Day 8: Drakensberg Mountains


Last night over dinner I planned today’s outing, with help from Craig, the General Manager of Cathedral Peak Hotel who has been hiking in the ‘Berg for at least 20 years. He highly recommended that I stay out overnight and camp at Twins Cave, one of many caves in the area that is popular with backpackers (with “popular” being relative—more likely than not, you’ll have it to yourself). Paintings by Zulu tribesmen are found in many of these caves; some date back thousands of years while others depict more recent events, like the arrival in 1835 of Captain Allen Francis Gardiner, who was the first white man to explore the area.

My route followed the Umlambonja River to its headwaters, which originate in a deep canyon below Umlambonja Pass. There are only a handful of trekking passes in the ‘Berg—like the Grand Canyon’s Red Wall, the basaltic Upper Berg is impassable except for via a few steep and deep canyons. The trail started easily enough: day-hike traffic from the hotel has created an obvious path. I picked up the Contour Trail again for a few miles in order to bypass a boulder-hopping section in the river bed, and once I returned to the river the real hiking began. The trail deteriorated into a glorified game trail: it often faded, became braided, or led to dead ends; there were wash-outs and landslides; the brush was so thick that even I wore pants, which never happens in temperatures more than 40 degrees F; and the section just below the pass was so steep that I had to wonder whether I was in fact following a game trail, since hikers would never intentionally subject themselves to such grades.

The hard work was over once I reached the pass. Atop the escarpment are broad, grassy, rolling hills and gentle drainages that reminded me of the alpine plateaus in the South San Juan Wilderness of Colorado. I had another 2 hours of daylight to spare, so I hiked along the edge of the escarpment and watched the shadows grow and eventually disappear.

Twins Cave was a very cool experience. It is not really a “cave,” but more of an under-cut in the rock just below the escarpment rim. It would offer excellent protection in the event of a rain or thunderstorm, which apparently is common during the summer months; but it’s open enough to not trigger claustrophobia. It was dark by 6pm, and after some dinner of biscuits and biltong I busted out my Paul Theroux book to read by headlamp, but put it down after a few pages and passed out. My dreams that night often incorporated the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of the nearby seep spring—I was pleasantly surprised to find in the morning that I had not wet my sleeping bag.

Posted in on May 8, 2008

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