Drakensberg: Giants Cup Trail

With both children at Barnard Castle school, we got a slightly longer October half term, giving us the opportunity to make a worthwhile trip to South Africa, with a five day walk in the Drakensberg, as well as various more touristy activities. The kids weren’t up for epic scale walks (and perhaps neither were we) so we chose a walk with fairly short days and huts for each night to keep the weight down. We invited Mary’s sister Chrissy and her partner David along too. We’d managed to book all the permits (and huts) from home, so there was no hassle finding offices or doing paperwork once we were in the country.

First day – Sani Pass road to Pholela Hut

The starting point is on the Sani Pass road (the same road we’d been to the top of yesterday on our brief visit to Lesotho). It took a while to get organised and get up there, so this was not the earliest start, but still earlier than we’d manage at home.

Thaba Tours drop us at the start of the walk – we should really have had an earlier start than 08:30

There’s a sign at the start which says “Giants Cup Trail, 60km” and the path starts to ascend, but very gently at first. Although the sky looks cloudless on the photo at the start of the walk, it had clouded over a bit at just the right time and was fairly cool as we climbed the steepest section of the 300m climb through Protea bushes and tree ferns.

There’s a steep climb up to the day’s high point, but it was still relatively cool

After the ascent, there’s a broad shoulder of land as we crossed to the Gxalingwena valley, offering lots of good views over the Mkomazana River to the Twelve Apostles ridge.

After an initial 300m ascent, we contour round for a kilometre amid splendid scenery

The path now throws away a lot of that hard-won altitude by dropping very steeply to the Gxalingwena River at iNgenwa Pool, where the river is crossed by a rickety log bridge with no handrail. This did give a bit of grief to one or two people, and crawling seemed appropriate to one of the group… After this trauma, we sunbathed and hung around for quite a while at the cool pool, which perhaps was an error as the days only get hotter and hotter.

Dropping down to the Gxalingwena River

Across the river, the path turns downstream, and ascends fairly gently up the shoulder of Ndlovini, passing a cave which we investigated (the guidebook suggests this as an alternative lunch spot if the weather is less clement). The grass was much longer and yellower on this side of the valley, which is not a slope effect from differential exposure to sun or wind, but is the result of the pattern of burning. The natural ecological pattern of this terrain is for vegetation to grow bigger over a few years and then burn periodically in the hot summers. If large areas burn at once, now that the wild land is hemmed in by agriculture lower down, it can take a long time for wildlife to come back, so burning is now controlled to ensure that a mosaic of smaller areas burn. This is apparently done by spraying a strip with weedkiller early in the growing season to establish a boundary, then late season when everything is dry, the enclosed area is deliberately burned on a windless day. The bare strips are wide enough to act as effective fire-breaks, but narrow enough to recolonise with vegetation quite quickly. The slopes we had descended to the Gxalingwena River were fresh and green, but the Proteas, which have evolved to withstand periodic fire, were all sprouting fresh growth from very charcoally branches – looks as though these slopes burned the previous year. On the Ndlovini side, the grass was about as long as we saw it anywhere on the walk, and was likely to burn later this year.

Above the Gxalingwena River, on a gentle traversing ascent.

There’s a long fairly level stretch as we contoured round Ndlovini towards the Trout Beck, as as we crested a minor rise, we saw that the slopes ahead were occupied by a large herd of Eland. We got a good view of these as we reached a small cliff which we had to descend by finding a scramble down in a little gully, during which time the entire herd sauntered away from our continuing path down.

Our path lay straight over the hillside occupied by a large herd of Eland

The path now traversed to cross a stream quite high, where it was small, before descending to the Trout Beck, which it crossed above the confluence. This was just about jumpable (if you passed backpacks across), though some chose to wade. Further down, we had to cross the beck again, and found a point where you could just about keep your feet dry on a shallow rock, though Sarah then took her boots off and paddled as we waited to regroup with those who had taken boots off at the previous crossing.

There were several stream crossings towards the end of the first day

The views got a bit more restricted as the beck cut down on its way to join the Pholela River and the rich grassland lower down was home to smaller wildlife, with a serious taste for bling !

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Camouflage was not a major objective of these big grasshopppers

As the side valley opened out again, we could see trees ahead, and the Pholela River was crossed by a substantial, though rather makeshift-looking suspension bridge. As a result of our less-than-crack-of-dawn start and the time we’d spent at the iNgenwa pool, it was now quite hot and we were pretty tired and dusty after 13 km on the trail, so the shade of the trees and the Pholela hut were very welcome.

The first day ended with a more significant river crossing – this was one of the better-built swing bridges

The hut (formerly a farmhouse) was open, with no warden, or anyone to check that we had the required paperwork, so we settled in quickly. We cooked a meal fairly early, since there was no source of light apart from candles and our own headtorches.

The Pholela Hut

Second day – Pholela Hut to Mzimkhulwana Hut

We were stirring at first light, and got breakfast fairly quickly, but were still a bit disorganised and took a while to get going, as we knew that the second day was the shortest on the trip. The correct trail was not immediately obvious, but a strategically placed marker stone pointed us the right way as we left the network of paths around the hut, and there was no mistaking the trail after that.

