Distance hike – proceeds in aid of WWF
10 April 2005
George Christian and Bernard Donnelly and I chatted about this ‘distance hike’ when we were relaxing at Holhoek a month or two earlier. Seemed like a good challenge when sitting around the fire, but I did not give it much more thought, especially considering Bernard and I had had an abortive attempt at doing a 42km event in the Drakensberg (Mweni and Rockeries) some years ago. Imagine the thought of a marathon with the whole day to do it in! Pity a couple of hills and poor weather were thrown in with the bargain. Why not give it another go?
Typically, I enjoy backpacker trails with daily distances of 10-20 km. Strolling along in the Fish River Canyon, ambling through the surreal landscapes of Kilimanjaro, or taking in spectacular views from the toilet windows of the Otter Trail are my kind of game. Not out to prove a point, I have been known to stop occasionally for a pot of tea and would certainly suggest that my pace is not on a par with the Schumacher’s of the Johannesburg Hiking Club (JHC).
I do however like to challenge myself occasionally and I make a pretentious effort to maintain my fitness. Social cycling midfield in the popular Argus and 94.7 challenges, and the my best efforts at floating and breast stroking my way across Midmar finding it odd that no-one wants to stop for a chat.
At the beginning of April I was reminded that we had agreed to do the Distance hike. Bernard had to withdraw for business reasons, but George was committed. I knew that my pace would delay anyone who felt obliged to lead us as a group and as such, I suggested that George and I approach this hike with the intent of doing it at our pace, and not force ourselves to foolishly attempt to keep up with the masters.
Graham Wild, a mapping fundi and distributor of GPS products, showed me some mapping software and electronic versions of 1:50,000 maps. I purchased the software and maps and spent some hours familiarizing myself with the tools and the terrain. I initially guessed the location of Foothold and found Castle Gorge on the maps. I was thoroughly confused by the fact that JHC use the name Castle Gorge to refer to the starting point of a hike that ends at Castle Gorge on the opposite (north) side of the Magaliesberg range! Nonetheless, after getting some GPS coordinates relating to Foothold and the names of farms at various points, I set about planning a route. Using the 1:50,000 electronic maps and the software, I selected key points to use as waypoints and planned our walk to maintain as constant an elevation as possible, essentially plotting out a ‘contour path’ we could follow and picking points in gulleys that would minimize the ups and downs. Not liking to hike ‘blind’, I printed out the maps and route, and downloaded the planned waypoints to my GPS in preparation for the event.
We arrived at Foothold in the early evening. The evening hours were spent on much banter, one or two beers, and a George special dinner with too many onions he did not warn me about. Nessim had forgotten his hiking boots in Johannesburg. George lent him his pair and opted to walk in his Hi-Techs. I had decided to walk in my running shoes. I knew the terrain was rough and I anticipated some challenges, but the last time I had walked long and hard in my hiking boots on the Ships Prow hike, I had some Achilles heel problems.
All of us were up and about by 05h00. The sun was scheduled to rise at about 06h20. George, Kevin and I had planned to average 4kmph and would therefore be able to take required breaks, a good lunch stop, and still finish ahead of sunset which was expected at about 17h50.
Shimon was leader of the pack and had suggested we walk together and see how group fared. We left on schedule at 05h45. I was pleased we were heading up Marjean Pass which I had anticipated, as this was not only the shortest route to our proposed path to Breedtsnek, but also a relatively easy climb up the ridge.
Once at the top of the ridge, we turned to the right and headed eastwards towards Breedtsnek. The sunrise was magnificent. Rising slowly, time seemed to slow down and the quietness was intensified. The route we followed was pretty much along the route between the planned waypoints I had set. At times we followed contours that led us northwards away from the ridge, but we were seldom more than 200 to 300m north of the ridge, not wanting to end up in the numerous gulleys and gorges on the north side. It is quite surprising how sound travels. We could hear cars and trucks in the distance although the road they were traveling on was perhaps 5 to 10 km away.
After crossing Breedtsnek, we were on our way to Fountain Gulley. Communication towers, masts and antennae on the horizon ahead, we stayed fairly close to the southern ridge most of the way.
As we approached Fountain Gulley, as a result of not knowing the route well, we chose to get onto the road near the masts before heading north to our lunch stop. We should have followed the route indicated by the black arrow. This would have saved us about 20 minutes or so.
We wasted some time looking for water to replenish our supplies. Each having brought 3 to 4 litres of fluids with us, we were down to about 1 litre each and may have considered heading down to Fountain Gulley camp if we had not found water. Fortunately Shimon and his team met us as they were setting off after having lunch. Shimon kindly pointed us in right direction to water and we enjoyed a half hour lunch break. We were probably about 40 minutes behind them at this point, but I was not concerned as our walking average speed was about 4kmph as planned. I felt comfortable we would get home before sunset.
The lunch break did us a lot of good. Suitably rested, our confidence restored, we were off on the home stretch. We had completed 28 of the 42 km at this point, 15 more km to go. We were two thirds of the way and we knew we had done some work. We did not talk about it much until after the walk was over, but at this stage of the walk before lunch, we had all quietly questioned our ability to finish, particularly if we had limited water.
From Fountain Gulley to the top of the downhill climb to the ‘Castle Gorge’ carpark we aimed at our GPS waypoints, and walked and talked. Stopping every hour for a 10 minute drinks break, we paced ourselves more gently than in the morning.
Shortly before reaching the regular day hike route used by JHC, we headed down to the road-track a bit early and had a fairly steep climb down. If we had routed a bit right, we could have had a more gentle descent as shown by the arrow.
The walk through the forested area was refreshing and after reaching the old car park, the trek to the new car park added an extra couple of metres!
All in all this was a great hike. More long than strenuous. Not quite a traverse. The hike could have started closer to Rustenburg and continued to end closer to Hartebeespoort Dam and beyond.
The most challenging aspect was probably the fact that for most of the route there were no paths to follow. Selecting your own path, walking in grass not always seeing holes or stones, adds to the challenge. I think we did well to finish according to our plan. I missed my tea-stops. Stopping for 10 minutes every 2 hours and hurriedly pouring from a flask and is not quite the same as leisurely making a fresh pot and taking in some scenery while enjoying a slow cup of tea. Horses for course, we knew what we were in for and tackled it appropriately.
Thanks to all who assisted with the organization, and especially to Shimon and his team for their tolerance and consideration shown towards us slow pokes.
The hike route profile is shown below. Total distance covered on foot 42.1 km according to GPS log. I had estimated 36km as trip distance based on pre-hike planning and guessing of route when waypoints were set. This distance was obviously based on ‘Distance in the Air’ or as the crow flies between waypoints. Interesting that left/right and up/down deviations added only about 20% to this estimate.