Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An Epic Training Trail

Ok so we are planning on doing the 3 passes trek in Nepal during April, this means we need to do some high altitude training, well that's according to our leader anyway. We planned to do a 5 day hike with 3 nights on top of the Drakensberg, essentially above 3000m. To say the planning was plain and simple would be to belittle the effort of co-ordinating the long weekend between probable Nepal trekkers, potential Nepal trekkers and others.... On the day we planned to leave, the group of 8 became 7 and a second group of 5 became 2. We had planned to get a lift with Mark ( and John - who pulled out) with Corlius (aka "Our Leader") and then the Pretoria bunch going in Johann's Fortuner. We met at Marks and decided to rather take our new Corsa Ute as it would use a bit less fuel and Mark would then jump in the Fortuner. We drove down to Mnweni cultural center, with a Nandos break in Harrismith, pitched out tents, had a really nice Pepper Pot followed by a restful night on our new self inflating mattresses in out tent. Liz and I had previously done the Mnweni marathon in 2008, so knew the cultural center and some of the route from that experience.

This shows our route

Day 1 Start at 1276m end at 2107m ( or maybe 1807m according to some sources- Why oh why did I not take my hiking GPS with?)
We packed up, Liz and I had opted put of communal catering, so just loaded our packs up and watched as the other 5 shared out their rations. While filling in Mountain Rescue register I used my fishing scale to measure the pack weights. Most were between 20 and 22 kgs except for Johann who's pack was too heavy for my scale, probably around 28kgs. Off we set at 7:30, Corlius and I were doing a good pace, when Mark called to us, Liz's boots had broken, the heels came off That meant we had to turn back! All this planning and preparation, what could we do? An hour into a 5 day hike and we were going back.... As we walked we sought answers, Pietermaritzberg would be maybe 3 hours each way, we were not that keen on joining the second group who were going to do a shorter route the following day. We walked back a lot faster than we had walked out. When we got back at 9:15 we were told there may be some boots in Bergville, 35 minutes away, we jumped in the Ute and searched for the co-op. On the drive out I decided if we could get back by 11:00 then we could catch the others before the cave. They only had one pair of size 8 boots, not ideal as Liz takes a 7, but either take it or miss out maybe 3 pairs of socks would help. We got back to the cultural center at 11:01, we tried to get a lift along the road but other than letting someone drive us in my new Ute, and leaving the keys with him, we were stuck. So we restarted day one at 11:05, 500m down the road, we came across a Police van who offered us a lift. He took us just past where we were at 8:30. Knowing this part of the route helped as we set off in earnest to find GrassCutters cave. At about 2pm we looked down from our route to see the others had gone along the river and were taking some strain with the boulder hopping. We ended up joining them for a swim in some amazing pools, just after the Mnweni / Icidi river split. They could not believe that we had caught up with them, I must say it was a surprise to us as well. We still had about 6kms to go the cave, this proved quiet tough as speed in the berg is slow, mostly the path was non existent as it is a remote and un-hiked area. Eventually Mark and I got to the cave at about 5:30, Herman was last to arrive at 6:30, he was not a happy camper, Dorette had actually enticed him along the way for the last hour or so, the mark of a true hiker. Mark worked out that the group had done about 16km, Liz and I added about 3.5 ks to that. We toasted the evening with some Black Grouse. Liz as usual managed to prepare an amazing meal, what a treasure she is. The cave was really big although there was not too much flat sleeping area but we coped. We had water, and Liz managed a cold shower in an adjoining overhang.

