In the Footsteps of Giants – Rugged trails and unpredictable weather make overnight hiking in the Drakensberg quite a challenge. So slackpacking is the way to go…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Fiona McIntosh and Paul Colvin
Two big eland bulls stared at us from the edge of the plateau. “We regularly see these stately antelope on this section, sometimes in big herds,” said Paul Colvin. The founder of SA Adventure Trails, he had organised our Giants Cup Hikeathon, a four-day, self-guided slackpack through the foothills of the Drakensberg.
We were on the Black Eagle Pass, on day three of the 60km hikeathon, which follows the route of Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife’s established backpacking route – the Giants Cup Trail (GCT) – but utilises guest-house accommodation instead of the hikers huts.
“Having run ‘hotel hopping’ hikes along the Wild Coast for a number of years, I approached Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in 2005 to see if I could introduce a similar concept in the Drakensberg,” explained Paul. “They had no objection to me picking up hikers off the trail each day and taking them to nearby guest houses, provided I paid the normal park fees.”
Now, I’m a mountaineer, so the Drakensberg has long been my hunting ground. I’ve climbed most of its iconic peaks, completed the Drakensberg Grand Traverse twice, and slept out in countless caves and on lofty tent perches. But I’m clearly getting soft – the thought of a good hike by day and luxury at night is increasingly appealing.
“You’re not alone,” said Paul with a chuckle, when I confided in him. “I’ve seen a growing interest in customised Giants Cup hikeathons, particularly for couples and smaller groups.” The full GCT is a tough hike and you need to carry food, sleeping bags and all your clothing for five days, so the three- or four-day slackpacking option is very popular with older hikers and those who lack the time or experience for such an undertaking.
The night before the trail was spent at Albizia House, a gorgeous bed and breakfast in Himeville. Chris Wheeler, our host, is a qualified tourist guide, and former chairman of the Southern Drakensberg Community Tourism Organisation, and offered some wonderful insights into what we might see as we followed the trail through the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Park World Heritage Site.
After breakfast the following morning, Chris transported us to the trailhead at the bottom of the Sani Pass where he issued us with packed lunches, maps and hiking trail booklets from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and some useful last-minute tips. “The wildlife will leave you alone,” he explained, “although we do have mambas and adders in the Berg so be aware. Most importantly, take time to smell the roses along the way. If you want to change the time of the pick-up at Cobham Nature Reserve this afternoon, just give me a call.”
Shouldering our day packs, we set off on the undulating, well-marked path that wound beneath dramatic sandstone cliffs, and admired the changing views and patches of colourful everlastings that turned their open faces to the sun. Once over the ridge between the Mkomazana and Gxalingenwa valleys, the path took us gently downhill before the steep descent to Ngenwa Pools, where we swam and lunched on the rocks.
An equally steep ascent took us out of the valley to contour for a while before following Trout Beck down to Cobham forest station in the beautiful Pholela valley, where Chris was waiting to take us back to our en-suite rooms at Albizia House B&B. An hour later we were strolling down to the historic Himeville Arms for dinner. (There’s much to be said for slackpacking).
Chris warned us to take it slowly on day two, the longest day, on which we would hike days two and three of the official GCT. From Cobham, we set off up the Pholela valley, past paddocks of grazing horses before attacking the ridge to our left. The views back along the river and up towards the Giants Cup and Hodgson’s peaks were stunning so we stopped often to catch our breath and take in the magnificence of the escarpment.
The path led up the eSiphonweni Ridge past Tortoise Rocks, where, following Chris’ advice, we detoured to a big cave above the trail for tea. There we found a wonderful glade of lush trees with a small river that cascaded through an opening in the far end – hence its name Bathplug Cave. Then it was a short contour through some wonderful groves of helichrysum and leucosidea bushes, as well as protea and open grassland, before the descent into Mzimkhulwana Valley.
The Mzimkhulwana Hut – where hikers on the GCT spend the second night – was visible from a long way off. Its setting, beneath sandstone cliffs on the banks of one of the tributaries of the Mzimkhulwana River, was quite superb and a good spot for a break. The water at the pool by the hut was clear and inviting, but cold and a shock to my system when I dived in. Nonetheless it was the perfect spot to laze and enjoy the mountains that rose all around us.
