The upside-down Dragon: GT2012

03 May 2012 14:41 #53719 by ghaznavid

A grand traverse is commonly accepted as being one of the toughest hikes that one can do in KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, and the south to north variation is considered to be the harder approach. It requires the ascent of two passes and 30 ridges, the stamina and will power to keep going for 12 days, all this while carrying a backpack that is not nearly as light as one would like it to be.

The following is the story of my grand traverse of the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg in late April 2012 with the Mountain Backpackers club. This was my first attempt at a grand traverse and was the south to north route.

Day 1: A bad start (Bushman’s Nek to Mzimude)

The team
[back row: l-r] Jo, Tony Marshall, Ruan, Ruan, Andre, Ghaznavid
[front row: l-r] Neil, John, Mavis, Lorinda

And we are off, 10 people set off from the Silverstreams Camping site at Bushman’s Nek. 6 members who have completed grand traverses in the past, 4 first timers (including myself). What will this great journey hold, how many of us will arrive at the Sentinel car park, will there be injuries, none of us know. Into the great unknown we all head.

Day 1 of a south to north grand traverse is particularly hard; you have to climb Thamathu Pass – a pass which is “easy” but very long. After summiting it you have a long walk around Thaba Ngwangwe followed by an ascent of the tricky Isicutula Pass. The planned campsite for night 1 was on the Mzimude River – 20km in total with an altitude gain of around 1.2km.

It has been a dry summer – after passing through the border post which is near a river, heading up towards Thamathu Cave (which is near the top of Thamathu Pass) we knew there was probably no water for some way. Water is heavy and our packs must stay as light as possible. I decide not to put more water into my pack, 1.5 litres should be enough.

We head on up Thamathu pass, we stop at Thamathu Cave which is around two thirds of the way up, still no water. A few members of the group are out of water. Jo attempts to fill her water bottle by placing it on a spot where there is a bit of water dripping down. Its going to be a tough day indeed!

After a short break at Thamathu Cave we head off again, and to our surprise there is a small spring just above the cave, all those who were low on water fill up their bottles and we all feel encouraged once more.

We stop to admire the view looking south from the top of the pass, the weathered sandstone of Bushman’s Nek appears on the cameras of many members of our small group. But as always, time is against us and we must keep going. The walk around Thaba Ngwangwe – a freestanding peak on the watershed – it is a long slog but we must keep moving.

Thaba Ngwangwe

As we cross the first proper river for many hours we see a large herd of sheep and goats, and our first Basutho shepherds. They politely ask us for some food and we oblige. John (the hike leader) gives them a cigarette each and Mavis gives each one a box of matches.

As we continue the long slog towards Isicutula Pass we pass a Basuthu kraal, their dogs barking furiously at us, in the distance we see the all too familiar pattern of a dagga farm.

We stop for lunch by the river, only 5km left today. Jo notices that I am not looking very well, she tells me to eat something. I am not hungry. Altitude sickness is a horrible thing, it drops your blood sugar and your appetite, thus making you not want to eat which causes a further drop in blood sugar. A vicious cycle. I force down a few almonds, but they make me feel nauseated. We must keep moving.

We begin the slog up Isicutula Pass, a pass that starts at around 2600m above sea level and tops out around 3100m, but the pass is not as easy as it sounds. Its steep and rocky, there is no real path to follow.

Isicutula Pass

As we start to ascend the pass I feel worse and worse, every few minutes I have to sit down, the altitude sickness is getting worse. John notices that I am falling far behind the group and comes to work out what is wrong, he immediately realises that I will not get my backpack to the top of the pass, but I cannot stay on the pass. He takes my pack and tells me to get to the top of the pass without it. My strength is going with each step I take, every time I stand up I feel like I am about to throw up. I think to myself that there is a good chance that I will be sent down Mashai Pass tomorrow – this could be the end even though it has just begun.

Mavis comes down the pass to see what is going on. She immediately springs into mother-mode and forces me to eat some chocolate. I feel even more sick than before. Every step I take she tells me not to sit down and forces me to keep going. We reach the bottom of the final rock gulley, step by step I feel worse, but I keep going.

Somehow we reach the top of the pass, I can barely open my eyes, my talking is slurred, but we can’t camp here. I try to stand up but I can’t. I try to open my eyes, but I can’t. John realises the severity of the situation, but doesn’t let me know how bad a shape I am in. Then I overhear him telling Mavis that I am in the early stages of hypothermia. John tells the group to head on to the planned spot and he starts to set up his tent on a flattish spot near the top of the pass. He helps me to stand up and I carry my pack the 20 metres to the tent, he tells me to climb inside and get myself warm. It is at this moment that I understand how easy it is for a hiker with the early stages of hypothermia to just decide to die, it’s a horrible feeling but I know that I must stay positive in order to stay alive.

John gives me a hot cup of soup, I force it down my throat. I follow it up with some noodles, but now I have no water left. I allow myself to fall asleep and hope that day 2 will go well.

Day 2: A decisive day (Mzimude to Sandleni)

I wake up and think about how close I actually was to death the previous day. I feel a lot better, but I have not stood up yet. Myself and John are now 2km behind the group, and we have no water. We get up, get dressed and pack up the camp. Under the light of our headlamps we climb over the not very difficult Mzimude ridge and drop into the Mzimude valley.

