Raising the flag

2014-06-19 00:00

BETWEEN 1980 and 1990, my three sons attended Michaelhouse school at Balgowan in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. In 1980, the school fees were R850 per term. I am informed that they are slightly more than this nowadays. The school fees used to come on accounts that were printed in red letters, which matched the red colour of the figures on my bank overdraft.

It was the tradition that, during the time that a boy was at the school, he should, at least once, participate in the organised walk from Balgowan to the Dargle valley and climb the iNhlosane mountain. It took the whole day and parents were invited as well, but I was never able to do the walk in those days due to work commitments.

I recently decided to make up for this and planned an expedition with friends to climb the mountain at the far end of the Dargle valley.

Inhlosane, which is Zulu for “a maiden’s breast” because of it shape, is 2 026 metres above sea level, which is only just lower than Everest at 4 848 metres. It also takes a little less time — about an hour — to walk up than Mount Everest. Good equipment is essential and the right clothes too. One does not want to be seen up the mountains in last year’s fashion.

I wanted to get some of those snow goggles. The ones the male models wear as they gaze into the distance, giving the impression of intrepid pioneers about to go on wild adventures. However, there are not many glaciers in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Undeterred, I visited our local bespoke mountaineering tailors, Bush and Bundu, to get some advice. If I couldn’t have the snow goggles, I felt that a walking stick would give that rugged mountain-club impression. And to my delight there it was — a performance-tested trekking pole, with wrist straps. It had locking expander points, which were, of course, an essential. Add to this khaki shorts and socks and climbing boots, and the haute couture was complete. If we met Ralph Lauren on his way up while we were on the way down, I expected that he would give us an appreciative nod.

The preparation for the climb was pretty intensive and I started accelerating up Boshoff Street to strengthen the ankles, and squeezing the remote on the TV to strengthen my grip for the trekking pole.

We set off on our expedition on a brilliant autumn day and drove down the Dargle valley, with all its autumn colours and the leaves on the trees turning from brown to yellow and deep orange. It was just a glorious sight.

We reached the iNhlosane base camp, otherwise known as the Everglades Hotel, in the evening, where we camped roughly in the deluxe suites, complete with under-floor heating and a wellness and massage centre nearby.

That evening, we planned the ascent in the bar of the Everglades Hotel, an exercise known as gargling in the Dargle. We decided, as pioneers, to plant the South African flag at the top of the mountian, but the only flag we could find was a paper one in a Pina Colada cocktail, so it was borrowed for regimental ceremonial purposes.

In the morning, we all took our pills and checked on the stents. After turning up the pacemakers a couple of notches, we set off, putting our best knee replacements forward. The hotel manager informed us that it takes about an hour to climb the mountain, but having had a look at the team members he adjusted this to “perhaps an hour and a half”.

The first half hour was a pleasant steady climb through the forest at the back of the hotel and mostly in the shade. We emerged from the forest into grassland dotted with proteas, and wended our merry way upwards on the well-defined path. A pair of Francolin broke ground in front of us at one stage, otherwise it was a very peaceful scene. We climbed steadily until we came to the final, very steep ascent.

One member then became dizzy and out of breath. The diagnosis was a toss-up between mountain sickness and the effects of gargling in the Dargle. Luckily, the episode was short-lived and we pressed on up what was almost a vertical climb. I was half expecting to pass the skeletons of Michaelhouse schoolboys who never made it, but there were no signs of the remains of other climbers.

An ominous sign was that a pair of vultures started to circle us. At least, in the delirium, we had thought they were vultures but on further scrutiny they turned out to be a pair of Jackal Buzzards out for some Sunday afternoon spiralling.

To keep the morale of the team up, we engaged in some jolly banter about who was going to be the first to see the maiden’s breast, but on the final assault, the team members started to whine and complain that they had not been sufficiently psychologically prepared for the climb. There was talk of abandoning ship and pleas for oxygen cylinders and to phone 911 to send strong men to carry them up to the top in sedan chairs. As team leader, I took to wondering if the frost-bitten Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes had to put up with this sort of rebellion from his team of commandos as they crossed Antarctica.

Eventually, on the last gasp, we surfaced at the top and were rewarded with the most magnificent views of the Midlands. The panoramic views stretched for miles past Midmar Dam and up into the Drakensberg. It was a clear day and we rested triumphant at the top.

The flag-raising ceremony was carried out with due reverence, and we then cautiously started our descent back to base camp. This was not easy due to the steep gradient and there were a few wobbles on the rocks. Eventually, without even a trip or a roll, we all arrived safely back at base camp — the hotel.

And the time it took us? One hour and 55 minutes by our timekeeper’s watch. On analysis, we felt that we could have done it a bit quicker if there had been less talking and less lying down and calling out for divine intervention. All in all, though, it was a mammarable experience.

Next week: Kilimanjaro.

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