Then it was back on the trail. Crossing the suspension bridge, which aids the crossing of the Mzimkhulwana River, was entertaining – it sank disconcertingly when stepped on. Then came the real challenge of the day, the long climb to Little Bamboo Mountain, Mvulenyana.
But when we got to the top we were rewarded again with incredible views back down to the river, and a shallow tarn, Crane Tarn, in which to freshen up. There were no cranes to be seen but we spotted the remains of petrified forests before picking up the Killiecrankie Stream and descending a steep slope to the tar road near Castleburn where our new hostess, Shelley Garratt, was waiting to ferry us to her B&B, The Old Hatchery.
As she regaled us with stories it became clear that the vivacious Shelley had an interesting history. She and her husband Craig also run yacht charters and had recently moved their catamaran from Mozambique to Zanzibar. A keen hiker, she was impressed that we had taken the 18km day in our stride. “But this trail is not too strenuous,” she admitted. “Not like the Otter Trail. I tell people planning to hike the Otter that they should practise by climbing up and down steep steps every day for the five weeks beforehand.”
Yet again the accommodation was top notch – as was the homely food at The Old Hatchery restaurant. “Our curries are excellent,” teased Shelley, “but I usually tell hikers to stay away from them, just in case. So maybe try the oxtail or lamb shank.”
The following morning, Shelley shuttled us back to the trail where we picked up the familiar white footprints again and began the climb up the steep Black Eagle Pass. It was a superb walk – with views down into the Mzimkhulu Valley and Drakensberg Gardens to the right and all the way up the valley to Rhino Peak and the Mashai Pass. At the top of the pass the vistas changed as we looked south, down to the more expansive Mzimude Valley with its lakes and farms. The horn of Rhino Peak dominated the view as we descended towards the golf course and villas of the Gooderson Drakensberg Gardens Golf & Spa Resort. Then it was back to The Old Hatchery to celebrate our last night.
The final day, from Swiman Hut to Bushman’s Nek was wild and remote; the finest stretch of the trail. The path took us over a ridge – where we startled a couple of mountain reedbuck – and down to the Mzimude River, which we crossed on another suspension bridge, before climbing out into a broad valley where there were splendid views of the jagged, Southern Berg skyline.
We made another short detour to check out the rock paintings in Langalibalele Cave before the final long descent to Bushman’s Nek. Gazing across the flower-studded grasslands at the golden cliffs, my soul soared. If only all Drakensberg hikes had luxury options such as this.
In a Nutshell
- Up to it? This is a great trail for moderately fit and fit hikers. There are a few steep hills but the trail is largely along a contour path so is never unduly strenuous. (Three-day trails finishing at Drakensberg Gardens are also offered on request.) It’s self-guided, but the path is well-marked with white footprints and hikers are issued with maps and GPS trail markers so you shouldn’t get lost. At night you’re ferried a short distance to a guest house, where you can enjoy the views and the setting sun with a cold beer, knowing that a comfortable bed awaits. If you love the mountains but think that hiking in the Berg is for hardy mountaineers only, this leisurely option will come as a pleasant surprise.
- When to Go: The autumn and spring months are ideal for hiking in the Berg. Avoid the midsummer rainy season from November to March, when the weather is too unpredictable, and midwinter from June to August.
- Top Tips: Stay on for an extra day at the end of the trail to climb one of the Berg’s most iconic and accessible peaks, Rhino Peak (a 3 000m peak that is a 21km, 10hr return guided hike with a vertical ascent of 1 000m), or to visit the outstanding rock art of the area with a specialist guide. The Marching Men paintings in the Sani Pass area are an eight-hour return hike but worth every bead of sweat. A 4×4 excursion up the Sani Pass into Lesotho (either in your own car or with a local tour company) is well worthwhile for those who haven’t visited this unique part of Southern Africa. Remember to bring your passport.
- Bookings: SA Adventure Trails, 082 323 4022, [email protected], www.drakensberg-hikes.co.za/giants-cup