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Beggars and cliffs: a hike in the Drakensberg of South Africa

Beggars and cliffs: a hike in the Drakensberg of South Africa


“Give me sweets, give me money, give me cigarettes.” It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and we are three kilometres (10.000 feet) above sea-level. We are met with a not so warm welcome by Lesotho shepherds. Our first experiences of this hike do not meet our expectations. The plateau before us is wet, raw and barren. No tree or shrub, just grass and rock. It is to be the scene of our first night.


For the past two days we have been watching the Drakensberg cliffs. From a safe 1.5 kilometre lower we saw clouds and thunderstorms being dragged over the plateau like a blanket. Beautiful and terrifying. Staying low seems an attractive alternative but we already payed for our guide and he doesn’t mind the weather. “Nie worry nie!” He says the evening before our departure. Beautiful and terrifying, our trip summed-up in two words. The freedom we experience almost make us feel enlightened. But that freedom has a dark side. We are all alone. When I suddenly do not feel well on the second night of our trip, and euphoria becomes panic, I recognize the delicate balance we are in.

Apart from a stretch of land along the coast, much of South Africa is elevated. Where the high plateau begins, mountains have developed. Part of these mountains form the natural border between South Africa and Lesotho, a poor mountain state fully circled by South Africa. A considerable part of the Lesotho population is  shepherd. Even before we arrive in Lesotho we encounter some of them. Beautiful  people but persistent beggars. Our guide doesn’t like them very much, and this sentiment has a reason. Some time ago, in an attempt to rob him, Lesotho shepherds cut open our guide’s tent in the middle of the night. He tells the story when we shelter from the rain, just when we are about to settle for the night. “But nie worry nie, goodnight.”

We don’t sleep much. We have invested too much in our backpack, sleeping bag, matras and clothes to have it torn apart by a poor shepherd in the first night. Still I wake up in the morning, meaning I slept some. I leave the tent with the sun shining in my face. Our tent is located near the point where the Tugela River throws itself down a 3300 feet cliff. The view is magnificent and when our guide hands me over a cup of coffee I realize these are the moments I would happily defy blisters, annoying shepherds and evening showers for.


On our second day we take it easy. We walk along the edge of the cliff and take our time to enjoy the views. The weather is fine but deteriorates in the evening. I do not feel well, whether it is the altitude or dehydration I do not know. I decide to lay down and take the pills my girlfriend and the guide give me. I don’t know what medicine I took but the headache and nausea disappear quick. To give us some peace of mind, our guide decides to sleep almost on top of our gear, and anyone wishing to do us harm will have to pass our guide first. Good luck with that.

The third day we wake up early. We have to cover a lot of ground and we wish to arrive at the car in time. The couscous and salami I had no appetite for last night is my breakfast this morning. Our camp is near cliffs again, we look east and see the sun come up. What a great spectacle. Soon clouds rise over the edge of the cliff, covering the plateau in a thick mist. The rest of day we walked far but didn’t see much. Sometimes, out of the mist emerges a cairn, erected by shepherds. The herd mistake the cairn for their shepherd and therefor will stay close. This way the shepherd can walk off. Our guide navigates us towards the chainladders, the only way to get off this plateau. He does so by only using map and compass, and he does so flawless.  

Much quicker than two days ago we walk the cliff-side path, downwards this time. It remains misty during the day and we are on the parking place almost before we see it. A jeep brings us back to the resort, where we just take enough rest in order to drive our car down safely. The cabin we booked is not far away and gives us just what we need; a shower, a bed and an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction.


Start and finish: Sentinel Peak car park

Date: 2-3-4 February 2016