Double Crossing the Dragon

10 Jan 2017 10:32 #70585 by ghaznavid
Double Crossing the Dragon: Part 1 - Baaaaa'd Caves

In March 2016, while taking a leisurely stroll around the Mnweni Cutback, I mentioned to Hobbit (aka "Hobbitt" or "BergHobbit") that I was thinking about having a go at something that had never been done before – doing two consecutive Grand Traverses. I told him to take a week or so to consider whether or not he would like to join me. It took him about 8 seconds to make a decision. I seem to recall saying something about logistics being easier - which I can say, in retrospect, is not true.

Over the next 269 days, we did 800km of hard Drakensberg training together – aside from hundreds of kilometres of training at other locations. A certain augmented reality cellphone game was used to good effect to track progress of non-Berg training, and I personally clocked up over 1000km of training along the way. We did night hikes, difficult passes, and long days over big ridges. Neither of us had ever trained so hard, and we were both still nervous, but eventually the big day arrived.

We arrived at Silverstreams to be told about a ridiculous price to camp there - so we decided that Bushman's Nek Hut would be easier and much cheaper (not to mention less-crowded and more comfortable). When we asked the lady at the EKZN offices if we could pitch a tent there, she offered us a vacant room in the staff accommodation and was happy for us to stay there for free! Massive thanks to the staff at Bushman's Nek for this - you guys rock!

We paid for our permits for both traverses, and soon ended up preparing for the traverse in a room in the staff quarters. While checking our gear, we discovered that someone in the group had forgotten his food and headlamp at home. I won't say who it was, but I can confirm that it wasn't me :lol:

Early the next morning we drove into Underberg, and seeing as we were there anyway - got some hot chocolate and toasted cheese sandwiches. A chocolate muffin may have made its way into my pack for breakfast the next morning as well.

After some drama with half a cup of hot chocolate ending up on my car seat, we were at the start line at 9:05AM.

The start was hot, the downside of a late start is that it is already hot when you get going.

Thamathu Pass was uneventful, and our pace was good - till Hobbit wanted a break at Thamathu Cave. The water just above the cave was a welcome relief as we had both run out (admittedly having assumed that there would be water at the cave). Weight management is key on a fast traverse (if 6 days is actually still considered "fast") - and water is the easiest place to save weight, if you know where you need to stock up and where you don't.

We took a high trail around Thaba Ngwangwe, and stopped for a quick swim in a pool just before Isicutula Pass.

The pass was slow, but we continued at a good pace. It rained a bit lower down, and began to rain again near the top.

Upon reaching the escarpment, we were greeted by a hail storm and gale-force winds. Being hit in the eye with hail is no fun, and we soon found ourselves wondering what we were actually doing up there! We pushed on, but eventually decided to call it a day 15km short of our goal for the day – finding an unmarked cave at the top of Tsepeng Pass.

We built a rock wall around the cave - I would say it sleeps 4 at a push. It also had a drip that could fill a 750ml bottle in about 2 minutes.

It rained off-and-on throughout the rest of the day, and the cave provided good shelter from the rain and wind. The views were pretty good too.

Day two went much better, we took a line further inland than usual through the Pitsaneng. AndrewP and myself had run straight into a kraal on the south slopes of Hodgeson's, so Mike and I decided to go about 2km east of Andrew's line - only to hit the centre of an even larger kraal. Reminds me of the old Tolkien quote “A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”

After backtracking 100m as some dogs barked, we found a line around the kraal and were heading up the ridge once more.

We took a higher line over the ridge to cut distance, and were out of water by the top of the ridge. Curiously the rivers in the valleys to the north were dry, and we were in no rush to drink downstream of Sani.

The rules of an unsupported GT don't allow you to use taps or ablution facilities, so we painfully walked past the taps at Sani Stones Lodge, crossed the Sani Road and eventually got above the 200+ animals grazing on the river before finding water that looked drinkable. As we went further upstream to find a good hundred more animals, we simply hoped we wouldn't get sick from this water.