At the river I fill up my water bottle, eat some breakfast and admire the view of this amazing mountain range – in a valley flanked by many of South Africa’s higher peaks.

This is where day 2 begins – the Mashai ridge, one of the toughest on a grand traverse. Hoping not to hold the group up I head off early, some snow begins to fall on the way up. Cold but determined to prove that it was not unfitness that caused the previous days trouble, I make my way up this ridge. I reach the top, ahead of most of the group. I look to my right and think “with 200m of walking and 30m altitude gain I could stand on top of one of the highest peaks in the Berg”, then I realise that this is a long day and any such climb would be ill-advised.

We descend into one of my favourite valleys – I look at Tsepeng (the 8th highest peak in Lesotho) and I see snow on it. I look at the many peaks I have wanted to climb for years – Wilson, Bollard, Matebeng, Mlambonja, Mashai and I look forward to the day that I camp in this valley and climb them.

We immerge from this area directly behind Rhino peak – the peak that made me fall in love with these mountains. We slowly work our way up this ridge. Two ridges down for the day, one to go.

After dropping down into the valley, preparing to climb our final ridge of the day. I begin to fall behind. A Basutho shepherd comes to talk to me and I stop to listen to what he has to say. He tells me the story of how he used to live in Pinetown, and then asks me to help him fix his cellphone that he left in the rain. A cellphone? Where did he get that from and how does he keep it charged, for that matter who does he phone – there is no reception up there. His timid dog – missing its middle toe on its front right foot – runs behind its master as I try to pet it. The dog eventually works out that I am not harmful and allows me to touch it – that’s my list of things to do in the Berg shortened slightly!

Now a long way behind the group I head towards the No Mans Peak ridge – not a ridge renowned for being difficult – or so I thought!

Step by step I head up this long slow ridge, I look at the two peaks on the edge of the ridge, I immediately think to myself that both are clearly distinct peaks and the slightly lower one deserves classification as a khulu, its disqualification is based on the distance from No Man’s Peak, but it is clearly a separate peak and thus deserves khulu status. I later had a look on the map and discovered that the map does not indicate its height – a non-khulu it shall remain.

Two thirds of the way up John comes up to me and offers to carry my pack, I refuse and he says that that is fine with him. I finally reach the top of the ridge and hear the group arguing about which peak is No Man’s Peak – I point out that the one peak is much higher than the other and thus must be the khulu due to how close the two peaks are.

No Man's Peak

We head down the ridge and come to camp on the river that heads down to Sandleni Cave. The spot has an amazing view and I get lots of photos.

Some time later on the hike John told me that if I had let him take my pack on the No Man’s Peak Ridge he was planning to send me home once we reached Sani.

Sandleni Pinacle

Day 3: Sani and the Blizzard (Sandleni to Senhlohlong)

I wake up at 3:00 and hear the soft sound of snow on my tent. 5:15 my alarm goes off, I look out my tent and the ground outside is covered in snow. Some good photos are coming today!

The sight we woke up to on morning 3

I get dressed and then get out my camera and start getting photos. After a short time I notice the tents are already being taken down and I realise that I have no time to cook my breakfast. I munch down some nuts and get ready to set off.

The Sandleni ridge doesn’t prove to be too difficult, even with the snow. We reach the top and get sight of the mighty South Hodgeson’s ridge – that looks tough indeed!

We descend into the valley near Hodgeson’s and I soon realise that this massive ridge also includes a huge gulley before we even start climbing it. But as always, you just keep on moving forward. On reaching the river at the bottom of the gulley it begins to snow. There is a fairly gentle breeze and the snow is hitting the side of my face – not a blizzard, but I know that if there is a breeze in a small gulley, there is a gale by the top of the Hodgeson’s ridge.

As we climb out of the riverbed the snow stops, it wasn’t a major snowfall, but it was enough to make a hiker cold and wet – especially when you discover that the Solomon Gortek hiking boots you are wearing are somehow not waterproof in the snow.

We stop just below the steep ridge of the South Hodgeson’s Saddle in nice bright sunshine and I make a joke about how some people refer to a blizzard being an event where snow moves perpendicularly to the ground as it falls – it also seems to do this in a gentle breeze. Any superstitious person would say that I should have kept my mouth shut.

As we head towards the South Hodgeson’s ridge the snow starts again, this was combined with a decent wind – I would not call this a blizzard, but the word was thrown around by some members.

Fortunately the snowfall didn’t last that long and we just hiked through it. Slowly but surely I continued to watch my fellow hikers get further and further ahead as I slowly climbed this monster of a ridge. When I reached the top they were all waiting for me, on seeing me they all set off, impatiently trying to reach the promise of a hot fire and a warm meal at Sani Top Chalet.

The South Hodgeson's Ridge

I stand on top of the Hodgeson’s ridge and immediately I feel my feet moving with the snow – fortunately the snow was still soft enough to cushion my sideward fall.

Across the saddle between the ridges we go and onto the side of the North Hodgeson’s ridge we walk. And then we see it – Sani – here comes a lunch break in a warm environment with food which we haven’t had to carry. Although we all realise that our packs are about to become the heaviest that they will be during the entire hike.

