On Sunday 2010/12/05 at 04:00 Louwtjie Van Straaten and myself Gavin Bazley left the Sentinal car park and started a 228km journey on foot. We were attempting the Grand Traverse Challenge.
The Grand Traverse challenge started for me during late 2008 when I first heard of this challenge. It was during this time that I started reading trail reports written by people who had completed this challenge and also a few reports by people who had failed to complete this challenge. My initial challenge was to find someone who would be willing and able to accompany me on this challenge. I had quite a few interested individuals but as the months went on so they pulled out for various reasons. Finally Louwtjie Van Straaten agreed to attempt the Grand Traverse with me.
In December 2009 I heard of Danel Prinsloo and her illness. Danel Prinsloo is a young woman in Eshowe who is suffering from bone marrow cancer. After hearing of Danel Prinsloo and the fund which had been set up for her, Louwtjie Van Straaten and myself decided to use our attempt on the Grand Traverse challenge to highlight the plight of Danel Prinsloo and in so doing raise money towards the Danel Prinsloo Fund.
When the SAPS Womens Network heard of our planned challenge a meeting was held and it was decided to make our challenge and attempts to raise money for Danel Prinsloo a SAPS Womens Network Project. Louwtjie and I would do the Grand Traverse and the ladies of the Womens Network would raise the money for the Danel Prinsloo Fund. Members of the Womens Network planned 3 wellness walks for members of the SAPS throughout the Kwazulu Natal Province where money was raised for the Danel Prinsloo Fund. These walks raised R7 589-00. Captain Tienkie Van Vuuren played a big roll in collecting these funds and should be commended for doing so.
On the Wednesday the 1st of December 2010 Tienkie Van Vuuren planned a fund raising dinner for a number of businessmen and businesswomen in Eshowe. The businessmen and businesswomen of Eshowe were asked to sponsor Louwtjie and myself on our attempt to do the Grand Traverse. All sponsorship would go to the Danel Prinsloo Fund. This fund raising dinner raised a further R 7 500-00.
Finally Sunday the 5th of December arrived and Louwtjie and I set off on the Grand Traverse. We said goodbye to our Support Team who consisted of my wife Adele Bazley and Tienkie Van Vuuren.
The Support Team left Sentinal car park and drove to the finish, Bushmansnek Border Post. They were to wait for us at the finish and while we were up in the mountains they were to monitor their cellphones wait for any calls from us. They were our lifeline to the outside world and more importantly our line of communication to the Mountain Rescue guys.
Months of training were now being put to the test. For the last 12 months I had undergone a strict twice a day, six days a week exercise program focusing on strength and endurance.
At 06:46 am that morning we reached our first summit Mont Aux Sources, took the necessary photos and descended to the Khubedu valley, we followed the Khubedu valley up river and crossed into fangs valley. Most of the day consisted of either ascending mountains or descending into valleys where we would once again start to ascend the next mountain in our path.
We trekked the whole day until about 19:30 pm where we found ourselves on the Ntonjelana ridge. It was dark moon and as soon as the sun set, the mist came up the escarpment and even with our headlamps we couldn’t see more than a metre in front of us. We had no choice but to set up camp where we were.
We wanted to travel as light as possible so we had no tent. Instead we had survival bags. The problem with survival bags is that everything inside the survival bag sweats and gets wet.
After we had settled into our survival bags on Sunday night, light rain began to fall on the Ntonjelana ridge this rain fell for most of the night. Monday morning at 03:45 am we woke up with wet clothes, wet sleeping bags and wet gear. We packed up and continued with our trek. We hoped that the sun would come out so that we could dry our sleeping bags, clothes and gear.
Unfortunately the day was characterized by thick mist and rain. We continued with ascending then descending mountains and valleys, all of this in thick mist and rain. Both Louwtjie and myself were miserable and cold. When we got to the Cockade Pass area we were having problems finding Cleft Peak. It was during this struggle and wet, cold weather that our spirits were at one of the lowest levels during the trip and I really felt like giving up. It was in this cold and wet weather that I realized that the hardships that Louwtjie and myself were enduring were nothing compared to the suffering and hardships that Danel had to endure. If Danel could withstand these hardships then so could we. Many times in the following days I would have to remind myself of Danel’s plight and thus motivate myself to continue.
We continued blindly and somewhat “lost” through the mist. At about 10:00 pm we heard voices. We followed the sounds of the voices and came across a group of hikers who pointed us in the general direction of Cleft Peak.
After much climbing, map reading, and praying eventually through the mist we could see the distinctive shape of the Cleft Peak summit. Once we got the peak in our sights it wasn’t long before we had reached the summit. At 11:43 am on Monday the 6th of December 2010 Louwtjie and myself reached the summit of Cleft peak.
It was still very misty and wet and it didn’t look like it was going to clear up for the rest of the day so we decided that we would try and find Thumeni caves and then use these caves to dry our gear and clothes. Finding the caves in the thick mist and rain was posing a problem for us.
