Hiking in the Drakensberg is always a journey in which there are elements of the unknown, ones that test you physically and mentally and make you ask yourself “What on earth was I thinking?” I stupidly did not think that was the case as 14 friends started a 45km hike through the majestic Mnweni Cultural land on a winters long weekend. Day 1 started off with an unexpected hot day that quickly forced us to change our pants to shorts. The hike was an easy, reasonably flat hike on a contour path close to the Mnweni River, which was scattered with mud huts that formed the Mnweni Village. We were excitedly greeted by the village children running through the grass towards us asking for sweets, and walking alongside us were the villages goats and cows. We set up camp next to the river and had a pleasantly warm starry-skied night. Everything was just perfect that day; hot day, warm night and fairly easy hike. We couldn’t have asked for anything better… until we were woken up at 2am by the wind howling outside and out tents pressed down onto our faces.
The wind had died down as we all appeared out of our tent ready to conquer the ultimate Mnweni pass, which is a 1.5km climb with an altitude gain of 900m. As we started hiking the wind quickly turned to gale force winds that pushed us off the path. We saw the wind blow the grass on the mountain ahead of us before it reached us; it looked as though armies of men were running down the mountain. As we started ascending the steep Mnweni pass the wind was unbearable, we were blown to the ground every minute. If we were able to move we would crawl on our hands and knees, but most of the time we would grab ahold of a rock or grass so that we wouldn’t get swept off the side of the mountain, which disappeared into the valley below us. We would have about 10 seconds between every gust of wind and in that gap I would run along the path just to gain some distance. The wind was also so unpredictable; it would come from every direction and with every gust of wind that came it brought a sand storm with it, stinging our skin and blinding us with an eye full of sand. Eventually the wind got so cold we all put our jackets on and covered our faces with our buffs. This was probably the most terrifying hike of my life knowing that one wrong step could be deadly as we used all of our strength to say on the path. A gust of wind picked me up, it didn’t push me down; it picked me up like a toothpick. I lay on the ground for a few minutes because I was just too exhausted to get back up just to be pushed back to the ground again. It was a quiet hike that day except for the occasional scream and a voice from a distance asked if we were ok as we got back up from the ground. After a grueling 4 hour climb, we summited (It felt a lot longer than 4 hours but that’s what I was told.) I got to the top and it was almost impossible to walk against the wind, my friends had to come fetch me and pull me towards the direction everyone was sitting.
Once we got to the top we had lunch at about 4pm because it was the only chance we had. We then hiked along the escarpment crossing the source of the Orange River, which was partly frozen. The wind was still so strong that we all crab walked in the direction the wind was blowing because it was almost impossible to fight it. We hiked for several hours searching for Ledges cave to sleep in but we were quickly running out of daylight. Despite all our effort, the mountain was clearly not on our side and safety was becoming a concern as we were walking for hours with our headlamps and a feeling of hypothermia was hitting me. We then had no choice but to pitch our tents where we were (on uneven ground and rocks) as the roaring winds threatened to snap the fragile tent poles. We headed to bed without eating and lay awake listening to the wind and Practically holding our tents up.
The next morning we emerged from our tent with a breathtakingly beautiful orange backdrop behind the silhouette of the Drakensberg and not a breath of wind could be felt. After taking in the amazing view that we worked so hard to see, we then scrambled down the technical Rockeries pass for about 15km. We slid as the pebbles under our feed moved, which lead to a couple of bum bashings followed by a quick jump up so no one would see, or we just sat there and looked at the view like we planned it.
I once heard that adventure is defined as when you are doing it you pray to God to get out alive and once it is over you pray to God to do it again. I definitely prayed to God to get out alive as I was holding on for dear life off the side of the mountain as I waited for the wind to stop. But after all, if it weren’t for experiences like that, you wouldn’t have anything to tell your friends and family when you got back. Danger seems to drive the adrenaline that keeps us going.
Images by Terence Vrugtman|AdventureLife.co.za