We started up the Sehonghong Ridge - an easy ridge, but it was hot and ominous clouds were in the distance. Both of us were questioning whether or not we had actually done any training for the GT. We checked out Sehonghong Shelter and assumed we had the wrong spot as it looked utterly useless (Andrew later confirmed that we had the right spot), so we checked out a cave on the other side of the valley, and decided to spend the night there. We opted to call it Sehonghong Cave. 3 shepherds came to chat to us, and we later realised their kraal was directly above the cave. As the massive storm hit, the cave filled up with goats, which provided a good windbreak in what turned out to be an utterly useless cave. The cave was promptly renamed "Baaaaa'd Cave".

Once the storm was over, we made our way to Nhlangeni Summit Cave (an unmarked cave at the top of Nhlangeni Pass). We had planned to use this cave for night 2, so we were almost back on track - but having failed to bag Thabana Ntlenyana on day two would be costly. We had planned to use the Mohlesi River instead of the Tsolo from here, but now we would have to trek 6km into Lesotho to bag the peak - we estimate this cost us at least 5km in additional distance (using the cave would cost a total of 10km).

We spent the first 2 hours of day 3 getting up that 3482m monster before dropping down the Tsolo. We used Stijn's track to navigate this section, stopping at the confluence of the Mohlesi and Mokhotlong for a swim and early lunch.

The Mokhotlong was, well, hot and long - as usual. The scenery is breathtaking - for the first 8 seconds or so, that is - then it becomes the monotonous boring section it is so well known for being. We took the odd break on the river, the feet were sore enough to justify frequently sessions of putting them in side-streams.

When the 14km of drudgery finally relented, and the Tent finally appeared - we were reminded why Giants Castle is such a pain on a speed GT! The slog up the hill, followed by the long winding traverse to Giants Pass was painful - especially after the valley that had just passed.

We hit the cave at the top of Giants Pass, just in time to sit out a substantial storm. Once it was over, we gathered our important possessions, some food and water, as well as rain coats, and made our way up checkpoint #2. We bagged Giants Pass Peak on the way.

There was a thunderstorm over Lesotho, but we assumed it was far enough away to be safe to head up Giants. Hmmmm - bad call (or, seeing as we survived, good call?). As we touched the summit cairn, we both got a massive static shock. My hair is also standing straight up in the summit shot.

Anyone who has been up Giants with me will know that I am a bit scared of that scramble - possibly something to do with what feels like 1km of air on either side of it. Well, I jumped down in in 2 steps as we literally ran the first 1km off the peak. By now the rain had reached us, with some hail thrown in for good measure.

We reached the cave absolutely soaked (rain coats help for about 15 minutes, but driving rain and strong winds mean you get wet no matter what). This is one issue with ultra-light hiking - no dry clothes are waiting for you back at the cave. So the cave looked a bit like a laundromat - but at least we were back on track.

Despite the cave being well sheltered, the swirling wind and rain resulted in some water reaching the sleeping area. There were lightning strikes all around throughout the night, but the shape of the valley means that the cave should be pretty safe - and the wind dried off the rain as it fell.

Day 4 started quite late. Try motivating yourself to get up before first light and start walking at 4:15AM when your wet clothes are hanging over boulders throughout the cave. By 5 the sun was up and we had to get moving. The wind had dried our clothes and the start to the day was quite pleasant.

I hadn't done most of the Jarateng, and with Stijn's track weaving its way through the kraals, dogs weren't even a problem. There was a berg-adder at 2720m in the Jarateng, but it fled before I could get a photo. Stijn's track doubles back at one point, and the bonus 3km cut off by this actually made us feel a bit better about our progress.

We made good time to what felt like a city compared to what we are used to in the middle of nowhere - and in front of us was something dreadful to see: a trail straight up a steep ridge. We knew Mafadi was only 4km away by track, but we were not even at 2700m. So we knew this would practically be a pass that we must now climb.

We took 2 hours to cover this 4km stretch, but eventually found ourselves on top of SA's highest summit. The Jarateng had been much more interesting than the Mokhotlong - which was something to be grateful for.

