Walking in the Drakensburg

James goes walking in the Drakensberg

Cicerone's Sales Rep James visits South Africa, decides that Table Mountain would not make for a decent piece of furniture, and discovers the brutality of Bugger Gully.


I’ve been lucky enough to visit South Africa a number of times over the last thirty years; my late mother in law was originally South African and my wife Carolyn lived there when she was younger and still has family there. It’s a fantastically friendly, varied and a huge country, so, having packed our daughters off to university, it was with huge excitement that we booked a holiday there this May, actually our first visit in eleven years. 

Our South African family, like so many out there, are keen outdoors enthusiasts, and over the years we have introduced each other to our respective countries - a particular highlight of some years ago involved initiating Carolyn’s Uncle Roger to the delights of our very own Cumbrian Songline, the 09 gridline from Shap to Wasdale (no deviation permitted).

Roger hadn’t forgotten the 09 experience so he suggested Cape Town’s Table Mountain for our first full day. This may not be featured in any Cicerone guidebook, and I am allergic to the over used word iconic, but Table Mountain is splendidly recognisable (at least from the front) so the climb from the back must be pretty straightforward - and anyway, General Smuts walked up here every day into his eighties - apparently.

Afrikaner Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) argued for South Africa's place within the British Empire and worked with the British through both world wars, occupying senior positions in each. http://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/smuts.htm
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Great walking on the top of Table Mountain

The climb that hot day started from inside the wonderful Kirstenbosch gardens on the east side of the hill, well worth a visit in their own right, and continued through a densely wooded ravine via zig zags and brutal straight up sections and wooden ladders. Skeleton Gorge is apparently named after someone called George whose skeleton was found there. 

We burst, or perhaps stumbled, out of the woods at around 800m with a splendid view over the plain towards the Hottentot Holland Mountains. Not much longer saw us on top, except it wasn’t the top. I wouldn’t have a table like this in my house; any more than I believe the story about George and his bones. 

The indicator suggested another three hours to the summit, and so it almost proved - just over two in fact, but a hard, hot slog through the bush on a good trail. At one point we were overhauled by a group of barefoot walkers, cheerfully and evangelically extolling the virtues of their lack of footwear.

At one point we were overhauled by a group of barefoot walkers, cheerfully and evangelically extolling the virtues of their lack of footwear.

The summit of Table Mountain boasts an inevitably magnificent view over one of the world’s great littoral cities and its harbour, and is crowned by a tremendous cairn built by the Irish born astronomer Sir Thomas Maclear in 1865 in order to help measure the curvature of the earth. Wainwright’s heart would have throbbed with excitement. From here to the top table cable car station we walked along the true flat sandstone table, with the sea on both sides. Only the gash of Platteklip Gorge gets in the way - to truly traverse the mountain, we should have descended this way down into the city, but we decided to take the rotating cable car, passing what looked like some pretty hard core rock climbers as we sedately descended toward the fast food stands.

If Cicerone decide to extend the theme of their excellent Scotland’s Best Small Mountains to embrace the globe, then Table Mountain, instantly recognisable, uniquely situated in the middle of a city beside the meeting of two vast oceans, has to be included. A grand day out on a World’s Best Small Mountain. Perhaps more likely might be a Guide to the Western Cape, taking in the mountains east of Stellenbosch. We spent a couple of days in Franschhoek and enjoyed great wine and walking in the magnificent Mont Rochelle reserve. But a mere prelude to what was to follow.

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Cathedral Peak and The Bell in evening light

By happy chance, Cicerone have just updated Jeff Williams’ comprehensive guide, Walking in the Drakensberg, arguably (and in my limited experience) Southern Africa’s finest tract of mountain country, and that was where we were heading next, via plane to Durban and some three hours’ drive on a good and steadily rising N3 motorway up into the heart of Zululand. The Drakensberg takes the form of an enormous escarpment, which can be traced parallel to the coast around much of the country, and encloses the high plateau on which cities like Johannesburg - with an elevation of 5700 feet - stand. The highest section of the Berg is where we were headed, and this section is characterised by enormous freestanding basalt mountains, cirques and ridges running off to the east of the main scarp. Down in the Cape we had seen inspiring pics of Giles, Carolyn’s cousin, walking the 220km Greater Traverse along the escarpment of the Berg, a 12 day epic, camping and sleeping in caves.

