South Africa’s Drakensberg Mini-Traverse

Last week, I rudely left Laura and her wide-angle camera behind and took a trip to South Africa for a destination wedding.  While there, Mike and I took 5 days to hike the Drakensberg (dragon mountains) mini-traverse along the South Africa – Lesotho border.  I’m not sure how long I’ll have enough money to keep these trips going – any corporate sponsors out there, I’m listening…

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A map of the full Drakensberg traverse, typically a 12-day hike from North to South.  Mike and I began at Sentinel Peak on Sunday night, finishing at the Cathedral Peak Hotel early Thursday afternoon.  Map credit: Peak High Mountaineering (our guides).

The Kingdom of Lesotho is a country you knew so little about, you didn’t realize the name is pronounced li-soo-too.  Lesotho is a mountainous country surrounded on all sides by South Africa, and by one measure it’s the highest country in the world – the elevation never dips below 4,500 feet, nearly 1,500 feet above the low point of any other independent country.  The Drakensberg are essentially a long line of cliffs at around 9,000 feet in elevation, often over 3,000 feet tall, spanning Lesotho’s eastern border.  And although the country has a population of over 2 million, with the exception of a diamond mine in the distance the only sign of people we saw within its borders were shepherds, young boys who live with their cows and sheep for months at a time in the mountains.

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A too-long, skinny panorama taken on the last day showing almost the entire 45-mile mini-traverse.  Our starting point, Sentinel Peak, is just behind the mountain furthest right in the background.

Mike and I left Baltimore on Friday night, and after around 30 hours of traveling and a long layover spent in London pubs, we got to Johannesburg on Sunday morning, smelly and sleep-deprived – and ready to try out driving with a manual transmission on the left side of the road for the first time.  By the time we met our guides, packed up, and made it to the start of the trail, it was 6 pm and we had 7 miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation to go.  The nice part is that the moon was bright enough to light our way, and the view across the mountains was stunning.  But, going up over 100 feet of cold metal chain ladders in the dark is a little unnerving :).

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Mike on the edge of a cliff with a 40-pound pack, hands almost completely numb, having barely slept for 48 hours, waiting for a camera flash to go off in his face.

When we got to the top, we filled up our water bottles for the night.  When I asked our guides how they were purifying, they assured us there was no need to purify the clear rainwater on top of the Drakensberg escarpment.  And, that there were no animals around to poop in it!  We got to our campsite and our guide Adrian – and bonus guide, his friend Sean – cooked a late dinner of pasta with gorgonzola, sausage, peppers, and a handful of other ingredients I’ve since forgotten.  These guys went all out with the food.  Also, you can’t put a price on having whiskey while camping – thank you Adrian and Sean!

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Mike with newly-growing worms in his intestine, enjoying a beautiful morning on the Drakensberg escarpment after two long days of travel.

We were warned to keep all our gear inside the tent, and between Mike and I, not against the walls.  Apparently the Lesotho people will occasionally steal your things during the night, even cutting through the walls of your tent to sneak things out the sides.   We finally got a decent sleep after spending most of the last 48 hours awake, and woke to see horses grazing near our “clean” drinking water from the night before.  There’s a good chance I have African worms living in my intestine.

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Long, rolling hills on day 2, with guide Adrian in front and me following.  Photo credit: Mike.

Although the trail mostly follows the sharp line of cliffs between the Lesotho and South African border, after leaving the gorgeous views from the escarpment that morning, we barely saw the cliffs again until the next day, instead walking through rolling hills, old Lesotho shepherd huts, and grassy meadows that are usually soggy in years with normal rainfall.  Our guides, who had better eyes than us, managed to spot some pack rats, a jackal, and a secretary bird, but Mike and I only caught a quick glimpse of the bird running about looking for food.  We also saw one of the Lesotho people in western clothes jogging down the mountain with a small flock of sheep without bells around their necks – according to our guide, signs that these sheep were likely stolen from the South African side of the border during the night.

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Staring down a cow; no shortage of livestock on the trail.  Photo credit: Mike.

That evening, Mike and I hiked up about a thousand feet to the edge of the escarpment while our guides were dipping fingers into some THC butter, and I took a dozen or so pictures of the evening light over the cliffs.  But I forgot that Mike had left the camera in manual mode and none of the pictures came out, so you’ll have to take my word that it looked nice.  Bet you wish Laura had come on this trip!

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Early morning above our cave.

On day 3, we made it back to the escarpment edge and more or less stayed there for the rest of the hike.  The weather kept threatening rain, but almost never delivered (even snowing for a quick second), and we spent most of the day staring at Cape Vultures, and even a couple endangered Bearded Vultures circling above.  There was a dead cow across a valley from us as well, and there’s nothing quite as interesting or terrifying as seeing vultures tear into a newly dead animal.

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Another of Mike’s pictures, taken just after sunrise on top of the escarpment.

After seeing a few long white worms wriggling around in our drinking water even our guides wanted to purify, and after that we walked up towards our camp for the night – a shallow cave facing out toward the South African side of the mountains.  It was probably the best view of the trip so far, and we woke ourselves up at 4 am to watch the sun rise over the mountains.  Way too hard to take good sunrise pictures though…

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Cape vultures circling above the Drakensberg (in part because we scared them off from where they were resting).  

We saw the cape vultures closer the next day as we cautiously crept toward the edge of the cliffs in high wind and looked down to see hundreds of feet of rock absolutely coated in bird shit.  We spent the rest of the day walking through huge flocks of sheep, goats, and cows, seeing a few shepherds in brightly-colored blankets with dogs in tow.  We stayed in another cave for our final night, sleeping without our tents before the final day – the Bell traverse below Cathedral peak.

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Laura’s words when I told her I took a vertical panorama: “I think I can do it, Photoshop prob has an asshat setting”.  This is looking over the right side of the Bell Traverse.

The Bell traverse is steep and a little terrifying, but had the best views of the trip (and that’s saying something).  I’m sorry to say we passed up climbing Cathedral peak in order to make it to a late Thanksgiving dinner that evening, but we finished off the hike with a long ridge walk down, some cute Baboons, and a drive past the hospital where Adrian claims he had his third testicle removed.  Thanks, Adrian – for the beautiful hike and a good dose of crazy.

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Mike and I below the Bell (left) and Cathedral Peak (right) on day 5.

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