A brief story about the 1999 Drakensberg Trans-Frontier Challenge.
(First published in the Mountain Club of South Africa Journal 1999.)
The objectives: To set a documented and challengeable record for the Drakensberg “Grand Traverse” from Mont-Aux-Sources to Bushman’s Nek.
To raise awareness of the Moloti-Drakensberg, Trans-Frontier Project.
Time taken: 4 days 9 hours and 39 minutes
A personal challenge.
A personal reflection.
The air was perfectly still as we tumbled out the 4×4 at Sentinel car park. Darkness all around with only the faint outline of the Moloti range showing to the west. Probably the first vague hints of an approaching summer dawn. There was not the hype one feels before a major marathon but rather the inner excitement of mountaineers before an alpine climb. The time was just before 4 am on Wednesday the 24th of February 1999.
We slipped around the outside of the car park fence to the far side gate, our official starting point. A few photos taken with the flash bulb dazzling our unaccustomed eyes and we were off, at exactly 4 o’clock. We soon settled into an easy pace behind the bobbing pools of light thrown by the head-torches. Soon the chain-ladder was behind us and at 6.23am we were at our first “check point” on the summit of Mont-Aux-Sources.
By midday we were having lunch overlooking the back of the Mweni Cutback. Things had gone well so far, but were soon to change. Later that afternoon as we climbed the valley behind the Saddle, Robin began to struggle. Not through lack of fitness but rather the result of dog bites he had sustained some 10 days before, while on a training run in the Sani Pass area. He was out running on the south side of Hodgsen’s Peaks when a pack of ten hunting dogs from a nearby kraal had attacked and bitten him all over. One bite was particularly bad on his right thigh.
Now as we approached the Cathedral area the combination of the wounds and antibiotics began to tell. We camped early at an overhang of rock in the Kwakakwatsi River and close to Easter Cave. Robin wisely decided to pack it in and descend the mountain the following day via the Mlambonja Pass.
The next morning, Thursday the 25th Lawrie and I said goodbye to Robin and were off by 6:30 am. Ahead of us were still many kilometers of rough going and due to our forced early stop the night before we were about 4 hours short of our objective for the first day. We had intended getting to Organ Pipes Pass.
By 9:40 am we were on top of Cleft Peak the second “check point” and then had lunch at 12:30, halfway up the Yodeler’s Cascades. We summitted the third “check point”, Champagne Castle at around 5pm. A thunderstorm was lashing the peak and there were some tense moments as lightning struck the surrounding high points.
Soon it was time to put some of our long-standing plans together. Realizing that in order to cover the distance we would have to hike at night, and so we had timed the challenge when the almost full moon would be rising soon after sunset. This we figured would be more economical than trying to get up very early in the morning and having to walk with out the aid of the moon.
So we walked until dark, then had supper near The Ape, waited for the moon then continued toward Mafadi and bivvied at 11:30pm, two kilometers short of the summit. The next day dawned sunny and bright and we were on our way by 5:45 am, passing the fourth “check point”, Mafadi, before descending into the valleys behind Langalibalele Pass. These huge valleys give fast and easy access to Giant’s Castle via the Jarateng valley. By 3 pm that day we were on the Giant’s summit and the fifth “check point”. Then heading inland down the Mokotlong valley we encountered more bad weather but this time far worse and more prolonged. As darkness fell, wind, hail and rain battered us from the east and swelled small rivers into raging torrents. Our only consolation was that in this heavily populated area there are well-trodden paths and our progress was still good. We bivvied 12:30am, at a major confluence of the Mokotlong and another large river.
After a dreadful night spent sleeping in wet grass we saw that the river we needed to cross was still very high from the rain the night before. We moved up stream by one kilometre to where it forked and managed, with difficulty to cross the now two smaller streams. A long slog saw us at the sixth “check point” on top of Thabana Ntlenyana and then down and across the Sani Flats.
Since leaving the summit of Giant’s Castle I had had two open blisters. Now many kilometers further on they had in turn caused me to walk with an un-natural gait, which in turn caused a cramp in my left shin muscle. The pain began to get unbearable and would not be relived by trying to walk more naturally. I downed muscle relaxants and Lawrie carried my backpack for part of the way, to our supper stop on Sandleni Buttress. After dinner and making a few cell phone calls to friends and family staying in a resort near Underberg, we trudged on in the darkness till 12:30 am and bivvied behind the Rhino. Here we were both feeling the effects of the rigors of the past 4 days and in addition I vomited, probably due to taking to may muscle relaxants.
Our final day started at 3 am following the rivers and then compass bearings around the back of the Mashia Peak area. Then as daylight arrived we descended the long valley behind Thaba Ngwangwe, then on to Thamathu Pass summit “check point” and down the Berg to Bushman’s Nek police post. The official finnish being the first gate one gets to off the double perimeter fence. The time taken 4 days 9 hours and 39 minutes.
As there have been many other supposed “records” over the years for this traverse we set out to lay down some definite rules so that our time can be challenged and compared to others trying to better it. Previously two parties have set times between Mont-Aux-sources and Sani Pass. Although the idea of doing this is fine, this shorter “challenge ” does not comprise the whole of the Natal Drakensberg and is not what is commonly called the Grand Traverse.
The Drakensberg Trans-Frontier Challenge (now known as the Drakensberg Grand Traverse) has the following criteria: Absolutely no seconding or re-supply by food dumps along the way, challengers must summit the “check points” mentioned in the account, including decent via the Thamathu Pass. Our party left small aluminium tags at the points.
Originally the intention was to jog much of the way and we had trained to do it in this manor. However due to not being used to the altitude we found ourselves managing only to walk at a fast pace. Rucksacks were between 11.5kgs and 16kgs in weight. No tent was carried or sleeping bags. Nights were spent in bivvy bags and polar fleeces. A stove for hot meals was taken along. Three people started out. Robin Gardner (46) Lawrie Raubenheimer (45) and the writer, Gavin Raubenheimer (34).