What is the Drakensberg Grand Traverse?

The Drakensberg Grand Traverse is a 220-240 km hike across the Drakensberg mountain range, South Africa.  Although there is no prescribed route, or even trail, there are certain checkpoints that one must complete along the way in order to be able to say that they have completed the DGT.  These checkpoints include the most significant peaks along the way, all well over 3000m. The checkpoints are as follows:

1 Ascend the escarpment via the chain ladders at Sentinel Peak

2 Summit Mont Aux Sources (the source of Kwazulu-Natal’s Tugela river)

3 Summit Cleft peak

4 Summit Champagne Castle

5 Summit Mafadi (The highest point in South Africa 3451m)

6 Summit Giants Castle

7 Summit Thabana Ntlenyana (In Lesotho, the highest point in Southern Africa 3482m)

8 Descend via Thamathu Pass

This list is the only commonly accepted essence of the GT.  From there, opinions and personal choice influence each trip.  Some insist the GT must be unsupported, others see it as a race and yet others choose to take a longer route in order to experience the beauty of the Drakensberg that much better.  In any case, there is no authority governing your movements, and so the hike becomes exactly what you would like it to be.  Except maybe comfortable.

We decided to complete all checkpoints, on a 12 day schedule with resupply teams meeting us 3 times en route.

Day Zero

The day arrives, nerves kick in and the final packing is completed.  Our transport legend, Kath “Shoeless” fetches us at 09:00 and we begin the day’s drive to the Sentinel car park from Durban.  After signing registers at 15:30 (R100 each to traverse) and chatting to some hikers returning from the falls, we decided to set out to Sentinel cave. Getting started on the walk settled nerves, and honestly, I think the cave is more comfortable than the car park hut.

That night we had veggie burgers fried, luxury, and blessed the start with good ol’ OBS.

Day One

We woke up with massive anticipation after a great night’s sleep.  Josh couldn’t stop raving about the benefits of double bagging, which is to say, sleeping inside two sleeping bags.

After a quick breakfast, the chain ladders awaited.  They were as gusty as I’ve ever known them to be, and with full packs this is always a bit of fun.  Mont Aux Sources was the first checkpoint on the GT, and is really as easy as pie.  On the way up we found a cairn and plaque marking the place where two young people succumbed to the elements.  We took a moment to reflect on what could have gone wrong.  It’s always a combination of two or more of these elements:


Inadequate equipment


We crossed the first two off in our minds, and carried on with the saunter knowing that the third is beyond our control.

After bagging the peak and slapping high-fives we headed downhill on the South facing slope.  There is lots of snow, thigh deep and we are both grateful for good waterproof pants.  Very much worth the investment.  My boots on the other hand, are thoroughly wet.  Due to an underestimated repair time, my first choice waterproof boots were still in a factory somewhere, and my second choice boots were only 16km old and not quite waterproof.  Rookie? It was to become the bane of my existence.

Through the day we saw seven or so abandoned kraals with accompanying huts, it seems that this late in the season the herdsmen take their livestock further down into Lesotho.  The walking was beautiful and we did not expect this much water in the rivers of Lesotho.  In fact, we had good water readily available almost the whole hike.  We arrived at Rat Hole cave at 4:30 without too much strain.  This cave lives up to its name, and is a long tube about 1m in diameter.  Very comfortable, warm and sheltered.  Just weird sleeping head to toe.  If you are keen on caves, this is definitely one to visit.  We listened to some Monty Python on my iPod and dozed off after a great day.

Day Two

Starting out at 7:20, we decided to take a slightly longer route to catch the sunrise over the escarpment.  Some baboons greeted the sun as the Madonna gave us a view I’ll never forget, even though the altitude had blessed me with an annoying headache.  This part of the berg is so remote, there isn’t a soul around for many kilometers. In our eagerness to get going and see the sunrise we had far too little breakfast, something we paid for by having to stop and have a Futurelife shake mid morning, just to keep us going.  I came to love the ease of this breakfast, just make a quick shake and on with the walking.  Throughout the day we tracked prints in the snow, wondering if somebody was doing GT just ahead of us.  Someone in Merrells.

