A personal account of the Grand Traverse Record event of 17-20 December 2008 in which the ten year old record was finally beaten in a new time of 3 days, 9 hours and 52 minutes.
The record for the Grand Traverse of the Drakensberg has stood for nearly ten years, since Gavin and Lawrie Raubenheimer set a time of four days, nine hours and thirty-nine minutes for the 210km from Sentinel car park to Bushman's Nek police station via six specified summits.
Something in the region of fifteen attempts were made to break the record, including an unofficial race in November 2008, which we skipped due to my hiking pal Stijn Laenen being sick and tired of pushing through pain in adventure races and me not having done any training for it. But the race, perhaps largely by dint of shocking weather, did not produce a new record. Naturally, at times like this, we ask ourselves “how hard can it be? Why not give it a go?”
For five years Stijn and I had discussed strategy, but had never agreed. And then it happened. Upon opening my inbox one fine November morning, there it was! Start at 9am on day one, try to cover a conservative forty-five k's, then settle into the typical berg routine of 4am – 7pm. Brilliant. Let's do it next month.
9am is actually pretty late, and we passed the time by explaining to the warden that the reason we were frittering away precious daylight was because we wanted to get to Bushman's Nek faster than anyone had done before. Whatever. Our goal was to make the first day or so as digestible as possible. Another spoonful of muesli, some stretching, repack the bag and enjoy the view.
A couple of hours in, Mont-Aux-Sources was ticked off, and we were in the Khubedu River valley, the first of many. A green ridge passed, and then another. Time to open the Eat Sum Mors. Another ridge went by. The river curved, and a ridge passed. This could get quite boring. An energy bar. A slog up a valley, a saddle, “Yay! Fangs Pass!” another valley, then a ridge. Some herdsmen ran across from an adjacent ridge just for a handful of jelly babies and a brief conversation through which we discovered that neither party understood the other at all, but that we all liked masweets and that was, essentially, the extent of the agenda that the hiker-herdsmen forum need be concerned with.
After a marathon or so, Stijn's feet were tired and feeling sore. But that was nothing compared to the problems I was having trying the force the white balance on a borrowed point & shoot to reproduce the red in the ominous clouds over Cathedral Peak.
Arriving at nightfall, Easter Cave was a welcome relief. A flat, dry floor and a gorgeous view of the Cathedral range greeted us, and after tucking away some Amarula we slept like doped pheasants for seven heavenly hours. Day two began with a crystal clear sunrise, a preview of things to come. By Cleft Peak, our legs were just about moving properly, and by Champagne Castle, we were again sick of the sight of green grass. At 6:45pm we were standing on top of Mafadi, in the teeth of its ubiquitous freezing wind, which thankfully carried no precipitation whatsoever but did force us down into the next valley where, in a bit of a rush, we chose an absolute shocker of a campsite – your kitchen sink is probably more comfy. Needless to say we felt disinclined to sleep in the next morning. The most important strategic consideration so far had been to simply reach Mafadi with our bodies intact. After a night's sleep the real record attempt would begin.
Day three. The Jarateng valley. Is there a limit to the number of river bends the human mind can process before it explodes? This question, and others such as “how many Basotho herd boys can we actually feed before our rations run out?” were constantly on our minds. Seeing the escarpment edge at last was like reaching an oasis on a hot summer day in the desert, except without any camels or dates. Another green valley.
The Stijn Wall is a delicate thing. It is that boundary in Stijnspace that separates the enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy from the apathy of a drowned garden mole. There appears to be a Stijn Wall somewhere just off the escarpment edge in the vicinity of Giant's Castle, an area not synonymous with Security or Peace of Mind. Hence, brunch on that dramatic summit was a tense affair, with three Basotho spread out and approaching fast and Stijn in a semi-vegetative state, gargling liquorice allsorts. Happily, they must have lost a cow, since rather than chuck us off the edge and steal our biscuits, they just kept criss-crossing the slope and bellowing, before settling down for a timely luncheon.
The pace picked up nicely as we hit the Mokothlong path, the pair of us positively eating Lesotho alive. Our arrogance was rewarded with a pair of identical knee injuries, but with less than twenty-four hours to go there were no thoughts of bailing out and the final elongated climb to the top of Southern Africa was dispatched without drama. In fact, energy levels were still as good as ever, a testament to the value of simply eating a lot of ordinary snack foods.
The elongated descent was not dispatched without drama. In fact, by this time it was dark and there was no moon, so as two little headlamps inched down off the barren summit, lightless Basotho kraals erupted in a cacophony of cat-calling, shrieking and laughter which, spookily, cut out immediately as we dropped out of sight. We were now supposed to be on a cattle path, but by following the GPS we in actual fact landed up in the middle of a swamp band, slipping and falling on our backsides and muttering unpleasant phrases for what seemed like three or four eternities. We probably would have coped better if we'd been looking where we were going, but the lightning show over Mashai was too spectacular to ignore, as was the realisation that yet again, we weren't in it. We found a better campsite this time around, but alas, the comfort was outweighed by the unholy stench of our shoes and clothing which had by then reached hazardous levels. For the third night running, we failed to play cards. Our decision to bring the deck was starting to seem unnecessary.
Now we were determined to finish the job the next day, so we got on our way by 3:30am and were soon on the Sani Flats. A short climb brought us to a saddle near Hodgson's South, where we fired off our penultimate update SMS. By now our knees were a tad puffy, and not bending properly, which is decidedly inconvenient in an event of this nature. Nevertheless we could count on one hand the climbs that remained – No Man's, Verkyker, Mashai, Walker's. We had convinced ourselves that it was all downhill from the latter, which backfired horribly because descent was turning out to be the cruelest punishment for our knees.
The escarpment made a last ditch effort to swallow us alive as we practically wallowed across the mud flats in the Mzimude Valley, but the day's lowlight was Isicatula Pass. It was every bit as awful as we remembered it; a steep, loose, and hellishly hot little gully that transports one from bona fide escarpment to rolling hill country, and it did nothing for our knees.
Five years ago, we'd had to race a thunderstorm across the Thomathu plains to reach the pass, but no such weather awaited us this time. In fact, since setting my altimeter at Sentinel, it had not strayed by more than five meters throughout.
When we reached the pass summit, the cell phones came out for some (almost) victory messages. After wasting a good twenty minutes, we were forced to accept that Bushman's Nek was still some ten k's away, and those turned out to be ten of the most painful kilometers of our lives.
The finish was witnessed by a donkey, since the border was closed. But no matter. A new record was set, of three days, nine hours, fifty-two minutes and fifty-two seconds.
Photo and content credits: Andrew Hagen