The Drakensberg Grand Traverse is a well-established route in which the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg Escarpment is traversed from one side to another. This route is usually done in 10-14 days, is usually 200-250km long, depending on route variations taken, and has the vertical equivalent of climbing Kilimanjaro two to three times.
The concept of a speed traverse was first established in February 1999, when a team lead by Gavin Raubenheimer completed the route in 105 hours and 39 minutes and established a set of rules for what would become the Drakensberg Grand Traverse Record Race. The current record holders are Ryno Griesel and Ryan Sandes in a time of 41 hours and 49 minutes, set in March 2014. While many have attempted to complete a speed traverse, very few succeed in completing the challenging route.
In March 2016, while taking a leisurely stroll around the Mnweni Cutback, I mentioned to 15 year old Mike “Hobbit” van Wyngaard of Grace College that I was thinking about having a go at something that had never been done before – doing two consecutive Drakensberg Grand Traverses. I told him to take a week or so to consider whether or not he would like to join me. It took him about 8 seconds to make a decision.
Over the next 269 days, we did 800km of hard Drakensberg training together – aside from hundreds of kilometres of training in other locations. We did night hikes, difficult passes, and long days over big ridges. Neither of us had ever trained so hard, and we were both nervous, but eventually the big day arrived.
The start was rocky – arriving at Bushman’s Nek the night before the start, Mike had forgotten his headlamp and food. The delay of having to drive back to Underberg the next morning wasn’t too costly and we set off only 5 minutes after our planned departure time of 9:00AM.
Upon reaching the escarpment, we were greeted by a hail storm and gale-force winds. Being hit in the eye with hail is no fun, and we soon found ourselves wondering what we were actually doing up there! We pushed on, but eventually decided to call it a day 15km short of our goal for the day.
Day two went much better, but after sitting out a massive storm in a cave that we shared with twenty or so goats, we remained behind schedule, with the first checkpoint – Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest point in Southern Africa – being delayed till day 3.
By the end of day 3 we were back on schedule, but after narrowly missing being struck by lightning on Giants Castle, the second checkpoint, we were absolutely sopping wet inside Giants Cave – once again making us wonder what we were doing on top of these mountains! With the summit of Giants Castle, Mike had become the seventh individual to complete the Khulu Challenge – which requires a hiker to summit all 26 peaks above 3300m in South Africa, as well as Thabana Ntlenyana. The storm cost us the chance for a decent summit shot, but fortunately we would be back in a few days.
Day 4 went considerably better, with 48km covered entirely in daylight, and two more checkpoints ticked off – Mafadi and Champagne Castle.
Day 5 was largely uneventful, with the fifth checkpoint – Cleft Peak – being ticked off. Mike had also wanted a few summits in the area, so we went up Mahout, Ntonjelana Knife and Ntonjelana Ridge Peak as well, none of these being checkpoints. I usually refer to these kinds of summits as “bonus peaks”.
Day 6 was our earliest start – the end was only 40km away, and a warm meal and proper bed was starting to sound very good! The toll of 5 hard days of hiking was clear as the Stimela Ridge and final checkpoint of Mont-Aux-Sources took significantly longer than expected.
We raced down the Chain Ladders and hit the finish line of Sentinel Car Park in a time of 127 hours and 6 minutes. This was the fifteenth fastest time ever recorded on the route, and only the third time ever recorded in the south-to-north direction – a route that requires around 800m of additional altitude gain due to Sentinel Car Park being significantly higher than Bushman’s Nek.
We proceeded to rest for four days before we were ready to set out again. Drakensberg legend and solo-speed-traverse record holder, Andrew Porter, had decided to join us for our return traverse. So at 10AM on 31 December 2016, we set off to do the route again, but this time shooting for a time of 80 hours.
Day one went mostly smoothly, and we reached our cave in 11 hours, covering 40km.
Day two was another matter entirely. Mike had never done more than 49km in a day before, and I had never done more than 56km in a day – so a 59km day with over 2600m in ascent was taxing for both of us. Even Andrew, who recently ran across Nepal in under a month, admitted that this was a tough day!
Finishing the day after midnight resulted in a later-than-planned start on day three, and reaching Giants Cave on day three, morale was low. I decided to suggest that we call it a day there, and add an extra day to ensure that we still finish the traverse – everyone agreed.
Our trip up Giants Castle – the fifth checkpoint this way around – was slow, but no urgency was required. This time we had a good view and got a good summit shot to commemorate Mike’s completion of the Khulu Challenge a few days earlier.
Day four started very well – we knew that 80 hours was no longer an option, but hiking through the night would make a four day time possible. Covering the first 14km in under three hours did help, and we soon found ourselves on top of the final checkpoint a full hour ahead of schedule.
As we crossed the Sehonghong Ridge, however, the mountains reminded us why the Zulus called them the “Barrier of Spears”, and why the Dutch called them the “Dragon’s Mountains”. Without much warning, a summer storm unlike what any of the three of us had seen before came in. Within 15 minutes our raincoats had been soaked right through. We were all cold and wet, and we knew our unsupported traverse was over.
After over an hour of hiking in the pouring rain, we found ourselves at Sani Stones Lodge – merely using the roof for shelter had cost us our unsupported traverse, but we knew that the odds of a tragic end to our tale would be quite high if we didn’t do this.
After some hot coffee, a hot shower and a few hours in front of the fire, all our wet items – some of which had been within three layers of waterproofing in our backpacks – had dried once again.
An early alarm time on day five woke us up to more rain. The lodge only accepted cash and we had no more cash, so we had to relocate 9km up the road to Sani Mountain Lodge where payment by card was permissible. Rain continued throughout the day, and we discussed our options. The weather forecast looked grim, and we knew that the odds of being forced to bail so close to the end was very high.
An early alarm on day 6 revealed a cold wet mountain, but it was not raining at the time. We knew that continuing on top was risky, but if we were forced off the top, we could at least get back to the car via the Giants Cup Trail. The final day was not on the fastest route – walking up the Sani Road had placed us well off the usual route, we completed the final 50km in just over 12 hours.
Our time of 126 hours and 55 minutes won’t count as a speed time as we did not meet the requirement of being fully-unsupported, but our time of 15 days 7 hours and 50 minutes for two Drakensberg Grand Traverses is still a first. Andrew pointed out that it would take roughly three times the effort to complete a double traverse as it would to complete a single traverse – mostly due to fatigue and lack of recovery time between traverses.
Our total distance was 463km and our total altitude gain was 18 701m.
With this, Mike joins a rather small group of individuals who have completed more than 1000km of Drakensberg hiking in a calendar year, and one of very few individuals who have actually completed three full Drakensberg Grand Traverses, including having completed the traverse in both directions.