Easy walking meant  that we were at the source of the Orange river, the Senqu, by lunchtime.  My boots were starting to give me a blister and I was now regretting not having my first choice pair on my feet, great to get them off and have a swim in the source.  A bit too good perhaps, we let ourselves become convinced that a nap was what we needed and an hour and a half later we set out again.  Whoops.

Soon thereafter we found the group we had been tracking at a confluence.  They were a group from Johannesburg doing a Northern Traverse,  cooking on an open fire because they had gas canisters that didn’t match their stove.  Facepalm.  They were also glad to have us point them in the direction of the right valley before we started up it ourselves.  Little did we know what a slog we had ahead of us.

The hill wasn’t big.  It wasn’t steep.  It was long.  It was this day that I realised the enormity of the task ahead.  Thankfully, we had reached the end of day two on schedule.

Day Three – First Resupply

The day dawned bright, but cold and a little windy.  We had camped well above 3000m at the top of the previous day’s hill on a saddle.  Magnificent views made up for the cold, but in hindsight a saddle on the escarpment edge is just not the right place to camp.

Nevertheless, we could see our whole day’s hike ahead of us from breakfast and made quick work of some nice downhill.  We postponed lunch until we were at the very base of Cleft peak, the second of our checkpoint peaks. In the intensified wind, we found a sheltered spot just as snow came down.  Just enough for the novelty of it while we made lunch.  At this point we knew we had underestimated our appetites and so we ate our emergency rations hoping the resupply team arrived on time. 2 Minute noodles and tuna with crackers while a light snow fell, amazing.

Cleft peak gave us views that really are something to marvel at.  A tough climb, but well worth the effort.  We could see some Oryx helicopters doing their thing well below us, an amazing feeling.  We could also see our resupply team arrive over Organ Pipes pass, a sigh of relief escaped me.  It seemed to take an age to get down to them, but when we finally made it down there was a massive celebration. We had completed the first quarter of the GT.

This resupply was a party of three, Led by John “Zimbo”, Patrick “Postman” followed strong with Lucinda “Thunder Thighs”, who was making her first ever trip to the top of the Berg on foot.  What a champion.

They had carried with them enough supplies for themselves, but also our food for the next three days.  Together we found the Ndumeni caves together before a brief outing to Rolands cave.  This cave is almost directly above Ndumeni Caves, but it is high on the side of the cliff face.  It’s an adventure to get to, and I understand why it is not shown on the map – there is a fatal drop awaiting any unsure footed person attempting to reach this cave.  The view is magnificent, and the awesome factor makes this my favourite berg cave.

After much storytelling and laughter, we all headed for bed.  Josh and I elected to bivvy outside the cave as weather was clear and the caves too small for five of us.  That night we were woken a few times by Klipspringer making a sort of barking sound at us.  It seems we were bivvying right in their usual pathway.

Day Four

We started the day with some oats shared with John, Patrick and Lucinda, reluctant as she was to get out of bed.  Then for the start of day four.

Each night we would sit down with the map and GPS to look at the next day in detail, so that we would have rough idea of what the following day would entail.  Whilst planning the previous night, we decided that our GPS route was a little silly, and that we could save a lot of  trouble by going up and over the back of Ndumeni cave rather than down, back up and around.  How wrong we were.

That morning we toiled over what had appeared an easy hill, and looked down from the top to see where the GPS route made an easy meander onto the river plain.  Darn it.  I’ll admit I was very frustrated with myself, but I hardly had time to be before we saw, on the trail we were supposed to be on, a train of dagga smugglers.  Now these guys really just want to do their job unimpeded, but wherever possible it can only be healthy to avoid them.  Rumours of many raids in the area lately made us nervous, we could be seen as scouts or informants.  And so our mistake turned out to be a positive one.  One of the smugglers stopped to watch us walk high above and parallel to him, but other than that our first encounter with Basuthos was really just a passing by.

On to Yodler’s Cascades.  As Josh and I walked up this river, we marveled at it’s beauty.  If only we had the time to swim in it’s crystal clear blue-green pools.  For kilometers they stretch on, always an abandoned kraal and hut in sight.  We wondered aloud if the herdsmen appreciated the beauty of this place as we do, or if the herdsmen needed the loo constantly during the night due to the cascading waters’ constant washing.  It made the eternal hill bearable.


