Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. – Mark Twain
Today, my boss gave me the green light to take a personal leave of five months to take care of a little something that has been on my mind for the past several years: to walk one of the biggies.
While it would seem to make more sense to start with something close to home like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest, my chunk of time away will be in the winter, and it’s only logical to track down summer – and prime backpacking season – where it happens during our cold months, on the other side of the earth.
I must have been playing a long song on Classical MPR when I stumbled upon this long trail. I was surfing the web looking up top hikes of the world and this newish hike – or tramp, as the Kiwis call it – popped up, piquing my curiosity.
Te Araroa means “the long pathway” in Maori. Completed in 2011, it’s a 3000 kilometer trail extending from Cape Reinga in the North to Bluff in the south. It traverses the entire country; beaches, forests, mountains, volcanoes and cities and should likely take all the time I have planned to finish it.
Thus far the furthest I’ve walked all at one time was the GR5, 450 miles over the spine of the Alps. While taking on that challenge I wondered if I was made of the right stuff to sustain a thru-hike of not just weeks, but months. Aside from the logistical nightmare and the risk that I might not be missed at my place of employment, I hadn’t the faintest idea if I possessed the grit, the fortitude and determination, and the sheer pig-headedness to stick with a walk of 1,864 miles.
Over the ensuing years, I decided there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to go and do it. Keeping in mind the fact that I’m not getting any younger and my arthritic toes are continuing to protest, I made the decision to request a leave of absence, and put myself directly on the path of enormous change. Sure, it will be a change in scenery and routine, but also in how my life looks and feels because I am going alone. Don’t worry. Richard will be following my every step through the magic of GPS tracking – and I’ll stay connected by blog. I certainly hope you’ll follow me. I might need emotional support along the way.
So right now I’m absolutely tingling with excitement for this rare opportunity even as I make lists of all that has to get done, including applying for a visitors visa on an extremely thorough application which requires proof I not only have the financial means to return home, and plan to do so!
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving. ― Terry Pratchett
Today, the hike came to an end.
But what a finish! There was no way my extended-C2C was going to let me go without some work and a deeply memorable wow of an ending.
Rain fell on the alicoop in the night and I was a bit buzzy thinking of the weather report and what I’d walk into. Storm Hector was bashing the west coast of the British Isles, while in the east, the rain was falling in that way it does when the wind is high, in fits and spurts, the gusts shaking the trees and whipping up a frothy sky of fast moving clouds.
I happily made a shorter day yesterday into Grosmont to experience train culture and save one more giant climb for the morning when I would most likely still be fresh. Working my way up past stacked row houses on a 33% grade, I felt elated by how fit I’d gotten, even if knackered from 16 days hiking with no real rest day. But let’s face it, road walking is pretty straight forward. No two steps up, one step back on scree like Sca Fell, or rock hopping on precipitous edges like Helvellyn, or boggy way finding like the Dodds. This was a piece of cake even as the road wound around, up and up to the top one last high moor, Sleights, where the wind found me.
And what a wind! Richard and I were slammed with something similar in Chile’s Torres del Paine, but these were 55 mph straight line winds with gusts of 70. I didn’t fall over, but certainly had a drunken look to my meandering walk bracing myself on my sticks over a totally exposed couple of miles. As if to add an exclamation point to the wild ride, a mini squall pressed in of sharp sleet. It was a bugger to try and manhandle the waterproof. Fortunately, it was short lived.
In all that noise and excitement, I was mostly squealing with delight never feeling in any real danger. Soon I cut off the trail down into one more charming town, the views of the North Sea tantalizingly close, but still another 12 miles away. The trail moved deep into Little Beck Wood, where the birdsong competed with wind high up in the trees. A little oasis of calm, the nature preserve boasts a closed alum mine and a hermits cave. I was mostly taken with the stand of oak on the sharply angled ravine.
