A sore throat, chesty cough, fatigue and lack of appetite did not bode well for my planned weekend hiking through South Africa’s Drakensberg (Dragon’s teeth) mountains. Nor did the forecast of cold, wet weather. Yet, the invitation was too good to miss, so on Thursday morning I dragged my husky, voiceless self out of bed and joined up with Cooper and Alasdair for the 8 hour journey to Sani Lodge Backpackers, at the base of Sani Pass on the South African-Lesotho border. Here we awaited the late-night arrival of our other team of adventurers: Cathal, Patrick, Nicole and Julia.
Fortunately the first day’s hike was but a mere 11km, giving us enough time to sleep in, indulge in bacon and eggs, lament about the miserable weather, sort out a car ferry system, and squeeze 6-days’ worth of food for our 2-day hike into our already-overstuffed backpacks. By midday, we were finally on the track and the instant climb was a slight shock to the system, albeit a rewarding one. Once on the plateau, we hiked along it for a while, checking out the amazing views over the plains below and never stopping for too long for fear that the cold would freeze us into position. We followed the mountain down the other side and by 3:30pm arrived at Pholela Hut, our first night’s accommodation.
Compared with what I was expecting, Pholela hut seemed five-star, with running hot water, bunk beds with thick mattresses and a view across green paddocks punctuated by eucalypts and pines. We nabbed the bedroom with the fire place and sat there munching on cheese and nuts until the chimney failed and the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning forced us outside. Outside, we (ie. Cooper) lit another jenga-style fire, which, when combined with cheap whisky, kept us warm well into the night.
The next morning, it was up early in order to cover two days’ worth of hiking in just one. The 21 kilometre trek, reaching up to 1900m above sea level, was tough but utterly spectacular: Rain threatened but never fell; mist obscured the towering summits but kept everything cool; silence alternated with the soft bubbling of crystal clear brooks; and the still eeriness was matched by overwhelming tranquillity.
Our second night’s accommodation at Winterhoek Hut was not quite of the same calibre as Pholela. Dorms consisted of thin mattresses in a series of rondavels, water was cold, firewood and a fireplace were absent. However, a side visit to the township a few kilometres away enabled us to procure some beers for the evening (although the township folk seemed quite confused about these random white people who didn’t seem to mind buying beer off black people), and a trip to the smattering of trees behind the rondavels enabled us to build a fire big enough to last several days.
On our final day, the sun emerged. We hiked the final kilometre to the road where our car awaited us, and then instantly made our way to the Underberg cheesery to sample their selection of fromage and home-made yoghurt. I topped this off with some home-made berry ice-cream before an excursion to the Underberg Spar (voted the best supermarket in Kwazulu Natal in 2012….apparently), and lunch of local trout and salad at a fine Austrian brewhouse. Leaving Drakensberg in the mid-afternoon, we travelled rapidly to make the border crossing into Swaziland before closure. We made it, just, and not without some hiccups. My throat was still sore, my cough was still chesty, but my weekend in the Drakensburg Mountains added more to my overall wellness than what it threatened to take away.