The dragonslayer returns… Tony Lourens returns to the Drakensberg, determined not to let a second try at summiting Cathedral Peak slip through his fingers.
Words: Tony Lourens
Pictures: Tony and Patsy Lourens, and supplied
If you have read those seminal books Barrier of Spears or Dragon’s Wrath by RO Pearse, you will know much about the rich, colourful and savage history of the sensational and breathtaking mountains we know as the Drakensberg. And its peaks that have expressive names like Champagne Castle, Monk’s Cowl, Cathkin Peak, The Sentinel, Devil’s Tooth, and of course the towering, beautifully sculptured Cathedral Peak.
As I drive up towards Cathedral Peak Hotel, memories of past journeys to this mountain paradise flip through my mind.
It has been nearly 30 years since I was among the Dragon Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal. In 1988, I was with an old mate, Willie Koen, and our plan was to hike the circular trek to the peak from the hotel. It travels along the upper slopes of Cathedral Peak, across the treacherous, snow-choked traverse beneath the Bell, past the Outer and Inner Horns and the Mitre, to reach Twins Cave before nightfall. That night in the cave was desperately cold, icicles hanging from the roof, us in our double-down sleeping bags waiting for dawn.
The next day’s plan was to reach the top of the escarpment, trek over Cleft Peak and camp in a cave near the Ndumeni Dome. We eventually traversed Cleft and descended to the head of the Organ Pipes trail that reaches the top of the escarpment on the other side of Cleft. At this stage we had about two hours of daylight left and needed to find our overnight cave somewhere on the Dome behind us.
But we both stood fixedly at the edge of the escarpment and gazed at the cozy-looking Cathedral Peak Hotel in the valley far below, both with the same thought. I think I voiced it first, “Should we just head for the fleshpots in the valley below and forget sleeping up here in a cold damp cave?” Willie didn’t answer, he just started walking in a downward direction. So that was it. We were on a mission to get to the hotel by nightfall and we nearly succeeded. We practically jogged half the way, but we still had to haul out our torches (I don’t think we had headlamps in those days) to guide us through the last 30 minutes or so.
The hotel appeared out the darkness like a heavenly apparition and not a moment too soon. We were all but broken and fell into the welcoming Harry’s Bar, dropped our heavy packs, found two chairs in front of the fireplace, ordered a plate of sandwiches, tripple whiskeys, fought off the fatigue just long enough to wolf it all down, then made our way to our cold tent (but oh so much better than a windswept cave nearly 2 000 metres higher) and passed out listening to the hypnotic tunes of Shawn Phillips’ Second Contribution, played on my old, rectangular cassette recorder.
This time, things are different, however. For one I’m not in my sprightly 20s anymore and, secondly, my wife Patsy and I are not camping in a sagging old A-frame Kestrel tent in a sad corner of a blustery campsite, but are staying in the hotel. A far cry from three decades ago. And it has always niggled me that we missed out on summiting such a perfect peak. This time I wasn’t going to let it slip through my fingers.
When we decided to return here, my first thoughts drifted across those icy slopes we treaded so long ago, particularly to Cathedral Peak itself – and traversing beneath the summit on our epic Berg journey. Now, as we drive up to the hotel along the windy access road from Winterton, Cathedral Peak is the last peak in a chain that links the Bell, Outer and Inner Horn and the Mitre to the escarpment.
It’s a magnificent mountain, rising to just over 3 000 metres, and certainly resembles an imposing cathedral that ends in an exquisitely slender summit. And it looks so far away. Nonetheless, our goal is to scale it with just a small day pack, up and down in a day. How hard could that be?
A quick look at the weather forecast tells me that the following day will be as perfect as today, but that cloud and rain are expected thereafter. No time to settle in. Tomorrow it has to be. After some enquiries I find a guide from a nearby village, Wiseman Mdluli.
Just after daybreak, I meet him at the start of the trail. Tall, thin and with legs like a giraffe, Wiseman resembles a Kenyan marathon runner, and after a traditional African greeting takes off up the slopes at a cracking pace. It’s his 436th ascent of the mountain. I take one look at the distant summit and change down a gear. This is going to be interesting.