At about 13:00 pm and close to Organ pipes pass we heard some more voices, we followed the sound of these voices and came across another small group of hikers who welcomed us into their camp with a hot cup of coffee and rusks.....delicious! Wynand from this group gave us some directions to Thumeni caves, we exchanged email addresses, said our goodbyes and continued our search for Thumeni caves. At about 15:00 pm we found the Thumeni caves.
After some exploration we found the top cave to be the driest and decided to overnight in the top cave. We laid out our gear and clothes in the cave and by sunset our gear and clothes had somewhat dried.
Thumeni cave was more like a wormhole. You couldn’t stand up in it. The roof of the cave was about a metre high, the width of the cave was also about a metre wide, it was about three metres deep. I crawled in first and lay with my head in the deepest part of the cave Louwtjie crawled in after me and lay with his head at my feet and his feet near the entrance of the cave. Once darkness had set in there was nothing else to do but eat and sleep.
We left Thumeni cave at about 04:30 am on Tuesday morning. The conditions were still misty but we had much more visibility than we had, experienced the day before. We had decided to try and make up for the distance lost the day before and so we pushed hard.
At 13:09 pm on Tuesday we reached the summit of Champagne Castle. No sooner had we reached the Champagne summit and had taken the customary photographs that we left and pushed for Mafadi. We fast trekked around Ships Prow Pass and into Leslies valley at Leslies pass we took the ridge of the escarpment and trekked hard to the summit of Mafadi. At 18:35 pm we reached the summit of Mafadi. We had no time to lose from Mafadi we had to push on to Injisuthi cave before dark.
At about 19:40 pm darkness fell and we had not reached our destination. With the help of my headlamp I consulted the map carefully we then navigated carefully in the dark and eventually found the entrance to the Injisuthi cave. At the Injisuthi cave we found another small party of hikers who welcomed us into the Injisuthi cave with a hot cup of sweet tea. As soon as we had drank our tea and eaten some rations we got into our sleeping bags and went to sleep.
Wednesday morning saw another early start and before we knew it we were hiking up the Jarateng valley. At 16:39 pm on Wednesday the 8th of December Louwtjie and myself reached the summit of Giants Castle. About a kilometre from Giants Castle we found a ledge overhang. It was under this ledge that we decided to camp for the night. The ledge was less than a metre deep. When we lay under this ledge only our heads and chest were protected by the ledge. The lower part of our torsos and legs were exposed.
We had no sooner got into our survival bags when we were hit by a hail storm. Within minutes the bottom parts of our survival bags were covered with white hail stones. Later on that night we were hit by another hail storm and for the rest of the night it rained on and off through the night.
On Thursday morning we woke to a clear blue sky and good spirits. We trekked down into the Mokhotlong valley where we had good trails to trek on, we trekked at a fast pace. At 15:20 pm we eventually reached the summit of Thabana Ntlenyana which is the highest peak in Southern Africa, south of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was at the reaching of this summit that my spirits were at there highest I screamed for joy and knew that nothing could stop me from finishing this journey. I told myself that from here on in it was downhill to the finish.
Louwtjie and I left the summit and set a hard pace. We trekked hard the whole afternoon. When we hit the Sani flats we broke into a run. By nightfall we came across a mission church on the Sani road. We found the caretaker a Basutho who spoke almost no English and with hand signs and some basic English words we had negotiated a place to sleep for the night.
We could sleep on the floor of the mission station, at least we had a roof over our head and would at least remain dry throughout the night. We went to bed with high spirits as we were sure that we would be at Bushmansnek by the end of the next day. This hard flat floor was the most comfortable sleep we had since the start of the challenge. The previous nights we always had a rock or two sticking into our backs while sleeping.
The next morning, Friday the 10th of December 2010 we left the mission station at 04:10 am. By first light we had started the long ascent up the Sandleni saddle, by the time we had reached the top of the saddle the sun had risen above the horizon and before us lay a wide valley with our next way point on the opposite ridge of this valley. The terrain we had to cross to get to the next way point consisted of hard tufts of grass which made the going very wobbly. Fast trekking over this type of terrain is a twisted ankle waiting to happen. These sections of hard tufts of grass were interrupted by soft, wet marsh sections. At this point Louwtjie’s blisters had developed to such a point that if he got his feet wet he would cry out in excruciating pain. The rest of the day was characterized by this same type of terrain, wide valleys, lumpy tufts of grass waiting to twist ankles and wet marshes to aggravate and infect blisters.
As the day wore on the “never say die” attitude that we had adopted the day before slowly started to disappear and a forecast of gloom slowly began to surface at the back of our conscience. We pushed on and remained focused on the end point of this challenge. By about 17:00 pm we had reached the top of Isicatula Pass, the end was in our grasp, I had spoken to my wife Adele who was at the finish and let her know that we would probably reach the the finish at about 19:30 pm. Adele told me that Brigadier Wilson and a welcoming committee of various members and personnel from Eshowe had arrived at the Bushmansnek Border Post and were waiting to welcome us at the finish, much festivities had been planned for the evening. This news of course spurred us on and our spirits soared, we were pushing hard for the finish. It was in our grasp, that night we would be eating a hot meal and sleeping in warm beds.
