Day 6: Durban & the Drakensberg Mountains

The combination of warm shark-infested waters and throngs of scantily clad beach-goers prompted the installation of shark nets off the coastline in the 1940’s. A tour of the nets is available, but that aspect of the boat ride is its least redeeming—instead, it’s enjoyable for its views of an orange sun rising above the Indian Ocean and of the city panorama. But perhaps the most remarkable observation of the morning was the thick blanket of brown smog that quickly engulfed the city and the surrounding hillsides once the daily polluting rituals began: people driving to work, tankers preparing to leave port, smelters cranking up, etc. It was a gloomy reminder of the scale of the world’s challenge to transition to environmentally sustainable development.

My lovely host and guide, Adél, of South African Tourism, has some work responsibilities in Durban through Saturday, so I’ve been cut loose and sent north to Drakensberg National Park, which borders the eastern boundary with the inland kingdom of Lesotho and which was designated as another World Heritage Site because of its unique ecology. The 250-kilometer 3-hour drive to the Cathedral Peak Hotel was long but remarkable—Durban’s dirty sprawl slowly faded into pristine savannah, small farms (selling 10 avocados for $1.50), and bush villages.

During the last 15 miles through the Umlambonja Valley we passed huts with thatched roofs and no running water, and women washing blankets in the river. Even the driver described this place as “remote,” and suggested that we were now in “the real Africa,” away from the West-like cities.

Now just 1.5 months from the shortest day of the year (June 21st), daylight is at a premium in the Southern Hemisphere—it’s possible to see without artificial light from about 6am to 6pm, depending on where you are in the country. I headed out for a run at 2:45pm, wearing shorts and a t-shirt and carrying just a 20-oz bottle, thinking that I had ample time for a 15-mile loop on the park’s trail system. The run quickly got exciting, as I jumped over a puff adder snake within the first 10 minutes. (Puff adders are one of South Africa’s three deadly snakes, along with the black mamba and the spitting cobra. Its venom is necrotic, meaning that it attacks body tissue. An internet search for “puff adder bite” images reveals some beautiful shots.)

I was making good time when I reached the Contour Trail but the trail conditions deteriorated thereafter and my pace slowed significantly due to brushy gullies and razor-edged grass that hindered forward movement and ripped at my skin. (Later I would be told that the Drakensberg is managed as a wilderness park and thus there is only light trail maintenance.) I reached the last trail junction with 30 minutes of daylight left and 4 miles to go, quite convinced that I would need to wait until a quarter-moon arose after midnight in order to make it back to the hotel. Thankfully I made better progress than I thought I would—there was a half-mile-long tunnel of 8-foot-high riparian grass early on, but the trail improved as I got closer to the hotel, which offset the fact I couldn’t see any detail in the trail by the end. I stumbled into the hotel lobby to sign back in at the hiker’s log. The receptionist, slightly stunned by my bloodied legs, quill-covered shirt (from some tree that I ran into), and sweat-encrusted face, smugly asked, “And where have you been?”

Posted in on May 7, 2008

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