Back into the open and out on one last moor, this time a low moor called Sneaton, the path obvious from the crushed swamp grass and deep boot prints in the boggy moss. Here a sign warned about adder. Poisonous snakes in England?!? The moor gave way to the Graystone Hills and finally back on tarmac, where the wind whipped the telephone lines, creating an eerie moan.
Here I began to experience that ambivalence one gets in the final day of a thru-hike. It doesn’t matter if it’s 70 miles or 700, there’s a transition made from the routine of backpacking to finally stopping and re-entering. I find it hard to get into the right pace. Do I push along quickly and get this done, or do I linger longer and savor the moments even more, as soon they will only be memories. It’s not without some sadness that I approach final days and I carried this with me for the few miles past the final villages – Low Hawsker, Hawsker, High Hawsker and Hawsker Bottom – before reaching a holiday park of row upon row of minty green aluminum-sided track homes marching straight down to the sea, my final goodbye to charming English villages.
Now, as if bookended with my start, the finale was a three mile coastal walk high up on cliffs where the fields poured down the hill towards me on my right, the North Sea in a frenzy of white caps to my left. The day was truly extraordinary, the full brunt of the gusts tempered by the hills, the views striking and the walk tender on the feet.
You begin to see the bay tucking in before you see any town, a smugglers site with a long history. And suddenly, there it is, perhaps one of the most lovely towns on the walk, a cluster of buildings clinging to the side of the gully all the way down to the sea. And it’s the grand walk, on road and on stairs that takes the C2C finisher past shops and restaurants right down to the water where she plunges in up to her knees – as requested by her friend Kate – and tosses in the pebble she’s been carrying across the country from the Irish Sea.
Now it’s time to clean up, fatten up, take stock and organize pictures. In a few days time, I will post my GPS coordinates should you be interested in walking the Coast-to-Coast extended walk. But for now, the biggest walk today is down the road for a celebratory meal and a pint of Wainwright.
Now I see the secret of making the best person, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth. – Walt Whitman
Today the alicoop was carried to a spot along the Cumbrian Way right next to the river. Lonely and far from everything, it’s the first real “wild camping” experience so far. Even so, as I sat down to muse on the day with a spot of tea and my shoes off, another single woman slowly lumbered passed, the first person I’ve seen on the trip with a backpack.
Keswick was a fine stop for food and civilization. I skipped the Pencil Museum and instead hung out in town. Moot Hall with its high clock tower stands at the center of the pedestrian shopping zone and marks the start – and end – of the Bob Graham rounds. I was lucky enough to see a finisher just arriving for his picture and congratulations from about twenty-five pacers, supporters, friends and family. He was dressed only in flappy short shorts, fell runners and a light raincoat for the 24-hour slog of 28,000 feet over 40-something peaks.
The forecast called for 40% chance of rain, but began clear, the sun going in and out of cloud, dancing on the far fells I climbed yesterday, giving them a velvety cast over Derwent Water.
The real issue was how to get out of town and on the trail to Skiddaw. I am always amazed at my luck on walks as just when I was wondering which road to take, a young man kitted out for hiking came striding down the sidewalk sending me on the right route.
Church bells pealed in the town as I got closer to the fell. A sign pointed towards the public footpath, but appeared to be bent. Confused I marched up a trail that gave way to bracken, thick stemmed ferns standing three feet high with long grabby tendrils setting up a tripping hazard and hiding holes.
Turning around, I ended up heaving myself gingerly over a barb wire fence only to find the way closed by the owner. The only option was to get down to the road and start my search all over again.
Eventually the path came into view, and a farmer was even kind enough to ensure hikers didn’t accidentally venture into his fields. The going was steep, but to my surprise, signs had been erected to keep people from charging straight up the mountain, which had eroded away a good bit of it. Instead, the path zigzagged on a short series of switchbacks. I am betting these will be the only ones I use the entire walk.