As I walk down the slippery ridge towards the marsh just south of our upcoming lunch stop, I talk to Andre – one of the most experienced hikers in the group. He tells me that he is actually surprised that I made it as far as Sani after the start I had, he also points out that I need to start walking faster up the ridges and must stop falling behind so much, or consider leaving 10 minutes before the group so that we can summit the ridges at the same time – admittedly this was a matter of concern on my mind, I hate making people wait.

We reach Sani – one big burger and chips with a nice hot cup of Milo is exactly what I needed. After an hour and a half of warm relaxation on a comfortable chair near the fireplace we set off into the mist of the Sani Flats.

A Basothu dog decides that it should follow us for some time, maybe its not use to being petted and not being shouted at. Eventually we chase it away – a dog always know the way home.

As we approach our last ridge of the day, energised after a full meal, the sky begins to darken and the winds begin to pick up. Surely this can’t be, we have already seen so much snow on this day. As we begin to ascend the ridge that comes before the infamous Thabana Ntlenyana ridge it begins – a full scale blizzard.

What can you do when there are no suitable shelters nearby, just put on your raincoat and hope for the best, exercise is the best way of staying warm anyway.

We complete the ridge and descend to the river in order to camp for the night. All my clothing, other than my shirt is wet – even my gloves. The tents go up and the gas stoves get going. I think to myself how fortunate I am that Jo has given me some soup that she didn’t need – something to warm the hands and the stomach.


Stay tuned for the next instalment of this tale to find out what happens next:
- Will the Ghaznavid be able to keep going?
- Will the team continue to put up with his slow ascents on the ridges?
- Will he manage to cope with the cold weather?
- Will he make it to the end?

The next instalment includes the first member of the team to turn back – will it be the Ghaznavid? Find out, once the next part of the report has been written…

Getting to the top is nothing, the way you do it is everything – Royal Robins

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03 May 2012 22:02 #53729 by Serious tribe
Keep those fingers typing, this is a good blow by blow account. Really enjoyable read while I munch my b/f.

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04 May 2012 05:45 #53730 by Stijn
Ghaz! What an awesome write-up and pictures! Keep it coming... :thumbsup:

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04 May 2012 15:41 #53741 by ghaznavid
Day 4: Thabana Ntlenyana (Senhlohlong to Hlathimba)

Time to get up, I look around outside and see the snow is still in full force. Today is a big day, we climb the highest ridge in Southern Africa and John plans on taking us to the summit of Thabana Ntlenyana – the highest point south of Kilimanjaro.

As we prepare to leave, one of the two Ruans says goodbye and I overhear John asking him if he knows how to get back from here. I know what the group is thinking – they thought the member pulling out would be me.

We all speculate as to why Ruan pulled out, he told us that his ankle was sore, but apparently he had spent the last day asking the experienced members of the group whether or not the hike got easier from here. It was sad to lose a member, but as always, we have to keep going. Time is against us and this is our longest day.

We head off, the long hard slog up the highest ridge in the Berg ahead of us. Fortunately this ridge is fairly gradual, although we all know we must gain approximately half a kilometre in altitude. The ridge proves to be easier than expected – although if you expect the worst, you should rarely be disappointed.

Slowly ascending the high ridge

We reach the saddle through which we must pass to gain access to the northern side of the ridge in thick mist and strong winds. We all take our packs off and walk the few hundred meters required to gain access to the mighty peak. We summit it, there are cairns everywhere, we find the highest cairn and get a group shot, a rare moment to pause and reflect on what we are doing. I get John to take a photo of me standing on top of the highest cairn in Southern Africa and he makes a joke about me being the highest person in Southern Africa – well aside from the drug addicts.

The summit become visible as the mist clears

The view from the summit

No time to hang around – we must move on, there are still two ridges and almost 20kms to cover in the remainder of the day. We start to move off the summit and the clouds start to clear – I look down over the valley half a kilometre below me, what a view!

We get off the icy peak, the mist now completely clear. We get out of the wind we begin to take off our raincoats and jackets – warm sunshine at last. We pause for a break on the slopes of the mountain, I manage to force some food down. Slowly it hits me that I am now acclimatised to this harsh environment, its not so difficult to get food in any more, but I must keep eating, I cannot afford a repeat of day 1.

We head down along the Mohlesi river and I have a realisation – we have completely avoided the Vergelegen region of the escarpment, we were deep in Lesotho and we are now emerging in Lotheni.

A Basothu path leads us around Ngaqamadola Peak (3166m). I want to bag its summit, but I know today is a long day and we have a long way to go yet.

We stop for lunch at the Mohlesana river knowing that we still have two ridges to cross today, and the Litsiketseke ridge is no gentle hill. I decide to take my shoes and socks off, wash the weary feet in the river – this is the first time it has been warm and sunny enough to do this, then I remember how cold Berg water is. It is still nice to get some sun on the feet though.

We begin the slog up the Mlangubo ridge, the guys tell me the ridge is easy, I prepare for the worst, but am pleasantly surprised as the ridge gives up its summit without much of a fight.

As we descend into the Hlathimba valley at around 3:00PM we realise that our goal of passing the Litsiketseke/Redi ridge is not possible, its actually happening, we are about to fall behind the target. Tomorrow will be another long day!

