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Hikes to Change Your Life: Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa and Lesotho
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might be swept off to”. --J.R.R Tolkien
This is the epic tale of my hobbit-like journey through the South African mountain range responsible for the inspiration of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Keep reading to learn how to plan your own hobbit-esque adventures.
I was restless, anxious, itching for adventure, frustrated with myself. I’d been living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa for three months now on a study abroad trip during my junior year of undergrad. As glamorous as it sounds, I felt pent up. To maintain my relative sanity (a debatable claim even at best), I usually need to get out camping at least every three months, so the clock was ticking. With the one 50lb bag limit for my four months overseas, I hadn’t been able to bring any camping gear - I had no tent, pack, stove, or sleeping materials. Totsiens, sanity. I paced the living room of our apartment.
“Hey, look what I found” said Collin, gesturing to his laptop. The shoddy internet had finally loaded the page we’d been waiting on for the past ten millennia. “They provide all your gear, and a guide!”
“Wait, really?” my enthusiasm was palpable. I leaned in, fingers literally crossed, to look at the price.
I did some quick math. (Read: pulled out my smartphone to calculate the exchange rate in USD). $198.35 USD. For three days. Gear, food, and guide included. My heart leapt.
“Totally doable!” announced Collin.
Little did I know, I would be willing to pay my entire life savings (to be honest, that probably not that much more than $200 at this point…) for the hike upon which I was about to embark.
The Details: We booked a 3 day guided hike through the Drakensberg Mountains with the company Soul Adventures for about $200 a person - four of us went on this trip of a lifetime. This fee included gear (a hiking pack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, poles, stove, and tent), all dinners and breakfasts, and a guide.
Transportation: To get from Port Elizabeth (PE) to the Drakensberg, DO NOT DO AS WE DID. We rented a car and drove the N2 (about 13hrs). To be fair, everything turned out just fine and we stayed safe. But upon further research after the hike, we learned the N2 is one of the most dangerous highways in South Africa, especially the section we drove. Not to mention the unmarked speed tables we hit at 100km/hr, my lack of skill with a stick shift on the other side of the road, a zebra whose backside may never be the same, a gaggle of children giggling at the way we asked for petrol, a large yet invisible rock, and one unfortunate cat, RIP. (I won’t admit we drove back through the night...sorry Mom.)
Accommodations: When we arrived in Bergville, we stayed in a backpacker’s hostel called Amphitheater Backpackers Lodge.
The place was fantastic - delicious food, a great bar, and unique atmosphere. I didn’t sleep much due to the heavy snoring from the bunk below me, but woke feeling rested enough to start out.
We were able to contact our guide, Bruce, via a South African phone one of my friends had purchased for the four months (none of us had international service). Bruce met us at our accommodations with a car full of gear and calves as big around as my waist. I tried not to do a double take - this guy was in incredible shape.
Day 1: Hiking the South African Fields
We selected packs, poles, sleeping bags, and pads. Of course, none of the gear was perfect - selecting a well-fitted pack is an involved process, and I didn’t expect to be totally comfortable with a “one-size-fits-all” type of pack. (At this point in my life, I didn’t know the comfort, familiarity, and pure joy my Osprey Ariel would bring me.) We quickly rolled our clothes and packed some snacks. I asked Bruce what we were doing for water - did he have iodine tablets or a filter.
“No - the water’s completely safe to drink - we’ll pass lots of streams.” I looked at my friends, dubious. We’d each stocked up on extra large plastic water bottles at the convenience store beforehand, but there was no way those would last the three days, especially for cooking water. I shrugged. Bruce had been doing this for years with plenty of tourists...hopefully, my bowels survived. We piled into the jeep with our 50+lb packs without questioning the water further.
When we reached the trailhead, Bruce parked the jeep, and I stood breathless at the base of the majestic Burg, feeling as though Gandalf himself had just knocked on my door and pulled me out into a whirlwind of adventure. For a moment, I wished I had a hobbit’s tough hairy feet - I hadn’t been able to obtain hiking boots, and I looked down at my Brooks Glycerins and shrugged - Bruce was also wearing running shoes. We set off.
