The Top

What is it that drives us to reach high places? On a tactical level, it makes sense. Having the high ground has all manner of advantages in a fight or siege. Even on a primal level I can understand it. The very reason the Neanderthal stood up, was to gain an edge in the eternal quest for food by getting a better view of his surroundings. But today? Why on Earth do we risk life and limb to go somewhere that’s hard to access or be rescued from, uncomfortable at best to survive in and usually has fewer amenities than lower down?

The literal top of South Africa is to be found at Mafadi peak in the Eastern Drakensberg, on the edge of the enclosed mountain kingdom of Lesotho (by the way, technically you should climb with your passport just in case you wander off in the wrong direction — spoiler alert).

Another thing you should climb with is plenty of water carrying capacity. Note that I say “capacity”, not “water,” because the Drakensberg is usually quite reliable in terms of water availability. Sheep and wildlife do spoil it a little bit, but nothing a few purifying drops or tablets won’t sort out. The problem when you reach the top, is that it’s the least likely to have water. I won’t bore you with the obvious details of catchment and run-off, but just in case: imagine rain falling on a pyramid. The pointy top is going to be less wet than the ground around the bottom.

Point is: there was less water than we expected and we had several scary moments where it threatened to become an issue. There’s a rule of threes in survival. One can exist three minutes without air (oxygen to the brain), three hours without shelter (heat), 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Give or take a bit (wouldn’t take my chances with that air one), but that’s the fundamentals. We wouldn’t be able to run a marathon at the end, but at least we could be confident that we could go back to the last point we found water, right? We pressed on cautiously.

We met some angels along our path. Fellow hikers pitched up at the bottom of a pass we were meant to ascend and pointed the way. These same angels (having climbed a different way up — suspicious, I know) met us again on top of the Lesotho escarpment just in time to dish out much needed water purification tablets. Shame, they must already have been wondering what the lunch special at St Peter’s was before God extended their mission. “Those lunatics are climbing up the mountain with way too little water. Go help them before they get cholera.”

Water was still a problem, but now it was manageable. We’d survive on dry snacks (can you imagine getting sick of biltong?) and managed mouthfuls of water for 2 days on the plateau. Besides, our goal was literally in sight now. The Injisuthi dome is a prominent feature and just next to it: Mafadi.

[SUMMIT PICTURE]

They say most accidents happen within a kilometer of your destination. That’s because you relax. I guess that’s what happened to me, because this is the point when I tore (or stretched or whatever) my right hip flexer. This is relevant because it explains some stupid behaviour later in my story. Anyway, we made our way to the summit cave and spent the night, morale high.

View from the Upper Injisuthi summit caves

Day 3 of any expedition has always been the toughest in my experience. “Not so with Mafadi,” I thought as we made a quick dash for the summit on the morning of our third day. I was hurting from the previous day, but it was all worth it as we spread out on the summit, arguing over which point really was the highest, finally settling on one and taking pictures.

Left to right: Herman Kalmer (expedition planner), Daniël Cloete (expedition chronicler — me), Philip Harmse and Philip Jurgens

This also marked our first sighting of Basothos — the locals of Lesotho. Primarily, they are sheep herders who spend months on end in the mountains. Generally a peaceful people, there is literally no justification for my fear of them. Yet, there I was, walking down the summit of South Africa, and all I could do was eye three of them suspiciously. When they started calling out to us and waving, I merely waved back and increased my pace, following a rough path we’d stumbled upon. In hindsight, they were probably warning us that we were going the wrong way…

A quick note on navigation in the Drakensberg: when you’re in the valley below, the going is generally easy. You have landmarks, clear topography and rivers to guide you. On the plateau, it can get a bit fuzzy. There are some peaks, but best practice is to stick to the edge of the escarpment until you hit the pass which you’re taking down. This also ensures you don’t accidentally wander into Lesotho. In my haste to avoid the imagined danger of the frightful sheepherders of the Drakensberg, I threw caution to the wind and followed my nose. After about an hour of this, I finally felt “safe” enough to stop for a rest and check the map. GPS Status for Android is a nifty app for hiking in the wilderness. It uses minimal battery and works in flight mode, meaning I used about 10% battery a day, including taking pictures.

