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Imposing Drakensberg mountains

Today was our wedding anniversary, eight years since the superb day we had when we got married. We managed to make it up and out earlier than yesterday to make the most of the day. The weather had cleared up and while the very tops of the mountains were still in the clouds there was bright clear sunshine all around us. We made our way back up to the Monks Cowl part of the Drakensberg range. The park is quite popular and they sell you a little booklet that describes the walks they have available, how long they take and the sights you will see along the way. They range from easy flat walks lasting an hour to long day hikes. You can also walk along the range if you have a couple of weeks to spare spending the nights in caves along the way.

Being quite high up conditions can change quickly here and the booklet tells you about all the common sense precautions you should take to ensure you have correct clothing, a walking stick and enough food and water for your hike. There is one point, Blind man’s Corner, that if you plan to go beyond it you have to complete a mountain register so that they know who’s up in the wilder parts of the range. A mountain rescue team are at hand if you get into trouble and what surprised me is that the people who tend to need them are day hikers who have underestimated the length of their hike and get caught out by nightfall.

We opted not to go for one of the flat and easy walks but to make our way up to The Sphinx and then to see how much further we could make it towards Blind man’s Corner before turning back. The hiking path led off the track from the office and straight away it was a steep uphill climb. Erosion is a big problem here, partly due to the number of visitors but also because of the water that runs down the mountain. Poles and rocks have been put across the path to try and halt the erosion and they also double up as useful steps.

The walk was uphill all the way with some stretches being flatter following the contour lines round the mountain. We passed through forested sections, over small streams and through grassland. For most of the way you could hear water running downhill even if you couldn’t see it. We were both soon very glad that we had invested in a walking pole before leaving the car park. They are locally made pieces of wood with Drakensberg carved into them, cheap, cheerful, slightly tacky but very welcome. Having a “third leg” really makes a difference both going up hill and for coming back down again.

It was a beautiful day for walking. The sun was strong and warm on your back but the mountain air was also cool and crisp. Behind us the valley stretched out a fabulous contrast of rich greens, blue lakes and the golds and yellows of autumn. We met a few other people on the path but mainly we were walking in virtual silence with just the trees whispering and birds calling to each other.

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Enjoying the hike up to Verkykerskop

The Sphinx is a large outcrop of rock which is broadly shaped like a Sphinx, although a little imagination helps with this one. A small plateau here provides a welcoming place to stop, have a bite of lunch and relax the muscles aching from a continual uphill climb before continuing upwards. The path continues up the Little Berg, again rising steeply upwards. In a few places it is pretty narrow with a long drop down to the side, not one you would want to slide down. As we were heading up, women from one of the houses we passed along the way were on their way back down. They didn’t have walking boots and poles to make the trip easier for them. Most were in their wellies and on their heads they were balancing large bundles of grass that they use to make brooms.

We made it up to the top of the Little Berg and out onto the grassy plateau. By that stage my legs were telling me that they were happy to go back downhill but that they didn’t want to go any further up. It had been about a 500m uphill climb so far. We had stopped by a junction for the Sunset Trail which leads up and over the Verkykerskop, another steep hill to climb. I sat and enjoyed the views and watched Stef scrambling up to the top.

With good intentions of continuing further up to Blind Man’s Corner we both decided that enough was enough and started to make our way back down. It was very humbling to be overtaken by a steady stream of ladies balancing bundles of straw on their heads. They must do this trip on a regular basis as they seemed to know the path very well and bounded down at quite a pace. We caught up with them back at the Sphinx where they had stopped to take a well earned rest. All in all the walk was relatively short in distance, I think we covered just under six kilometres, but it took us the best part of four hours to complete it and we both had jelly legs by the time we got back to the car.

We stopped off at the local shops to get a few bits for dinner. Feeling we had earned ourselves a treat we popped into the coffee shop and bought some cakes to take away and enjoy on our patio. A huge slab of chocolate cake and another huge slab of carrot cake were soon parcelled up and were enjoyed in the last light of the afternoon. It was great to just and feel the warmth of the sun, watching the birds pecking away for worms and other bugs just in front of us. Our by now standard fare of a braai dinner rounded off the day and both feeling pretty knackered we headed off to bed.