Old Ballies in the Berg

2008-11-28 00:00

Willem’s bald pate appeared to glow in the gloom of the pass, a homing beacon for the rock that was tracking left, now right down the slope.

That it would end embedded in that pale pate seemed inevitable. He was aware of the rock’s passage but was, understandably, giving most of his attention to his fraught movements across the scree that had recently been overlaid by a small landslide.

He didn’t want to set it off again, rumbling and tumbling down the pass with him the doomed passenger. None of this was supposed to be happening of course; not rocks embedded in skulls, treacherous scree, or the vile cold wind that was increasing its intensity every metre we ascended.

I had begun the hike with the story fairly settled; ballies walk up the Rhino. A safe, easy route to the top of the Drakensberg escarpment. A walk everybody should do once in their lives.

A Comrades Marathon like experience, ten hours on your feet and a challenge to one’s resolve and fortitude. Not for sissies but as we all know there are very few of those left in South Africa and it’s easily done and done in stunning surroundings.

It was some time since I’d been on top of the escarpment, age has affected some of our group and we never seem to go beyond the contour path these days. I’d done the Rhino walk a couple of times in my youth and had suggested it to the lads as a relatively easy way of confirming that late middle age had not robbed our manly powers, yet.

It was a good prospect; a chalet for two nights of unencumbered drinking and Super 14 rugby viewing with the walk sandwiched between. We arrived at Drakensberg Gardens in the early evening, intensely aware of the Rhino. For the final ten kilometres of the journey there it had been silhouetted, sticking out from the escarpment in rude challenge.

We found our chalet and settled in but throughout the process of unpacking the car, finding our way about or later on, going outside for a smoke it was always there; off to the side, dead ahead or over your shoulder; a looming baleful presence. First surrounded by a fiery evening sky – red sky night, shepherd’s delight – and then the sky faded and the peak became a black mass unalleviated by starry brilliance.

We were up before dawn and on the trail as the sky turned a disturbing crimson - red sky morning, shepherd’s warning. The early part of the trail leads to Pillar Cave along a well constructed path with stepping stones for stream crossings and even stone stairways to get you up or down steep bits. I liked the stairs, they’ve got a Tolkeinesque quality, it’s easy to imagine a band of Hobbits jabbering away as they ascend them en-route to an adventure.

The map said three kilometres to Pillar Cave so I was a little disappointed at the hour we took to get there. Maybe we spent too much time photographing the spectacular dawn. Once past the cave with the pillar there is a kilometre or so of uphill walking before the gradient steepens and the Mashai Pass begins in earnest. Soon you are walking over, around and between rocks that haven’t seen the sun for months. There is no reflected light from the valley sides so you move in what is a vast and murky freezer.

We had seen a group of eland in the early morning gloom, unexpected and magnificent and our movements at the lower end of the pass had been flanked by a raucous troop of baboons but now, moving up the rocky riverbed there was very little life evident.

Gus was complaining about this, particularly the lack of birds which are his passion. By chance I noticed a speck scudding across a patch of sky, high above us.

I pointed it out, half in jest but he pulled out his binoculars and began focussing and then exclaiming. The bird had turned and was now moving back to us and better still was joined by a mate. With the naked eye we could now make out the distinctive diamond tails of the lammergeyers.

Almost in salute to our appreciation they gave us a display; soaring, diving and streaking this way and that. Finally they disappeared to leave us to plod onward and upward. That is what the walk had become. At two and a half thousand metres there’s less oxygen to go around so you plod and rest, plod and rest.

Eventually the scree was reached, about fifty metres below the top of the pass. What was new was a slippage of soil that despite the moisture and remnants of snow, here and there, was light and very unstable and had partially covered the scree.

Just how unstable it was became evident when we attempted to traverse it. The cart wheeling rock that Willem thankfully avoided was the last in a number of tense moments, but then fired up on adrenalin he led us up an alternate route at baboon pace, scrambling on all fours over sheet rock and tufts of grass that had looked impassable just before.

Willem’s baboon scramble took us to our last hurdle and probably the only disappointment of the walk. The wind, nonexistent at the beginning, had steadily increased as we ascended and now near the top we were fighting a gale, on all fours.

Standing was dangerous and probably impossible and anyway arms were necessary for forward movement. At one point it occurred to me that with my day-pack on my back and moving in a prone position, I formed a perfect wing profile.

I immediately grasped the grass a lot tighter. Once over the top of the pass the funnelling effect of the wind was lost and we were able to walk almost upright towards the shelter of some rocks.

We had conquered the pass and were on top of the escarpment but there was still a round trip of four kilometres to the peak and back. The peak juts out into southern KZN, joined to the escarpment by a rock abutment that, wide at first, becomes fairly narrow.

We all agreed that given the conditions it would be foolhardy to go anywhere near the peak and the monstrous cliffs surrounding it, so we hunkered down instead and ate our lunch.

We didn’t talk much, the wind was too noisy for any of that but we were able to enjoy the stark, desolate beauty. There was a bit of snow about in spots protected from the sun and wind and no apparent animal life while the only plant life seemed to be the grass and lichens.

Lunch over we amused ourselves seeing how far back we could lean into the wind before the gale could no longer support our weight and we sat down. We didn’t stay too long however, we had over seven kilometres to walk and about 1600 metres to descend and all that before the Sharks ran onto the field to play the Lions and gain the much needed bonus point to take them through to the Super 14 semis.

I’ve always disliked the anticlimax of the descent, departing the wild, free heights for the cloying comforts below but this time around it was going to be a pleasure to leave the wind for Willem’s bottle of single malt and the Super 14.

We made a few wrong turns along the way after not paying enough attention and ended up bashing our way through umtshitshi thicket but eventually we got back to Berg View Chalets and the challenging vista of the early morning was now an affirming reminder of what we had accomplished.

The Sharks did everything we wanted of them and later as the whiskey bottle emptied, suffused in a the warm glow of accomplishment and the comraderie of shared suffering, it felt as if we ought to be making plans for our next walk, the Umkomaas Pass perhaps, or what the hell, Kiliminjaro!

The Rhino is a notable feature of the southern Drakensberg, mostly for its shape and the way it thrusts out from the escarpment rather than its height which at 3051m is two to three hundred metres less than the high peaks around it. Reached via Bulwer and Underberg along the R617 from the Merrivale off-ramp on the N3 (close to Howick) it is a scenic and easy two hour drive from Pietermaritzburg to Drakensberg Gardens Resort, the centre of that development node of the Southern Drakensberg. Accommodation ranges from camping/caravanning to various levels of self-catering resort, hotel and time share. For further information try:

Contact Drakensberg Gardens Hotel at 033 701 1355, fax 033 701 1355, email marketing@goodtime.co.za or see www.goodersonvacations.com. For Underberg Hideaways, phone 033 343 1217 or fax 033 343 1217.

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