Drakensberg Traverse Support Hike 30 April – 2 May 2005.
Giants Castle Camp – Bannermans Pass – Langalibalele Pass – Giants Castle Camp
By Mike Hamilton
I have never been so well received when arriving at the top of a mountain pass in my life. In fact, I cannot recall ever seeing a team of folk so pleased to meet another group of hikers than I witnessed on this hike.
Fourteeen hikers, led by Jenny Owens were 6 days into their 12 day traverse across the Drakensberg. Having started in the north, at the chain ladders near Mont-Aux-Sources, the team had trekked to meet us at the head of Bannermans Pass. Having prepared their re-supply packs ahead of the traverse, each person theoretically limited to about 2-3kg, they awaited us with some expectation to gladly receive their own parcels.
We, a group of five from Johannesburg and an enthusiastic crowd of twenty-nine hikers from Natal had volunteered to carry up food and supplies to replenish stock for the traverse team. Lawrence, leader of the Natal clans, was principal organiser of the support group and we were to meet at Giant’s Castle early on the Saturday morning.
I was a bit concerned when I heard we were to meet at 08h00, as I felt this was a bit late for a get together. I always prefer to start early, leaving time for tea-breaks, lunch, and enough time for bad weather management. George, Hanneke and I booked ourselves into a B&B in the Estcourt district on the Friday and settled into a relaxed evening after a leisurely drive and a substantial Spur dinner. After an early breakfast we rolled into Giants in time for an eight o’clock rendesvoux. John Hodgson and Wendy Palm were at the gate timeously. Over the next 20 or so minutes the Natal crew arrived in chunks. We signed registers, exchanged monies, gathered and distributed the pre-packed parcels prepared by each of the traverse hikers and at 09h00 we were ready to go. The groups were divided up into one-nighters, and two groups of two-nighters going down Langalibalele and Giant’s pass respectively.
David Bristow lists the hike to Bannermans hut as a four to five hour walk. We set off at 09h00, and felt it necessary to keep up a brisk pace. The first 3-4 kms out of camp take you up the foothills before settling into a gentler contour. We stopped for tea at the junction where you could bear left for Langalibalele Pass, about 6 km from camp. After tea we hiked on and reached Bannermans Hut at about 11h45. The walk had taken less than 3 hours and we were now 10.5km from Giants camp. The rest of the group rolled in and we all enjoyed an early lunch in what I must note is a well maintained hut. We had climbed about 500m in elevation and were now at about 2200m.
Bannermans Pass lay ahead. Not listed as a difficult pass, it is short and steep, but not overly challenging. From Bannermans hut, it is between 2 and 3km to the top of the pass, but it is necessary to climb about 800m in elevation. The real climb is in the last kilometre, but although steep, the boulders are small and in many sections there is a path to follow.
About 400m from the top, George and I stopped for tea. Looking down the pass, our group had spread out like a camel train over quite a long distance. Tea breaks do wonders for the body. Suitably refreshed and with our muscles having enjoyed some rest, we made our way up to the top of Bannermans Pass at an elevation of about 3050m, John Hodgson and Hanneke had gone on ahead while we enjoyed tea. John waited at the top to play traffic cop and directed us to a flat area to the right of the pass where we were enthusiastically welcomed by the traverse team. Hanneke had been particularly thoughtful and considerate by preparing packs of fudge for each of the traverse team as a surprise.
The evening was delightful. According to the traverse team, it was the first night with pleasant weather, and by the sounds of it, everyone enjoyed the camraderie and yes, a bit of wine and Jack Daniels. Jenny tucked the team into bed and after a cool (-6 degrees) night, she woke everyone at about 05h30 to get ready for the days demands. I was amused at how gaily the hikers shook the ice from their tents. Water bottles left outside were frozen and the streams iced over. After a few happy snaps taken by Richard (Cape Town), the traverse team was wished well and they set off on their seventh day towards the Tent. Three days should see them at Sani for their next supply swop, after which they will have three more days to complete the traverse.
We set off over the ridge to the south of Bannermans, towards Bannermans cave, and on to the head of Langalibalele Pass. Stopping near the trail head for tea and to dry the tent we had packed earlier, we enjoyed a break and a discussion on the seeming futility of wars while looking up to Carbineers Grave. I was impressed when I asked Lawrence the history of Carbineers Grave and he proceeded to tell me the story of Chief Langalibalele and the skirmish at the head of the pass. He even named the soldiers who died in the skirmish. I’m sure the “Transvaalers” could learn a lot about the Berg by hiking more regular with those from the Last Outpost!
With reluctance we set off down Langalibalele. Knowing we only had a few kilometres to go, and also that we wished to spend another night camping before we were to walk out, we were in no hurry. We strolled down the pass and had tea where the path crosses Bushmans River. A beautiful waterfall and a chilly pool in the shade was a good place to relax. After lunch we climbed up to the Langalibalele Ridge to the left of Bushmans and walked on one of the straightest paths I have walked on in a long time. At Grysbok Bush, where two rivers meet, we stopped for tea. We had to decide whether we were to walk out, or to camp. The walk out was only about 3km, but none of us wanted to go. Apparently there is a restriction as to where camping is permitted and in the Giant’s Camp area it may well be no camping within 5km of the Camp. If so, we were at fault, but it was an ideal spot and it appeared to have been used before. As always we left no trace other footprints and some flattened grass.
After a cool wash in the river, we setup camp, enjoyed a good dinner, a glass of wine and a cappuchino. We did some stargazing and satellite spotting. The weather was mild, not dropping below +6 degrees. We enjoyed a good sleep with the sound of running water and a waterfall nearby.
The walk into camp was short, and beautiful. We stopped a number of times to enjoy the scenery. Apart the splendour of the rocks and streams, the river walk and treed area before camp were delightful. It was quite odd walking into camp between the chalets, while still being on a path in the trees. The camp at Giants is exclusive and the restaurant serves a slow but great breakfast. Hanneke had insider knowledge and led us to the stables where some showers were tucked away. Hot water a-plenty, we showered and cleaned for the journey back to the “civilised” world.
All in all, we had a wonderful weekend. This was a moderate hike of about 27km, particularly when stretched out to a two nighter. The pleasure of hiking with others who proactively do their own bit, chip in positively with shared activity, don’t hesitate to offer assistance where required and know how to balance social interaction with privacy cannot be understated. Thanks to Lawrence for organising and to the crew I hiked with for the pleasant interaction. Best wishes and thanks to the the traverse team for giving us a great reason to go up the Berg again. Anyone who can endure 12 days of exposure while walking 270km can only be admired and respected.
For reference, the paths on this route are clearly visible. Perhaps the only place where first timers may require a GPS would be across the escarpment if the weather was bad. If not, there are rock cairns marking the route between the passes. I like to know where I am going so I had a map, as well as a GPS with pre-programmed waypoints. Not needed this time, but always serves as a precaution should something go pear-shaped.