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.

GPS Coordinates

The first link supplied is the set of GPS routes that we actually walked on.  In a very loose sense.  The second was our planned route.

I advise you to take a look at these routes and plan with them, as opposed to planning on them.  There are areas we could definitely have improved on, and this is no replacement for taking a long hard look at the actual topo maps and planning a route for yourself.

Ramsay Reid GPS route

Planned route

Please let me know if these files are no longer linking correctly

The Team

The Drakensberg Grand Traverse.  For two lovers of the Berg this epic trek was regarded with reverence and respect for five years before we got our shot at it.  In this time, the research and training we did added to the air of legend that surrounded this greatest of challenges in the Drakensberg range.

For years there were obstacles that kept us from our dream, this year the obstacle we faced was finding a team willing to stick with us and as the season for GT started to slip past once again we decided that a team of two would do just fine. And so the team was:

Josh Reid, 24, photographer and the guy who sees the bright side in everything.  As strong a hiker as you could desire.
Check out his incredible portfolio here
Paul Ramsay, 24, funemployed, navigator and blog author.  Great at downhills.

If you have hiked at all, you will know that the minimum recommended number of any party is three.  Three is just safer, and eight safer than that.  Nevertheless, a duo is what we had.  The silver lining is that we could move faster, be more flexible with plans and resupply teams could carry less.

Of course, the two of us were the ones who did the actual hike, but there was a much larger team of people that made it possible.

Spirit of Adventure where Josh and I work part time was the main driver behind the hike, a massive thank you to the team for incredible support.

We also had our three resupply teams to thank

John Flanagan, Lucinda Baty and Patrick Fennemore in the first, then Rob Pretorius, Mary and Kelly.

Clint Slogrove managed to pull in last minute and arrange for our resupply package to get up Sani Pass.  Big thanks.

We would have gotten lost somewhere in the Maluti range if it weren’t for the painstaking work of Jurie Pohl from Spirit of Adventure who basically plotted our entire route and lent us his amazing GPS.

To the parents, girlfriends and friends who were in constant prayer for us, it was your victory as much as ours.

What would I do differently?

I doubt that anybody has ever done the GT without having any areas they could have improved on.  Whether this improved their time or comfort, there is always that something.

  • Timing.  We could easily have finished the hike in 11 days, but our pickup was arranged for later, so we did some scenery along the way to make up the time
  • Listen to the GPS.  Too many times I didn’t trust the route and aimed to go over a different saddle which landed us in hot water
  • Get a good stove.  We used an old butane cylinder stove, which is great in the lowerberg but every time we wanted coffee we had about a 20-30 minute wait.  We wasted too much time waiting for water to boil for breakfasts.
  • More food.  We used the same amount per day that we usually ate in the lower berg, but this trip is long and you are doing more Kms.  Our protein intake was high, which I think aided our recovery well, but we needed more carbs.
  • Perhaps there is a way to keep the whole border crossing thing legal.  It should make Sani easier if we got our passports sorted beforehand

Gear

A massively important part of your experience of the GT is your equipment.  The better it is, the better your experience will be.  It’s that simple.

While it is therefore better to have the best equipment possible, budget doesn’t always allow the luxuries you would hope for.  Also, weight concerns mean you can’t pack everything.  This is what we did pack for each 3 day section, resupplies topped us up with fresh shirts etc.

1) Waterproofs.  first Ascent Flashfloods and Mountain Hardwear for us.  This quickly became the most worn item for us, mostly because you need something to keep the wind off you.  Gloves fall into this category.  Get yourself some ski gloves, even with mine I still had the smallest amount of frostbite on my one finger. Should’ve gotten the liner too.

2) Wicking shirts, long pants/shorts.  I loved having these FA longs. Also, sun protection for your arms and face is crucial. When choosing a hat, take your beanie with you. The beauty of this hat is that we could buy it big to fit with my beanie on, and the drawstring around the crown allowed me to pull it tight when I wasn’t using my beanie

3) Underwear.  Optional.