As we completed the next valley, we saw a tent on a ridge, and some people dressed quite casually asked us what we were doing. A few days later we would discover that these guys were Lesotho military, but since they were out of uniform, we thought it was just some hikers in a Camp Master tent, so we thought nothing of them. We also bumped into a team of 4 doing a N-S GT over 14 days. below the Starboard Ridge. I am not entirely convinced that they believed us when we said we were also doing a GT...

Champagne is always a big hill, but nowhere near as bit on a S-N as the Yodeler's side is on a N-S, so no stress there. The checkpoint fell easily and we were still feeling strong.

We began the trek to the highway when 3 men armed with rifles stopped us. The proceeded to ask us a bunch of questions, and kept asking why we were being so secretive, even though we answered all their questions. While this was annoying, we tried to be friendly - hard to argue with people carrying large guns. They became a bit friendlier as time went on, and told us that they were from Lesotho military and had been stationed up here. Eventually they agreed that we could go, before one asked if we had seen any snakes, and when I said we had, one replied "you should have gone with it, you white people are like snakes".

We proceeded to Reido Cave for the night - quite a nice cave actually.

Day 5 was largely uneventful, with the fifth checkpoint – Cleft Peak – being ticked off. Cleft is always a monster, doesn't matter how you do it. We had also taken Chris' GPS track to get through the Yodeler's section - I can't stand the Yodeler's Cascades route with all the dogs, and I am convinced the escarpment line through there is actually faster.

We went over Mahout, bagging the khulu seeing as Mike needed it. We decided to skip Easter Cave - 3rd Christmas in a row where I was supposed to sleep in Easter Cave and didn't - it was misty as we climbed the Ntonjelana Ridge, but Chris' track made it easy to find the gap.

We had considered using Ledgers Cave, but decided Nguza Cave would be better, so we bagged Ntonjelana Ridge Peak, which Mike also needed.

I convinced Mike that he would regret missing Ntonjelana Knife - the only non-technical khulu he needed within a 5km radius, so we went up that too.

Nguza Cave was great, easy to find, dry, and near good reliable water.

Day 6 was our earliest start – the end was only 40km away, and a warm meal and proper bed was starting to sound very good! We got to the junction of the river behind Nguza and the Senqu around sunrise, and slowly made our way up to the Cutback Highway.

The highway fell quickly, but Mike was clearly fatigued.

We took a lot of breaks, but we knew the end was in sight and a time of around 122 hours was on, at a push.

Up the Stimela Ridge, a time of 124 hours was still on, but fading fast. And the running joke was that the missionaries who said Mont-Aux-Sources was the highest point in the Berg had been wrong, it is actually the highest point in the universe. With some fudge-bribery, Mike eventually got to the top. His summit shot may be the most forced smile in the history of photos.

We raced down the Chain Ladders and hit the finish line of Sentinel Car Park in a time of 127 hours and 6 minutes. I would put a list of youngest records that Mike earned for that GT - but seeing as very few people have actually done a GT both ways, have done an unsupported GT etc - let's just go with "great job Hobbit!".

We proceeded to get a lift to Witsieshoek only to be told that the kitchen has closed for the day, so unless we wanted the buffet supper, we would have to wait till the next day to get a proper meal.

The next 4 days were interesting. We walked roughly 800m in total. Biomech and Dom came up to collect our gear the day before the second GT (and brought up some snacks for us - you guys are legends!) - and when we all walked to have a look at the Amphithreatre, we all had a good laugh at the fact that Mike and I had literally not even walked as far as the chalet overlooking the mountains to see the view. The cricket had been relatively interesting though, and my audiobook was good...
The following user(s) said Thank You: elinda, Stijn, JonWells, DeonS, GetaPix, Fires, AndrewP, Andreas, Jan, Biomech, Hobbitt, advocate_gerrie_nel

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10 Jan 2017 11:20 #70586 by AndrewP
Replied by AndrewP on topic Double Crossing the Dragon
While Ghaz and Hobbit were resting at Witsieshoek, I decided to have a day in the hills.

I had a big breakfast and then set of at about 7:30 from Witsieshoek itself. I trotted up the road, and used the chance to finally bag Pudding, which I have driven below many times and just never quite gotten round to hiking up. It is a decent sized hill and the cliffs are easily negotiated. I had a good view from the top, but it is much the same as you see from the view points on the chain ladder walk.