Higher and higher as all of Cat Bells ridge came into view above the water, but so did mist blowing right over the peak I intended to climb. I met a couple who told me England’s third highest peak, Skiddaw, tends to “trap the cloud.” It makes me a bit tense to get into the mist. I’m blinded, for one, and the cool air feels like chilled silk against my cheek. But it’s also a lonely feeling. I find it hard to relax and feel sure being here is the right thing for me to do. It’s more than loneliness. More like an out-of-sorts.
But that all blew away as hikers suddenly appeared at the ridge, most in shorts and tank tops. Someone told me, “If we waited for good weather to go into hills, we’d never go.” I felt instantly better.
After the summit it was down and down towards a wide, well used track called the Cumbrian Way. On the way was one little Wainwright at 673 meters called Bakestall. I was certain I was on it at a cairn until one lonely cairn appeared out of the mist about 50 yards away and only slightly higher. Of course, I took off the pack, marched over, and touched it. One more for the record books.
My goal was to reach a flat spot by water and set myself up to tick off England’s second highest peak tomorrow, Helvellyn with a side trip up Blencathra. On the way is a youth hostel high on a bench looking out on the hills. No one was around when I arrived, and no beds were available anyway should the rain come. So I had my lunch on their bench, then pressed on.
And here I am, right next to an almost cliche bubbling brook, wide views and soft grass. The English describe carrying a tent and pitching outdoors, “wild”camping. I find it such an apt description of how I’m blending in with all that’s here, the birds, the grass, the changing weather and the continuity of the natural world. I am its guest here and my memories of this moment embraced in its wildness will go on the rest of my life. Will this place remember me?
If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. – Dale Carnegie
In November, 2017, with the Trump administration threatening – and ultimately following through – greatly reducing the size and scope of one of the most beautiful places in the world, Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument, I knew I needed to get there and see what was at stake and might be lost forever.
I attended a wedding in Houston and then flew out for a little over a week to Utah, permit in hand for five days backpacking and exploring the Paria Canyon. As the season was dry, I decided to risk the approach through Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world. At fifteen miles, the narrow passage is often blocked by brush or freezing muddy pools carved by roiling water gushing through at dangerous speeds. Quiet and church-like on that crystal November day, a glance above to the thin opening hundreds of feet away, I could make out logs jammed by fast-moving water high above. It was not a hard walk, except for one large drop at a rock fall. I was grateful for the knotted webbing left by some helpful soul to get me down the 25-foot drop.
Once out of the slot, it’s a trip down the staircase of rock layers, beginning with Navajo Sandstone of towering cliffs, 3000 feet high and a trail of a thousand of river crossings from one silty bank to the next. The water was white and opaque; I feared for quicksand and only came upon two places, sinking just a foot or two, but fast. The alkali water sucked every bit of moisture from my skin, leaving it cracked and itching for days. I dared not drink it and waited for the numerous fresh springs tumbling down to meet the Paria.
Wrather Canyon was one such riparian habitat, green and luxurious against the stark red background. One of the largest arches on the Colorado Plateau rewards those willing to hike up the canyon. My favorite campsite was Bush Head where a family of pronghorn greeted me. The next day, I awakened to falling stars. In fall, the Paria puts on a show of bright yellow poplar and fading grasses, the temperatures freezing at night, but perfect hiking weather in the day, also perfect in leaving me quite alone the entire time. This was helpful as on the Paria, you have to poop into a bag. And carry it all out with you. My, how heavy our waste is!
Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory. – Ed Viesturs
A friend I made on one of my adventure died attempting a solo traverse of the Presidential Range in winter. So heartbroken that this happened to someone with such vivacity and strength, I felt I needed to go and see the place for myself, pay my respects and walk the rest of the trail for her.
I had no idea what I was in for. These are mountains to be respected. Stretching only twenty miles, and easily accessed by major roads hardly captures the remoteness and danger of this wind-ravaged wilderness. A walker climbs close to 10,000 vertical feet up and down over the exposed expanse with few escape routes.