4) Compression gear.  We had incredible recovery times after ending days feeling like we couldn’t walk. Our trick; finishing the day with a stretch, putting on compression tights and a higher-than-normal protein diet.  We would both walk only in tights before the end of the hike too

5) Warm gear.  For us that meant fleeces, despite the desire for down.  When we longed for softness we just touched Josh’s beard.  Note: windproof beanie is a must! Thermal underwear at night makes getting up to pee that much more bearable.

6) Sleeping bags.  Josh used two K Way bags, both were necessary.  I used one first Ascent Adventure Light inside an Ice Hollowfiber.  Our traverse was later in the year, but ideally we would’ve each had Ice Breakers, amazing bags.

7) Tent.  Josh somehow picked up a cheap campmaster for less than R300.  It passed my inspection, and credit to Campmaster, it survived the GT.  I have subsequently bought a bivvy bag in anticipation of more extreme hikes, but nothing quite provides the experience and camaraderie a tent provides. I would recommend something like this for a future trip. Multiple openings are a plus, and even better to have a 3 person tent so that you can stow your gear inside. Don’t want to donate your gear to Lesotho.

8) Sleeping mats.  Josh slept on a self inflating K Way, and myself on my trusty blue gaper mat.  Thank you Spirit of Adventure for forever instilling in me the ability to sleep anywhere.

9) Stove.  Oh boy.  We used a million year old Campingaz Bluet, and honestly, I felt honoured to be able to add to the story of this stove.  It once belonged to Josh’s legendary grandfather before being handed down.  What a thing of beauty.  It was only when Mountain Man Rob cooked us dinner on his spliffy stove in less than 60 mins that we realised what we had been missing out on, and from there the rest of the GT dinner was a hack.  In fact, Josh had already finalized the purchase of a MSR Dragonfly before the end of the hike.  I too have bought a Whisperlite since the trek.  The facts are plain and simple, liquid fuel is easier to transport, there is no guesswork as to when your fuel will run out, and at altitude/cold cooking time is a third of a stove powered by a gas canister.

10) Boots.  I have already mentioned my Jim Greens.  I can’t tell you what you’ll like, but I can tell you that you will need boots that are waterproof, have good ankle support, and are WELL worn in.  I mean, at least  40 km in those boots before you go.  Josh went in his ever-reliable Salomon Megatreks.  Great boots.  Just as important, gaiters.

11) Packs.  I have a 70L Deuter that wasn’t uncomfortable once.  The only way I noticed the weight was on longer uphills with fatigue. Josh stoically decided to use a 65 L North Face Terra, strapping most of his gear, and the tent, to the outside.  The only downside was the time it took in the mornings to try fit everything back inside the bag.  So at the first resupply he switched bags with one he had lent Postman Pat, now back to his trusty Lowe Alpine 85 L beast.  Essentially, he didn’t need that much space, but it made packing that much easier.

12) Trekking Poles.  Can’t tell you if I would’ve finished without my Black Diamond Trail Backs.  Two years ago I would’ve doubted their efficiency, but I am now a believer. Huge help in snow and downhills.  Josh spent one tenth of what I did at China Mall, and his only broke on the last day.  That was a well spent R50.

13) Hydration.  Water is readily available throughout the hike, some of it we were careful to boil though, especially through Lotheni.  So transporting water isn’t too much of a problem.  I had a 2l Camelbak and 1l Nalgene.  The combination worked well, I could mix shakes in the Nalgene, and store plenty water in the Camelbak.  But that’s about all it was useful for.  The problem with the Camelbak is with refilling. constantly threading the hose through that tiny hole in my pack was just a bit annoying, and it was far easier to just drink from my bottle which was stored on the outside of my pack.  Holding 3l of water was undeniably valuable at dinnertime, but I wouldn’t want to carry more than that.

14) Headlamp.  I took the Black Diamond Storm.  It’s waterproof, and was bright enough for the two of us to navigate at night.

15) GPS.  We have incredible friends at Spirit of Adventure who basically plotted our entire route for us.  Jurie also lent us his Dakota 20.  After using this device, I wouldn’t contemplate using anything else.  For the buck, it’s the best unit you will get.  It’s easy to use, intuitive, and makes navigation a breeze.  If only we’d trusted it a little more…