Drakensberg Hike: Cleft Peak
Friday 19th, 2:10 am : Day 1
My eyes slowly open and begin to adjust to the red light of the room. Stefan’s voice prompting us to get up is followed by a muffled grunt from the sleeping bag on the floor: Andrew awakens abruptly. Danike sends a good morning smile from across the couch where we have slept, and I am grateful for these three friends who I will spend the next four days hiking in the Drakensberg with. Beginning at Didima Camp near the Cathedral Peak Hotel, we will make our way up and over One Tree Hill, up into the middle berg where we will spend the first night beside Mlambonja river. We then climb about 2 km as we follow the river up to the escarpment, past Twin Caves and into Lesotho, camping near the Tlhanyaku river. On the third day we follow the escarpment up to the summit of Cleft Peak, and then over the other side where we spend the third night on the marshes near the Maloreng river. On Monday, the last day of our hike, we will descend all the way down via the Organ Pipes Pass (Camel Route), ending at the Cathedral Peak Hotel. Admittedly unmindful of the 3000 plus meters of climbing we have ahead of us, we stuff last minute items into our backpacks, pack the car and set off on our icy-cold drive (in the appropriately branded Everest) towards the berg for the weekend.
Friday 19th, 13:30 pm
The sun is playing tag, peeking in and out through the clouds that are hung over the great peaks of rock that surround us. We shuck off our backpacks and sink down into the long green grass on top of One Tree Hill, snacking on nuts and our limited supply of dried mango, chatting and catching a nap when we think no one is looking. We’re all a bit sleepy after our short night, long drive and mid-length walk, which eventually began after signing in and buying a map, deciding on a route and dismissing the map, setting off but losing the trail so recovering the map and finding our way again. The walk was, brisk. Rather brisk, as Stefan had gotten a bee in his bonnet about getting to camp before dark, but soon realized we were hours ahead of schedule. Now, with time to sit and stare, we behold the plain-like hills of the lower berg and rest. Behind us we can see the fire burned path we will follow, in and out a valley, across the river, the trail thick with overgrown leaves and grasses, around the mountain and into the next valley, where we will spend the night. Almost there.
Friday 19th, 20:30 pm
The full moon shines brighter than a thousand stars tonight as we climb into our sleeping bags. It feels so good to be completely removed from civilization, people, responsibilities and the reality we have left behind. We had watched the sky teeming with stars, safeguarded by the encircling Drakensberg around us. Our banter, which became philosophical at times but remained mostly nonsensical, was the melody that filled the hills that night, together with the burble of the river running by our toes. We sat on the only dry patch of rock in our ‘campsite’, which was simply a place we could pitch our tents, an undertaking which took quite some time for Danike and I to puzzle through. The water had looked inviting to us after our day of walking, but after my toes told me otherwise, I decided against a swim. Andrew however hopped into the ice-cold river and chilled (quite literally) under a waterfall. Now we are warm in our tents, knackered after our day and out like a light, we are asleep.
Saturday 20th, 4:30 am : Day 2
After turning, tossing and turning again, I eventually crawl out of the tent, Danike still sleeping peacefully inside. With my sleeping bag and bible in hand I climb to the top of a large boulder that overlooks our tent beside the river. I reach behind me to retrieve the bible and headlamp and, returning back to the boulder I am utterly confuzzled to find my sleeping bag has vanished! Oh there it is, in the shrubs below me, no biggy. I stumble through the bush by the light of my headlamp and drag it back onto the boulder, this time keeping my eye on it. Well, all that did was allow me to watch it disappear. Again, like a weightless feather it is lifted and carried off by the wind, this time landing in the river. Ah, this could be an issue… wet sleeping bags and below zero temperatures just don’t work well together. I traipse down again (in the dark because my headlamp blew away as well), carefully make my way over the slippery rock, fall in, recover myself, grab the wretched, saturated eiderdown and place it over a boulder to dry. At the very moment I realize ‘hey this is probably a dumb idea’, a gust of wind blows through the valley and plucks the bag off the rock for the third time, and the shameful sleeping bag slides down the torrents out of sight.
It’s a humbling experience to have to wake up your buddy at dawn to ask for a hand with recovering your bedding from downstream, but that’s what I did, and Andrew kindly arose and led the way down the river in search of the blasted thing. It didn’t take long to find thankfully, and we returned as the sun began to rise, hauling a wet sleeping bag between us, much to the amusement of Stefan. We placed the confounded eiderdown in a dry-bag which, needless to say, remained in my backpack for the rest of the trip.
