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What is the Grand Traverse?

Written by intrepid

The Grand Traverse is the ultimate mountain-hiking challenge in southern Africa, spanning the entire KwaZulu-Natal section of the Berg. Starting from Sentinel Car Park in the north it ends at Bushman's Neck in the south, after a gruelling 240km and an altitude gain and loss of 26km.

This hiking marathon was first completed in 1980 and has been completed by a relatively small group of people since. Normally it is completed over 2 weeks starting in the north and ending the south, though groups may do it at various paces, some faster, others slower and the route may also be done starting in south and ending in the north. It is necessary to be completely self-sustaining in this mountain wilderness – one has to carry food, tents and other equipment. The weather is harsh, unpredictable and changes very rapidly– one can expect rain, storms, hail, string winds, snow and intense sun. The terrain is hard and difficult to navigate unless one knows the area. Most of the time there is no trail and using a GPS is a big help. There is no official route which defines the Grand Traverse though it is generally agreed that it runs between Sentinel Car Park and the border post at Bushman's Neck. How much one closely follows the escarpment edge as opposed to the valleys and ridges in Lesotho a short distance inland is at the discretion of the participants. Generally Mafadi (highest peak in South Africa) and Thabana Ntlenyana (highest peak in southern Africa) are climbed as part of the route. Some people only traverse up to Sani Pass instead of all the way to Bushman's Neck, cutting out the last 2-3 days – though this is not a full traverse of the Natal Berg.

Typically hikers are re-supplied with food 2-3 times during the hike, which involves another party carrying the re-supply up a pass and meeting the participants at the top on an pre-arranged day. Other less-used options are to carry the full amount of food the whole way, or for the participants to descend a pass to fetch a re-supply which has been dropped off at one of the KZN Wildlife camps at the bottom. Passes which are typically used in re-supplies are Ntonjelana, Organ Pipes, Bannerman, Langalibalele and Sani Pass – though is varies from group to group. Hiking clubs usually have enough fellow club members to find sufficient volunteers to do the re-supplies, though one can hire the Mweni Guides and the Cathedral Peak Hotel guides, and the fact that Sani Pass is a road pass with a lodge on top, makes it very easy for one person to drive up the re-supply.

Planning the route is very dependent on how many days are available, the fitness level of the group, the time of year, the re-supply's (if any) and if one intends to sleep in caves where possible. We suggest taking 13 days since this fits neatly into 2 weeks leave from work (if this is a consideration), taking the first Saturday to drive to the Berg, starting the hike on the Sunday and finishing it on the second Friday (13 days later). The last Saturday can be used to drive home and the Sunday to unpack and recuperate.

A few people compete for the speed record of the Grand Traverse, which currently stands at 4 days 9 hours and 39 minutes (for an account, see the Mountain Club of South Africa Journal 1999). Some guidelines were suggested by the current record holders as to what constitutes the route:

- there should be no seconding or re-supply by way of dumps along the way

- the following check points must be summited:

  1. Mt. Aux Sources

  2. Cleft Peak

  3. Champagne Castle

  4. Mafadi

  5. Giant's Castle

  6. Thabana Ntlenyana

  7. Thamathu Pass and descent via this pass