Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Drakensberg Traverse - a trip out of Africa Light into Africa Heavy

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy may have been filmed in New Zealand but when J.R. Tolkien first had his inspiration for Middle Earth it was taken from the Drakensberg Mountain range in South Africa and Lesotho. A land also known as the Barrier of Spears to the local Zulu's. Hundreds of caves with paintings in them from up to 2400 years ago dot the landscape. From below it is a line of huge rock cliffs stretching as an escarpment for 1000 kilometers. From above the top of the range is a large plateau that can be very flat in places though in Lesotho where we were it has been eroded by water into many deep and irregular valleys. It is a mountain range like no other that we have seen. Like a combination of the US desert southwest combined with the greenery of Ireland. The Grand Traverse that we were interested in doing is a 220 to 240 km (136 to 150 miles) hike that starts and ends in South Africa but spends most of its route within the Kingdom of Lesotho. There are 6 mountains along the way that are the “checkpoints” of the route. Any path can be taken to connect these peaks. There are no trails so it is up to the individual to find the most efficient way across the countryside. Technically it is not entirely legal to wander across the border but since there are no towns or settlements this is not enforced. It is recommended that you bring your passports just in case.

The record for covering this traverse was set last March by two South Africans, Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel who crushed the previous record finishing the entire thing in 41 hrs 49 min. They were gracious enough to share their GPS track with us as it turned out that this traverse would have been impossible without it due to the confusing landscape and often thick fog his time of year. One night shortly before we left for the traverse we were hanging out at our local friends house, the Bensons. Alcohol may have been involved. Their son had 2 hobby horses (one horse, one zebra) that he had gotten for Christmas. I started to ride it around the house and then had an idea. Lately many people we know have been doing a variety of crazy things that have never been done before to get the “Only Known Time” and thereby setting a record. Without doing any research, I was pretty sure that no one had ever ridden a hobby horse/zebra across the Drakensberg Mountains and I decided that I wanted to be the first one to do this. Luke Benson (without his knowledge) donated his hobby zebra to the mission. Other local friends also helped us out with the logistics. Georgina Ayre offered to meet us in the middle for a resupply and Andrew and Suzie Jed offered to drive us down to the trailhead. None of this would have been possible without the help of everyone listed above and we want to say a HUGE THANKS for their help. Also a big thanks goes to Dawn Greensides and Paul Pleva (Home Base South Africa) where we have spent a lot of our time. I have watched the movie Madagascar pretty much once a day with their 2 year old, so in Piper's honor, the zebra was named Marty.
Day 1: We were given a ride to the trailhead where we found ourselves within a cloud with the wind blowing and a heavy mist making everything wet. I pulled out Marty the Zebra and off we rode into the fog. The first few kilometers was the only real trail we would see for the next week. This trail led up to the Chain Ladders which climb up a ~40 foot section of cliff. Not a good place to slip. Once above these cliffs you are on the escarpment and the terrain becomes more rolling. There is also no trail after this point and the navigation across the alpine landscape began. The fog made it difficult to see any landmarks but using the GPS we were able to head in the right direction to Mount Aux Sources, our first peak. From the top of the Chain Ladders we started to pass Basotho tribesmen dressed in leather shorts, rubber boots, and a brown cloak. As it became afternoon we were able to gain enough elevation to get above the cloud cover. At 5pm as we were contemplating where to camp a tribesman came to the other side of the river from where we were and started to do a dance. He chanted, danced, shook his stick, yelled, and leaped into the air for over 5 minutes. We just sat there with our mouths hanging open. We weren't sure if we were being challenged, if he was praying to the setting sun, or what was going on. When he was done he just walked off and disappeared over the hill. We hiked a little further and found a place to camp. 5 tribesmen came over to check us out. They spoke no English but gave us a lot of thumbs up. When I rode Marty around they were in hysterics and when one of them grabbed him and started to ride him also the other tribesmen had tears in their eyes they were laughing so hard. Marty ended up being a great ice breaker. Through hand gestures they told us that it was ok to camp where we were and we had an uneventful night.
Riding Marty out of the parking lot
Marty climbing the chain ladder
Summit of Mount Aux Source    
Basotho taking a ride with Marty
Day 2: The Marty rider and his friend came back in the morning. These people do not seem to see many white people. They were fascinated by our tent. They kept wanting to touch the material and when I folded up the tent poles they yelled out and were very excited by that. The day started by climbing up a river valley. We found a sheep path to follow for part of it. Occasionally we would find a cliff blocking our way and would have to traverse around it. The terrain was often fairly flat so once again the GPS was very useful to find the correct way. We only met one Basotho who spoke English and it was on this day. He already knew about us. It appeared that news travels fast in these highlands. We passed many more Basotho that day. They were as fascinated by us as much as we were them. Fathers would call their sons over to look at us. We saw no women or young children- only men and adolescent boys. The day remained sunny where we were but below us was a solid sea of clouds.
View over the sea of clouds   
Riding Marty across the river
View of the escarpment edge
Basotho huts along the trail  

