“I’m a hiker now”! Well that was my mantra leading up to what would be one of the most challenging and rewarding holiday adventures I have ever participated in.
Truth is I was not a hiker. Sure, I love my bushwalks around the south coast of NSW and always enjoy the experience.
This quest, however, was an entirely different beast.

South Africa, the Drakensburg mountain range, 3 days of real hiking! Over 46 kilometres of craggy terrain with a total ascent of approximately 3500 metres at its peak at Tugela Falls (arguably the highest waterfall on the planet). The Drakensberg is the eastern portion of the Great Escarpment, which encloses the central Southern African plateau. The Great Escarpment reaches its greatest elevation within the border region of South Africa and Lesotho and its absolutely breathtaking!

Flying direct Sydney to Johannesburg with Qantas was a no brainer and after a surprisingly comfortable 14 hours in the air we arrived fairly fresh into Tambo airport where it was a 4.5-hour drive to our step off point at the historic gem, The Cavern Berg Resort. An early dinner and some pre-hike prep and straight to bed in readiness of the rude 5.30am wakeup. We may have been a little weary but an excited buzz radiating amongst our group of nine for day one. Six ‘hikers’ our main guide and two porters. I am sure I looked all shiny and new with my hiking poles, shoes and backpack (hardly used). Our whole kits would be hovering around the 6-kilogram mark, while our instantly loveable porters graciously carried packs weighing over the 15kg.

The reality of what we were taking on was soon smacking me fair in the face as we stepped off into the unknown. After an hour of what was a steady and relatively easy start we were pointed towards our first real physical test, a steep rocky section that was heading straight up around 300 meters. It’s still early and the low cloud and mist make it all the more testing. Slow and steady and with the encouragement of our team we make it to the top of the section. Well, there were a few stumbles, a couple of expletives, but the sensations when we regrouped were exhilarating.

The next few hours were a little easier on the bodies and the views across the valleys and gorges were mind blowing. As we often kept our heads down keeping a wary watch on the terrain of the track we had to remind each other to stop every so often to take it all in. “Oh wow guys, have a go at that”. “Can you believe where we are? This is absolutely beautiful”. “Stop, stop, have a look at that, oh my god, this is magical”. This scenario was repeated over and over the next day as we climbed higher and higher towards our end goal at Tugela Falls.

Conversation may have been minimal during testing times but when I had the opportunity to engage with our local porters Matho and Musa (shortened versions of their Zulu names) it was such an enlightening experience. Our worlds so far apart, I was totally fascinated. Matho loved a chat and by the end of the day I knew much about his way of life, his family and the way of the Zulu. His main goal at present is to extend his herd of cows from five to eleven so he can marry his chosen wife to be. These cows will be gifted to her father and permission will be granted for the nuptials. The boys shared many other customs and intricacies about their world and I was blessed that they were happy to share. My bonding experience was not just with my awesome surrounds, it was also with my new friends.

After a solid days hiking the sight of our overnight accommodation (yes that’s right no camping for me) was pure bliss. Although Witsieshook Mountain Lodge was no
5-Star affair, I was excited about a hot shower, a cold beer a good feed and to rest the old man’s bones. However, the universe had other plans. The consequence of the heightened altitude got the better of me and it was off to bed to try and shake it off.

Greeted by an amazing sunrise and feeling a little more human I had to chuckle when I saw our ride to the Sentinel. The back tray of a 4WD ute. We piled in and laughed out loud as we bounced our way to meet our guide for the biggest challenge of the hike. Dennis was our guy and we could not have been in better hands. Knowledgeable, poised and thoughtful we were all eager to be led to Tugela by him.

The amphitheatre was like nothing I had seen before and is one of the most impressive sights these eyes have ever witnessed. We marched single file along the “zig zag trail” under the eye of “the three witches” while quizzing Denis on the local wild flowers, the troops of Baboons, various types of lizards and even a Berg Adder that decided to enjoy a little sunbake on the trail.

A few hours in and we arrived at Sentinel Gully where we would lose one of the team. Not to anything horrific, just a bad case of Acrophobia and the knowledge that he would never attempt the famed Tugela chain ladders. We would reconvene on the amphitheatres plateau. We hoped!

As imposing as the ladders were with their intimidating vertical incline rising over 60 metres, I figured the 140 million-year-old basalt cliff that they were imbedded into were literally solid as rock, so I was confident it would hold fast for little old me.

A few deep breaths and away I went, and as Dennis had implored I made sure I had 3 connection points at all times.

My breathing increasingly shallower as I made my way higher I told myself “just don’t look down”. Yes it was scary, and yes, I had a few fearful moments but the exaltation when arriving at the summit was all conquering! We all had different reactions, I screamed to the heavens, others just lay flat on their back looking skyward. Some were that overwhelmed with emotion they released a tear or two and a little sob.
An unforgettable moment in our time.

The remainder of the hike was a walk in the park and arriving at Tugela Falls was a moment for jubilation and reflection. That and a dip in the icy pools which immediately vanquished any aches or pains. Hugs all round as we reconvened with our acrophobic buddy followed by a well-earned late lunch at one of the most impressive scenic outlooks I may ever experience.

Would I do it all again? Well now that I am a hiker, you bet your life I would!
In fact we had to do it all again in reverse just to get back for that hot shower, icy beer and feed I had missed out on!

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