Start 07:30 4th April End 18:40 5th April Peak: Mafadi (Kwazulu Natal) 3451m
We spent last night packing bags and distributing weight. We don’t know if the hike will take us two or three days so food planning is a bit difficult and we have to take extra. It will also be cold up the mountain at night and the weather during the day is very changeable so adequate clothing must be carried. All in all, the bags are heavy.
Early start was slightly delayed because we couldn’t figure out how to open the unlocked gate (by “we”, I mean not I). We couldn’t camp at Injisuthi (incidentally, none of the signs in the park agree on how this is spelt) because it was Easter weekend and therefore full of enthusiastic, and maybe some not-so-enthusiastic, hikers. We portage to the car park, sign in and set off down the tar road to the starting point.
The first part of the hike is fairly straightforward down a well beaten path. It parallels the river and soon becomes less beaten. There is thick plant growth on both sides of the path, above head height and we have to push through in places, vegetation swinging open and closed like a Western saloon door. I am grateful for all the hikers who have set off before us and made a semblance of a path; we would have been lost in minutes otherwise. Still, I feel like I need a pith helmet and an elephant gun.
There’s a river crossing in the early stages of the hike, we take our new boots and socks off and proceed. It’s cold and just above knee deep but we make it across without incident. If you are wondering who hikes this kind of mountain with new shoes, we were both forced into it by necessity. Colin, because his trail shoes were worn out and he needed more ankle support, and me, because my boots were about 15 years old and had started splitting on the last hike. So foolhardily, we trudge on in our new boots.
The early part of the hike presents new scenery to the preceding walks – thick, lush vegetation with giant boulders strewn on the cobbled river banks. Some parts are almost tropical. We push on until we reach “The Burn” – a steep, long, direct plunge up a mountain side. I don’t know who the first hikers were to beat out this path but I was cursing them for not using the more common (sense) approach of zig-zagging up the side. We pass a few cairns on the way up. Cairns are quite a relief to a hiker unfamiliar with the path, it means you are not lost and some idiot has been up before you.
The path from here is mostly contour path. I have felt the warning signs of blisters developing so am quite glad for some flattish paths. They are narrow and a bit overgrown so they turn out to be not that smooth.
At least the way is fairly straightforward until we lose the path to Judge’s Pass. We cross over the river a bit too soon and end up bushwhacking through some steep and thickly grown embankments. We find the path again after some Livingstone style exploration. There’s multiple prickly plants and spiky grasses in these parts, my fingers and hands feel as if they have been subjected to the most odious of tortures: multiple tiny papercuts.
Judge’s pass is like the gully to Namahadi, only much longer. We scramble up rocks, frequently using hands and feet to climb. I have learnt to keep a safe following distance; dislodged rocks can become dangerous projectiles. One such side-plate sized rock bounces past my head. I realise we are approaching the top of the pass when the grass becomes shorter and cow dung appears. Tenacious cows, to be dining on the grass at this level. I am slightly annoyed by the shorter grass as I had been using it to grab hold and haul myself up.
Once up, we press on in the direction of Mafadi. The light starts to fade and we make a decision to get as close to the peak as possible, camp and then summit first thing in the morning. We make it about 2km to Mafadi and then start hunting for a suitable camping spot as the light fails. We can also hear people calling in the distance to one another. Shepherds? The bandits in the safety pamphlet? Smugglers? We aren’t sure so we opt not to use torches and set up camp in the dark. There aren’t a lot of suitable camping spots – either they are covered in rocks or hard tufts of grass. Colin settles on one between some grass and a rock and we try put up the tent. At this stage, there is lightning on the far peaks so we try to hurry. Unfortunately, the tent poles require some colour coordination and even in the light of the full moon, we can’t make out the colours. I decide that one patch is darker than the other patch and therefore must be the orange tag. Tent up and we get in immediately to hide from the elements and watchful eyes. Neither of us brought sleeping mats due to weight constraints. Colin discovers a massive rock on his side of the tent. I have a large tuft of grass in an inconvenient spot and several smaller stones. We spend most of the night tossing and turning, trying to get comfortable and get shut-eye. There isn’t much forthcoming especially as the wind howls the whole night, resulting in the tent making loud flapping noises which border on alarming. We both managed some sleep although less than an hour. I suspect I slept more than Colin did – one thing you learn as a young doctor in South Africa is how to fall asleep anywhere. I once saw a colleague fall asleep standing up leaning on an ICU trolley. I am glad when the time comes to get up but I am neither mentally nor physically rested.
We head up Mafadi as soon as the weather clears. It’s great being up there first thing in the morning, albeit windy. The cloud layer is below us and it feels as if we are standing on the edge of the world.
Due to the wind and time issues, we scuttle down as soon as possible and begin the press back down the mountain. My feet are well shot by this stage, I have blisters on the balls and heels of both feet. My knees don’t cope well with the descents either, although still young, they have taken a lot of wear over the years with my cycling and horse riding and the falling off inherent to both those sports. Colin is not doing much better. Still, we progress. It seems an age to come back down Judge’s and we have to take several breaks. There are a few slips and falls on the loose rocks but fortunately nothing serious. We are both relieved to get back onto the contour path.
The relief is temporary as going down “The Burns” is worse than going up. I suppose it would depend on your perspective but the downhills are much worse for me and Colin. I take the wheezing and gasping over the grating joints and painful feet any day. At this point, I am using every trick in my mental arsenal to distract myself from the unpleasant bodily sensations. They work; temporarily, but the mind always drifts back to the pain.
The hike from the bottom of The Burns is much easier but we are running later than we would have liked. We push on as fast as our ailing lower limbs can carry us (about 4km/hr, much slower than our usual walking speed). I feel like despairing several times because it feels like no matter how many paces we take, we never go forward. However, I am the stoic type so I shut up and keep going. Rule for life: pointless whining helps no one. We strike a path that according to the map leads back to the camp. It’s wide, smooth and relatively well maintained so we take this one rather than the one we went out on. We do discover the reason no one appears to take this better path is that it ends at an arbitrary point by the river, rather than the river crossings. We are too tired and too close to home to care, so we plunge into the river fully bedecked and hope we don’t get washed away in the current (please don’t try this at home, kids!) I discover that thick hiking socks weigh about a kilogram each when wet. It’s a cold, soggy slop the last 2km and the light just disappears as our feet hit the tarmac. We then trudge up the tar road back to the car park. I could swear that the road was not quite as long on the way in… I also feel about 3cm shorter than when I started due to the weight of my pack and tent which was my duty to carry down. It is as if my posterior ribs are now touching. Cold feet, wet pants, aching everything – we are desperate to get back to base and have a hot shower and a warm meal. Our plans are shot by the early closure of the gate. It takes us almost an hour to find someone to open the gate and clear our path home.
It was a tough hike with a heavy pack but we made it in two days rather than three which is a bonus. We are not unscathed, apart from the multiple musculoskeletal complaints and lack of sleep, Colin has picked up a cold and I have picked up gastritis (delightful bouts of vomiting follow my first cooked meal in two days). Tomorrow is a much needed rest day.
6 April: Rest Day
We lie around like potatoes most of the day.