I joined my friend Randy for the traverse one early August morning, setting a fast pace up the rocky and steep Valley Way Trail. At a little over three miles before it breaks out of the trees, a stern warning tells the unprepared to turn back if the weather looks bad as people die here even in summer. We pressed on into sunshine and light winds, pausing at Madison Spring Hut for a snack before climbing up the boulder-strewn path to Mount Madison. From here, I could easily spot Star Lake where Kate’s frozen body was recovered. I left a photo and a prayer in the huge rock cairn atop the mountain.
As we were carrying camping gear, we decided to take the longer, more circuitous route up Mount Adams stretching along the narrow slope of the Gulfside Trail and finally a rock hop up to the summit. From here, all of the peaks stretched before my gaze including Mount Washington, where the second fastest wind speed in the world was clocked at 230 mph.
Then it’s down a huge rocky gully where I wasn’t so much winded as constantly watching every footfall. Down and down, and then down some more, losing nearly all of the elevation I’d gained, then back up onto the lush cairn-decorated Monticello Lawn before pressing up on boulders again to the airy top. Here I had to don my rain jacket as the clouds began to build and storms appeared imminent. I lingered only long enough for a picture.
It was one of the most beautiful walks on a kind of tundra towards Mount Clay, stunted spruce and tiny flowers clinging tightly to any dirt between lichen-covered stone. I was feeling happy and relaxed here as I looked straight up Mount Washington’s bulk. I said to Randy, “Oh, I think we should crack up Washington. That storm’s not coming…” but my last word was cut off by the loudest, most vicious crack of thunder you can imagine directly over the path we had just walked.
That was our cue to run – and fast. I was under the misconception that we could seek shelter under the large rocks, which Randy explained was about the most foolish thing we could do as rock conducts the electricity. There was no way we could go up, and there was no trail down, so we simply pushed low and squatted into the shrub trees. We tossed our hiking sticks to keep any metal far away and just waited it out. Downpours of hail and fast rising misty whiteout followed dramatic streaks of lightning.
Randy admitted he had always wanted to sleep in the dungeon at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. I had no idea what he was talking about, but at that point, the temperature was dropping and it was time to make our move. We skirted Washington, pushed under the cog rail and soon spotted the lakes nestled in a bowl.
The hut was full – as was every floor space taken up by AT thru-hikers. But two bunks remained in the dungeon, a space built for lost hikers in winter who hope to avoid missing their escape route in a blizzard. The very basic set-up looked like a concentration camp and smelled of bug spray, but it was safe and warm as the wind picked up to 60 mph giving the swirling mist a ghostly feel.
I slept well and the morning broke to crystal clear skies. We retraced our steps, but then pushed around the mountain on Boott Spur to take in some of astonishingly huge Tuckerman’s Ravine. All along the trails were gigantic cairns, that seemed unnecessary in such placid weather, but are life-savers when things turn.
At the observatory, we ate some real food with the mass of tourists already up bright and early, and took in the many exhibits on weather patterns. On one wall was a list of all who lost their lives on this treacherous mountain range, including Kate’s. What caused her to keep going that day and not turn back? When did she know she couldn’t make it back in those winds? She was tough and driven, but no one could have survived that day. I wept for her and those she loved.
After Washington it was down and down for a few pimples of mountains compared to the drama of the day before, Monroe, Franklin and Eisenhower. The trail goes on, but at this point, it was time to go. We said goodbye to this range of 4000-foot peaks. Low by Colorado or Himalayan standards but filled with beauty, ruggedness and danger.
Randy ended up hitching a ride back to the car, giving them a story about his sick wife to convince them to take him the whole way. While I waited at the hiking center I thought about all my prejudices to hiking “back east” and how in that stunning two-day traverse, all of those pre-conceived notions were knocked out of me.