When it finally displayed our coordinates, I had to double check. Ah… Right… Turns out we’d been walking exactly due West, straight into Lesotho, instead of North West (more North than West, in fact). Damn. Even if we could walk straight North, I’d added a good hour to our hike. As it was, we’d dropped into another valley and it would take even longer. Oops.

At this point, my hiking partners (understandably) lost faith in my navigation abilities and day three revealed itself to be the horrible thing it was always going to be. Arguing and disagreements ensued and then suddenly… were resolved (I joked that I’d wanted to show them Lesotho since none of them had ever been there — a lie they gracefully accepted). This, more than the miraculous pass discovery and angels dishing out purification tablets, was divine intervention. Tough situations bring out the worst in people. Fear (as illustrated by my great Basotho fleeing of that morning) is never a good basis for a decision. Yet, even though I’d failed spectacularly, I was allowed back into the driving seat.

Long story short, we found the pass. Thankfully, some very enthusiastic hikers had built a veritable assload of cairns. I think it’s safe to say that the lighthouse of Alexandria had required less masonry. Thanks guys.

The long way down

Like many place names in South Africa, Mafadi is widely disputed as the name of the summit we’d left behind us. I’m actually surprised this issue isn’t a greater one. Surely it should be “ANC headquarters” or “Zuma Rise”. You laugh, but it wouldn’t be unique for Africa. Surprisingly though, the alternative consideration is “Ntheledi” which means “makes me slip.” I hadn’t understood the reference up until this point, but on the way down the pass, I sure did. Three times I just barely clung to my trekking poles as the loose gravel gave way beneath me. My partners were even less lucky and there were several thuds and groans echoing through the canyon. Still, the views were breathtaking. All in all, between the steep climbing and spectacular panorama’s, breathing in and out really did become a conscious effort. We were undoubtedly fatigued. Between injuries and getting lost, topped off with a shortage of water, things were getting bad. Something had to give. And then… it did, but not in a bad way.

“WATER!!!” came the cry from our lead hiker. “Running water!!!” We basically fell down the last few meters and bustled about the

Remember when I said there’d be some stupid behaviour later? You thought it was the whole “getting lost” thing, right? Wrong! The injury had been bugging me on the way down and truth be told I was kind of desperate for the whole ordeal to be over. We definitely had one more night left in the valley, but I wanted to get us as close to our destination as possible, especially now that morale was back up. Shamelessly abusing their high spirits, I convinced my hiking partners to press into the night now that “the difficult part was behind us.” Little did I know that, what would later be called “The Night March of Terror and Death,” was a grueling scramble through a not-quite-so-dry river bed. It was harrowing stuff. Half our party was injured and before long we couldn’t bear any unnecessary steps. As darkness fell completely, we were left to the mercy of cairns once more as the two healthy(est) hikers tag teamed between cairns while we, the motley rear, trudged doggedly behind them. Many times they asked “how much further?” and each time I answered “must be another kilometer,” knowing we couldn’t very well make camp in the riverbed. We simply pressed on. Until, our final miracle. “Erm… guys…” one of Philips began, “Can’t we camp here?” It was an impossibility of nature. In an otherwise completely boulder-strewn riverbed, was a 2m x 2m, perfectly flat clearing. In hindsight, it was an utterly retarded place to camp. If it rained even a moderate amount, we’d be swept away in a flash flood. In fact, even rain up on the escarpment (which we wouldn’t be aware of), might have killed us. Well, you know what they say about hindsight — just be grateful you’re alive to have it!

The next day was glorious. We emerged about 100 meters from our precarious camp to find our destination of the previous night. We didn’t even care. Emotions soared as we had a warm breakfast and even swam at the epic marble pools. After this, walking home was almost trivial, “almost” being the operative word here, but I’ll wrap up.

I started off this piece wondering why we climb these peaks. “Because it’s there!” the mountaineer’s adage goes. There are no grounds for me to question their motives and certainly, almost everyone else who’s climbed a mountain is probably more qualified than I am to comment. I will provide an additional reason though, by means of paraphrasing my faithful climbing partner’s words: “It’s not really the mountain which poses the challenge. Our own fears, injuries and even relationships are what can either drive us, or hold us back. We ultimately don’t conquer the mountain, but ourselves”