It was just after sunset on an ominously dark and drizzly Drakensberg evening that our life in Underberg officially began. Our cars loaded to the brim, we arrived at what would be our humble abode for the next few months of winter. Apparently we had timed our arrival perfectly with the first snowfall of the season and temperatures soon to be sub-zero.
Not giving up on the nomad life by any means, but having slept more nights in our tent and sleeping bags this year than in a normal bed, we decided it might be preferable to base somewhere for the colder quarter of the year. Underberg ended up being our village of choice. Just three weeks previously we had departed on foot from Sentinel car park in the northern Berg and hiked south all along the escarpment, tagging the two highest peaks south of Kilimanjaro - Mafadi (at 3450m the highest in SA) and Thabana Ntlenyana (at 3482m the highest in Lesotho). Some 220 kilometres later we arrived at the Bushman's Nek border post, near Underberg.
So having left our car at the other end of the Drakensberg, we then had to find a way back from the south. Ross, a good friend of mine, gave us a lift from Bushman’s Nek to Sarah and Graham’s plot just outside of Underberg on the Drak Gardens road. There we once again pitched our tent and stayed with them for a couple of nights. Being treated with good food, fine wine and even better company, it was difficult to say goodbye when we received an offer of a lift to Winterton. The reason I am sharing this part, which should really be saved for our official Drakensberg Grand Traverse blog post, is that we are now renting Sarah and Graham’s cottage on their beautiful property.
We arrived on the evening of Wednesday the 2nd of June, after an 8 hour drive, and offloaded all our stuff. On Thursday after cleaning, unpacking and sorting, we managed to squeeze in a run. And on Friday more housekeeping followed by the dreaded, but always fun in the end, interval session!
In the meantime, Dylan Weyer, who lives just down the road from Graham and Sarah and whom I've known since my Port Alfred days, dropped me a message saying “I’m really keen to see the Mountain Kingdom covered in snow. Route from Bushman's Nek via Tarn Cave up to the Devil’s Knuckles. Are you keen?”
Was I keen? What a question! “Keen” would be an understatement!
I have looked at the Knuckles many a time on the map and now, knowing from far out sightings that they were fully covered in snow, it would be a dream come true! Nobody was entirely sure what the moving conditions in the snow would hold, so we left the return route open-ended.
Early Saturday morning, freezing, we headed out to the Bushman's Nek border post. Our group consisted of myself, Nicolette, Dylan and his partner Misty, and also Graham and Sarah. It was a beautiful run on well-kept trails up along the river to Cedric Pools. We took our time, enjoying the heat of the sun and stripping layer after layer of clothing as the lower Berg defrosted. In just over 2 hours we reached Tarn Cave, also the level of the snow line, and it struck me just how forgiving southern Berg trails are compared to those of the northern Berg. Apart from racing the Ultra Trail Drakensberg 100 miler I have actually done minimal running in the southern Berg. But this was pure bliss! It felt like a honeymoon hike or a leisurely stroll among the hills...
From Tarn Cave we had the Knuckles in full view, and WOW, what a view indeed! Assessing the lie of the land ahead and consulting the map, we planned our route up to the escarpment and were soon on our way. Suddenly the going was rough. Very rough. Leisurely stroll what? We were sinking knee deep, sometimes waist deep, into the snow. To gain a single step forwards and upwards was hard physical work. And apparently not all snow is soft and powdery either. Oh no - there's these hard ice-crusted sections that are either thick and solid enough to send you slipping backwards, or thin enough to allow your foot to penetrate, the sharp edges drawing blood from ankles and shins all too eagerly. There was no hiding the evidence as we walked in single file with every speck of blood a glaring red stain on the pure white surface below.
In a somewhat futile attempt to avoid waist deep snow we had chosen not to head along the mapped route via the gully. This placed us on a long ridge line which at least prevented the inevitable stumbling over hidden rocks in a boulder-choked gully! A few deep snow drifts, some fun scrambling and one or two boulder problems finally saw us gain a small, protected ledge just shy of the summit plateau. Here, still sheltered from the icy Lesotho wind, Graham finally got his coffee break. He’d carried up his Jetboil, freshly ground coffee and full fat farm milk, and he generously brewed us all some coffee while we basked in the glory of our stark but beautiful surroundings.
Coffee in the snow at 3000m above sea level - does life get any better?
Next it was decision time. Did we push on through the snow along the escarpment towards Thamathu Pass, or be happy with what we’d already achieved and head back down the route we’d ascended? We’d so far been moving at a rather chilled pace, soaking up the snow and magnificence of the Mountain Kingdom, but time was now getting on and the risk factor increasing accordingly. After a brief discussion six competitive spirits were forging onward, just to “see what the conditions are like around the corner.” And over the next ridge. And at the end of that valley… Oh well. Thamathu Pass was not that far out and we still had about 3 hours of daylight left. The one significant time and safety based decision we did make was to bypass the summit of the Knuckles themselves. This out-and-back trip would have involved a traverse out along a narrow, rocky and obviously snowed up ridge line. We’d save it for our summer round trip perhaps!
Dropping into the Thamathu valley we opted for a faster bum sliding approach than the standard hiking descent. This resulted in tons of laughter and a 50% tear rate of waterproof longs... But hey, you only live once!
Down in the valley it was remarkable to still hear the sounds of cow bells ringing, Lesotho dogs barking and the occasional “Where you going” from a blanket-covered but friendly Basotho. You have to respect but also feel for any being living up there in the Mountain Kingdom in those conditions. It’s a harsh life, but oh so beautiful.
After a bit of a march we were soon at the top of Thamathu Pass. Myself and Nicolette took a moment alone to reminisce over how only three weeks before we had stood at exactly the same spot, arriving from 200km north with tired feet, broken shoulders and happy hearts.
With fading light and dropping temperatures, we started heading down the pass. Everyone suddenly seemed as enthusiastic to get below the snow line as they had been to get above it in the morning! Except for me. I was overcome by a complete numbness that had nothing to do with the cold. I did not want to go down... There is nowhere I feel more at home than at 3000 meters of altitude on top of the Drakensberg. I love the mountains and I always struggle with the realisation that I have to go back down to civilisation. If I had my way I would’ve been somewhere along the escarpment right now, sharing a peaceful moment with a soaring Bearded Vulture.
Either way, we were on our way down and after shooting a few last photos of the glorious escarpment and disappearing sun behind us, Nicolette and I found ourselves quite a distance behind the group. The dusk sky was crystal clear and the cold of night was setting in rapidly. We wrapped and packed the camera and prepared to catch the others. We headed off down the trail, our easy jog gradually progressing into a full on race down a magnificently flowing but rocky single track. Running in synchronicity, moving effortlessly over the earth, doing what we love, my mountain melancholy left me and I knew everything was right. This was where I wanted to be.
Surrounded by silence and darkness, we finished the last few kilometres with headlight beams illuminating the neatly cut trails and engraved rock signposts to Tarn Cave. We alone knew what lay out there on the escarpment, behind the Devil’s Knuckles, beyond the realm of human control, on Saturday the 5th of June 2021... My freezing digits brought me back to reality as the cold penetrated gloves and shoes not nearly warm enough to protect the extremities. But my heart was warm and my spirit on fire. It had been a good day to be outside and alive.
Thank you Dylan, Misty, Sarah and Graham for the best icy housewarming party we could ever have asked for!
We feel right at home.