We find a nice camping spot near the river and enjoy the view towards Duart Castle. Neil and I decide to do some exploration of the tops of the nearby Hlathimba passes. We head off towards the south pass.

As we approach the top of the pass we watch helplessly as mist fills the entire valley, but what can we do, the mist will probably clear soon. We make a note of the direction towards the campsite and we look at the passes. So far the visit has been worthwhile. Neil gets cellphone receiption and decides to phone home, I begin to get nervous as the sun sets and the mist thinkens. We had wondered over to the North pass by now.

The top of South Hlathimba Pass

We head off towards the campsite in the planned direction, and then we get a shock as we reach the top of South Hlathimba – clearly our directions where wrong. No compass, no GPS, fading light, no torches, no warm clothes, this may not end well.

I look at my photos of the area, there are two rivers and we are camping near the confluence of them, so if we find them, follow them and can see footprints in the wetlands near them we can get a pointer to the campsite. We walk for a while, no rivers to be found. We then realise that we are on the wrong side of the watershed. We walk across the ridge, but still no rivers. I see a distinctive rock in my photos, but there are about five rocks that may be it. Its official, we are lost.

We take a decision, walk downhill until we find water. I pray for a safe return to camp. Then we bump into a marsh with footprints, but their direction looks wrong so we stay along the river. I whistle, no response. We start to get really worried as the last light of the day begins to fade away.

Starting to lose hope, Neil shouts out “John”, we hear a response “here”, we follow the sound and within seconds we see the silhouette of our fellow hikers. We are back! We soon realise that no one was even worried about us, here we are concerned that they may be coming to look for us in the mist and they don’t even know that we are gone (and yes, we did tell them where we were going before we left).

I get some warm clothes on and enjoy a nice hot soup. What a day! Total distance – 29km and we didn’t even reach our goal.

Day 5: A bad day (Hlathimba to Langalibalele)

One ridge behind – the goal for today is the Bannerman valley. My hopes of climbing Popple may be gone if we don’t reach this valley by the end of the day. That makes this a four day ridge – basically an impossibility considering the fact that all four ridges are big ones.

We head off, the Litseketseke ridge proves to be tough and sustained, but slowly melts away as each step brings me closer to its summit. I reach the top a few minutes behind my fellow hikers. They are all sitting behind a rock band in the sun enjoying the view. I look to my right and see a small hill with a cairn on top, I say to John “Isn’t that Redi?”. He laughs and points to a peak in the distance and tells me that this isn’t anything. Interested in this peak I ask him to check the height on the map, I refer to the scrunched up paper in my pocket and discover that this is the Litseketseke Spur – 3267m, the 38th highest khulu. Not a chance that will go unconquered. Tony and myself climb it, my first GT Khulu!

Ghaznavid conquers the Litseketseke Spur

We soon head off again, walking on the spur of the ridge that is the watershed, Redi getting ever closer. John tells me that if I stay ahead of the group we can climb Redi – the 22nd highest khulu. I reach the base of the khulu behind two other members of the group. Andre and Ruan aren’t interested in climbing Redi so they keep going, the other seven of us start the fairly easy ascent up the final stretch of this peak – having stayed on top of the Litseketseke ridge we are fairly close to the summit of the majestic peak, but lugging up the packs to the saddle is still not easy for us wary hikers.

The bridge between Litseketseke and Redi

Our group summits the khulu and gets a few photos, after some action shots of everyone jumping up to get back to their cameras shortly before the self-timers had gone off.

We keep moving, dropping down past Tarateng into the valley that plays host to the large rocky outcrops of the Tent and the Hawk. The massif of Giant’s Castle paints a large silhouette in the distance on this moggy day, the air is still and quite.

The Hawk, the Tent and Giants Castle from just below Tarateng

We stop for a break near the Hawk and then move on towards the ridge behind Giant’s Castle. As we approach this ridge I see some smugglers in the distance carrying a fresh load of the poison they trade in towards the passes of one of my favourite areas of the Drakensberg.

My Achilles tendons on both sides are beginning to get really sore, every step I take my pack jabs into my lower back, its only day 5 and the pain is already very intense.

The ridge proves to be very long and difficult, I fall very far behind the group. A rather unfriendly Basothu man starts harassing me for food, money, equipment or cigarettes. I give him some of my raisins and tell him I have nothing else to give him. He gets annoyed and drops back. A few moments later he walks behind me and then walks up the hill to harass John. John gives him a cigarette but he still won’t leave us alone.

I catch up with the group and find them at their lunch stop near the river on the north side of the monstrous ridge. The Basothu man is standing with the group. After a few minutes a friend of his who is much more friendly comes and joins him. The second Basotho has two puppies with him – the ladies of the group go crazy and start asking how much they can buy the puppies for – practicalities of hiking aside.

As we set off from this spot it starts getting cold, but wait, where are my gloves – they were in the side compartment of my backpack a few minutes ago. Well now I know why that unfriendly Basothu man walked behind me. 7 days of hiking to go and no gloves, hopefully the snow won’t make a comeback.

We descend further into this valley. John tells me that the Durnford ridge is easy, but as time marches on it becomes apparent that we will neither make the Bannerman valley today, nor will it be an early stop for the day.

