Just to clarify, I am no hiker. Whilst I love views from mountains which make your jaw drop, I’m not a fan of actually getting up there. And let’s all be honest, hiking involves a lot of uphill, chapped lips, shortness of breath, blisters and extreme temperatures.
It’s one of those strange activities which isn’t always pleasurable whilst you’re doing it but grant you a reward of total exhilaration and a massive sense of achievement one you’ve completed it. Me, I like to enjoy what I’m doing in the moment, like a dance class-minimal pain, maximum fun. And this is the precise reason that the Drakensberg had its way with me and at times left me thinking that this was where I was going to die.
People made us believe that everyone and anyone can do this hike. We saw photos of children going up, heard tales of 79 year olds doing it and after that I totally believed I would nail it as a reasonably fit person (who hadn’t exercised in two months).
The misty, icy weather should have been an ominous sign of things to come. But I ignored it and listened to our guide, Sim, instruct us on how quickly the weather can change on the mountain, to shout if we needed help and not to slip off the mountain whilst trying to take photos and figured that it would be ok.
After the first 10 or 15 pathetic minutes I thought I was going to stop breathing. 2600 km above sea level, it was probably me adjusting to the altitude but all I heard my body saying was “STOP! STOP MAKING ME WALK NOW!” If it wasn’t for the group 13 other hikers and my husband, I definitely would have.
Mist and thick clouds circled all around, the wind howled and let its icy gusts blow across us, hurting my ears and making me wish I’d kept me woolly headband nearby. Salvation came when Sim stopped for the first time. He asked how we were, no one answered. Great, I imagined them all to be as out of breath as I was. Air couldn’t reach my lungs quick enough and my heart felt like it was pulsating through every part of my body at a dangerously rapid pace. I guzzled water, ate an apple and prayed the sweets would inject life into me. Boy, did I pray, a lot.
Through the mist we could already see the van parked at the hike start point and continued upward rounding dangerously narrow corners. My lower back ached, my ears were in pain but I decided I was not going to complain, I needed the oxygen too badly. Slowly but surely the sun prevailed over the clouds and shone out over our path and the steps we still needed to take.
And there it was, the bain of my existence, the thorn that was to be in my side and one of the portions where I imagined falling off the mountainside. The Gulley. Even before Sim told us it would be the most difficult portion of our hike today, I knew it. I tilted my head upwards to look up the 300 m steep-as-hell incline set with big rocks and slippery pebbles stones and shuddered inside. Quietly I ate my Fast Forward chocolate hoping again that it would boost whatever was left in me and flashed an unconvincing smile as Sim encouraged us to “Keep Smiling” after he warned us not to step on rocks that would move and not carry our weight.
Then it began. The Dutch headed up at a fairly rapid rate ahead of the group, whilst the pro-hiker Martin continued to lead the pack and put us all to shame as the oldest hiker in the group. I took it easy imagining that this would allow me to pace myself throughout the ascent.
But a few minutes after clawing my way up rocks, trying to step carefully on solid rocks and slipping on gravel stones, my thighs were already burning like no one’s business. Vaughan spurred me on like a pro, but even his chants of “you’re doing great” didn’t persuade me. Looking up, the ascent didn’t ever seem to end. With every portion, I climbed, I seemed no nearer to the top and my jelly legs didn’t feel like they wanted to hold me up any longer.
I had to sit down frequently and my head began to spin trying to acclimatize to the altitude which got higher every few minutes. Once or twice I overtook the pregnant lady, but heavens if she could do it, I had to.
I trudged up the mountain like an unlikely animal forced to carry a huge load and there was many a time when I wished everyone would just leave me there. But somehow I finally reached the top. Many of the other hikers had already walked just over a little hill to see the view on the other side but I couldn’t even get up.
When I did, I attacked our cheese and tomato sandwiches and looked out over breathtaking views, views that you can only lay eyes on once you’ve done the hard work. The grand prize at the end of race. It was all meant to be downhill from here.
Blissfully flat land followed next. Dry grass covered the earth and I forgot that we were actually atop a mountain. We rested again at the place where the Tugela Falls usually cascades down the mountain. But with no rain yet, there was not even a drop of water to be seen flowing over the mountains. We travelled across the wide plain until we reached a sheer drop with no possible way of getting down.
And that’s when I realised that we had reached the chain ladders. There was no way to see how far down it went and under no circumstances was I was going to lean over and look down. I decided I should be one of the first few to go, else the anticipation alone would make me panic. When it was my turn, I slid closer and closer to the edge. Unlike a bridge jump I had done years ago, there was no rope holding me this time- Only my sweaty hands and hiking boots to rely on.
The wind howled and caused the ladder to sway slightly. From the bottom I could Vaughan telling me it was not that long to go. I didn’t look left, right, up or down- only on my hands and each rung I had to grip next. My relief upon reaching the bottom was short-lived. For there was another one, a 40 m ladder. 20 m longer than the ladder I had just climbed down.
Thank goodness no one told me that it was 40m and the one before 20m. When the sheer terror started to leave me half way down the middle, the skilled hiker, Martin asked me to wave at the camera. I turned only slightly but refused to let my hand leave the bars.
There on out, it was bliss in comparison. As we descended, the sun shone over undulating mountainside and illuminated a large, lake and steep, grassy foothills. Whilst Vaughan didn’t enjoy walking downhill, I felt like an agile mountain goat and practically skipped down the mountainside, careful to watch every step I took in amongst the rocks and along the hairpin paths. Yellow flowers blossomed, the sunlight illuminated green and red shaded grass.
Whenever my gaze turned towards the valleys below, it seemed to have unfolded into a completely new view with undulating hills and slopes of different shades. The magnitude of what I had accomplished and the sheer magnificence of the Drakensberg mountains accompanied me all the way down. I returned sore, with a blister, chapped lips and aching limbs, but what I saw when I had the time to look down and around was well worth all trudging and aches.
This hike was sponsored by Amphitheatre Backpackers and done with one of their experienced guides. All views expressed are entirely my own.
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