But there was no rest for the weary, Randy and I hiked some more in that week in New Hampshire – Franconia Ridge, Mount Moosilauke and the Bonds, where again we got caught out on a high ridge with a fast moving lightning storm directly upon us. It was some of the most exciting hiking I have ever done and I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Fortune favors the audacious. – Erasmus
You could call us audacious. But you’d also be right calling us downright foolhardy.
My hiking friend from England, Ted, and I decided to walk the traverse of the Drakensberg escarpment in South Africa and Lesotho in winter, all alone and with essentially no trail.
Ted had been going to South Africa on business for years. An ultra marathoner, he won two silvers in the Comrades race and loved training on the numerous trails just below the Berg’s magical jumble of cliffs, hitting the top, but always racing back down to stay snugly in a bed rather than camping above. He first mentioned to me that he’d like to backpack on top some day when we met on the JMT and my interest was piqued. The moment I got home, I set to work figuring out how we might make this hike work.
The Mountains of Dragons is the great escarpment that encloses Africa’s central southern plain. It’s the natural border between Lesotho and the state of KwaZulu-Natal. A hiker walking on the top will cross freely between two countries, seeing shepherds and animals, both wild and domestic, and about 300 species of birds. Eland and reedbuck roam the lower portions of the Berg, while the Chacma baboons guard the few gullies leading steeply to the top.
But in 2013, there was no official trail over the escarpment – at least not in totality. The first thing to figure out was how to find our way across. We decided to go in winter, but early and before the snows come. Summers produce ferocious electrical storms and the shoulder seasons are rainy and unpredictable. Early June seemed the ideal time with sunny, dry days, even if very short and with temperatures dipping below freezing at night.
It was wise to go with a friend to help carry our heavier tent and warm bags, plus loads of calories. We found a GPS track online from a group that hiked one very rainy April. My husband and Ted worked together to place the points on his GPS and directly on a physical map, which Ted laminated and added string as a handhold for our wrists, in case the winds kicked up. Now that I have been in England and experienced real rain and wind, I understand why Ted took this precaution!
I was very lucky to have this friend with friends in South Africa. We met Peter and Gail in Ladysmith and all piled into their tiny Toyota for a journey to the start. But not before purchasing a bucket at the local hardware store for our resupply to be picked up on a weekly run from the Giant’s Castle Wildlife Refuge and held for our eventual arrival at the Champagne Castle Hotel in Monk’s Cowl. That marked about the halfway mark, so we labeled the bucket, crossed our fingers, and set off.
The views were already stunning, striking cliffs coming into view thousands of feet above the grassy plains, dotted with traditional thatched-roofed round houses and locals in bright colors carrying goods on their heads. That first night was glorious in a private house in the Royal Natal National Park’s Tendele Hutted Camp which butted up against an amphitheater of rock crowned by Sentinel Peak. Ted’s birthday was days away, so Gail ensured we had cake and a special local wine called Pinotage, a cross of grapes that tastes more like Shiraz than Pinot Noir. Rich, delicious and just right before our adventure.
A beautiful morning dawned and we simply walked from the lawn to a trail and up the mountain towards the famous chain ladders. Smoke filled the dry air as a team was lighting controlled burns to prevent a cataclysm. We walked across warmed charred ground, which quickly melted the rubber tips on Ted’s walking sticks. No matter, we continued the day quickly gave way to a waning sun in the early afternoon and Ted suggested we stop at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. I was suspect of luxuriating so soon, wanting to get the hike started, but it took little convincing as there is practically no twilight in this part of the world, and long shadows led quickly to total darkness.
We had a nice meal and a few beers with a spectacular view and warnings about how cold it gets on the escarpment as well as admonishments that we really ought to hire a guide. Nervousness and trepidation stirred up that night, not helped by the enormous and oddly shaped room that was utterly freezing.
The new morning blew any concerns away and we just happened to pop out onto the road leading to the chain ladders while a few day hikers were preparing to get a ride in the “bakkie” of a truck. This was the first of our miraculously timed hitchhiking. With plenty of room, they loaded us in and took us towards the border, where we registered, showed our passports and paid a tidy sum to enter the unknown.