Day 2 start at 2107m end at 3050m
We woke to a beautiful morning, Johann decide to take Herman back and try and do a easier hike. It was Herman's first ever hike and being a circular route , with no real shortcut/escape routes, it made sense. He had struggled with his pack and had a sore knee. Johann and Herman actually went back and met up the other 2 first time hikers, they joined up and went off to Sentinel and did a much easier hike of their own - at least they could enjoy it. Most berg passes take around 3 hrs, we had about 4ks to the base of the pass and then the climb. We managed to get off "path" quite badly although we were not sure how or why! We started to fear not getting up the pass before dark, lots of bush wacking can be hard work. Eventually we go to the final really steep last 2ks at around 2:30pm and as there was now nowhere to camp, we expected poor weather and realising we could probably not finish the trail if we did not go up, we started up. Being an idiot I offered to go back and help if I got up before any others. We had to climb up about 700m before sunset. There was lots of heavy weedy bush at the base which is really hard going, this was followed by some pretty hectic boulder hopping, then a much more accommodating grass section.
I had heard Dorette saying to Mark that a friend had told her about a cave just before the top, this really lifted my spirits!! As Liz neared the top she angled across to have a look, she confirmed that it was possible to spend the night in the unnamed cave, there was drip for water, and some space for sleeping. I dropped my pack and headed back to help Dorette and Mark, it was not much only a 100m or so , by this time Mark was carry both packs in relays.
Mark pitched his tent just outside the cave as he was scared of heavy wind in the nek of the pass. We made it to the cave where I just got on my mattress and passed out what a day only about 6 or so Kms but wow. Liz force fed me soup, biscuits and some muscles along with a few swigs of Black Grouse I had when I arrived. Liz was quite worried about me during the night but I awoke refreshed in the morning.

Day 3 start and end at around 3050m
I saw the start of the sunrise from around 3:30AM, as the sky started to glow. A beautiful morning, Ginger tea went down well followed by some Muesli, Liz had some amazing Ginger and Cardamon Biscotti, they were really scrummy. Not knowing if Wimpey was or was not coming we set off to get to Fangs pass for 1pm , our suggested meeting time. Walking on top of the Berg is very deceptive, it is far from flat as one expects. We tried to traverse as much as possible so as to minimise climbing and to make effective use of any height gained. We got to the top of Fangs pass at 1:05 which was pretty good timing, had a quickish snack lunch before getting our first dose of rain. So rain gear, all of us used different methods. Corlius had an orange water proof bag which went over his pack, making it totally water proof, a good idea I thought, but then he needed a rain jacket. I find I sweat too much in these so I use a poncho as does Liz and put a simple pack cover over my pack as well, this proved tricky with a tent and our self inflating mattresses, but after a few episodes I sorted it out. The one problem with ponchos is wind but we did not have too much so that was fine - maybe I need to rig up a strap to tie the back of the poncho to the pack. The rain came in shorts episodes so it meant much stopping and starting as gear went on and off. Mark was pretty good at suggesting the best routes to follow as we hardly ever found a path. We were heading for Pins cave, when Corlius and I saw what looked like a path and a cave so we headed down a cutback. Rather look at a map when changing direction, but the temptation of end of day was just too much. Liz and Dorette watched from afar as we came to our senses. Oh well back up we go. That was when the mist arrived, we tried to follow some cairns, and eventually found one which probably led to Pin cave, Mark went down but was not impressed with it, it was smaller than last nights cave and no water. We tried to enter some GPS co-ords but as we were getting cold and the mist was getting thicker we set off in search of a campsite, then the rain starting. As we we came over a ridge I saw some flat areas and we decided to pitch our tents ASAP. Liz's fingers were cold so could not help much with the tent. We tried to keep packs etc dry but... Another problem with ponchos is when I take mine off it invariably gets wet inside, I need to think about that one. Eventually we got the tents up, packs inside, one cannot swing a peanut let alone a cat. We managed to cook some Thai chilli soup, which went down very well. Corlius set off to find some water and came back saying that there was a cliff so no water. Mark managed to rig up some pots to scavenge water running off from the tent, kudos to him. He would definitely be on my Survivorr team. I heard cow bells as I dosed off to the sound of raindrops.... or were they Basuts around our tent, who cares I'm tired.... are those cows? no its coming from the other tent, its snoring...

