Day Nine – Sani Pass

After a long night of not-really sleeping, we awoke to disaster. It seems there was a rat in the hut that was rather bold. Lots of our food had been nibbled on, and some of it had disappeared entirely, and all right by our feet as we slept. Ironically, the food we used to patch up walls from the wind (we were that desperate) survived entirely. Fortunately all we had to do was one day’s hike with the food that survived and we would be at our next resupply, Sani Top. After a small breakfast, we headed out on our mission to Thabana Ntlenyana.

The wind had calmed slightly during the night, but could still easily be described as gale force. And it increased in intensity as we neared the top. That day I got the slightest of frostbite on my longest finger, mostly due to the wind chill I am sure. The top of Ntlenyana is bland, it is more of a high point than a hill really. But the views were good, albeit briefly seen. We made our way quickly down the valley to where we could layer down drastically, to our relief. One short climb later we were within sight of the church on the Sani road, to which we aimed.

Some may consider this a cheat, but we planned from the start that we would walk to the church and try to catch a lift into Sani, about 6km. We saw thumbing a ride as part of the adventure. But after arriving at the road at 13:00 and waiting for 30 minutes without seeing a car drive past, the church leader Immanuel came out to offer us accommodation. I was introduced to his family while Josh dozed outside. after politely declining, at 13:45 we decided to start walking along the road, in case nobody was able to give us a lift. It was a Tuesday after all and there were less tourists doing the route.  After about 10 minutes of walking and praying, a Landy arrived behind us, and we threw out our thumbs. The chirpy private tour guide commanded us to jump in , and we spent the journey talking about the area and our hike with him and his tourist group.  Thank you.  Josh and I marveled at what it was like to sit on something soft for the first time in 9 days.

On arrival, we headed straight for the pub, ordered two burgers and Maluti beers, and the combination went down quicker than a ropeless anchor. After making sure we were satisfied, and slightly inebriated, informed the staff that we had a booking for the night at the backpackers, and they handed over our third and last resupply parcel. Unfortunately our parcel contained a milk container which had burst and so that night, if we weren’t showering (40 mins) or eating at the pub (another beer and burger, please), we were cleaning our food stuffs from off milk. We also made jelly using the outside as a fridge. Delicious with condensed milk.

The staff at Sani Lodge and pub are amazing.  I would like to just take the time to thank them, for incredible service and advice.  Right down to finding weather maps for the remainder of our trip.  Oh and did I mention the food?  That night we slept on a mattress with heavy blankets. Bliss.

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Day Ten

Leaving Sani Pass was a difficult thing.  Warm beds, a hot shower and coffee at leisure had made us soft.

Nevertheless, after a delicious breakfast we dragged ourselves away from the fire, and in the direction of Bushman’s Nek.  An hour late too.  Unfortunately it wasn’t as simple as that.  We made the mistake of walking to the Lesotho border post.  We wanted to just inform them of our movements, since it would look suspicious if we just walked right past them.  Unfortunately, they weren’t so keen on our adventure.  After getting very angry, and informing us of the illegality of our movements, I managed to convince them that we would descend via Masubasuba pass immediately and therefore avoid any problems they could foresee.  We left them feeling chastised and quite shocked at the reaction we had received.

We had, at this point in our hike, come to understand our capabilities well, and in looking ahead at the day’s hike on the maps realised we would easily make the days target campsite by 3 pm.  In fact, we felt if we pushed we could finish the GT at least one day ahead of schedule.  Realising that we would not be able to get picked up any earlier than our original planned date, we decided to take the last three days at a slow, sightseeing pace.  First up, the escarpment edge at Sani, and the saddle of Giants Cup.  Here we saw the biggest train of dagga smugglers yet, sauntering down Masubasuba Pass in broad daylight at 9:30.  Where is your stringent border control now, Lesotho?

After this initial climb to the day we paced across the massive flats of the Lesotho side of Cobham.  Pleasant and beautiful walking.  We were soon at our designated spot, but we decided to go over the next ridge and find the perfect campsite, which we did.  Josh quoted his scouting textbook on why our spot was so amazing.  Flat ground, 10m from the river and low in a valley for wind protection. Could you ask for anything better?

Day Eleven

Day Eleven rose bright and beautiful, even the winds had calmed a little.

That had meant a good nights sleep in our perfect campsite, but almost as soon as we started walking we realised that it was only our campsite that was sheltered from the winds.

