The adventures of Pfanny Croft, Stream Wader

A week after the fact, but here's the report back on last weekend's Drakensberg adventures. A selection of pics is posted here; for access to the far more extensive photo gallery you have to be one of my Facebook friends.

Ah, yes, load shedding. You can’t even escape it these days when you go on vacation. Most of the Midlands area was out on Friday morning when we passed through it on our way to the Northern Drakensberg. This included the Shell Ultra Cities at Mooi River, with the result being drivers unable to refuel their vehicles, or, just as importantly, grab a good ol’ greasy Wimpy breakfast.

When we arrived at Royal Natal we discovered the power was out there as well. No point then in spending a bit more and getting a camp site with a plug point. (For the record, the power did come back on in the early evening and stayed on for the rest of the weekend).

Being rainy season in the Drakensberg, we had pretty mixed weather over the weekend. We sat huddled under our tent’s awning on both evenings to stay out of the rain. However, going this time of year – with schools back – was great. There were very few people camping in the Mahai grounds and we had our pick of all the choice camping spots. After being surrounded last year by noisy, drunken, wife-beating “Poolanders,” setting up far away from other campers was a relief.

Setting up Friday at Mahai

What wasn’t a relief was the fact that this time we managed to forget some vital camping staples – a kettle, frying pan, dishwashing liquid, and the plug for one of the inflatable mattresses. Although the absence of these items required some on-the-spot problem solving, and caused some inconveniences, it was still great to just get away from it all for a few days.

This said we had 2 encounter s with the worst kind of “outdoorsy” South Africans over the weekend. You may even have been unlucky enough to cross paths with this obnoxious type of local tourist. Usually middle- to pension-aged, they like to name-drop every trail they’ve ever hiked in the country. And they tend to open up conversation with arrogant declarations like, “I’ve been coming here for 35 years” to automatically establish themselves as an authority – and invalidate any opinion you may have.

It’s bad enough when parents still treat their 20-something offspring like 10 year olds but when complete strangers do it too, playing the bossy card and telling you what you should be doing, I want to elbow them off a cliff.

No wonder young South Africans (well, those still in the country) don’t seem to camp, preferring instead to stay in self-catering cottages.

Anyway, enough about the annoyances. We had a really good weekend.

Very full rivers

Being the rainy season, the rivers were all flowing strongly, so we spent a lot of time boulder hopping and splashing around in the cold water by the camp. It was actually the first time (in 4 years of going to Royal Natal) that I felt brave enough to literally take the plunge – as opposed to just sitting on the side, dangling my legs in the water.

On Friday afternoon we boulder-hopped up the Cascades to a rocky overhang at the top, and on Sunday, after packing up, we splashed around in the river by one of the day visitor picnic sites. We warmed up afterwards by eating polony and cheese jaffles.

Saturday, though, was our big “adventure” day, as we completed the 13-15km round trip to the Gorge at the base of the Amphitheatre. The Gorge marks the start of the Tugela River. Let’s just say that the hiking boots I received for my birthday were quite literally put through their paces. A few mistimed boulder-hops across the river proved that the shoes were genuinely waterproof.

Path to the Gorge

And believe you me, if Lara Croft was real, her exploits would leave her more bruised and muddy than wet and sleek.

Anyway, one of my birthday resolutions was to do more daring things. So we didn’t just stop at the tunnel entrance marking the end of the Gorge path – the Tugela flows down a waterfall and through deep pools in the tunnel, making it impassable. Instead we climbed a chain ladder, and then clambered up a cleft in a patch of forest, to emerge around the back of the tunnel.

Thank goodness for arm strength because I lost my footing a few times on the chain ladder. The ladder wasn’t the scary part though. Even though it’s pretty high, it’s still slightly angled so that if you look down, there’s the reassuring sight of rock face under your feet. The cleft was far scarier. Vertical in some points, you had to use roots and metal struts as hand and foot holds. Reaching the top, my trembling, adrenalin-filled limbs reminded me exactly why I don’t rock climb.

The chain ladder - in immaculate condition!

Of course, at this point there was no way to retrace our steps. The only return route was to seal our backpacks in waterproof bags and jump into the current flowing through the tunnel. And that water was cold – probably in the numbing region of 13-15C.

Around the back of the tunnel, looking up at "Mount Doom"

We eventually staggered out of the tunnel to find that the weather had changed – it was raining heavily. So instead of sitting by the tunnel mouth and having a relaxing lunch under the trees, we threw anoraks over our wet, shivering bodies and attempted to hurry back across the river before the rain swelled it further and blocked our path. In the rush we lost a R1 000+ trekking pole in the strong Tugela current. However, its loss did save one of us falling face first into a very deep pool, so it was perhaps a price worth paying.

Wet, cold and minus a trekking pole

It was a long walk back to camp, but we had the thought of hot showers and hot stew to motivate us.

After Saturday’s strenuous demands, we took it easy on Sunday, sleeping late and packing before riverside fun. When the rain came down again in the early afternoon, we eventually headed for home.

Photo proof that I did swim!


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