We start ascending the Durnford ridge. Every step I take the back of my heels and my lower back gets worse. I think to myself that this is the best part of a Grand Traverse for me to use to pull out, I am half way there in distance so I can say that I stuck with it for a while, and I can go down Langalibalele Pass in the morning, an easy quick route that means I can have lunch at home tomorrow.

We reach the top of the ridge, but wait, that’s not Durnford’s gap, so we drop down a bit and keep going. The pain is excruciating. Is it worth sticking with it and risking a permanent injury? Thoughts of a nice warm bed and a proper meal are racing through my mind as we keep going up, but not finding Durnford’s gap.

In the thick mist we plod on, searching for a gap that must come eventually. Step by step the pain gets worse and we seem no closer to finding the gap. Can I really endure 7 more days of this?

Eventually we reach Durnford’s gap and drop into the Jarding valley. I try not to let on to the group about the pain I am in, I joke about how Bond and Erskine should not both be khulu’s, they are fundamentally the same peak, I get a “nobody cares” kind of response from my wary fellow hikers.

We drop down to the river at the back of Langalibalele Pass and then ascend to the campsite below the ridge that’s home to Bannerman Cave. I am exhausted. In the morning I’ll decide whether or not to keep going.

The group reaching the camping spot for the night, just below Langalibalele Pass


Stay tuned for the next instalment of this tale to find out what happens next:
- Will the Ghaznavid be able to keep going?
- Will the team still continue to put up with his slow ascents on the ridges?
- Will the cold weather return now that he has no gloves?
- Will he make it to the end?
- Will his dreams of climbing Popple be dashed again?

Find out, once the next part of the report has been written…

Getting to the top is nothing, the way you do it is everything – Royal Robins

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04 May 2012 16:00 #53743 by john mark 1
Either you deserve a medal for all this writing or you should be fined for using up so much space!!! :P :lol: . Really enjoying this.Smashing work! Keep it up. Can't wait for the next episode :thumbsup: .

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04 May 2012 18:01 #53744 by intrepid
Go ghaz! :thumbsup:

Take nothing but litter, leave nothing but a cleaner Drakensberg.

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07 May 2012 14:22 - 07 May 2012 14:30 #53762 by ghaznavid
Day 6: Popple (Langalibalele to Leslies)

We wake up to find our tents covered in frost – the guy ropes are still wet from the snow and thus are bent into a shape that will fit into the tent bag. I now realise that the old jokes about folding frozen guy ropes are actually not jokes.

Our tents when we woke up this morning

Today is a big day – will I finally get to climb Popple – the 13th highest khulu. In 2011 I had three failed attempts on this majestic peak. The first defeated by the weather, the second by rock throwing Basothos and the third by an unfit fellow hiker. Could today finally be it?

After the pain of the previous day I got some advice, Lorinda showed me how to tie my shoelaces in a way that my Achilles tendons would survive and Jo reset the straps on my pack to stop the pain that the pack was causing – my pack feels 5kg lighter!

We set off, today has three ridges, Bannerman – a high steep ridge that includes Bannerman Face (3235m) and Sanqebethu (3301m), our route heads through the saddle between these peaks. This gets followed by a drop into the deep valley above Bannerman Pass and is followed by a climb up the steep approximately 450m high (base to top) Popple ridge, and the final ridge for the day will lead us over Mafadi – the highest point in South Africa. Today will be a tough day indeed!

The Bannerman ridge is slow and long, but the crest of the ridge has an incredible view. The very familiar sights of Bannerman Pass, Bannerman Hut and Gypaetus Point quickly find their way into JPEG format on my SD card. We pause for a ten minute break above the high cliffs of Bannerman Face. I admire the view of Popple Peak and notice Mafadi poking its head out in the background.

This is probably the Drakensberg valley I know best, so John asks me to lead the descent and says we will stop for a short break near the river in the valley – finally some sunlight to dry the old tents out.

We walk past the top of Bannerman Pass and Tony makes a joke about pulling out of the hike as he tries to get a photo from a few meters down the pass. There are horses on the side of Gypaetus Point. We reach the river and stop for a brief break.

Popple Peak from the top of Bannerman Pass

I think to myself, I know the way from the river to the summit of Popple, this ridge will be long a sustained and if I take too long I probably won’t be able to summit the peak. I tell John that I am setting off. After walking a few hundred metres I see the group leave their sunny spot on the river. Now I need to keep my pace up, I cannot fail on this peak again.

The Popple ridge is very long and unrelenting. The group is now far ahead of me, I look up at the mighty peak and try to go faster – this is really tough. I look up again and some of the guys are already on the summit, I must keep going.

I am almost on top of the ridge now, I look back at the valley I just came from, Senqebethu is almost at eye level with me – this is high indeed! I look up and see my fellow hikers climbing off the peak, my heart begins to sink, this can’t be happening. I finally summit the ridge and look over the amazing view, so many khulus, many I have never seen from the escarpment before.