We lost the guys quickly and came to the end of the trail right on the side of a cliff rising above maybe 100 feet. To your right as you faced this obstacle was the trail going back down, and to your left a wrinkled carpet of grassy hills far below. The ladders are in two sections with about 50 rungs each and a large circular grabbing handles. It’s not a difficult climb, but you don’t want to let go – or look down.
Once above, it was like another world, a treeless moonscape of browning wild grasses, crispy snow tucking in between blades, and baboons awaiting a distracted hiker and a meal. It took a moment to adjust to our new world, but we soon pointed ourselves towards the first campsite used by our generous GPS trail-sharers.
The escarpment is ideal for backpacking because it’s filled with water sources in stark contrast to its bleak nature. It only took us a few hours to find the ideal spot for the tent next to a partly frozen set of streams meeting at a rocky outcrop, perfect for sitting while pumping water and cooking.
That night was when I came face to face with the magic of this place. Our trip took place entirely within the UNESCO world heritage site of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. It is not near any city or town and there are no flight paths over this place. We lucked out fully with the weather, which was crystal clear, not even one cloud in the sky. Aside from the day hikers, we were the only people out there for miles around. It was absolutely silent, except for the sound of the wind whistling through the grass. It was cold, but we hung our heads out of the tent to look at the stars, an astonishing array with two strands of the Milky Way spilling across a velvety black sky. It hadn’t occurred to me when I planned our dates, but that first night was a new moon. We would have dark skies for days before she finally swelled to full later in the trip. I will never forget that stunning night as long as I live.
The days that followed put to rest any notion that the escarpment was flat-topped as we climbed up snow covered ridges and then down steep humpy inclines, careful not to twist an ankle. The only moments we could get close to the edge were when a pass would open up leading down into what appeared to be a city of oddly shaped spires. Ifidi Pass was one such place followed quickly by the equally breath-taking Icidi Pass and Crushsite. In these areas, Bushmen or the San painted exquisite paintings inside caves, living here in a last stand against the encroaching foreigners. Our campsite that night was near water just on the open expanse of the escarpment; wild and lonely, but with a feeling of comfort from the light show in the heavens.
The following morning broke clear and sunny, and I was charmed by my long shadow cast to the north with the sun leaning opposite of hime as it made its arc through the sky. The days were brisk, but long sleeves and long pants sufficed – as did glasses, hat and wind stopping gloves. Far more austere than the Sierras, it was coming upon dried flowers that caught my fancy, dimmed, but still colorful against the monochromatic landscape.
As we approached the hanging valley, we came upon a major pathway. It made walking far easier, but it led to confusion as the highway could only be followed for half a day and no more or it would take us deep into the villages of Lesotho and away from the edge.
It would take us four days to work our way towards the enchanted spires of Cathedral Peak in the Mlambonja Wilderness. Snow chased us, but only on the ground as the sky remained crystal clear and free of clouds. Ice formed on single blades of grass and needed to be chipped from the streams, but our days were all smiles, even if the walking was rough underfoot and the GPS was often checked.
By mid-day most days, a haze would build over the valley below from fires, obscuring the view. But by morning, it was still and clear, a gift from the mountains for our small two-and-a-half week window. And windows describe the edge of eroded, crumbling rock zig-zagging towards safe views to look out upon the magnificence. Ancient volcanoes left this mass of dark brown lava that compressed to rock millions of years ago. With no tectonic activity in the intervening millions of year, the continent stayed relatively quiescent – at least geologically speaking – the peaks only revealed as the continental plates pushed togetherr. We stood 3,000 feet above the undulating grassland below as we slowly meandered from window to window across the rough, rolling landscape.
By day six, the vastness, loneliness – and the fear placed in us that we might find ourselves besieged by native Lesothans – began to eat at Ted. He wanted to go down. And here we were having spectacular weather, we were moving well and we had at least a day’s food left to get us to our resupply at Giant’s Castle. But he was adamant. Hadn’t we told Gail and Peter that we’d pick up the bucket on day six? And besides, we don’t have enough food to get there as it will likely take us two more days.