The “Bowl of Death”

Once at the top, lunch and an easy walk along contours for the rest of the day towards Champagne Castle and Nkosozana cave.  It didn’t turn out that way.  Well the contours were easy, but we were walking on the South facing slope, which was now covered in a snow-mud-sludge that made walking very difficult.  The path was clear most of the way, but clearly muddy.  By the time we get to the place to turn off route and divert to Nkosozana we had made up our minds, instead of the extra 2km we would rather tent near Ships Prow pass.  This we did, in an amazing campsite which appears to be used regularly.  We had our first taste of Freeze-Dri food that night, and wolfed it down as the cries of a jackal were heard on the wind.

The day after resupply things really hit home.  We’re in for the long haul, and even that flats are tough.  This was my hardest day psychologically.

Day Five

Today we started a little late, but given the fact that out boots had been frozen solid overnight, 7:30 wasn’t a bad start.  It felt like trying to put wooden clogs on, and this despite keeping our boots inside our tent vestibule.  Crazy cold.  I would estimate that night got below -10 C.  We decided that since Josh has hiked the last section of the day’s hike between Leslie’s Pass and Upper Injasuthi cave, he would take the navigational reigns for the day.

First things first, we head over to the summit of Champagne Castle.  The air is clear and the views spectacular, we could easily see all the way to the Devil’s Tooth.  It was amazing to contemplate the distance we’d covered, and this really boosted our morale.  We knew we were going to make it.

As we reached the valley floor soon thereafter, we see an army chopper doing an exercise exactly where we had been on the summit just hours before.  After Lunch by Injasuthi pass, we headed down the valley to where Josh knew the cave to be.  Except that when we got there, he realised we were in the wrong valley.  Frustrated with himself, he recounts to me how the last time he was there he found the cave in mist, and now in better conditions he had missed the valley.  After consulting the GPS we headed in the right direction, just as a thick snow began to fall.  I was quite happy with it, knowing that we were headed for the most sheltered of caves.

Jim Greens, made for summits

Jim Greens, made for summits

Finally we found our cave,  and took shelter from the abating snow.  Upper Injasuthi is a beautiful big cave, comfortable and with a view that could make the cover of countless coffee table books.  Josh was still frustrated with his mistake, and as a penance went to fetch water.  We both experienced down moments on this hike, but this was the only time I saw him frustrated the whole hike.  I think our strength was being able to prop each other up in these moments.

Day Six – Second Resupply

As the sun rose, red as imaginable, Upper Injasuthi cave showed us it’s brilliance.  Despite the sun having completely risen, it was still far below us down off the escarpment and my shadow actually bent upwards towards the ceiling of the cave.  Amazing to be so high above South Africa.

This was a good starting place for our first assault of the day – Mafadi.  The highest peak in South Africa was something I was excited to summit.  After an quick walk through a lot of snow and high fives topside, we started our descent into the valley which took us the greater part of the morning due to its steepness and snow covered South side.  We were perhaps a meter deep at points, and Josh actually bent his trekking pole on the descent.  We see the first sign of life, firstly a rabbit scampered away from us on the hillside, and then at the bottom we saw the first kraals and huts that were occupied.

We had been prepared for this, it is well known that the area between Mafadi and Sani is the most occupied space you will encounter on the GT

Resupply number two, making coffee

We headed along and up the valley making good time, we really wanted to be at our resupply spot on time.  As we crested the ridge of the meeting spot, Langalibalele pass, we bumped almost straight into Rob “Hardcore” and his two recruits. The most perfect timing.  We exchanged hugs and handshakes before finding ourselves a nice flat spot to camp on.  We were happy to see more food, greater variety, and also Rob had commited himself to treating us with a Coke each.  Open Happiness.  We were also treated to real mincemeat and macaroni that night, unbelievably good, washed down with some hot custard.

I realised one monumental failure here, I had failed to put the next sections map in this resupply pack.  We would be relying on the GPS until our resupply at Sani, about 2 days without a map. Fortunately, we had made more than enough provision for GPS batteries.

