The Grand Traverse of the Drakensberg – April 2011

This is why I love what I do.

The Grand Traverse is the mother of all hikes in the Drakensberg. With a total distance of about 230km and a total elevation gain over 9000m (higher than Everest), the preferred length of this trip is between 12 to 15 days. The hike runs along the top of the escarpment, keeping as close to the edge as possible for good vistas, and stays at an average altitude of 3000m, crisscrossing the border between Lesotho and South Africa. It’s a remote area, inhabited by the hardy Basotho shepherds, accompanied by their loyal dogs, who use these high lands for grazing for their sheep, goats, cows and horses. They leave the area during the winter months when it gets too cold for comfort.

Perpendicular to the escarpment, 34 ridges with their corresponding valleys need to be crossed. Due to the duration and undulating terrain, the Grand Traverse requires not only an above average physical fitness but, most importantly, mental strength and determination. Only a handful of people do this trip every year.

Recently I had the opportunity to organise my first Grand Traverse for Dési and Bart from Belgium. They had been inspired by the book, “Encounters with the Dragon”, a masterpiece by John Hone, in my opinion the best photographic book on the Drakensberg ever published. They were experienced and had done long distance hikes in other parts of the world and were looking for a trip of at least 10 days. The Grand Traverse was for them.

Pack animals are not used in the Drakensberg, so to organise a trip of this nature ghI had to arrange 3 Porters and 2 resupplies. April is usually an ideal time of the year to hike in the Drakensberg. However, the reality is that weather patterns and climate are doing some strange things these days, as we found out during our trip. However this was beyond our control and with a bit of patience we were duly rewarded.

If you would like to do this hike contact us at [email protected] or have a look at our website www.spanafrican-adventures.co.za for other exciting options.

The full Party: Desi, Bart, myself and our 3 porters: Mohlakoana, Alfred and Shabalala.

 

Beautiful picture of the Amphitheatre struggling against stormy clouds.

 

Walking by Stromberg basalt cliffs.

 

Porter Mohlakoana loaded with a 30kg backpack. On gumboots!

 

Bart negotiating the chain ladder with confidence.

 

Last steps for him.

 

This was my 10th ascent of the chain ladders.

 

On top of the Amphitheatre it was misty again.

 

As usual we had some encounters with Basutho shepherds.

 

A beautiful view with the weather deteriorating quickly.

 

During our second night in the mountains the rain started to fall and didn’t stop for more than 24 hours. We decided to sit it out for 1 full day.

 

At the source of the Orange River (Senqu for the Basotho) the ground was saturated with rain water. Bart have to dig a trench around their tent to avoid flooding.

 

Desi and Bart’s fantastic tunnel tent, with a very roomy and convenient vestibule (especially in rainy conditions). I was jealous.

 

Eventually we could pack up and carry on walking. In the morning of our 4th day, we enjoyed a beautiful colony of vultures by the Rockeries Pass.

 

There were literally tens of them.

 

The mist fell on us once again and it wasn’t long before it started to drizzle.

 

The next morning the weather seemed to give us a break. We were finally above the clouds.

 

Beautiful sunrise at Tseketseke Pass with views of the Pyramid.

 

On the way up to Cleft Peak. We could finally see what we had left behind.

 

From Cleft Peak it’s possible to see all the way from the Eastern Buttress, in the Royal Natal area, to the Cathkin Peak, in the Monk’s Cowl area.

 

The weather was still reluctant to improve completely but the light was great for photography.

 

The warm low warm damp clouds from the east were competing against the strong high dry winds from the west. A good change in weather was coming.

 

Sunrise from Didima Cave.

 

Ship’s Prow Pass, one of the toughest passes in the Drakensberg.

 

At the head of Ship’s Prow Pass.

 

A real Basotho “cowboy”.

 

It’s unusual to see a Basotho Kraal so close to the escarpment.

 

A great sunset at our campsite by Leslie’s Pass.

 

Views from Leslie’s Pass the next morning.

 

The Injisuthi Valley.

 

The Greater Injisuthi Buttress.

 

On the way to Bannerman’s Pass.

 

Desi and Bart overlooking the Giants Castle Area. Gypaetus Point in the background.

 

The sturdy Basotho Pony ever-present on the High Berg.

 

Relaxing at our campsite by Bannerman’s Pass.

 

The next morning I could witness one of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen. It was just magic.

 

It doesn’t get much better than this.

 

Porter Alfred.

 

Porter Shabalala.

 

Porter Mohlakoana.

 

Bird’s eye views of the Giant’s Castle Area.

 

Desi walking on a carpet of helichrysums.

 

The Giants Castle.
My tent kept on leaking so I had to apply some makeshift waterproofing. It worked!

 

Our campsite by the Tent. Excuse the blurb but the colours are still well worth the picture. No photoshopping here.

 

Every morning in the Grand Traverse starts with a climb.

 

Overlooking Ka-Masihlenga Pass.

 

Above a perfect sea of clouds.

 

Descending towards the broad shallow Redi Valley.

 

Our stunning campsite by Mkhomazi Pass.

 

Desi celebrating the crystal clear blue sky.

 

A beautifully built Basotho hut.

 

Thabana Ntlenyana (The beautiful Little Mountain) – At 3482m it’s the highest peak south from Kilimanjaro.

 

The Sani Flats.

 

Sani Top Chalet at Sani Pass is one of the most expected points along the Grand Traverse (for obvious reasons).

 

One of our porters got sick (in blue), so we had to come down the escarpment one day earlier. Here descending the Stones Pass north.

 

The first 300m of descent of the pass are very steep.

 

Discussing our route out of the mountains.

Carlos Gonzalez

Life has been good since his arrival in South Africa. It was September 2005 and he fell in love with the country straightaway. Places like the Drakensberg, Wild Coast and the Midlands provide all the inspiration he needs. After the taste of freedom, working in an office again was out of the question. He has since qualified as a nature and mountain guide, and as his friends joke, embarked on a serious love affair... with the Drakensberg, where he spends most weekends.
3 thoughts on “The Grand Traverse of the Drakensberg – April 2011
  • Oh! The hike was of an exceptional beauty and we, as human beings, could not but feel so humble sourrounded by these magnificent mountains. Alone with nature. Carlos organised this trip very, very well, he is an excellent mountain guide (and a good cook as well), always keeping his "sang froid". Porters are not normally used in the Drakensbergen, and although the hike remains quite 'heavy', the 'use' of porters…

  • Absolutely beautiful!Would it be too hot to do this earlier in the season?Also, how does a person go about contacting Carlos for a next year trip?Cam

  • Hi Cam,You can contact me at [email protected] regards,Carlos

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