Saturday, December 05, 2009

December 3, 2009 - The Drakensberg

When our South African cruising friends George and Colleen invited us to join them and Colleen's daughters for a drive up the Sani Pass, a legendary 4x4 track linking the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, we jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, the weather since we arrived in Richard's Bay has been pretty unpleasant. The trip up Sani Pass is difficult in the best of weather, but in the mist and fog it would be foolhardy. So we had to wait for a good day for it.

While we waited for the rain to let up, we spent a night at a really nice guest house in a reasonably safe part of Durban, enjoying dinner at a sidewalk cafe as the rain dripped off the awning over our heads. The next day, after stopping in at the Quantum sail loft to check on the progress of the repairs on our headsail, we made a trip to Victoria Market with friends on s/v Blue Sky, which was anchored in Durban harbor. Sten was disappointed to see how sanitized Victoria Market had become in the 12 years since last visited. When he was last here the place was like a scene out of Bladerunner, with vendors were selling monkey heads, witchdoctor supplies, and unusual game. Now it is filled with shops selling spices, wood carvings, ostrich eggs, elephant leg stools, beaded jewelry and other souveniers.

After the market we went in search of a renowned roti joint - Johnie's Sunrise Cafe. Johnie's is the destination of choice in Durban for late night partiers in search of something to set them right. At noon it was a bit tamer, but the rotis and bunny chows (hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry) were still delicious. With our bellies stuffed with curried goodness we headed out of town towards the mountains. But the steady rain made the driving too difficult. We only got as far as Pietermaritzburg before calling it. We found a cozy backpackers in which to spend the night and a nice Italian joint for dinner.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn to drive out to Kamberg for a morning hike up into the mountains to see the famous San rock-art paintings at Game Pass Cave. The mist that dogged us all the way out to the foothills of the Drakensberg became a cold rain as we reached the park entrance. But we were determined to make the most of the day. We changed into long pants and raincoats and joined our Zulu guide.

As we hiked up the mountain, following a narrow trail, the rain continued to fall. We couldn't see much but the water dripping off the brims of our hats and the wildflowers at our feet. In the distance we could hear baboons warning each other of our approach. Half way up the mountain our guide stopped to point out the surrounding mountain peaks and tell us of their spiritual importance to the local Zulus. As we stared out into the heavy grey mist, which obscured everything more than a few meters away from us, we had to take his word for the fact that we were surrounded by soaring mountain peaks.

The Zulus call the Drakensberg mountains the "Barrier of Spears." The KZN tourism board calls them the "Dragon Mountains." Sten and I call them the "Drak," which just cracks up George and Colleen. For tens of thousands of years these mountains were the home of hunter-gatherers known as the San or Bushmen. Two thousand years ago Bantu farmers moved into the region. Somehow, the two groups were able to coexist. Then white settlers moved into the region, annexing the San's traditional hunting lands for farms. When the San began stealing cattle from the farmers, the white settlers reacted by hunting the San. By the 1870's there were no more Bushmen left in South Africa. In the Drakensberg all that remains of the San are some of their words, which are characterized by a distinctive clicking sound and which have found their way into the Zulu and Xhosa languages spoken today, and the paintings they made on rocks throughout the region.

The paintings at Game Pass Cave depict the thin veil that existed between the spiritual world and the material world for the San. The panels feature images of hunting and dancing. The trance dance was the San's most important religious ritual. The San believed that the heightened state of awareness that they achieved during the trance dance allowed them to journey into the spiritual realm to harness supernatural powers.

Many of the panels feature eland, a large antelope that was very important to the San people. Due to the eland's high fat content, it was considered to be a very powerful animal. Several panels depict shaman absorbing power from dying eland.

The San mixed ocher and eland blood to make the paint they used in their rock art. By layering image upon image, the San believed that they increased the spiritual potency of their art. Perhaps it was only the heightened state of awareness that I had achieved due to hyperventilation and oxygen deprivation by the time we had reached the mountain top, but hundreds of years later, the images still seem to vibrate with power.

Once we were back down the mountain and had changed into dry clothing, we set off towards Underberg to meet up with George and Colleen. We tried to take the unimproved road that skirts the very bottom of the mountains. But it was so rough that we were afraid of blowing out a tire, so we turned back towards the highway. Along the way we spotted a blackbacked jackal running across a field, a lucky sighting of a normally nocturnal animal.

We arrived at Castleburn just in time to toast the sunset (which we couldn't see in the rain) with champagne and look for the otters that live in the lake by the resort. After the best showers we've had in months we joined George, Colleen and the girls for dinner. Colleen's curry and her youngest daughter's bread alone were worth the drive to get there, and we still had the prospect of making it to Lesotho in the morning to look forward to.