Saturday 20th, somewhere around lunch time pm
We’ve climbed a fair bit by now and can finally see the saddle of the mountain, after which the elevation will mercifully decrease as we slowly make it up to the escarpment and into Lesotho. Here we break for lunch, already higher than the eagles. Spirits are high as jokes, puns and stories are swapped and references to movies I’ve never watched are used to describe our circumstances most precisely. At some stage of the morning, in fact soon after we crossed the river for the first time, Andrew began to sing his terribly entertaining parodies which, together with his fantastic Australian imitations of Steve Irwin, would keep us light hearted and in giggles for days, despite the testing climbs. We revel in the company, only slightly aware of the last big effort we will need to make to reach the escarpment.
Saturday 20th, 18:00 pm
Our fingers, swollen and stinging and completely useless at this stage, fumble with the fittings on our tent in the sub-zero wind and persistent downpour. It started raining soon after lunch, so that by the time we reached the border we were wet through and somewhat less sprightly than before. It was at the moment that we traversed into Lesotho that the wind reached a level I had never experienced before in my life. It was the sort of wind that you could lean into and not fall over, despite the 12 kg odd on your back. Forgetting the bitter wind and rain we abandoned our backpacks and raced to the edge of the escarpment, overjoyed to be alive. Our next thoughts? Hot chocolate. Tomato Soup. Both! Danike captured some last-minute pics (that turned out to be stunning!) before we clambered down to camp. Now as we struggle with the tent in the wind and rain we are anxious to get inside and defrost ourselves. We are, that is all four of us, in one tent, with three sleeping bags and a jet boil between us. The atmosphere is warm, the jokes less wholesome than my grandmother would like, and we sleep, the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance.
Sunday 21st, mid-morning-ish, am : Day 3
Snow! Weightless, white, icy flakes float down from the sky onto our noses. It’s magically quiet and surprisingly warm as we laugh at the boys, who have been praying for snow since the first day. Danike and I are genuinely hoping for sun, which, we have been promised, will appear after the snow (…ye, it never did.) It had been drizzling steadily all morning, when, all of a sudden, we noticed that in amongst the heavy, wet droplets of water there were bigger drops – like beads of melty ice, sinking steadily down to the ground. The beads began to grow in size; they became whiter, almost crystal like, and started falling slower, almost floating, no, drifting in the breeze. The flakes swirl around us and we smile at the stillness. We are peacefully alone, but for the herds of wild horses that seem to enjoy the bleached flurry as much as we do. What a brilliant way to spend Easter.
Sunday 21st, 21:00 pm
Shut the door! Were you born in a barn? I giggle at Andrew’s plea for me to zip closed the flap of the tent before they all freeze to death, and then gracefully take a dive into the tent, over the pile of backpacks, socks and 2-minute noodles, landing on my face. It had begun to rain again shortly after the snowfall had stopped, but in between we had a brief relief from the wet, during which we met other hikers mad enough to be out as well. A group of trail runners wanted their picture taken, all of them, naturally, dressed in cheerful, luminous colors. We met Nicholas, a tall, lone hiker following the same trail we were, but doing it in an impressively short amount time. We confronted our fear of heights and brushed aside the vertigo as we lunched on a ledge kilometers above the middle-berg. Around this time it began to rain, and it became too cold to sit still, so we pushed on steadily until we reached the summit of our journey: Cleft Peak.
Summiting Cleft was a celebration of persistence and unwavering determination. Add also relief, a splash of unbelief (on my part anyway) and wonder. It feels too cliché to say we felt on top of the world, so I say nothing – except that we had been elevated into a vast openness and our everythings were below us, which is truly an incredible experience. Our breath made white clouds of vapor as we called out to the mountains, echoes shouting back at our frosty faces. We must’ve stayed up there for a few moments only, before briskly descending down, well as briskly as our stiff calves would allow, toward our campsite. We trudge through the maaashes (said in Australian Andrew tone) and hurriedly set up camp in record time (which may explain why the tent sort of collapsed on us during the night.) We remove our saturated backpacks, flooded shoes and drenched socks, caring zilch about dinner. Now snug in our tent we jest, laugh and chat about nothing as the world around us seemingly fills up with water.