In that stunning scenery, dry, soft and all ours, we fought bitterly. But I gave in. It made no sense to force Ted to keep walking if he felt worried for every step we took. So at the first opportunity, we took a left and thrashed down a gully, pressing down into the lower reaches of the wilderness.
It was obvious from the start that we’d made an error. Baboons sat as sentinels to our retreat, so we were likely on a reasonably safe path, but rather than the more straightforward Tsekeseke Pass, which would have required backtracking to find, we downclimbed at Organ Pass, directly below Castle Buttress. While the maps do not have a trail marked for the ridge or traverse, every pass is marked; yellow for difficult, red for technical. And there we were descending a red trail.
Fortunately, we never hit an impasse, even if we discovered traveling on our bottoms the safest mode. Exhilaration gave way to decisions when more clearly marked trails appeared. Ted said he recognized the valley and we agreed to continue south along a gulley of burnt sienna hills, a rushing stream below. Camping that night was noticeably warmer. Ted was keen to fully immerse himself under the ice every night on top though I shied from the bitter cold. But here the gentle fern-fringed pool under a cantilevered rock echoing myriad birdsong welcomed my dusty body. It turned out to be a welcome contrast to the uniform dun of the ridge as even muted tones below were more varied and filled with life.
The next morning we joyfully continued on the trail along the river down and down until it began to turn back north and Ted realized he had not really recognized this valley afterall. We were lost.
Or were we? Lost implies losing any trail, pushing through weeds or forest without a sense of direction. This trail led somewhere, just in the opposite direction of our resupply. Ted lost his cool and strongly urged we retreat to the top where we knew exactly where we were. I screamed back calling him crazy as the slope was nearly vertical and it would take us more than a day to achieve the top. “You wanted to come down because we were running low on food!” To which he retorted, “But this is poor mountain craft going on without knowing where we’ll end up!”
We finally sat down by the rushing stream, calmed down and agreed that this well-worn path likely led to a village and we could reconnoiter there. And that’s when a trio of Zulu on horseback rode by. They didn’t speak English – much, anyway – but pointed down the trail and said, “Cathedral.” Aha! We were going backwards, and yet, all of a suddent, that didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Cathedral refers to the stunning collection of mountain peaks we had just walked above but also to an historic hotel nestled at the base of this magnificent view. Ted had been many times and said it truly is a magnificent place worth visiting – even if off the itinerary. So we pushed on, out upon a plain with scattered acacia and finally to a tarmac where the second miracle of the day occurred as just then a truck pulled up. I ran ahead yelling, “Stop!” It was a local farmer delivering vegetables to the hotel’s kitchen. He was picking up a couple of boys walking the long hot road to go to work.
We all hopped in the bakkie and sped along the road for several miles to a scene far removed from our last week of solitude and silence: a hopping resort where even in our trail-worn clothing and with weary, dirty faces, we were seated with a view of the splendid range and served right away a couple of cold Amstels. The next miracle was on that very night, the hotel was hosting a wine tasting coupled with a grand buffet of every imaginable food a backpacker might crave while on trail. We topped it all off by visiting the thatch-roofed chapel, the peaks a backdrop to its alter. Bliss!
But I wasted no time, much to Ted’s chagrin, and found us a taxi to take us to our resupply at Giant’s Castle the very next day. This was no easy drive under the escarpment; rather the road goes far out of the park, meets the highway going south and has to work back into the park. Half our morning was used up in the redirect, but a night spent at this historic place made it all worth it.
I must admit I always feel surprise and wonder that my resupply is simply waiting for me when I ask for it. A beautiful dark woman with flashing eyes and a bewitching smile led me to her desk where she had stashed our food. Gail had called her to check in and she assured us she would allay any of her concerns of the intrepid walkers with a quick phone call.