The day’s walking was easy, with only one real big ridge to get over.  The Southern Berg has many of these East-West ridgelines that need crossing , and going around them would take just too much time.  Fortunately by this point we are rather good at climbing hills, and we are confident enough in our flat walking speed to take it much easier on the uphills than we did in the beginning.  In fact, we started to relish the uphills, knowing that we could count the ones we would be doing on one hand.  The whole day took this note as we realised our trip was rapidly coming to an end.  In  three days time we would be back in the wide open spaces of Durban city, and so we did our utmost to enjoy the distant blue mountains, the rugged dropoff of the escarpment and the sweet taste of natural filtered mountain water.

We had no camera batteries left for this section, but the stark landscapes are etched into my mind.  The top was as flat as a soccer pitch, and dropped away so unexpectedly into the abyss of Kwazulu-Natal that one could easily imagine walking off accidentally.  Finally, we reached Mzimude and began our search for the cave.

This cave is interesting , because it is so far out of any travelers way, unless you are doing some sort of traverse.  There are no real trails near it, or even leading to it, yet it seemed well maintained with a good rock wall at its edge.  It is very high, and although there is no real view from the cave itself there is a masterpiece waiting for you on the opposite side of the gully.  Josh took the opportunity to walk the ridge and make a few phone calls while I made supper, and when he returned with the story of the view I was almost stirred from my sleeping bag to go have a look, but the cold wind dissuaded me.

We set up the tent inside the cave that night, just for some extra warmth, and settled in for our last night together on the top of the world, it felt surreal that we had come so far, and sherry was in order.  We drained the last of it, feasted on chocolate and fell into a stupor of a sleep.

Day Twelve

The final day.  It took us ages to get out of bed, but this time not because we had a massive day ahead of us.  This time because we didn’t really want to end our amazing experience.

After a long packup of our tent, we left Mzimude cave and looked up at the first hill for our day, and the last hill we would climb on the GT.  It was quite something to behold, it looked so small and yet it was so significant.  We mastered it within 20 minutes, and the knowledge that it was downhill from there gave us the confidence to take a break and enjoy the topside one last time.

Although we had to descend via Thamathu pass as the final checkpoint for the GT, the Bushman’s Nek area of the berg has less of a defined escarpment edge.  In actual fact, we descended to 2500m before we even start on Thamathu pass.  That’s very low for a pass to top out at, when compared with most passes that find the top at about 2900m.

So the day was essentially descent the whole way, knee breaking.  And to get down some hillsides required some problem solving as they were very steep, and sometimes we had to even scramble down some short cliff faces.  Our minds were boggled as to why anyone would choose to start the GT in the South and face this immediately.  Poor buggers.

In good time we were on flats again and passed an elderly man walking in the direction we had come from.  He was carrying nothing but his stick, and we hadn’t seen anything worthy of traveling to where we had been.  The hardiness of the people of Lesotho astounded us as we guessed where his destination must be.  Or perhaps tucked into his gumboots there were ample USN energy bars and he was attempting the GT?

At the top of the pass we paused for a snack, but we had no water for cooking lunch so we carried on, past a group of herds boys.  They could have been no older than 10 years and were playing joyfully with each other and their dogs near the edge.  Their view was most spectacular.

Down the pass the formations we passed were incredible, neither of us had seen such exposed and weathered formations in our experience in the berg.  Eventually, we couldn’t put it off any longer, dry lunch would have to happen.  We ate dry noodles and chicken mayo, with dry oats.  Nothing was spared, I suppose the mountain madness had finally gotten us.

From kilometers away we could see the police post, and smelling steak we absolutely found 6th gear.  Brakes were not operational down that hill.

At 3:30 on 31 May 2013 we arrived at the Bushman’s Nek police post, South Africa.  The very helpful officer on duty informed us that the post closed at 4 pm, so we had just made it.  He had no issues with is re-entering South Africa despite “never leaving it”.  But he said we could get stamped back in, if we wanted.  So yes, according to our passports we have entered SA more times than we have left it.IMG_1517

40 Minutes later, Tom “George R R Martin” and Doug “Bathtub” arrived, laden with steak, boerewors and beer.  The mark of champion friends.  We pitched at Silver Streams, and a night of stories and food ensued.  True happiness is hard to define, but I think we came pretty darn close that night.  Maximum utility and hedonist as anything.

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…