An American in Kwazulu-Natal--7 Inspiring Drakensberg Days

05 Jun 2017 17:32 #71697 by MTHiker
This post is certainly long-overdue, but better late than never, I suppose.

Several of you may remember a post I put up a while back (December, I think), requesting advice on a trip to the Drakensberg from the States. What transpired behind the forum scenes was a long series of emails between me and one of your own, singlespeed. Eventually, in true American Grit fashion, I wore him down and he offered to take me out for a trip and arrange another trek with other Berg enthusiasts. After months of anticipation, I have now returned to the US after my treks in the Berg, five days in Cape Town, and an additional five days in London after the British Airways flight cancellation meltdown. I write here to share some thoughts and observations on your magnificent natural resource, in addition to the obligatory photo montage.

My first sight of the Berg was on the bus from Johannesburg to Pietermaritzburg, whereupon I was struck by the realization that the escarpment is, in fact, as tall as it looks in photographs. I instantly engaged in the appropriate denialist mentality as I recalled that my backpacked weighed 22.3 kg at the airport, without all my food. It was an anxious ride to Maritzburg, as you can imagine.

We set out for the Berg the following afternoon in the vehicle that most Americans dream of every African adventure beginning in – singlespeed’s 4x4 Land Rover. The approach to the Berg reminded me of the approach to the Rocky Mountain Front in my native Montana – a sheer escarpment of vertical rock. Unlike the Rockies, however, the Berg appeared to have no puncture points from which to approach the top.

Our plan of attack, as singlespeed explained to me, was to get a few kilometers up into the lower Berg from the Didima Camp, make camp for the night, then head up Organ Pipes pass in the morning via the Windy Gap (Notch?). There was some slight concern about the potential for a snow-jammed pass and deep snow along the top. Our objective was then to traverse the top, with some exploration, and return down via Cockade Pass.

All in all, we had a fantastic trip, although with some sore feet and hips due to the obscenely over-packed kit that I carried, which certainly slowed us a bit. There was minimal snow (no deeper than the knee), up through the passes and along the escarpment, though it did get a bit chilly and windy at night. Cockade Pass additionally proved challenging, though not for the anticipated snowfall, but rather due to particularly overgrown brush along the stream and the trail. We circumvented this obstacle by contouring through the grass higher up, eventually joining the contour trail.

As we trekked, singlespeed (an ecologist for those of you who don’t know), went into great detail about the different ecological regimes, conservation-related issues, and the challenge of preventing invasive species (particularly pines). This was all much to my delight, as an Earth Science PhD student also very interested in topics related to wildlife conservation and habitat preservation.

A second trip, this time with papadragon, was equally as exciting scientifically (and a little more in my field of research), as we trekked into the southern Berg departing from Bushman’s Nek and stayed two nights in Tarn Cave. During the day, we spent much time observing the strange sandstone formations just across the border in Lesotho, in which I took great delight. Again, a beautiful area (albeit much different landscape), perfect weather, a great cave, and excellent company!

The past two weeks in Cape Town, London, and now back home in Boston, have given me much time to reflect on my journey. From the perspective of this outsider, and in particular as a person who grew up in a region famed for its wild spaces and wilderness areas (Montana, USA – think Yellowstone National Park), I was struck by how largely-intact the Drakensberg’s ecosystems are. Much of the American wilderness suffers from tree die-off, habitat loss or change due to invasive species and climate change, and, in the particular case of the American grasslands, the absence of native species due to cattle grazing and crop farming.

The Drakensberg presents an increasingly-rare opportunity to preserve one of the Earth’s great natural areas, with continued work by those who care about it. I couldn’t help but wish that the US had a wilderness like the Berg—so empty but still cared for by a devout group of individuals. Unfortunately, much of our wilderness is no longer wild, and this is true globally. Of all the areas I’ve worked in as a scientist and trekked in as a tourist—from Patagonia to the Sierra Nevada to Iceland and everywhere in-between—the Berg is without doubt the most dramatic in its verticality. There is, additionally, something very special about its light. (Ask singlespeed about how I rambled endlessly about the “golden hour”). I’ve never seen a sunset (or sunrise), like those looking over the savannah from the steep exposures of the northern escarpment or the endless savannah of the southern berg. I know I don’t need to say it to the users of VE, but take if from a person whose country’s landscapes are less than pristine: the Drakensberg is worth the hard work necessary to preserve it. What a treasure you have… I have no doubt that I will be back. I’m the proud new owner of the “Barrier of Spears” book, acquired at a hole-in-the wall bookshop in Kalk Bay.

Below are a select few (of the 1500) photos I took, converted from .raw file format. If you’re ever looking for advice on trekking in the States, feel free to contact me. I am also tentatively planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies—Waterton Lakes up to Banff and over into BC. I look forward to meeting more of you on my next trip to South Africa!





















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05 Jun 2017 17:56 #71698 by elinda
Thank you MTHiker for a wonderful write up and beautiful photos. I am so glad you enjoyed your time in the Drakensberg and your sentiments underlined and reminded me again what a treasure we have in our Berg. It made me feel very proud! Thank you too to Singlespeed and Papadragon for taking you out and showing you a little of what these mountains have to offer. We hope you will be back soon...........
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05 Jun 2017 18:39 #71699 by ghaznavid
Thanks for the writeup, I think we sometimes take these mountain for granted, great to have an outside perspective every once in a while!

Ps. good choice of passes, I don't think there are many loops as scenic as Cockade and Organ Pipes :thumbsup:
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07 Jun 2017 19:04 - 07 Jun 2017 20:08 #71708 by Papa Dragon
MTHiker, it was a pleasure and an honour to take you on our hike.

Good company, and I enjoyed showing you a different part of the Berg to your first hike. I gained a lot of geological info from our hike too. As I said to you, it's great to hike with scientists, as one gains a perspective that had not been given much thought before.

Our easy chats on wide topics, from culture, cuisine, politics, use of our common English language, quite a few others, and of course the Berg, were stimulating and interesting.

Hopefully we'll hike together again on your next trip to SA

A couple of my pics:






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10 Jun 2017 20:00 #71719 by Serious tribe
So glad you enjoyed our part of the world, the berg is certainly a treasure worth looking after. Your more global perspective is quite refreshing. I suppose we sometimes take it for granted that you can walk for days and not see another person.

I was fortunate and privileged enough to have some of my photographs included in the latest Barrier of Spears, they are the image credited to Karl Beath. Not many, as the Pierce men were fantastic photographers, and it was this book in fact that really ignited my desire to photograph the berg almost 26 years ago.
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