We arrived at Isicatula Pass and without hesitation (or consulting the map) we started to descend. I had previously heard stories in the past that the Isicatula Pass was a steep technical descent and was scary at times. As we descended the pass it got more technical the further we descended. I thought nothing of this as I heard that it was quite a difficult pass to descend. At one stage as we had descended an extremely technical almost vertical section next to a waterfall and as Louwtjie was trying to pass me our backpacks, the backpacks fell past me and hurtled approximately another 20 metres down a vertical cliff face. Now Louwtjie and I were stuck we were half way down a 35+ metre waterfall, our bags were at the bottom of this waterfall. It was getting dark and cold, all we had were short sleeve shirts and shorts. AIl our warm gear which were needed to survive the night were laying in our backpacks at the bottom of this 35+ metre waterfall. We had no choice, in order to survive the night we had to descend this vertical cliff face.
We descended the cliff face next to the waterfall slowly and carefully ledge by ledge. We managed to retrieve our backpacks just before nightfall. As we retrieved our backpacks we looked back up towards the waterfall and were amazed and dumbfounded as to how we got down this 35+ metre vertical cliff face, we just stared and shook our heads.
After recovering our backpacks I rechecked the map and to our horror I realized that in our haste to finish we had entered the wrong pass. We were actually descending “Walker Pass” and not Isicatula Pass. On closer inspection of the map Walker Pass is not recommended as a pass to be used. Below lay more technical and vertical descents, I realized that there was no way that Louwtjie and I were going to get to the bottom of Walker Pass before total darkness and trying to descend this pass in darkness would surely be fatal. Furthermore there was no guarantee that there we could reach the bottom of the pass even if we had all the daylight in the world.
Louwtjie phoned Captain James Ellis and I informed him on the phone that there was no ways that we would make the finish that night. Within a spate of 30 minutes our spirits had gone from an all time high to an all time low. Less than 9kms away as the crow flies Brigadier Wilson, and a group of friends and colleagues had made the effort to travel from Eshowe to welcome us into the finish of this challenge and now we had to tell them that we were not going to make it to the finish tonight.
After speaking to Captain Ellis, we took out our survival bags, and warm gear, looked for a comfortable spot around the base of the waterfall and prepared ourselves for another cold night in the open. We had thought we would be finished and so we did not save any food for supper. All I had was a mouthful of whey protein which I mixed with water.
It rained for most of the night and we didn’t get much sleep. I spent most of the night shivering violently in my sleeping bag and survival bag. At this point we had no guarantee that there was an accessible route out of Walker pass and onto the finish. Because of the rain and cold weather that night I was awake before first light, I sat up in my sleeping bag, rubbed my hands together trying to generate some heat and waited for the sun to rise.
As soon as there was adequate light I consulted the map again. After consulting the map I realized that if we could make it to the bottom of the pass, we would pick up a hiking trail which ran from Bushmans cave to Bushmansnek Border Post, the finish. We prayed that there would be no obstacles between us and the hiking trail and continued to head down the pass. This time I had taken out our mandatory emergency rope and we used it to lower the backpacks down the more vertical technical sections of the pass.
Eventually at about 08:00 am we reached another 35+ metre cliff, this time I said to Louwtjie that we weren’t going to make it down this cliff. Louwtjie did a recce around the top of the cliff and looked at the descent from different directions and said if we were careful we could make it down. I must admit this was a hair raising section and we were both very nervous. One wrong step or slip and we could have fallen to our deaths. The only other option was to climb back to the top of the pass and that would have been a very long, energy draining and scary ordeal in itself.
We decided to take the gamble and try to descend this cliff section. We descended very carefully, foothold by foothold, handhold by handhold and ledge by ledge. Eventually we reached the bottom of this cliff safely. Climbing down this section I received some valuable life lessons. Firstly, we are capable of overcoming obstacles and achieving goals which we initially think are impossible to overcome or achieve. Secondly that if one remains calm and looks at an obstacle with a logical problem solving mind, then one can overcome that obstacle. Thirdly team work and constant communication between you and your buddy can get you out of a sticky situation.
This was the last vertical obstacle in our path and 15 minutes later we had found the hiking trail from Bushmans cave to Bushmansnek Border Post. Once we had found the path our spirits soared and we headed for home. On this last section the words to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeword bound” resounded repeatedly in my head.
At 10:20 am Saturday the 11th of December 2010 and after 6 days, 6 hours and 20 minutes Louwtjie and myself crossed the Bushmansnek Border gate to finish the Grand Traverse Challenge. There were approximately 12 friends and colleagues to cheer us in. This small group of people made us feel as if we had just run onto the field of a packed ABSA stadium.
For those of you who are contemplating on doing this challenge I urge you to go for it.
Whether you finish this challenge in 2 days or 20 days you will be a winner !.....trust me.