Home comforts for us though: our favourite location in the Berg has always been Cathedral Peak, where there is a very remote but fabulously comfortable and idiosyncratic hotel with great food (puddings) and friendly service. Camping and other accommodation is available nearby, and the location is central for some great outstanding walking country. Carolyn and I trail-tested the new edition with Walk 22 to Baboon Rock. As always, directions were accurate and spot on and we enjoyed this varied 9km walk, crossing an entertainingly wobbly foot suspension bridge, sharing the hotel golf course with some real and nonchalantly cheeky baboons before breaking up in to the grassy, almost alpine Little Berg. As Jeff says, 'why Baboon rock?' Because it looks like one. Considerable care needs to be taken on the airy walk onto Mr Baboon’s head, there have been fatalities here.

Hot, tired and needing several pints of cool draft Castle lager, we contemplated the next day. The Hotel pins guided walk schedules up in reception, and the following day featured the big one to the summit of Cathedral Peak. This would be perhaps be my only chance to attempt this, and lubricated by Castle, I put my name down for the 7am start from the hotel sundial. I spent the next twenty minutes looking for a rubber or some tippex.

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Cathedral Peak at 3005m is the dominant peak in the area, and features as Walk 25 in Jeff’s book. Jeff argues that the peak “bears no resemblance to a cathedral” but I beg to differ; its roof culminates in a magnificent spire and is accompanied by a feature called The Bell that closely resembles a giant bell. It’s a bit like Baboon Rock in that sense. Nearby are the Organ Pipes. To the left, the two flat topped peaks known as Inner and Outer Horns don’t look like horns until you look into the space between them to see the perfect face of a springbok. 

As the hotel stands at 1470m, the total climb comes in at over 1500m over 20km distance, and from the start, our outstanding guide, Mxolisi pushed Johann, Douw and myself on. Other than a brief stop at a lovely waterfall that marked half way in distance and a tenth of the way in effort, there was little respite as we marched up the valley away from the hotel and up back on to the ridge of the Little Berg. As a long time enthusiast for the light classics, it was time to plug the iPod in and I ground up the relentless brae to the primeval nature music that starts Mahler’s Third Symphony. The ground steepened and narrowed and just when it seemed it could go no further, turned into a dark, stinking and steep ravine that led ever upwards before depositing us at the tiny col at Orange Peel Gap. Guides here used to allegedly hand out oranges, but no such succour from Mxolisi who urged us on along a good level path around the back of the ridge visible from the hotel and close to a mountain that was a dead ringer for Allival on the isle of Rum.

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Bugger Gully. Not tired at all, just putting it on

We rounded a corner, and there high above towered the summit spire of Cathedral Peak. Firstly we had to negotiate the relentless dry slog of Bugger Gully. I hit a wall here and additionally encountered a Berg adder whose bite symptoms, I am told, are akin to alcoholic intoxication. Jeff states that no deaths have been reported. Thanks Jeff. Labouring on, we reached the foot of the summit horn and here the fun started. Mxolisi bounded ahead to secure ropes to bolts, and we punters hauled ourselves up hand over hand over two rock bands. I have not seen anything like this outside bad TV commercials but with deeply significant exposure and no protection, I didn’t care too much about appearances. A wonderfully airy iron ladder took us to the final zig zag section. Determined not to be a via fermata, we plodded up to the top, the final deliciously scary scramble depositing us on the billiard table summit with its very British cairn and wind shelter. More joy for the Wainwright brigade. What a view, what a mountain. We only had a few minutes time on top as time and weather were moving on.

It was a long and tiring yomp back; but we were happy and relaxed; Mxolisi told me he had never left the valley in 30 years and had no desire to do so; what an awesome carbon footprint he boasts. Back in pseuds corner it was time to let the iPod do some random selection, and on came the Glagolitic Mass by the Czech composer Janacek; this atavistic, exultant music from far off Central Europe suited the landscape perfectly, and I imperfectly recalled something the composer wrote that he felt a Cathedral grow from nature. I knew just what he meant.

The final steps to the sundial take you along a carpeted terrace, which felt bizarre underfoot, and weirder still as we arrived in the middle of a large and lively wedding reception, feeling a bit like a small band of chimney sweeps. But that wasn’t going to get in the way of our getting to the bar (and eventual puddings) and celebrating a fantastic day.

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