Wiseman proves to be the perfect compadre for this journey. Softly spoken, with a good sense of humour, he makes idle chatter with me as we (not so) slowly make our way through the valleys and over ridges.
The ascent of Cathedral Peak is a timeless classic. The lower half of the route follows a relatively friendly, angled valley to the base of Swine Hill, which sounds bad, but involves a steep but short trudge up a blunt ridge to the top of a grassy knoll. After that the path leads on to an undulating jaunt up a long winding ridge, ultimately to Orange Peel Gap, which at about 2 300 metres is about halfway along this trail.
From Orange Peel, the path contours gently along the back of some peaklets for about 40 minutes, which gives us a chance to catch our breath and admire the views, until we very rudely bump into the foot of Bugger Gully. Steep and bouldery, this gully climbs strenuously for 30 gruelling minutes until we thankfully reach the path that branches off to the right, and leads to the scramble pitches on the side of the summit cone. This is the point where, 30 years back, we pushed on further up Bugger Gully to continue with the Bell Traverse.
This time, however, Wiseman and I scamper up to the first of a series of slabby and quite easy scramble pitches. It leads to the sometimes airy summit ridge, ending rather abruptly on the small blocky summit that drops away dramatically on all sides.
The views are stupendous in all directions and we revel in the thin warm air as we wolf down our lunch and take the obligatory selfies while encircled by three Cape Vultures.
From our airy perch the hotel looks as if in a different time zone. “Hey Wiseman, do you think we can make it down for afternoon tea?”
“At our pace I’m sure we can do it,” he replies. “Depends on your knees.”
Soon we are scrambling down from the summit, dropping quickly to Bugger Gully, onto Orange Peel Gap and down past Sherman’s Cave to arrive back at the hotel at 14h30. Seven hours round trip, and an hour before tea.
Take a Hike
- The Drakensberg is a paradise for climbers, mountaineers and trekkers. Although the rock climbing is not for the faint-hearted, there are many hikes, from multi-day treks and long, single-day, peak-bagging journeys, to more friendly hikes and trails in the lower foothills.
- Although most of the short-to-medium hikes can be done quite easily without a guide, the Cathedral Peak Hotel offers two or three guided hikes daily – details can be found on the reception noticeboard.
- The hotel also has a direction leaflet for each walk in the area, and all have a difficulty grading. A is a simple short walk and D is a long day on the hill, often with some rock scrambling. Four of the trails are:
Doreen Falls – 1.5 hours return (grade A), skirting the low contours of the foothills near the hotel, and leading to the picturesque Doreen Falls. Ideal for an after-breakfast or after-lunch romp in the hills.
Ribbon Falls – 3.5 hours return (grade C), an ideal morning walk into the foothills beneath the escarpment, along a ridge and past some caves to the impressive Ribbon Falls. There is some very easy, enjoyable rock scrambling involved.
Rainbow Gorge – 5 hours return (grade B/C), a scenic journey including indigenous forests, and boulder hopping up high narrow gorges to reach the famous hanging boulder, which is a good place for lunch.
Cathedral Peak – 8 to 10 hours return (grade D), is one of the finest outings in the Cathedral area, if you are fit enough. The 20km round trip takes you over rolling foothills, along high ridges, through necks, up steep gullies, over steepish rock, and finally up the flank to the summit at 3 004m, where views of the Berg can be seen from all sides.
- Take at least 2.5 litres of water per person for Cathedral Peak. The last water point is just past Sherman’s Cave, 90 minutes from the hotel.
- Be prepared for all weathers and check for any signs that the weather may be changing for the worse. Take a hat, warm jacket, waterproof top and sunscreen.
- Wiseman Mdluli is a freelance mountain guide operating through the Cathedral Peak Hotel. To arrange any trips in the Cathedral Peak area he can be contacted on 076 089 4307.
- For guests of the hotel, all guided hikes are free, but a wide variety of privately guided walks for non-residents can be arranged through the hotel. Just ask at reception.036 488 1888, [email protected], www.cathedralpeak.co.za