Mountain man

2008-05-21 00:00

Two Dutch tourists, Laila Sardha and Michel van der Heijden, were standing with me in The Oaks car park near Monk’s Cowl prior to setting out on a walk with our guide Sibusiso Dlamini. Hanging above us in the startling blue sky of early winter were the peaks of the central Drakensberg. Dlamini introduced them along with their respective heights: “The big flat one, that’s Cathkin Peak at 3 149 metres, to the right Sterkhorn at 2 973 metres. There over to the far right is Gray’s Pass, which takes you on to the top. I’ve done it 180 times.”

Dlamini has been guiding since 2000 and runs Umphafa Drakensberg Tours, which offers guided walks “from moderate to strenuous” as well as overnight trips. He’s based in the wooden house at the Monk’s Cowl car park which also serves as an outlet for local crafters and their work.

Umphafa Drakensberg Tours is a co-operative. “There are 16 of us in all, although only three are available full time to guide,” he says.

“I was born in the valley,” Dlamini told me later, pointing out the house where he was born in 1975. Thereafter he attended the Champagne Valley School and later Estcourt High School. “I didn’t do matric, instead I did N3. I thought office management and business skills would make it easier to get a job.” Pause for wry smile. “But for two years, no job.”

Then the local council and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife combined forces to encourage entrepreneurship among local communities within the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and the adjacent Cathkin Local Authority Area and offered tour-guiding courses. Dlamini grabbed the chance and duly did a training course under the auspices of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the heritage body Amafa. He’s since completed the NQF4 tour guide course and is now aiming at the qualification that will allow him to train other guides. He also wants to get involved in education among the communities that border the Berg. “There is a need for education. They see cars and tourists drive through their villages on their way to the Berg and they have no idea what it is all about, and how they can benefit.”

Dlamini’s clients find him via flyers in local hotels and bed and breakfasts. “Many of my clients are people I have met previously,” he says. “I gave them business cards and flyers to take home and sent e-mails to let them know what I’m doing. Now they are coming back. I’m just about to run a four-day trip to Lesotho with a chap I met back in 2002.”

Our morning walk would take us to Cow Cave and include the Makhulumane Trail through mist-belt forest. As we set out across the Mpofana River, Dlamini tells me: “This isn’t a job, it’s part of me. Sometimes I take a pack and go off by myself into the Berg for four days. There is a great energy up there.”

When Dlamini goes off alone he usually takes a book — on flowers, birds or animals — to improve his knowledge. “It’s good to go up in different seasons and see what the different vegetation types are. I like to camp at Zulu Cave which has a waterfall over it. It’s a good place for meditation.”

Dlamini has built up a formidable knowledge of the Berg that includes its history as well as an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna. He’s a walking apothecary when it comes to indigenous plants: “This is wild rhubarb. The bulb is good for the bladder and for pregnant women. It’s good on the day of delivery as it eases the pain.”

Wild dagga is used to calm the nerves. The Drakensberg, called uKhahlamba, the Barrier of Spears, by the Zulus, is famous for its spectacular lightning storms. “If you get nervous of the lightning and thunder you take it [wild dagga] as a tea. And the bright orange flowers are good for sore throats, just like Strepsils.”

Much of Dlamini’s knowledge comes via his 95-year-old grandmother. “As a little boy I would go with her into the veld and she would say pick this, pick this. When we got back home she would prepare them and tell me their properties. She taught me how to use them.”

Take white lavender: “It’s good for headaches — you burn it and inhale the smoke. If you are tired you put it in the bath and soak. It is also burnt to invoke the goodwill of the ancestors.”

The ancestors did not feel far off as we stood below the Bushman paintings at Cow Cave. There, painted beneath a rock overhang, is a virtual field guide to the animals of the Berg: red hartebeest, reedbuck, impala, bushbuck, red rhebuck, grey rhebuck, baboons, eland and one solitary Nguni cow.

“The Nguni cow symbolises the Bushman’s relationship with the Nguni people,” says Dlamini. It also helps date the painting to the time of the arrival of the Nguni 800 years ago. That was the beginning of the end of their way of life as the new settlers pushed them towards the mountain fastnesses. “The Bushmen didn’t know anything about ownership of land or animals. To them everything belonged to God, including the cattle. That’s when the trouble started.”

Dlamini pointed out that many of the animals in the paintings are depicted with their tails raised up. “Do you know why? It’s a sign that they are breeding. The San people had a vast knowledge of the environment. They knew that when animals were breeding it was time to leave them alone. It’s important to allow animals to breed so there will always be something to eat. But other settlers didn’t have a clue. They started killing animals when they were about to breed and the animals began to die out.”

Stark evidence of the destructive capabilities of humans were evident on the Makhulumane Trail through the mist-belt forest. A sign directs you to “The Giant Yellowwood”, the sole survivor of 19th-century logging operations. “This one survived the loggers because it was growing on a ledge and they couldn’t build a pit under it,” says Dlamini.

Saw pits were dug under the trees after they had been felled and two woodcutters, one atop the trunk, the other below, used a two-metre long saw to turn the trees into planks.

The Cow Cave walk (rated moderate with a couple of steep bits) takes around three hours. As we returned Dlamini explained that the name of his guiding company. Umphafa, is the Zulu name for the buffalo thorn tree or wag-’n-bietjie which has distinctive thorn arrangements: one pointing forwards, the other backwards. “King Shaka used it as a symbol,” says Dlamini. “The forward one means never give up what you’re doing; the backward one, never forget your origins.” It’s a symbol that Dlamini brings vividly to life.

How to book

You can book guided hikes with Umphafa Drakensberg Tours by telephoning Sibusiso Dlamini at 078 739 2904 or e-mail buffaloguides@ lantic.net

The tariffs are set according to distance and time for the various trails on offer and are set to a minimum of six people per party. A party of fewer than six people is subjected to a minimum charge. Fees for large groups are negotiable.

For long day and overnight hikes you must book in advance.

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