The first day of hiking was fairly easy - flat and straightforward. The campground for that night was nothing special, still in the bottom of the valley. Small brightly-colored dwellings, called rondavels, brightened the landscape, and small children or men with cattle would trail us as we hiked, staring openly at my hair and asking for candy. I was acutely aware of my white privilege, something I had never felt in a wilderness area before, but was forced to confront and begin contemplating more. Even the name Drakensberg (Afrikaans for “dragon mountain”) betrays the brutal history of colonization and the lingering devastating fingerprints left on the place today. For more on Drakensberg history (in Zulu, one of South Africa’s eleven national languages and the name of a native tribe, the mountains are called uKhahlamba, or “barrier of spears”) you can check out http://drakensberghikes.com/drakensberg/history-and-culture
Day 2: Climbing the Drakensberg Mountains
The second day was the climb. We broke camp late, after a delightful breakfast, as we needed to hike for a total of 4 hours, and fewer miles. The elevation gain was steep, the footing cumbersome, the hiking strenuous. I was immediately thankful for my DIII cross country and track practice. Bruce seemed unaffected by the sudden incline and altitude, and after questioning him a bit, we discovered the route along which he was leading us was a trail marathon - designed and won by him! In fact, Bruce was a well-respected trail runner (Bruce Arnett, organizer of the Mnweni Marathon and trail running legend), with a number of ultras under his belt. Now I understood the massive calves. I worked hard to keep my jaw from dropping.
About a quarter of the way up the pass, we noticed the sound of hooves. Looking up, I saw about two dozen donkeys picking their way down the pass, each with two 50lb sacks strapped to their backs.
“Sebona,” we said to the men accompanying the donkeys as we stood aside to let them pass.
“Yebo,” they replied to the traditional Zulu greeting.
When we reached the top of the pass, Bruce remarked, “That certainly was a lot of dagga.”
We looked at each other with eyes like dinner saucers, and I couldn’t keep my jaw from dropping this time. Dagga is the Afrikaans word for marijuana. We had just seen literal drug mules. I was shocked.
“They import it from Lesotho, illegally, obviously,” explained Bruce. I can honestly say I never expected to see that in my life. That night, we estimated it was over $5 million USD of weed.
At the top of the peak, I was stunned to find a perfectly flat meadow - the mountains were actually gigantic plateaus. Bruce explained these mountains were formed from erosion and weathering, meaning from a downward force, rather than the upward force of the collision of tectonic plates (think the Rockies). I could clearly see Tolkien’s inspiration in the craggy spires and rolling green plains. For a moment, I braided my hair and pretended I was Legolas. Tolkien, born and raised in Bloemfontein (no more than an hour’s drive from the Berg) has always been one of my favorite authors, and to set foot in a birthplace of Lord of the Rings was like stepping into a dream...or Middle Earth. I began referring to Bruce as Gandalf in my head.
We filled our water bottles from the stream, and followed Gandalf down a narrow path cut into a cliff face. He lead us to a cave within the cliff face, requiring a bit of technical clambering during which my life flashed before my eyes, but it was definitely worth it to spend the night under the stars in this mountain cave at 10,000ft. We ditched the tent and slept under the stars. I saw 10 shooting stars within an hour. Glorious.
Day 3: Sunrise over the South African Mountains
Waking up was the most breathtaking experience I have ever had in my life. Words cannot describe it, so I’ll let the picture make an attempt.
After breaking camp, we set off across this meadow at 10,000ft, heading for the edge where spires of rock rose out of wisps of clouds. As we got closer, hundreds of massive birds became visible - some even circling within feet of our heads, so close I could hear the wind move under their wings. I held my breath, staring out at the rookery towers, cherishing this moment with these majestic creatures at the top of the world. I never wanted to leave, and stood on the edge, arms extended, willing Gandalf to bring me an eagle to fly on.
We made the entire descent on this day, and Bruce began teaching us how to trail run - my Brooks came in handy afterward. Initially, the scramble was terrifying, the 50lbs of ill-fitting gear bouncing uncontrollably on my back. But after following in Bruce’s footsteps for a kilometer or so, I began to get the hang of it.
“Make sure your eyes are five steps ahead of your feet,” said Bruce. I refocused my gaze farther down the trail, tilting my hips forward - it was like magic. I could read the trail and anticipate where my feet would fall all at once, and immediately felt like I was flying. I never wanted to stop.
But eventually, the descent ended, the trail came to an end, and we piled back in the jeep, dizzy with adventure.