Breakfast as soon as possible after sunrise to get going before the heat

Initially, the path climbs steeply above the Pholela River, then more gently up to Tortoise rocks, a group of outcrops which do indeed look like giant tortoises from a distance.

Tortoise Rocks

Beyond Tortoise rocks, the gradient becomes quite gentle to a high point of about 1800m on the shoulder of eSiphongweni. At this point, we were looking for a detour path leading uphill, and were able to drop the big packs for a short climb up to Bathplug Cave, a big rock shelter with a stream cascading through the middle. There was supposed to be Bushman rock art here, and we spent some time looking before we eventually spotted it. Unlike some of the North American native art we’d seen, chipped out of desert varnish, or European cave paintings protected from the weather and even calcited over, the Bushman art here is very readily eroded by the wind and rain and is fading, despite being only a century or two old. You can see the ochre colours in small depressions in the rock, but it has already gone from the more raised parts of the rock and is quite hard to spot.

Andy on the path near Bathplug Cave

The weather on our arrival in South Africa had been very wet indeed, so we were fortunate that it had improved for our walk. One benefit of the wet spring weather, though, was the quantity and variety of wildflowers everywhere. Groups of pink everlastings in particular grew close to or even on the trail and we often stopped to photograph a group that was in some way more attractive than the last one which had caught our attention.

At this time of year, we passed wild flowers almost at every step

From Bathplug Cave, after we’d dropped back to the main trail and picked up our sacks, the way on descended gently and curved round into the Mzimkhulwana valley. Off to our left we could see where the river ran into a small reservoir and agriculture penetrated quite close to our route, leaving only a fairly narrow strip of wild land between the farms and the escarpment.

Starting a gentle descent to the Mzimkhulwana Hut

As the path curved away along the valley side, it followed a terrace formed along the top of a harder bed of rock, often crossing slickrock above little kloofs (eroded mini-canyons sheltering lots of vegetation). The open slopes above had many Proteas, the ones here in full leaf suggesting that this area had not burned for a couple of years. Ahead we could see a terraced ridge which had clearly not burned for much longer – at the foot of this spur was the hut we were heading for.

Traversing above kloofs on a very easy piece of the trail

The last bit of the path drops fairly steeply down to the Siphongweni river where there is a well tucked away bridge to get to the far bank and the Mzimkhulwana trail hut where we arrived before midday. There are small cliffs to the left of the path, and similar ones facing them, left of the hut. Both of these seem to be favoured by baboons, and we were kept entertained most of the remaining hours of daylight by their calls and antics.

The Mzimkhulwana Hut and the bridge which would start the third day’s walk

Third day – Mzimkhulwana Hut to Winterhoek Hut

Up well before dawn – the valley mist had burned off by the time we finished breakfast and set off

By now we were getting the idea that the afternoons were unpleasantly hot and the best time for walking was early, so we managed to be up well before dawn for the longer third day. I had chance to wander around a little as the kettle boiled observing how the clear sky had led to a thermal inversion and valley mist. This burnt off very quickly and skies were clear and sunny by the time we were walking.

The path up the ridge towards Crane Tarn

The path crosses a suspension bridge over the Mzimkhulwana River almost immediately, and then goes up the valley just a short way before climbing steepish slopes on to the ridge leading to Mvuleni Hill. Once on top of the ridge, as usual, the gradient eases, and we had gained most of the height whilst it was still fairly pleasantly cool. We did get a bit strung out along this path, Sarah and I well ahead at this point, but the path was very clear all the way up to Crane tarn.

Many wildflowers everywhere around Crane Tarn

At Crane Tarn we had reached our high point for the day with views ahead opening out towards Garden Castle. Although there were no Cranes in evidence, footprints indicated that this was a haunt for wildlife, and that baboons had been around very recently. The unburnt grassland round about was also full of wildflowers between the odd-shaped rock outcrops.

The white everlastings were not quite as common as the pink, but every bit as attractive

The path now crosses the ridge and starts a descent to the Killiecrankie Stream (not only are place names a mix of native and colonial, but even the latter are a curious mix of Scots and English – after Trout Beck on the first day, why isn’t this one Killiecrankie Burn ?) Where the path crosses the stream, we took advantage of some deep pools for a swim. The trail then leaves the stream and crosses a couple of gentle rises (David and Chrissie managed to disturb a snake basking on this section, but fortunately with a walking pole, rather than a foot. Puff Adders have a reputation for not getting out of the way in a hurry, and having a very poisonous bite). The third rise was a little steeper and then we found ourselves dropping out of the wild country, past a kraal and onto the road. At this point we could see the Winterhoek Hut just across the valley, looking quite close, but the route followed the tarmac for a mile or so, before meandering directly over a hill (and past a grumpy looking bull) and seeming to take a very long detour to reach the welcome shade.

The Winterhoek hut in the trees looks close, but it was a very hot and weary two or three miles yet

Dropping off the hill and away from the cattle, the last bit of path to the group of rondavels did restore our spirits somewhat, and the shade of the trees meant that the “hut” was quite cool, and well away from signs of civilisation.

