It’s been a tough first day of hiking, with the sun beating down on us all morning. My Zulu guide Sipho isn’t one for talking much. Nor has he been keen on stopping. So for the past 3.5 hours we’ve pressed on to the Grotto, a dampened cave in South Africa’s Royal Natal National Park.
As someone unfamiliar with local weather patterns, I’d have looked up at the bare sky and assumed the 34-degree heat would continue unabated for the remainder of the day. But when brooding clouds poke their brow over the escarpment rim above us, Sipho creases his brow.
“I’m worried about them,” he says. “I think we will make it back to the lodge before it rains, but only just.”
It’s best for us to get moving again, in any case, he adds.
The first heavy raindrops fall shortly after we begin our descent from Surprise Ridge back to my lodgings in The Cavern Drakensberg Resort, bordering the national park. The rush of water against our skin is a welcome respite from the baking sun, yet the smouldering humidity means it’s still too suffocating to put on rain jackets. I nevertheless tuck my camera away inside my backpack as a precautionary measure.
The thunder that’s been rumbling in the distance grows ever louder. But it’s the lightning that concerns Sipho. “Shepherd boys are always getting struck up here,” he says. “And because we are warm, it’s risky being on these slopes.”
He starts trotting downhill, urging me to keep up. Mud clings to the soles of our shoes as the clouds empty their loads. When we arrive back at the lodge we’re both soaked to the skin, and I’m exhausted from hiking through the heat without resting. Back in my room, I’m immediately lulled to sleep by aching muscles and the sound of pouring rain pounding against my roof. Two hours pass before I rouse again.
One small step for mankind
In 1941, when Jim Carte settled on farmland high in the Drakensberg Mountains, near South Africa’s border with Lesotho, he promptly set about luring his sweetheart Ruth to join him. At the time, he couldn’t have foreseen the legacy she’d leave.
When the property proved unsuitable for farming livestock, it was Ruth who saw its potential as a guest retreat backed by sustainable principles. Seventy-five years later, after tennis courts and bowling greens and horse stables and the like have been added, the family-friendly resort’s 80 rooms and suites are almost always fully booked.
But it’s more than facilities like trampolines and playgrounds for kids, or conference rooms and libraries for adults, that guests return to year after year, for there’s an authentic old-time feel about this place. Visitors mingle over aperitifs, play board games and team up with strangers for trivia nights. Wholesome Hollywood films play in a movie room most afternoons. And evening talks about the mountains’ geological history or dinosaurs that once roamed these parts are often scheduled.
Formally dressed waiters serve morning and afternoon teas every day and a long list of activities ensures that no one can possibly be bored. Racquets available for tennis matches and towels for those who want to laze beside the swimming pool are readily distributed. Guided short and long walks to caves, lookout points and forested enclaves each morning are heavily patronised.
Surrounding it all is a natural amphitheatre topped by 2000-metre mountains. Beyond that escarpment ridge is unoccupied land belonging to the neighbouring province. And the property’s western boundary abuts the World Heritage-listed Royal Natal National Park, containing southern Africa’s highest peaks, an amazing diversity of plant and animal life and a bunch of faded bushman’s paintings that are thousands of years old.
In 2006, The Cavern was awarded the status of Site of Conservation Significance, a title given only to places contributing significantly to nature conservation. The qualifying criteria included geological, floral and faunal attributes rarely found elsewhere. More than 20 birds and 35 tree species found on the property are endemic to South Africa, and a miniscule chameleon that’s common to these parts is confined entirely to the Drakensbergs.
Added to that are the owner’s considerable efforts towards providing better education for children – black or white – who live in the area. Ten local crèches benefit through teacher training and workshops, equipment maintenance, games and the gifting of breakfast porridges, while just outside the entrance to the resort is the Royal Drakensberg Primary School – set up in 2006 so that the Carte family’s own children could attend alongside the offspring of resort workers and those from regional villages.
It’s guests like me who help fund these initiatives when we stay at the resort. But while the knowledge that our accommodation tariffs are contributing in some way towards the betterment of mankind, it would be false to suggest that it is our primary objective for being there. For some, it’s the relaxed atmosphere that lures them back again and again. As for me – and other likeminded souls – it’s the chance to enjoy a little comfort at the end of a day spent hiking or biking through these majestic mountains.
Onwards and upwards
My stay at The Cavern is part of a bigger World Expeditions program combining hikes around different parts of the Drakensberg Ranges with various walking safaris in the Greater Kruger region. For a week or so I’ll hike up into the highest echelons of these ‘Dragon Mountains’, a named coined by valley-dwelling Afrikaners who looked up and likened the range’s seesawing outline to that of a dragon’s back. For now though, I’ll be focusing my efforts on hiking over the lofty peaks and the jagged ridgelines immediately surrounding the resort.
At times I’ll stay within the confines of the property boundary and on other occasions I’ll sneak outside, into Free State province or to the national park. Of all the routes mapped out from The Cavern – and there are too many to count – it’s the one they call the ‘Big Five’ that is considered the most challenging.
The name of the resort’s toughest hike invokes images of lions and elephants that once roamed these hills, and when I first hear about it I imagine wildlife viewings figuring strongly. But the hike’s title is instead derived from the five peaks wrapped around the resort along the escarpment rim.