Day 4 start at 3050m end at 3150m
A 6 am rise confirmed our location, we were 3m from the edge of the escarpment, people have walked off the edge before, how close were we to doing that!! When we left Pins cave we had walked back to the escarpment and not towards Lesotho as we thought.. We had muesli, rusks and tea ( thanks Mark) , then packed up and set off to find Mpongwane cave. Corlius took the low road, the rest took the rim path and we walked, there was some drizzle, I was getting a bit grumpy through lack of water, when Mark saw some down a slope and filled a 6L MSR bag. Spirits were restored. It was good to see the Mnweni cut back as we skirted around. Previously doing the Mnweni marathon we had gone up Mnweni pass , crossed the source of the Orange and gone back down Rockeries pass,so some of what we saw today was familiar. It was pleasant walking, not much up and down, most contouring round. As per usual we stopped for lunch albeit a bit early, Corlius was complaining that we had missed too many meals! Sitting drinking some tea it started raining, this did not last too long but then mist came in. We were about 1 km from Rockeries when we set off keeping each one in sight as much as possible. We got to the top of Rockeries but could not find a cairn... Mark and I decided to scout around leaving the rest waiting for us. Mark had previously been to Mpongwane cave, albeit in 16 years ago.. We were about to give up when we found the cave, and found the path leading to it. We walked back along this making sure there were enough cairns to make the return journey easier. On our way back we heard Liz banging a cooking pot , which is really a good idea as the sound travels far. We eventually got everyone to the cave with the most amazing view, even if it was all misted in. Around 5:30 pm the mist cleared a bit and we had an amazing view of Mpongwane peak which was about 150 m away, photos to follow at some stage.
There was an amazing rainbow , this whole sighting only lasted a few minutes. It was really good just having a relaxing afternoon. Liz once again prepared an amazing rice dish with Pink Salmon and fresh Pepperdews ( Thanks Paula). I demolished a 200g Cadbury's wholenut, as we had coffee and prepared for bed.

Day 5 start at 3150m end at 1276m
It was really misty and with a slight wind the mist filled the cave, our sleeping bags were getting damp!!! Out with some emergency blankets, at least they are waterproof, the crinkling sound was a bit irritating but at least we were dry. The others decided at about midnight to rather put up the tent in the cave, we seemed to be protected by their tent so got away without doing so. Mark dug a trench to keep the drip from running under our groundsheet. Overall a bit of a disrupted night but a good one none the less. The views over Natal were amazing with clouds and sunlight making some amazing sights. We finished as much food as we could and set off for Rockeries pass.
Even easy passes are tough in the Berg, we had some amazing views on the way down, Liz was protecting her Soleus which had flared up over the last two days. There was lots of water everywhere, amazing waterfalls, just protruding out of the rocks. We discussed how difficult it is to describe the beauty of such passes and agreed, if you want to see it you need to feel the pain. It is quite a steep descent down the pass followed by a long stretch (about 6km) in a valley before arriving at a village where we expected to meet up with Johann. We had told him 1pm but we only got there around 14:20, by which time he had returned to the cultural center in case we had come down a different pass. In our crossing of the river we ended up very split up, Liz and I followed the same path we did in the race, and were not exactly sure where the others had got to, they having crossed the river in Amphibians whereas we had to remove boots. Eventually we all met up the bridge, Dorette and I decided to walk on, Mark and Liz followed, Corlius headed for the Shebeen. About 2kms down the road we met up with Johann coming back for us, we carried on walking while he went back to the bridge for Corlius. We all got collected on the way back, I stood on the towbar and held on to the roof rack for the last bit.
Never trust anything you have not tested, I put a roller cover over the back of the Ute which was supposed to be waterproof, well crackerbread became sponge bread, our dry clothes were soaked, now I now why money is made with indelible ink, my wallet was soaked. No problem we still managed a quick shower and set off for Nandos( Harrismith) after a good hot burger we continued to JHB. we arrived home around 9:30pm , most of our kit was wet, we were tired, but had had an amazing experience...
Roll on Nepal.....


  1. Dave - Wow! Makes my walks look so wimpy! :) Great luck to you and your group on this.

  2. Great descriptions, looking forward to the photos.

  3. The views looks great. Hope you guys will enjjy it