I walk to where Andre and Ruan are sitting (neither of whom intended on climbing the peak) and I leave my pack with them. I don’t ask John if there is enough time, I don’t want him to be able to say no. I look up and realise that I must still gain over 50 metres in altitude if I want to summit the peak. Jo tells me to hurry up as I start to walk up the steep slopes. I reach the rock band, I see a route up and I get going. Suddenly I see the summit – I am actually about to stand on top of Popple! I walk to the cairn where Tony is waiting; he shakes my hand and congratulates me on finally summiting. He takes a photo of me on the summit and I joke that my old nickname “Popple” should no longer stick.

Yet again I can’t stay and admire the view, we have to keep going. I quickly get some panoramic photos and count the khulus I can see – 18 excluding the one below me. All too quickly I am off this peak. I will have to climb the Auditor some other day.

The view south from the summit of Popple

We descend and pass the Judge and the Corner. Next peak opportunity is Mafadi, maybe the Injisuthi Dome, and on a slight off chance, the Trojan Wall. We walk along the smugglers path for around an hour and then we begin the fairly gentle ascent to South Africa’s highest point.

About one kilometre into the climb we stop by the river for an hour long lunch break. I use my pack as a pillow and lie down, munching on some cashews as I enjoy the view looking south at the peak I most recently conquered. John shares some tinned ham with the group. He had hidden it near Popple on a hike earlier in the year.

We continue the ascent of the long high Mafadi ridge. The path passes below the Injisuthi Dome and I begin to realise that we will not be climbing the Trojan Wall or the Injisuthi Dome today. As we reach the saddle between the highest and second highest khulus we see a large group of smugglers packing their horses in a small overhang right by Mafadi. Not wanting to get anywhere near them we deviate from the path and head over the ridge above them. Only half our group is interested in summiting Mafadi, the balance keeps going. I reach the summit of the highest point in South Africa. A Basutho on a horse is keeping watch on the summit, he keeps a close eye on us, no food or cigarette requests. We get a group shot on the summit and get going again.

About a kilometre later John asks me if I would like to climb Lithabalong. Naturally I say yes, the group stays on their course, but the two of us walk up a slight incline to a tiny cairn – can this place with a view blocked by a ridge on three sides and a cairn of six rocks be the fourth highest khulu? Apparently it is. Tony comes to find what is going on, I point out that it is Lithabalong. At this point I realise how special Popple actually is, it is one of very few really high khulus with a view.

We follow the ridge and I decide not to ask if I can climb Shepherds Ridge – another statistically significant khulu on this ridge. Three khulus in a day is good enough, I must not fall further behind the group, daylight will soon be fading.

We eventually reach the bottom of the valley, we find a suitable camping spot on the river, still two kilometres short of where we were supposed to camp. We will catch up soon – the resupply is coming up and we cannot still be behind when this happens.

Day 7: That looks like the Yodellers Valley to me (Leslies to Yodellers)

Sunrise on day 7 – the peaks in sight from left to right are Botlolong, Ships Prow and Champagne Castle, all are above 3300m

Today we will be close to the summit of some of the highest khulus – all three Champagne Castle peaks, Ships Prow, Botlolong, Pampiring and the three Yodellers. I am hoping to get some more khulu bagging done, especially after five khulus and Lesotho’s highest point in three days.

We set off in strong winds under a beautiful sunrise. The wind is coming from the South-West, the clouds are dark and big, this could only imply one thing – more snow is coming. We all know that it almost never snows in the Northern Berg out of winter, so we all feel the need to reach Didima soon, none of us want to be in falling snow again on this hike.

We follow the valley past the gully that leads to Leslie’s Pass and we slowly start climbing our first ridge for the day. The wind is heavy and raincoats are worn by all. The ridge we are climbing is not that hard and we soon reach the top of it. We follow the side of the ridge and avoid the loss of altitude as we head past a lookout site overlooking the mighty Ships Prow Pass – I see why people say it’s the toughest non-rock pass in the Berg!

We continue the long climb up the steep ridge, aiming for the top of the Ships Prow gully. My new K-Way hiking pants keep partially falling down and exposing my lower back to my backpack – the aching spot from a few days back begins to ache once more. I had been wearing my First Ascent hiking pants for most of the hike so far and they had been performing well, I thought I should give these pants a shot as we were past halfway – clearly this was a poor call. I will be visiting Cape Union Mart with some strong complaints when I get home!

I meet up with the group sitting in a gap in the rock band – a spot from where they plan to drop into the final few metres of the pass. I tell the guys I need to get changed, I ignore the jokes about how useless some of the guys think K-Way products are, and after finding that my tent is not so waterproof and my pants can’t be worn with a backpack I don’t really have a good come back line.

We head to the top of the ridge – what is that that I see in the distance, it can’t be the Eastern Buttress, its only day 7. It is indeed, the tooth like shape next to it gives it away, it’s not quite the finish line, but I refer to the end being in site, Ruan points out that it is the wrong side of the Amphitheatre, a fact of which I am well aware. It is an encouraging sight either way.

The wind is still howling and unfortunately our route takes us on the not very scenic but very windy side of the watershed. We must follow this ridge for most of the day before dropping into the Yodellers Valley.

We follow the ridge, the wind keeps blowing, but the traverse is fairly uneventful. We pass many khulus and with the time constraints I don’t even bother asking the group to wait for me to climb them. We pass Pampiring – the tenth highest khulu. Next up is the Yodellers peaks. John decides that I can climb Yodellers Ridge Peak – 3301m. I climb it, khulu bagged, but not much of view from it.