We took a deep breath after an old man listening in warned us of the dangers on the top, and instead took the advice of a friendly Xhosa guide who assured us it would be a hard pull straight up the gully ahead, but it was doable.
The walk back out on the grassland brought us eland and klipspringer and an orange glow on the sheer rock ahead of next day’s climb. We camped near a spring right in the grass watching as flames chewed up the grass far below but slowly burnt itself out.
The ascents and descents were more pronounced, and decisions had to be made as to how to contour hills and valleys. Water remained plentiful and we could set up camp just about anywhere, but we still felt nervous about running into natives who were said to rob hikers of everything leaving them stranded in the harsh elements.
One day we saw two people walking across our path towards the pass in the ridge. It all happened quickly and we were unable to avoid them, so came face-to-face with traditionally dressed Lesothans likely making their way to a job far below. Lesotho – pronounced leh-SOO-TOO – is a poor but mineral-rich land-locked country that gained its independence only in 1966. It was the original lands of the San people, who created the intricate cave paintings seen throughout the region. We were walking now only in Lesotho and would have some explaining to do once we reached Sani Pass and had to re-enter South Africa, but that was still days away.
We camped by a river that night and the next day came upon a hanging valley which needed to be contoured to gain a ridge. In the valley were horses left to graze. Far in the distance I saw a figure who must have been watching over and casually observing our progress.
That night, we camped a good distance away from him in a quiet valley lit by the rising full moon. I was awakened in that still, crisp night by a low thud, repeated unevenly, its sound traveling through the ground. I quietly peaked out of the tent, trying not to wake Ted and there they were, the horses, having moved valleys and come closer to see what we were all about. Their long, feminine equine faces looked my way with no fear or malice, simply curiosity. It was their hooves that gently awoke me for this magical moment under the silver light of the moon far away from anything.
The next day, we came to a turn off for Thabana Ntlenyana or “beautiful little mountain,” the highest point in Southern Africa. At 11,424 feet, it was only a couple thousand feet of climb on fairly easy rock. But what a thrill, with not a soul around, to know that we were the only two people in all of Southern Africa at this height. It was only a few more days now to Sani Pass where we decided the hiking was finished this time around mainly because the views became less grand and the walking more monotonous.
We chose to stay high before reaching the pass and camped near a frozen waterfall. Glorious by day, it soon became obvious why this creek was all ice when the wind picked up at night and came careening down the mountain like a rollercoaster rushing straight at the tent. My sturdy Sierra Designs four-seasoner buckled under the force pressing right on our faces, then springing back into place like a jack-in-the-box. There was no question of trying to move the tent in the midst of the wind, so we waited it out and marveled at her tensile strength.
The next day, weary from a loud and dramatic night, we pushed deep into a valley and straight up another giant incline before spying the pass ahead, the only one large enough for vehicles on the entire escarpment. The highest pub in Africa at 9400 feet is a favorite stopping point for tourists and so we hoped also make for a hitch down into town. We scoped out the clientele as we drank a few beers at 10:30 in the morning. People were awestruck we had walked all the way from the chain ladders – even if we did take a detour to the Cathedral Hotel, which in the end made the hike even more audacious. Finally we found a ride with a couple of Durbin businessman kitted out in a fancy land cruiser and cranking techno-pop all the way down the mountain.
At the border where we re-entered South Africa, we acted dumb, handed over our passports and pushed through before anyone stopped us, then took hot showers and cleaned the kit at the deserted Sani Resort, where it was just us, a father and daughter and a roaring fire at dinner. That night we took a little walk on the ground to stretch the legs and muse on all we’d done and seen. Ted pointed up at the waning moon and asked why it had a hazy ring around it. “Oh Ted, that means the weather is changing! We got the walk in just in time with a perfect weather window.”
And sure enough, once Peter and Gail met us to take us back to the airport, rain moved in and drenched the countryside.