Monday 22nd, midday: Day 4
Not my friend… friend… friend… not my frie-whoosh! This basically describes how I got down Camel Pass; by tentatively placing my feet on grass clumps (friend), avoiding loose stones (not my friend), falling on my butt, and then, repeat. Camel Pass is fast, not safe! Stefan smiles back, as Danike and I carefully make our way down. Honestly, we could not have completed this hike the way we did without the confidence that Stefan had in us. With him leading the way and setting the pace but never leaving us behind, we didn’t make stupid mistakes that occur all too easily in the berg. Not once were we unsure of the trail chosen, whether we would make camp by nightfall, or if we could make it out alive (well, actually I was never quite certain of this last one.) Jokes.
The entire mountain is one river: water courses down all the paths, every gap in the grass and each opening in the floras. It bursts out through cracks in the rock along the mountainside, forming gushing, white, seemingly bottomless waterfalls. As we slide down Windy Gap the rain falls upwards – a remarkable phenomenon apparently, but there it is. We’re cool like that. The rain causes a couple of complications along the way, such as random, usually non-existent cascades crossing our path, and slippery surfaces becoming much more devious.
One such surface almost saw the end of me, were it not for Andrew’s out-of-nowhere-quick reactions and ability-to-lift-human-plus-backpack strength. As I watch Stefan traverse across the sloping wet rock, placing his feet the way a rock climber would, it doesn’t look too challenging. I step up to try, and, ignoring Andrews’s instructions, I half-heartedly stumble forward. Next thing I know I’m hanging off the edge, watching my belongings tumble down below me. Ye, that’s the first time I’ve sworn in a long time. Andrew has caught me by the rain cover which is, whew, attached to my backpack. I remain calm, and admittedly a little stubborn, as Andrew pulls me back up onto the rock, and we attempt it a second time.
I hadn’t realized yet, but two rangers had descended down the pass and had watched the whole thing, shaking their heads at our failed attempt. What they must think of us. One of them rescues my first aid kit, which is kind, and they proceed to stroll across the troublesome rock in their wellingtons and over-sized blankets as though they were on the Durban promenade! Andrew follows their lead, and Danike and I hand him our backpacks, before crossing over ourselves. I’m shaking as Danike wraps me in a bear hug, which is much needed by the both of us. We set off again and don’t encounter too many more near death experiences. Well – we almost lose Danike’s entire backpack down the mountain. Bouncing away from us it rolls down, down, down – painfully slowly, but too quickly to stop. We watch it helplessly, stifling laughter (honestly by this point we would find something like this hilarious.) Eventually it slows to a stop and Danike and Andrew rescue the disorientated canvas, which was still in one piece with nothing missing and nothing ruined. What a day!
Monday 23rd, 8:00 pm
The painted lines on the tar whiz by as the bright lights dash past one by one; the city encompasses four travelers who feel weary yet refreshed, all at once. After descending down Camel Pass we had caught our first glimpse of the hotel. At this point, we learn, the hotel is poignantly close but remains just out of reach for another few hours, and here the trail merges into one commonly used by day-hikers. Danike and I giggle at the frustration felt by both Stefan and Andrew at these ‘overused and eroded, tourist paths’ that include ladders, and stairs placed at perfectly measured intervals. Danike leads us back to the hotel, and we stride through feeling pretty badass, but in truth we waddle stiffly, leaving muddy shoeprints on the floor. Jerome hands us the keys to the gym where a hot shower is welcomed by those who remembered to bring a change of clothes (ehem note to self.)
Now we chill in the Everest driving easily down the highway, listening to a peculiar mix of Frank Sinatra and Amon Amarth, our hunger satiated by the much-needed burgers and lattés from the Black Steer in Harrismith. We made it out alive, in-fact more alive than when we went in. ‘Alive’ up there is a has a different meaning to what we know down here. Alive is pain and bliss all at once. Being in the mountains drove us to problem-solve, to make life/death decisions, to find beauty in the detail and humor in the tough times, to respect each other, to sacrifice for each other, and to do whatever to stay alive. To stay alive is to confront demons and struggle for air, yet feel closer to God and breathe deeper than ever before. We looked at the views yet saw nothing but ourselves. Captivated by the mountains, we loved the boots that blistered our feet, the wind that froze our fingers, the rain that soaked our bones and the snow that hid the sun. We love it all, and would be back there in the blink of an eye.