Day 3: Each day usually started with us climbing out of a river drainage and moving into the next watershed. Today we did this twice. We saw fewer people but there were multiple times where Kathleen and I both felt like we were being watched. Around mid-day the clouds rose up from the valley below and rolled over the edge of the escarpment in huge waves. When we were enveloped by fog the visibility was only about 10 yards. However breaks in the cloud would open up so we could see the route ahead. When we got to the saddle above the river it was very difficult to determine which way to go. We could tell that there were cliffs all around and needed to be careful so we ended up camping earlier then we had hoped.
Kokoatsoan River Valley                  
Clouds starting to spill over escarpment
About to be hit by fog bank               
Peering through fog at Elephant Peak

Day 4: We started very early to try to make up for lost time. The fog was still present but not as thick. The mornings goal was Cleft Peak, the second checkpoint. I became completely turned around at one point when my brain said we needed to go one way and the GPS said the complete opposite. We followed the GPS. The top of the Peak was on the edge of the escarpment cliff – a drop of over a thousand feet with mist swirling around below so that the bottom could not be seen. Luckily the fog dissipated as the next section involved climbing around the side of a mountain called Ndudemi Dome on a series of narrow ledges. Even with the GPS this would have been a stupid place to be stumbling around in the fog. Luckily we could see what we needed to though we occasionally got cliffed out again. Today was a musical day. We passed two teenagers playing harmonica, had 2 younger boys ask us for sweets (they got a granola bar), and then another teenager playing a single stringed instrument made out of an old can with his friend dancing down the trail in front of him. This was a long day that led to us being camped high on a ridge line. To go get water took an extra hour of hiking into the valley below that night.
Wild horses                                        
Looking down the cleft of Cleft Peak
Another view from the escarpment    
Young Basotho boys                          
Basotho musician           

Day 5: We saw a beautiful sunrise though the red sky made me worried about the weather to come later in the day. The first part of the day was easy as we followed the ridgeline for several miles. It was sunny but very windy. This led to Champagne Castle, the third checkpoint, which reminded me of neither champagne nor a castle. This was another cliff where it would have been a great place to BASE jump. We needed to meet Georgina with our resupply at Giant's Castle Camp so looking at the map it looked like it would be a shortcut to descend Ship's Prow Pass and follow a trail on the map to the camp. This ended up being the wrong decision. Ship's Prow Pass was a super steep grass and rock slope that descended into the valley below. We had to be very careful not to slip. This led to one of the worst bushwhacks we have ever done in the mountains. It took us 6 hours to go 4 kilometers and we ended up having to camp in the middle of this area due to a thunderstorm starting and running out of daylight.
View down Ship's Prow Pass                   
The bushwhack along Ship's Prow Creek
The inside of the bushwhack               

Day 6: It was another frustrating couple of hours for us to finally bash our way out of the bushes, trees, rocks, and creeks. We then had to scramble up a steep grassy hillside using clumps of grass as hand holds. We found a faint dirt trail overgrown by grass which made us excited but after 20 minutes we lost the trail and it took us 30 minutes to find it again and another detour around more cliffs. A troop of baboons moved across the hillside in front of us. After the third time of losing the trail we realized that we were never going to make it to Giant's Camp in time so we elected to go to Injisuthi Camp which was the closest ranger station. It was also during this section that I stepped on a Berg Adder, one of the three types of poisonous snake in the park. The effects of the venom are described as “disorientation, double vision, and deterioration of the other senses”. I didn't even notice that I had stepped on it. Kathleen watched the whole thing as I stepped on its head. Luckily it was early in the morning and cold so the snake was still lethargic and I pinned its head with my foot instead of stepping on the tail. This was the final straw that made us decide to quit the traverse when we met Georgina and to come back in April when the weather was better. Both Kathleen and I had been having a 6th sense that we had recently been pushing our luck in the mountains and that this was a time where we should not push so hard.  It wasn't any one thing, just an accumulation of small things that we were feeling in our gut. We were able to get to the Injisuthi Camp within a few more hours where cold beer, red wine, and a cabin was found for the night. A fierce thunderstorm hit the area that afternoon.
Sunrise on Ship's Prow Pass     
Marty and I having differences
Making up with Marty             

Day 7: This day was an adventure in hitching rides. We initially caught a ride with the camp's handyman named Robert who was taking employees into the town 1 ½ hours away to buy groceries since it was payday. We left first thing in the morning and as we drove down the road there were hundreds of children walking from every direction going to school in their uniforms. Robert was a Zulu and had grown up in the area. He was able to explain a lot about peoples living conditions, the schools, hospitals, and how things had changed in recent years. Once in town he talked to some other park employees from Giants Castle and arranged for us to get a ride with them that afternoon when they returned. That ride was in the back of a 2 ½ ton truck. There were a large group of employees returning home with their groceries in this truck. Live chickens wandered in the back with us and one of the employees and I shared beers and did vodka shots on the way to Giant's Camp. The employees were definitely not used to white people hanging out with them in the truck. They kept talking to us in Afrikaans and were surprised when we told them we were from America. Georgina and her friends Tim and Rich showed up later that night and cooked us a great feast of a BBQ.