While filling in the hiking register at the car park, I noticed that they now sell Cokes!

I had a good run up the zig-zags and then set off towards Mt Amery. I bagged a few summits and key saddles in the area.

Notably, there were a lot more shepards in the area around the top of Ifidi Pass than normal. Some of them gave the game away by asking me if I had seen the soldier. Clearly they still need to graze their sheep, so all that has changed is that they have moved to another spot.

I had hoped to come down Namahadi Pass, but decided to rather come down the Chain Ladders and thus have a shorter day ahead of the GT due to start the following day. Running down the road was probably not a smart move as I had some stiff legs the next day
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10 Jan 2017 11:26 #70587 by AndrewP
Replied by AndrewP on topic Double Crossing the Dragon
Double Crossing the Dragon, Part 2:

Ghaz liked the approach Stijn used for his GT, with a late start. So, we had a big breakfast and then made our way up to the Sentinel Car Park. We took our time signing the mountain register, sorting out our bags and taking the necessary photos. And then at 10am we started out. This is definitely the latest I have ever started a big mission. Ghaz, Hobbit and AndrewP relaxing and waiting for 10am.

We reached the Tugela basin easily enough, and while walking up this towards Mont-aux-Sources, we noticed someone following us. It turned out this was a lone and unarmed soldier. We had a few disagreements about the location of the border, and he seemed to be under orders to keep us out of Lesotho. In the end he decided to accompany us to the summit. Here, we had to change our route a bit to avoid raising suspicions, so we dropped down into the Bilanjil valley and got well out of sight before crossing the ridge into the Khubedu. I used the chance to cross the river high up and try out a potentially shorter route on the true left of the valley.

We continued along the speed GT route, getting gentle rain as we passed the Fangs Pass area. Bigger storms could be seen in every other direction, so we were lucky to only catch the side of one.

The Mnweni Cutback soon passed by and by the time we reached the Senqu River, it was dark. Even with the water levels as they are, it is still possible to cross the Senqu easily, with dry feet. We then headed up towards the escarpment and found Nguza Cave. This is more of a narrow tunnel and it was unfortunately rather wet, both from drips and a wet floor. None of us slept well that night.

We set off at 4am and completed the Ntonjelane Ridge before it got light.

We just never really got going and our pace was far too slow all day. I found this really difficult – it is not fun plodding along slowly when you know you can go faster and also that you have a very late night lined up.

I sneaked in the summits and key saddles of Elephant and Tseketseke Peak and we all had a short rest on top of Cleft Peak. We saw several lammergeiyers flying around us both here and also near Elephant. Perfect weather from the summit

Ndumeni Dome passed by quickly enough and we rocketed down the hill on the other side to get to a good pool in the river for a lunch stop. It was rather warm by now so we all washed off or had a swim.

The hike up the Didema Ridge was steeper than we expected and thus a bit slower as well. The Yoddlers Ridge presented good weather for a change, and we reached Champagne Castle easily enough. Dropping down past Starboard, Ghaz suggested we have supper now instead of waiting for the cave. That made sense so we spent the last of our light munching away.

We set off again with headlamps, target Upper Injasuti Cave. As we were passing Ape, we encountered a group of 4 soldiers. They asked lots of questions, mostly to make sure we really were hikers. I had my passport with and thus had an easier time of it than Ghaz or Hobbit. Eventually everyone was happy and we could proceed into the darkness.

The hike up the ridge between Leslies Pass and Injasuti Pass took forever and we reached the cave much closer to midnight than planned. Some very kind soul recently cut a lot of grass and laid it out on the floor of the cave, so your gear no longer gets a dumping in the gastly ash.

We set out at about 5:30 after a short sleep, but fortunately much better than the previous night. We crossed over Mafadi, playing the usual game of hunt the summit cairn. We dropped down towards the dogs of the Jarateng and made jokes about my GPS waypoint called “Big Rock”. Well, it is a big rock and a path starts next to it, so why not name it accordingly?

