumbstruck that the wind could lift me.
The next morning we emerged to a much clearer day.
Our boots were frozen solid but our packs were still there! We were out of water with little idea where we were. Having experienced the waterless Mafadi the month before this made me weary. Thankfully some drips had frozen on the rock nearby providing the idyllic liquid.
It was simple enough getting back, following our tracks down the mountain. Jason deemed it alright that we hadn't found the cave- it is all in the journey after all. A big up to this incredible team of friends that made this an adventure that I am still able to write about 5years later. A huge up to Greg who has me carrying a tent on every berg trip. And an even bigger up to the lessons that these two treks thought me.
Research the route.
Always know where you are.
Don't pull anyone's finger.