Caving in - to those Troglodyte leanings ... MonksCowl/Zulu Cave, Drakensberg
Did you know that you can book out an entire cave in the Drakensberg to sleep in? Indeed, you haven't really experienced the 'Berg until you've lugged a heavy backpack uphill all day and spent the night in one of these less-than-one-star-rated accommodation venues - where the water is cold, the lights go out at sundown and the beds are hard.
Yet there are at least two things you cannot complain about when sleeping in a cave - the catering (unless you complain about your own cooking, that is) and the view. Waking up at dawn and shuffling out to the front edge of the cave, preferably with a mug of hot coffee, to behold mist-shrouded peaks and endless rugged valleys is what caving is all about.
Caving is a back-to-basics experience that gives ample opportunity for reflection on the nature of self and the luxuries of daily life that are taken for granted - a hot shower, soft bed, dry shoes. It's the simplicity that enables caving to be a deeply rewarding experience. And when the backpack comes off at the end of the day, it all seems worthwhile.
Even though caving is an exercise in self-sufficiency, there's no sharing ethos like that among fellow hikers. After having carried a litre of red wine up the mountain to at least engage in some form of self-indulgence, it means a lot to say to some tired, wine-less soul "pass your mug, friend".
When someone offers you a stick of their precious dry wors or a block of Belgian chocolate, the "thanks" that you offer in acceptance is delivered with a lot more meaning than it is back down there on earth.
To get the most out of any overnight caving experience, it makes sense to be fit. The fitter you are the more you enjoy it and there's a general fitness level below which one shouldn't even attempt an overnight hike. Ten or 12km per day with a pack on can be reasonably tough, even for fairly fit hikers, so those that are not quite there yet, should stick to day walks before going caving in the 'Berg.
Secondly, what you take with you needs to be well thought out. There are certain things that are indispensable, such as good rain gear, a good sleeping bag, groundsheets, basic first-aid equipment and food. You'll also need some warm clothes, cooking equipment, toiletries and other goodies.
Once all this is packed, your backpack should not weigh more than 15kg, preferably less.
Thirdly, the trip needs to be well organised and led by an experienced hiker with some knowledge of the area.
The easiest way to enjoy a well-organised caving trip is to sign on with a club such as the Johannesburg Hiking Club (JHC) or Mountain Club of South Africa, where all you have to do is pay your money, turn up on time and, of course, carry your pack.
The "youthful" division of the JHC went on a two-night caving trip in the Champagne Castle area over the Easter long weekend. The first day's walk, through wet grass and under leaden skies, was a relatively easy eight-hour trek in the lower foothills to a large overhang called Stable Cave.
Now, when you think of caves you may think of a dark tunnel teeming with bats, yet the caves in the 'Berg are in reality large overhangs in the sandstone, deep enough to keep you out of the weather but open and airy enough to be pleasant.
The second day of the hike was a fairly tough but enjoyable trek further towards the main range, with a glorious lunch stop beside a crystal-clear stream. The night was spent at Zulu Cave and the party of 12 returned the next day to the Monk's Cowl camp site, with Champagne Castle and the foreboding main range towering above.
While talk on the trail is often of hot showers, burgers and pizza, the real reason to be there has something to do with things much more ethereal. I can't speak for other hikers, but for me it is in the camaraderie and teamwork; the flowers at my feet as I walk; the air and the light; the mist that swirls up and obscures, clarifies; the spirit of my grandfather that dwells there … these are the things that make me want to sleep in caves occasionally.
The Saturday Star Travel, May 20 2006, page 3.
Over the Easter weekend, youthful hikers experienced the magical beauty of the drakensberg foothills.