We passed fewer dogs than expected and as we entered the Jarateng itself, tried out a slightly longer but dog free variation Stijn used years ago. We encountered a few dogs higher up the valley, but dodged most of them and were soon above the kraals. The final few km of the Jarateng always take forever and then of course you have to grind over Long Wall with a sagging spirit.

I had by now decided to not do a second GT as my return to my car and was now playing a game of hang in there.

Ghaz suggested we stop for the night at Giants Cave which I found much more appealing than a post midnight trip to Nhlangeni Cave or a bivvy in the Mokotlong. We took a slow hike up Giants itself and I used the cellphone signal to catch up on WhatsApp messages.

That night we made us of the extra food I had with me (I had catered for a return GT as well), and we all had a cooked and warm supper and some tea. We slept well on a clear night.

Next morning we set off really well, and by just after 7am had cleared the Mokotlong itself. It was really lovely to do this while it was still cool. We started the big climb up towards Thabana Ntlenjana. Ghaz noticed that clouds were now hugging the escarpment in that familiar way of summer.
I bagged 2 minor summits along the way and we all reached Thabana Ntlenjana’s summit at about 11am

We stopped in the Sehonghong valley, but some shepards arrived and just would not leave us alone, so we moved on a bit before stopping again 200m later. Mist now settled in and shortly afterwards a thunderstorm broke on us. This is fine, it is summer so we carried on, despite getting rather wet. The usual sun and dryness did not follow though and by the time we were approaching the Sani Road, it was obvious we needed to get out of the wet. Ghaz and Hobbit were both soaked and I only got through by using 2 rain coats, one inside the other. This had me mostly dry but still pretty cold, so it did not take much for us to agree to go straight to Stones Lodge for the night.

Here, we found warm showers, a fire and some guys who insisted on giving us tea, coffee and leftover rice and beans. Yummy and warm. We dried our stuff out before going to sleep in warm, soft beds.

Next morning Ghaz wanted to set out, but Hobbit and I slowed him down just enough to point out that it was still damp out there. We changed our plans to go to Sani Lodge first to get a weather report and a possible day out of the rain. We had to move anyway as our cash was used up and Stones does not take credit cards. We spent a day in Sani Lodge, having a good breakfast and lunch before heading over to the backpackers for the night. There was enough rain that day that we were very glad about our decision.

Next morning we got up and it was dry but very cloudy. We decided to go for it! We took a detour round the upper end of the Pitsaneng river to ensure a safe crossing in the expected (and actual) high river levels. Somehow, the expected rain did not come, and we kept up the fastest pace of the trip so far, even though we had 6 ridges to cross that day. Towards the end once it was obvious that we were going to make it, I used some time to get the summit and saddles for Mzimude. We found a really good line round Thaba Ngwangwe and were suddenly looking at a possible sub 127hr finish. I had hoped to get the saddles of Bushmans and Thomato passes, but skipped those in favour of a run down the hill. Yes, Ghaz can actually move fast if we wants to.

Luckily the river at the end presented no problems, but with only a few minutes to spare, we all just waded across in our shoes and socks.

We got to the finish at 16:55, and thus got a time of 126 hr 55 min.

Well done to Ghaz and Hobbit for a back-to-back GT.

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The following user(s) said Thank You: elinda, Stijn, JonWells, ghaznavid, MarkT, tonymarshall, Fires, Andreas, Jan, Biomech, Hobbitt

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10 Jan 2017 11:56 #70588 by ghaznavid

AndrewP wrote: Yes, Ghaz can actually move fast if we wants to.

I think it depends on how you define "fast" - 6km/h average pace from the south side of Thaba Ngwangwe to the finish (10km) isn't terrible, but I can't do that for a full day, or over big hills.

The GPS track says we did 4.4km/h overall average on the last day, 50km with about 1h20 in breaks. Quite happy with that.

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10 Jan 2017 12:04 #70589 by ghaznavid

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10 Jan 2017 12:07 #70590 by ghaznavid

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10 Jan 2017 12:09 #70591 by ghaznavid

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10 Jan 2017 12:12 #70592 by ghaznavid

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10 Jan 2017 12:15 #70593 by ghaznavid

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10 Jan 2017 12:18 #70594 by ghaznavid

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