We reach the top of the ridge and John tells us to descend into the Yodellers Valley. As we descend I say to Tony that I am happy we are going down this ridge and not up it, he replies that he thinks we are in the wrong valley. We keep going down. Eventually John checks his GPS and tells us that we went south instead of north.

The view from the bottom of the wrong gully

We were going to have an early finish today and finally knock off the deficit which we had since the Litseketseke Ridge, not any more. We turn around and start to contour back up the ridge. We have a good few hundred metres of altitude to regain, each step more painful than usual due to the fact that it was not necessary. Eventually after an agonising half an hour of ascending we regain the top of the ridge and drop down the other side of it. This is much less steep, much easier on the knees.

At around 4:15 we reach a suitable spot – still two kilometres behind schedule, and the resupply is tomorrow so we can’t afford this deficit. Fortunately tomorrow is a shorter day so we should be able to catch up.

As I walk into camp I notice Lorinda (who I have been sharing a tent with) and Jo are looking for something. I ask what is going on. I hear that the inside part of my tent has fallen off her pack. My tent that has only been used eight times is now a rather heavy paperweight. At least tomorrow we can probably loan one of the resupplier’s tents, a good thing this didn’t happen a few days later. I arrange to share a tent with John and Lorinda arranges to share with Andre (both where on their own in their tents).

Day 8: Resupply (Yodellers to Tseketseke)

We set off before sunrise – not because we are setting off before our usual time, just because the Yodellers Valley includes such high ridges on either side that it has shorter days than the surrounding areas. The air is still and quite, no wind. I think to myself how ironic it is that the resupply team will think we have had such perfect weather when we really haven’t!

Today is the day of our second resupply. There had been trouble getting a team together, but once a leader had stepped forward, a team of 17 was put together. The team voted on which pass to use, and a 16-1 vote determined that they should come up Tseketseke Pass. As the norm was Organ Pipes Pass, we had a shorter day planned for today, but with this change in resupply pass we would have a longer day than planned, but still a shorter day than normal. I like this fact, it means that we will be one ridge ahead, if we maintain this lead we can finish a day early – not that I am in a hurry to get off the mountain, but I am looking forward to a hot shower and some food that wasn’t cooked on a tiny gas stove.

The team knows that we only have to cover around 15km today, our pace is slow and excitement for seeing new faces is up. We head down the beautiful, but un-sunny Yodellers Valley. We eventually pass over the small ridge – that we did not have to climb due to special efforts not to drop altitude – and come towards the Thlanyako River. We drop down to the river and stop here for a fifteen minute break. I look towards the stretch of hiking that was my qualifying hike for this Grand Traverse and remember the hike that we had – good memories.

We set off up the valley behind numerous peaks, Little Saddle, Didima Dome, and some others. After about two kilometres we stop again. I take this opportunity in the sun to wash my hair and some clothes. This is a first, we have a warm sunny day, basically no clouds and no wind. And to top it all off, we are in no rush whatsoever. I think to myself how the water levels are so low after having seen the same river in February – this must have been one dry summer.

The rivers are down after the lack of rain this summer

We get going again, we slowly get closer to the Ndumeni Dome, a peak I enjoyed climbing some time back – what a view that peak has, and when a peak has a view, it has a steep ridge. As we reach the top of the valley we start to move closer to the escarpment edge. It becomes clear that the world below is in the mist, but the clouds are patchy, we can see Thuthumi Hut and the hotel, but not much else.

We stop for yet another lengthy break with a view of the Cathedral range, Mnweni and the Eastern Buttress clearly visible in the background. We have cellphone reception and I use John’s phone to SMS home – the first time I have done this since we began.

The view from our stop

We then begin a curious route; Tony says to me “this is what Intrepid always refers to as Smugglers Pass”. Wait, “pass”, I don’t like the sound of that. As we walk out on this exposed side of the cliffs below the Ndumeni Dome it hits me – John is taking us up the final gully of Thuthumi Pass! I watch as this sinks into the rest of the groups minds, most of us are not happy about this. We drop into the proper pass and start the climb over the ridge that proceeds the main gulley of the pass. I look at Organ Pipes Pass and can see why they say that Thuthumi Pass tops out 100 metres higher.

No Point in standing around and looking, I start the slow climb. I am fortunate to see a member of our group is behind me, as long as I finish ahead of him, no one can say that I held the group up. I take many photos as we continue this slow ascent. I take a look at both of the lower Ndumeni Caves – they don’t look very sheltered, but they may be suitable shelter for an emergency.

Surprisingly the top of the pass is reached sooner than expected, maybe the fact that a South to North GT includes effectively going up and down a pass every day for the first 6 days has made this seem easier than it actually is.

The group is waiting at the top, John and Tony are off looking for something and some others are taking a walk to Roland’s Cave. I decide to take this opportunity to climb the obscure unnamed rocky outcrop near the top of the pass. The climb is simple and there is no cairn on top. I name the feature “Ghaznavid’s Finger” and build a cairn on top. I could plausibly be the only person who has ever climbed this unusual feature – it is not high, not challenging and has no view, thus why would anyone else have ever climbed it? After my descent, Tony tells me that I need some lessons in cairn building - a fact that I can’t really dispute!