The challenge heaped upon resort guests is to attempt to summit them all in a day, and I duly arrange for Sipho to collect me from my room for the hike before dawn the morning after our sodden walk to and from the Grotto. Unlike our previous day, we’re accompanied by one of Sipho’s work colleagues this time. Dumisole tells me he was only employed at the resort a month earlier and that in that time, he’s completed most of the hikes on offer. The Big Five is his last remaining conquest.
“I want to finish it today,” he says, “before 2pm.” It’s then when he’s scheduled to start work.
It’s still dusky when we pass through one of the last remaining patches of uncleared forest in the area, immediately behind our lodgings. On a still morning it would be deathly silent in here amongst the towering Cape ashes and lush tree ferns, but on this occasion the forest canopy is restless from the blustery winds. Only later, when we emerge from the darkened forest to climb towards our first peak, Hlolela, does the wind reveal just how strong it is.
A howling northerly that I’m later told reaches speeds of more than 70km/hr whips across the ridges and over open grasslands. I’d be uncertain about continuing upwards if I was alone, doubtful about what the weather would hold higher up. Only last year, an Englishman was blown off these mountains while hiking on his own. Helicopters were drafted in to try and find him.
If it’s windy down here it must be worse higher up, yet Sipho seems confident that the winds will curtail once the sun eventually rises. His assertions prove to be inaccurate, however, and the climb to the top of Hlolela gets increasingly hairy. Our altitude is starting to suck the breathe out of me, despite the wind ramming oxygen down my throat. And if I open my mouth, my cheeks fill with air, reminding me of when I’d stick my head outside a car window when I was young and frivolous. A dog would love it, but it’s wearing thin on me now.
The mountain’s Zulu name means ‘a kind of beautiful’, yet that beauty is lost on me in such precarious conditions. At one point, after marching on ahead, I’m surprised to look back and discover Sipho and Dumisole crawling up on all fours, gripping onto clumps of grass in an effort to anchor them against the wind. Only the narrow gullies we scramble up provide temporary relief.
More surprising is when Sipho and Dumisole confess to being nervous. If that’s how they feel, then I should be shitting myself. I have no doubt I’d have given up by now if I were alone. “Have you ever turned back?” I ask Sipho.
“Never,” he says, puffing up proudly. “Not once in seven years of guiding.” And he’s not about to alter that.
All of us are pleased to reach the summit of Hlolela – at 2127 metres, the highest of the five peaks – just after 7am. Our main purpose for setting off so early was to try and beat the heat and at this rate, we’ll be back at the lodge in time for lunch. That, Sipho admits, is what he has his mind set on.
Summiting our second peak is a doddle compared to Hlolela, where an easy descent through treeless undulations morphs into a moderate climb up the eastern face of Battleship. Sipho had planned to stop for breakfast here, on a rock platform sculpted with natural pools called Venus’ Bath. But the wind kills that idea and we search for shelter behind a rock.
All around these mountains are rusting barbed wire fences, a lasting legacy of the Apartheid era when blacks and coloureds weren’t free to move between provinces. A fence just back from this ridgeline marks the boundary between KwaZulu-Natal and Free State, with others erected between the Royal Natal National Park and what was once farmland.
We traverse the pyramidal Sugar Loaf next, and then Cold Hill. Icy breezes freeze this mountaintop in winter like no other, hence its name. Not today though. The sun is already biting. And it’s barely 9am.
In the distance is the top of the Maluti Mountains that include the Sentinel and a spectacular five-kilometre-long escarpment known as the Amphitheatre. Both exceed 3000 metres, and in the days ahead I’ll hike to each of them. More pressing right now though is the thought that there appears to be no way down from Cold Hill except that from which we’ve come.
At first glance the escarpment drops away fiercely. Take a few steps forward though and the way down becomes clear. A steep, zigzagging trail known as the Devil’s Staircase delivers us onto some open grassland where shepherd dogs yap excitedly.
We’re back on Surprise Ridge when we gain our first view of Cannibal Cavern, the landmark from which our lodgings are named.
After clinging to fixed ropes on the descent through Cavern Gap, we stop to snack inside this gaping cave. Amazizi fugitives sheltered here when the armies of the warrior king Shaka Zulu swept through their valley 200 years ago, killing and stealing everything in their path. But without sufficient food, they were left with no choice but to dine on each other.
At the cave’s western end is a breezeblock shepherd’s hut, with straw covering a dirt floor so that livestock can bed down here, safe from the jackals and hyenas and leopards that stalk these hills at night.
Camel’s Hump, our last peak, is smaller and more isolated than the rest, with clearer views across flowering protea woodlands further down the valley. Nestled in the in the upper folds of that valley is our resort, where promises of cold drinks and shelter from the wind await. There, we’ll eat our lunch. And Dumisole will get to work on time.
• South African Airways has daily flights from any capital city in Australia to South Africa. Passengers fly via Perth to Johannesburg with same-day connections to 29 destinations on the African continent. Go to flysaa.com.
• World Expeditions’ 11-day Drakensberg and Kruger Walking Safari costs from $3190 per person (departing Johannesburg). More information at www.worldexpeditions.com or 1300 720 000.
Mark Daffey hiked in South Africa courtesy of South African Airways and World Expeditions. This article originally appeared in Wild 158.