We are feeling really strong at this point, resupplies do that.  We had also found a rhythm and we were confident we could start to pull ahead of our intended goals.

Day Seven

The following morning I made another navigational error.  We had aimed to go over a ridge line that looked steep, but would save us time to go over rather than 7 km around.  We made the climb, but as we got to the top saw that the map was misleading.  We could not pass and had to detour about a kilometer West before continuing South.

The wind picked up here and it was a force to walk against.  We saw a Bearded vulture and several Cape Vultures moving effortlessly in the wind, at one point coming to hover about 10 m above our heads.  What an honour it was to be there, and how grateful that we had been forced to move along the ridge before descending.

Hunger set in as we moved towards Giants Castle and no sooner were we at it’s base than we were scoffing down biltong and crackers.  After hiding our packs in some crags, we headed to the summit of Giants Castle.  This was a hilight for me, an hour up and an hour down without packs was bliss, and the view was unrivaled.  Off of the escarpment, Giants Castle gives the last view of the Northern berg and we said our final goodbyes.  The scramble up is half the fun, and the scramble down all of the fright.

On our way back to collect our bags we met with a group of herdsmen walking resolutely in the same direction we were aiming for.  One of them stopped to chat and his English was pretty good.  We gave our new friend Thabo the slip and collected our bags, began in the direction of camp eight.  Only an hour of walking later we found Thabo walking towards us again, this time with five or six others and a donkey laden with – well you know.  It turns out Thabo was part of a scout outfit, checking that the route was safe before making a drop somewhere down Giants pass.

Chuckling to ourselves about the mass of Marijuana we had just seen, we walked well past our designated mileage for the day.  We stopped at a river to make supper, and after the break we still felt strong so we kept on going.  We knocked 10km off of the next days trek that night in a matter of an hour and a half.  It was stressful walking for me, hearing dogs barking at us the whole time, and the corresponding shouts by their owners, but it was flat, fast and easy.  We only handed one cigarette out to a herdsman on a horse.

Finally, settling down on some soft, even grass, we slept like we deserved to.

Day Eight

The previous night I battled to sleep, I was feeling nauseous but was unable to bring up whatever was bothering my system.  Luckily we had made good strides the night before, so we slept an hour over our usual time until 6:30.

The day was windy to say the least, and we elected to walk to shelter and then make breakfast which was a great decision. After a good rest from the wind we headed on down the fertile valley, along the way seeing more life than we had the entire hike.  The Lotheni side is known for this, and we had heard stories of dogs that made me edgy.  Then it happened, we created our own dog story.

Josh and I were walking along the riverside, when a dog came after us like a cat out of the bath.  I knew that it would leave us be as soon as we were out of it’s territory, so I made a quick left to cross the river, running as fast as I could with a full pack.  I heard a laugh behind me, turned and saw Josh lying on the ground, the dog rapidly approaching.  I carried on running.

It was a big laugh, and I knew Josh was okay, but I suppose I shouldn’t have left him on the ground like that.  I should’ve at least taken a photo and the tent before I left him.

We had finished the day’s 20 kms by lunchtime, and walked an extra kilometer trying to find water and somewhere to shelter from the wind.  I felt myself become the hunger hulk before we stopped.  The cooking was slow because of the wind, and we ended up having to change gas cannisters on the stove.  During the process, we lost a lot of gas, but we had enough to get us to our resupply, so no worries.

As we sat and enjoyed our food, we discussed our options.  We looked up at Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest peak in Southern Africa.  We were keen to take it down that day, ahead of schedule, but the wind was just too much.  It attempted to knock you right over with every step, and each step took three times as much energy as it would normally.  We were sad to concede we would not be able to hold our lead.  Next we looked for shelter, a cave.  As our eyes scoured the mountainside I spotted an abandoned hut.  Perfectish.

Home sweet ratty-home

Home sweet ratty-home

These huts look cosy from the outside, but when you get inside, they are dirty (the bad kind), smelly, very small and only designed to sleep one person.  They are pretty much only good for shelter from wind or snow, which is exactly what we needed as out tent would have been destroyed in the gusts.  We spent most of the afternoon plugging holes in the walls and roof, and building a door out of rocks to shut us in.  We were in for a cold and uncomfortable night.