The next morning the sun finally peeked out. Within a few hours the mist had burned out of the valley. Colleen called to tell us that the trip up the Sani Pass was a go. We grabbed a few extra layers of clothing, binoculars, two cameras and a three day supply of Diet Coke (emergency rations) and hurried over to their chalet.

As we headed towards the South African border post Sarah, Colleen's eldest, attempted to teach me some basic conversational Zulu. My attempts to speak Zulu cracked up the girls, particularly as my mouth, of its own volition, kept pronouncing the words with a bad Italian accent. I'd better stick to the Afrikaans phrases that Colleen has taught me.

After stamping out of South Africa, we followed the road up the mountain. All around us were undulating green hills, leading up to soaring pinnacles of rock. The scenery was just breathtaking. It was also very windy as denoted by Sten's backward lean in the above photo. Each time we stopped to take photos, Abigail, Colleen's wild child, entertained us by wriggling out through one of the rear windows.

The road was also breathtaking. It is little more than a one lane gravel track, switchbacking its way up a deep valley and then up the mountainside. At one point the road was so steep that six of us had to get out and walk so that George could get the vehicle up the track.

As we ascended, we passed a pair of Basotho shepherds, leading a flock of goats down the mountain. We also passed a quartet of hikers, who seemed ill-equipped for the trek in trainers and running shorts - but who are we to criticize? Our hiking gear usually consists of flipflops and baseball hats.

The top of the mountain is a cold, barren, windswept place. The Basotho we saw were all wearing knit ski masks to keep warm, not the woven straw hats sold in the tourist shop. It is so windy that the outhouses are held in place with guy wires. After getting our passports stamped at the border post we hustled over to the Sani Top Chalet for hot soup and toasted sandwiches.

The view from the top

After lunch we cleared back out of Lesotho and headed down the mountain. As we descended, Colleen spotted a wreck of a vehicle that hadn't managed to stay on the road, a chilling sight that served as warning to take it slow on our way back down.

Back in Castleburn, Colleen prepared some veggies, George fired up the braai, and we opened some wine and revisited the highlights of the day. After dinner the girls attempted to educate Sten and me about South African rock and pop music. And then somehow we ended up pushing back the furniture to clear room for some tradititional Afrikaner dancing called sokkie.

The following morning I discovered that it is dangerous to fall behind on a "wee walkie" with George and Sten. As I was wheezing my way up the hill, gathering wildflowers, the two of them started to plot an ascent on the ridge above us.

"The view from the top is unbelievable!"

And suddenly a two hour hike turned into a five hour long expedition. The steep climb up to the ridgeline was difficult (particularly for me), but once up there, the going got much easier as we followed a game trail along the edge of the ridge. The grasses and flowers up top were so varied and beautiful that we were all stopping to check them out.

By the time we reached the serpentine stream feeding the waterfall that we had seen as we began our walk, we were all parched. As we lapped water from the stream, we spotted little frogs and caterpillars among the grassy riverbanks. Meanwhile, George began to plot our descent.

We picked a spot and began to ease ourselves down through the rockfall just below the ridgeline. As we navigated our way among the boulders on tired legs, I found the going to be incredibly difficult. George and Sten kept stopping to wait for me, resting as they did. But by the time I reached them, we needed to get moving again. Finally, I had to just stop and rest. I was afraid that otherwise I was going to make a mistake and end up spraining an ankle.

How do I get myself into these situations?

George pushed on ahead, scouting a good route down. Sten waited just below, to keep an eye on my progress. Then, as I bent down to tie my sneaker, I caught sight of a pair of reedbuck, a medium-sized antelope, running across the valley below us, likely flushed by George as he descended into the valley.

Our impromptu trek ended with us staggering through waist-high grasses that in times past would have held leopard and other such beasts that would find us a mere snack. Luckily, by the time we got back to the chalet, Colleen had some fab fried pancakes ready to cook for Sten and George, who by this time were famished. I was too close to hurling from exhaustion to partake. We had a most excellent time in the Drakensberg and really appreciate George and Colleen letting us crash their family vacation.

1 comment:

Drakensberg King said...

What a lovely story. I live in these mountains and am just crazy about them. we have a guesthouse near to giants castle in the Central Drakensberg. Here are a few other great resorsers if you ever visit the region Drakensberg tourism accommodation, hiking trails and Drakensberg information and then there is a free drakensberg tourist map available for download here.