|the profile of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse|
If you know the why, the how takes care of itself.
Well, that’s not altogether true – it
omits to mention the tremendous amount of planning and preparation that goes
into ensuring that the how happens. That
‘small point’ aside, I wholeheartedly believe that without passion and purpose,
we lack the incentive to tackle and conquer enormous goals.
No passion + no purpose + no perseverance =
|us with the map of Lesotho in the background|
Now, if mountains, rivers and vast vistas
feed the soul, and gruelling challenge fuel the mind and body, then in a single
weekend three weeks ago I was blessed with a feast to quench my hunger for
wild, rugged mountains for a good while to come.
Firstly, and most importantly, we did it!
We achieved our primary goal: to complete the Drakensberg Grand Traverse
without mishap. And the enormous bonus was that we beat the mixed record by 15
hours 24 mins. We’re extremely grateful for that – so much can go wrong up
there, it’s true mountain wilderness.
But to try and describe the experience is
my next challenge. If ever one was stunted by writer’s block from an
overwhelmingly humbling experience, that has been me since the enormity of our
Drakensberg Grand Traverse. Writing is what I do for a living, but I’ve really
struggled to put onto (virtual) paper words that can do justice to 63½ hours
of pure mountain wilderness experience. It’s taken me three full weeks to
digest, and to do it justice in print is almost just as testing as we found
achieving our sub-64 hour challenge.
Through my haze of heavy breathing,
lung-burning, quad-pounding effort, it was easy to see how the soaring basalt
peaks, buttresses, rock walls and pinnacles of the massive lava barrier separating the foothills of Kwa-Zulu Natal from the Lesotho plateau was
considered by the Voortrekkers back in 1800 to resemble a mighty dragon’s back,
and why they named it the Drakensberge.
And slogging for 63 hours along that
escarpment felt as special as running along a real dragon’s back would. Looking
back, it feels quite surreal.
But just as special was the privilege of traversing
the escarpment with someone who knows those mountains so well. This was Ryno
Griesel’s fourth complete Grand Traverse. His passion for those mountains is so
deep that once he even slogged a 100km section of the traverse in the thick
snow of mid-winter, just so he could experience it in all conditions. Taking on
the challenge with Ryno was a daunting prospect. Not only is this man the
current joint record holder, but his faith in my ability was absolute. I knew I
would be the weak link in the partnership by a long way, and I knew that to
achieve what we were aiming for, I would have to push my physical limits as I had
One weekend in January we had recced the
first 130km of the route, which had given me a taste of what to expect of the
full quota of the traverse. The mistakes I made that weekend were invaluable
and my learning curve severe – I saw what I needed to tweak food-wise, kit-wise
and training-wise for a realistic chance of completing the full distance.
|The start - Sentinel car park, Friday 2:45am|
It’s fascinating how fast time passes when
there’s complete focus hour after relentless hour. Yet despite my
concentration, it’s crazy how few details of the Traverse I can remember. Of
the 214km we covered during those three days and two nights, there’re only a
handful of moments that stand out in my mind. The rest is a gamut of exquisite
green vistas, soaring peaks, dramatic valleys, crystal clear rivers, muddy bogs
and marshes, countless saddles and summits, cliffs and cutbacks, all with buttresses,
needles and pinnacles teetering in the distance to our left along the
of my most vivid conclusions from the DGT
- Two hours sleep
between 22-hour bouts of running/fast-trekking is possible only thanks to
adrenalin and a suitable mixture of calm confidence (from Ryno) and moderate
panic (from me).
- Every mountain
summit above 3 000m has at least two false summits, specifically put there
to make your heart sink.
- The difference
between 3 000m and 3 482m is directly proportional not only to one’s
lung capacity but one’s ability to block out 1) pain and 2) the
rasping-gasping-spluttering sound of sea-level lungs trying their damndest to
suck in more oxygen.
- Nothing quite
beats a spontaneous pre-dawn 15 minute power nap in a deserted kraal at
3 100m. And absolutely nothing beats the look of utter amazement on the
face of the Basotho herdsman who arrives just as you emerge from his
- Droëwors is
as revolting as I’ve always thought it was. Droëwors is how butchers make use of gristle, fat, sinew and hoof once they’ve removed all the real meat. Yuuuuk.
- Once you’ve
ticked off the last of the six specific peaks of the Traverse (Thabana
Ntleyana, the highest peak south of Kilimanjaro) at 152km, there’s still an
entire day of mind-numbing effort ahead. The next 62km are riddled with saddles
and summits that are almost as high as those that filled the two previous days
- Finishing a
214km challenge with +/-20km of downhill can really hurt, but running it
against the clock definitely helps to block out the pain.
- Positivity is
everything. There is no doubt that having a positive approach, even through
pain and exhaustion, enables the mind to push the body. The trick with
endurance sport, provided you’ve done the training, is to never let your blood
sugar level drop. The first symptom of a drop in blood glucose, long before you
hit the wall, is that negativity takes over – the voice in your head finds
every reason why you should slow down… or stop! Keeping yourself properly
fuelled by eating and drinking regularly enables your legs and brain to do what
you need them to do.
- There was no
sweeter relief than reaching the finish, realising that everything went
according to plan, we’d achieved what we’d hoped, and we’d broken the mixed
|The finish - Bushman's Nek, Sunday 6:18pm|
- The Drakensberg
escarpment is not for sissies. Once you’re up there, there’s little chance of
turning back or pulling out – you’re committed. Any change of mind involves
hours of hiking over harsh terrain to get to a pass that will (hopefully) get
you down and back to civilisation in one piece. Never head up there unprepared,
always carry more food than you hope to need, and never skimp on safety gear.
And as for me, I’m now enjoying feet-up-and-on-the-couch for a few weeks, the visual memories of the “dragon mountains” still fresh in my
mind. At least for now…
Labels: Drakensberg Grand Traverse, Ryno Griesel, Thabana Ntleyana