Last bit of path before the shade of the Winterhoek rondavels

Unlike the other huts, this was not a single building, but a group of half a dozen round thatched huts, most with four bunks inside, but one with toilets and a bigger more open one with seats. Like the other huts, there was no-one else around, and no-one to check we had the right paperwork.

Four bunks in each rondavel, and a big shady shelter with seats. All to ourselves

Fourth day – Winterhoek Hut to Swiman Hut

The fourth day has the longest and steepest ascent of the walk, starting with a 350m climb directly from the hut towards Black Eagle pass dominated by the rocky ramparts of Garden Castle. We were off soon after first light and well up the climb before it started to get hot, scolded by a large troop of baboons on the higher rocks. From this initial high point, the path wanders across fairly level terrain, but another couple of fairly short climbs lead to a high point of almost 2000m with a good view of Rhino Peak and a steep descent off the end of the ridge.

Starting up the slopes of Garden Castle heading for Black Eagle Pass

The Swiman Hut is very obvious at the head of the valley, along with the Garden Castle Forest Station, among a large group of trees, mostly the alien Eucalyptus which the land managers seem to be trying to eliminate, with limited success. They are fast growing and come back from felling or ringbarking – burning out the stumps seems to be a favoured tactic. The Swiman Hut was surrounded by the biggest group of Eucalyptus we saw on the walk (although there were far bigger plantations lower down on our travels). The last section of the path follows slickrock above a small stream to reach this outpost of the road system, seeming a lot less wild than the other huts along the way – it even had electricity and lights !

The path follows slickrock towards Rhino Peak on the last mile before the Swiman Hut

Fifth day – Swiman Hut to Bushmans Nek

The next morning we achieved our earliest start, despite the night having been cloudy with a heavy dew and needing us to wear jackets for the first part of the day’s walk. Looking left to a large area of grassland, there was so much dew that the low sunlight glinted off it and it looked almost like a reflecting rippled lake in the distance.

Low angle early morning sun glinting off dew on the grassland

Since the Swiman Hut was higher up than our other overnight stops, the initial ascent to cross into the next catchment was less – just 150m past rocks, flowers and tree ferns (but not many Protea) before starting a descent to the Mzimude River.

Each group of rocks provides run-off water for groups of flowers

The descent was quite steep, and lost most of the height we had gained in the first couple of kilometres. The stream was quite big, and crossed by quite a chunky bridge (the guidebook said it would be a suspension bridge, but this seems to have been replaced by three spans of heavy planking on concrete piers).

The Mzimude River

From the far side, as the skies cleared and the day started to warm up, we were faced with the main ascent of the day, climbing up open slopes onto a ridge.

A substantial bridge crossing the Mzimude River as the skies started to clear

This initial ascent seemed bigger than we’d expected and we were getting quite hot already by the time it levelled out and we were able to find some shade behind rocks and a big tree for a bit of refreshment.

Finding shade by a Protea and some big rocks towards the end of the last major ascent

From here we lost a bit of height before walking along slickrock above the valley, this section having excellent views back over our previous day’s walk, and having less ascent than we’d expected. There was also a bit of a breeze from time to time.

Looking back down a tributary stream towards the Mzimude River and much of the country we’d traversed

We joined the stream for the ascent over rocks towards the top, still surrounded by flowers, even in the most inhospitable of spots.

Even high up in the rocks, flowers abounded

The best rock art of the trip was supposed to be in the large rock shelter of Langalibalele Cave, which was a slight detour to reach, but proved well worth the effort. This was sheltered from the outside world by collapsed rocks and was much more of a cave than a mere rock shelter. Inside was a pile of grass and droppings indicating recent use by nesting baboons. The cave itself was characterised by wind-eroded sandstone fretted into intriguing shapes.

Langalibalele Cave

Like all the other Bushman rock art we saw, this was faded, but was indeed much clearer than the barely detectable art at Bathplug Cave.

The last Bushman was seen – and duly shot, for the tribe had been officially classified as vermin – in the Giant’s Castle area just before the game reserve was proclaimed. The little man in question was of special interest, because around his waist he carried a belt of antelope horns, containing all the powdered colours used in Bushman rock art. This death was tragic beyond belief, for this last lonely survivor of an essentially peaceful and graceful culture which had been destroyed by greed and intolerance, was probably one of the world’s great anonymous artists. What a chance was missed here, for had he and his fellow hunters survived just a few more years they would certainly have found refuge in the new reserve, and continued their old ways, sharing with us their wisdom of nature. With their passing the spiritual giants of the Drakensberg disappeared into the realm of legends.

Fading Bushman rock art in Langalibalele Cave

After lunch at the cave, there was a little more ascent and then a long, hot descent to Bushman’s Nek. This was another large area which hadn’t burnt for some time, with tall yellow grasses and perhaps fewer wildflowers than on much of the rest of the walk.

Andy, Michael and Sarah at the end of the walk

I gave a slide show on the walk after our return, and the slides (a lot more than are on this blog entry) can now be seen on a dedicated page.