Ghaznavid’s Finger - and yes I know it looks nothing like a finger...

We drop down into the valley and pass the top of Organ Pipes Pass. I smile as I realise that we are now finally ahead of schedule – the first time since we fell behind on day 4. We walk past Castle Buttress and take a break at the base of the intimidating Cleft Peak ridge. We stop here for lunch. John asks the group if anyone else wants to climb Cleft Peak, and as it is just me, the group decides to take the route around the peak.

We slowly start the ascent of the Cleft ridge. The ridge is long and slow, but our packs are light and we quickly reach the top – well quickly compared to what I was expecting! Near the top I admire the view of the Ndumeni Dome, it is one prominent peak.

As we walk over the long crest of the Cleft Peak ridge we notice some tents in the valley – our resupply team is waiting for us. The faces of the entire GT team lighten up, none more than Mavis whose daughter is in the group. We begin to drop down the valley towards the campsite. As we get close some members start walking up the hill to greet us.

We reach the camp site, we are greeted by a sea of smiling faces offering homemade biscuits and congratulating us on the progress made so far. I think to myself how lucky we are to have such a nice group of people helping us out, they carry our food up a tough pass as a favour to us, and it’s almost as if they are thanking us for involving them, when in fact they are doing us such a great favour.

I finally get to meet VE members Elinda and Redbeard. They ask how the hike has been so far and I tell them of the blizzard, the stolen gloves, the lost tent, the summiting of Popple and numerous other stories of our eventful trip so far.

After reaching camp so early, tents are assembled and many photos are taken. Myself and Neil then head up Tseketseke Peak. As we walk past a large gully I realise that I am looking at False Tseketseke Pass, I then look at the small cairn up the hill and I realise how easy it is to be mistaken as to where the pass actually tops out. I climb the 3024m khulu – the lowest khulu I have ever bagged. The view from the top is amazing, the Pyramid and the Column are straight below me, Cleft nearby to the right, Cockade and the Elephant to the left, the Cathedral range in the distance on one side, the Cathkin range in the distance the other way. It is windy on this peak, but the view has been well worth it.

Surprisingly there is no cairn on the peak. I question whether or not I have climbed the peak I wanted to climb. I then remember the photo on VE showing the false pass the real pass and the peak in the middle. This must be the peak. I build a cairn on the top and get the customary khulu bagged photo. I later checked the map and determined that it was in fact the correct peak.

Back at the camp I get given my resupply packet – I look at my supper for the night with great anticipation. I give almost one kilogram of rubbish to the resupply team, as well as my part of my tent which weighs a further two kilograms. I take my three kilogram resupply and think how my pack is barely increasing in weight, only the weight of the half of Mavis’ tent which I will carry for the remainder of the hike as I share a tent with her for the rest of the trip.

The resupply team is camping with us tonight. One of their members’ tents had been torn by a Berg wind at the base of the pass the previous day, fortunately, like us, they had members who were not sharing tents, so the problem was easily resolved.

I had failed to bring soups on the hike – a poor judgement call on my part. From the first resupply, Jo had given me her spare soups and I had eaten one per night. Last night I ate my last soup. I was very fortunate that Mike (Redbeard) had brought up three spare soups which he gave me, combined with Jo’s two spare soups from her second resupply, that is enough to get me to the finish line without a soup-less night!

A special thanks to the resupply team for all their assistance, not just in carrying up our food, but also for brightening up our hike. A special thanks to Redbeard for those soups – you have no idea how needed they were! A special thanks to Elinda on the offer of the gloves, even though I did not take you up on it, the sentiment was greatly appreciated.


- Will anyone be pulling out at the last real chance to quit?
- Will the weather remain stable for the remainder of the hike?
- Will the possibility of reaching the finish line one day early become a reality?
- Will the new sleeping arrangements work out?
- Will any more khulu’s be bagged as the rugged Mnweni comes into view?
- Will TonyMarshall and Ghaznavid succeed in their quest to find the khulu known as Mahout?

Tune in next time to find out.

Getting to the top is nothing, the way you do it is everything – Royal Robins

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Last edit: 07 May 2012 14:30 by ghaznavid.
The following user(s) said Thank You: diverian, Bigsnake, brio, LouisvV, Smurfatefrog

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07 May 2012 16:19 #53763 by tiska
Many thanks Ghaz. I really enjoy reading all the details. Methinks Ghaz is going to storm the finish line......

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08 May 2012 07:48 #53771 by brio
Replied by brio on topic The upside-down Dragon: GT2012
Thanks for the detail and your insights Ghaz.

I have a question on the pack adjustments you made and the way you redid your laces.
Maybe start another thread?


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09 May 2012 17:55 #53808 by Smurfatefrog
Keep us in suspense here :unsure:
Maybe we need to start some polls

- Will anyone be pulling out at the last real chance to quit?
- Will the weather remain stable for the remainder of the hike?
- Will the possibility of reaching the finish line one day early become a reality?
- Will the new sleeping arrangements work out?
Yes, except Ghaz's gas causing a few raised nostrils
- Will any more khulu’s be bagged as the rugged Mnweni comes into view?
- Will TonyMarshall and Ghaznavid succeed in their quest to find the khulu known as Mahout?

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