Day 8 and 9: We spent the next two days with Georgina, Rich and Tim hiking up to Bannerman Hut and spending the night there. The original plan was to camp in Spare Rib Cave but the weather turned and we were not able to climb that high. We met a South African named Mark that night and he soon became a part of our party. The next day we hiked up Bannerman Pass to the top of the escarpment (passing Spare Rib Cave along the way) and then walked south to Langalibalele Pass. We had been warned that hikers had been roughed up in this area by tribesmen but we were a big enough group that we didn't have to be worried about this. The views from the edge of the cliffs were like being in an airplane. It was a nice mellow couple of days with new friends. As we drove away from the mountains to go back to Pretoria the entire mountain range was covered with very dark clouds and we were hit by repeated violent thunderstorms for the rest of the day and night. We were very glad that we were not up in the mountains that night. 
Bushman's River              
Hiking to Bannerman Hut
Sunrise at Bannerman Hut   
View from Bannerman Face
Looking at Bannerman Face
Eland near Giant's Castle    
We found the Drakensberg to be an amazing place. We only had positive encounters with the Basotho people, the scenery was like no other, the danger of poisonous snakes and lightning, the wild horses and baboons, and the challenge of the navigation made it a place where we want to return to. Our plan is to come back in April when the weather is more stable and make another attempt. Marty the Zebra now has his own Facebook page (Marty Marty) and is recruiting Facebook friends for his next attempt to be the first hobby horse/zebra to cross the Drakensberg. Please feel free to support his effort.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The World Yearns for Freedom.......Not So Much

There is a pattern that I am noticing the more that we travel. I had seen it before but since we have been traveling for so long it has repeatedly come to my notice. I grew up as a military BRAT and reading a lot of WWII history which gave me an image as a kid of America as the beacon of freedom – of “truth, justice, and the American way”. I pictured oppressed people all over the world looking toward the United States to help raise the yokes of oppression. Once I got older, as many of us do, I became more cynical. I am always up for a good conspiracy theory and know that there are forces at work at many levels of government, business, and society in general that are not out to promote the general welfare. I have come to accept that there are two sides to the US persona. The realism and the idealism. The conflict between these two is probably what leads to a lot of the gridlock the American government finds itself in.

I still like to believe in the ideal. That America is the land of the free and that democracy is the best form of government. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people...” in the words of Abraham Lincoln and that the rest of the worlds “oppressed” people want that for themselves. I am being proved wrong.

When Kathleen and I got engaged in Tunisia it was a year after the Arab Spring Jasmine Revolution. The first of the Arab nations to overthrow their dictatorship. This was the first time I was disillusioned when we were riding in a taxi and the driver informed us that it was better before because “the trash used to be picked up”. He was very embarrassed about the garbage lining the side of the road.

In Thailand there were actual protests going on against democracy. The protesters wanted the elected government thrown out. I don't exactly include this example in my disillusionment because ultimately these protests were just a struggle for political power but I found it hard to imagine that thousands of people were on the street protesting against democracy.

Especially in the last couple of months I am realizing that people do not want freedom. They want security. They want their kids to be able to play in the street. They want to be able to go to the market to find food and not be robbed in the process. They want to be able to raise a family in peace and are quite willing to not have some freedoms in order to get that.
When we were in Turkey we met an Iraqi. He was a Shiite so should have no love for Saddam Hussein but he was lamenting back to the days before the American invasion. He said that it was hard during those years but he did not have to worry about bombs exploding every time he left his house like he does now which is why he has left his country and is trying to move to Canada.

In South Africa we have heard from 3 different people that run the racial spectrum. A white, a “colored”, and a black. Every single one of them says that since democracy has come to their nation that the country has gone downhill and that it is not safe. The violent crime rate makes Johannesburg one of the top 10 most deadly cities in the world. Each one of them also said that they just see things getting worse and had little hope for their nation. Each one of them also told us that at some level they miss the days of apartheid. This was from a colored and black man that grew up during that time and were discriminated against. They told us how they could not go to the beaches and had separate entrances to places and train cars on the metro. Despite that oppression they said that part of them (not all of them) missed those days because it was safer. I was dumbfounded to hear that from a non-white person.

The ultimate realization I guess I am coming up with is that a country can be a democracy but not be free. Real freedom needs peace. It needs government services to work. With the amount of gun violence and government dysfunction maybe the United States isn't as free as we like to think.  This is the sort of thing that is one of the main reasons we are traveling. To see how other cultures work and think and to challenge the paradigms that I have formed over the years about how the world works.