Slaying Dragons in the Drakensberg Amphitheatre – Beginner’s Hiking Guide
The hike to the Drakensberg Amphitheatre in northern range, declared by National Geographic to be one of the world’s best trails, is where Ishay Govender-Ypma faces her fears and discovers a new hobby. For SAA Sawubona, April 2016.
Returning to my home province of Kwa-Zulu Natal always provides a sense of calm and comfort. On this particular visit, however, I find myself in unfamiliar territory. As we stride one foot in front of the other from the Sentinel car park at Witsieshoek, gaining 450 meters as we progress up the sturdy basalt rock face of the Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg: the uKhahlamba, known as the blunt barrier of spears in Zulu and the dragon mountain in Afrikaans, my heart rate soars at points. To reach the summit of the escarpment, a one-and-a-half kilometre long plateau that ends in the sheer drop of the Tugela Falls that plunges an impressive 1000 meters to the base, we pass the evocatively named peaks: The Sentinel, Three Witches, Devil’s Tooth and the Malutis in Lesotho to the west and the buttresses circling the rugged Drakensberg range.
I’ve accepted a weeklong challenge of day hikes in the area, and neighbouring Swaziland, from my friend Kat Mancama, a seasoned Berg hiker. By this time, I chant her mantra: “never underestimate the Berg”. When feisty Swedes send non-negotiable instructions, you agree; I choose my gear carefully and train as best I can.
A born adventurer, Kat, who has worked over the past decade as a local tourism consultant traverses the length and breadth of South Africa – the mountains, rivers, valleys and oceans, being her “calm and comfort”. If there’s an activity to get the pulse racing, Kat’s the first in line to volunteer. I, by sharp contrast, a city-bound cuisine and urban travel journalist, steer clear of such foolishness as a rule. So, when the challenge is placed on the table, I’m not sure who’s more surprised that I agree – Kat or myself.
It would be my first serious hike in seven years, and I have all but three and a half weeks to prepare. During the month that I’m stationed in New York before returning to the Western Cape to train, I shuffle along at Central Park in the humidity and pound the pavements instead of taking the subway, at a decent New Yorker pace too. “Try to do as many squats as you can in the hotel room,” Kat advises, and I listen. In the end, I’m better off for it. Sports scientist and head of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning at the University of Pretoria, Shona Hendriks, who counts the Drakensberg as one of her favourite hiking regions, advises that hikers train on trails with a backpack on, and perform a combination of strength training like squats, front and lateral lunges and single leg deadlifts, core exercises and endurance training like hill runs, cycling and swimming. “It’s vital that you incorporate these exercises into a periodised plan to ensure you not overloading yourself and risking injury, “ she says.
It isn’t just the cardiovascular fitness that I need to acquire rapidly, the tri-weekly four- hour mountain hikes that I cram into the schedule or the strength training (which I am already doing) that gives me reason for concern. It is the image of the shaky roughly 200-step dual “chain” metal ladders, originally constructed in the 1930s by mountaineer and lodge-owner Otto Zunckel to get to the summit, goggled at least 50 times, that trouble me the most. Enter: a crippling fear of heights, my lifelong nemesis. Pride ensures I don’t mention this, even to Kat. It’s rough enough that I needed to pull my cardio socks up, while Kat runs marathons before breakfast on weekends. I make the call to face the ladders and make a decision about tackling them or not, when we get there. It’s a survival strategy, I suspect.
On the day, clear and crisp in the last month of winter, we troop along the gentle but steady incline of rocky paths lined with skeletal pineapple lilies, papery pink everlastings and violet wild agapanthus under the watchful guidance of Mvula (“Samson”) Machobane, who’s been walking these trails as a teenager and guiding in the Drakensberg region for 12 years. While Kat who says she’s hiked the Berg “more times than I can count, and yet never tire of it”, strictly doesn’t need a guide, Samson, from neighbouring Phuthaditjhaba, proves invaluable in helping us to set a steady pace without fatiguing hastily. He provides a running commentary on the endemic flora and fauna and most importantly, in my case, he steers me up and down the ladders.
Rung- for-rung, Samson walks behind me, encouraging at the moments I truly believe my knees will buckle. “You’re doing so well,” he says as tears spill from my eyes, strong winds whipping our faces. In the end, the watershed moment in which I decide to tackle the ladders, involves one small naartjie. Fuelled on citrus and Samson and Kat’s encouragement, I make it to the top. After thirty minutes of silent trekking, rivulets of water icy in the ditches, we approach the mighty Tugela Falls, frozen now. We meet it at the bottom the following day when we hike the seven kilometres along the gorge. The Basotho shepherds are nowhere to be seen today. There’s a couple taking selfies and a boisterous group of Dutch youngsters who charge over to the dramatic cliff-hanger viewing points. We rest, enjoying our packed sandwiches, dark chocolate bars and the panoramic views. As Shona advises: “Take in the beauty of the South African hiking trails and all they have to offer.”
Once we descend the chain ladders, the path back is a steady downhill that has me struggling somewhat with my already strapped-up knee. With some concentration and Samson’s help over the narrow, gravelly bits, we’re in high spirits. Undulating graphite and caramel hills spread like molten lava before our eyes. It turns out that the Amphitheatre hike and straightforward Tugela Gorge hike through the Royal Natal National Park are “walks in the clouds” compared to what lies ahead in Swaziland. I’ve come to realise that key to this hiking challenge is the training I undertake, the correct gear I invest in and the generous encouragement from my friends.
For groups and private hikes, book Samson at email@example.com, 00 27 (0)83 6848 590
WHAT TO PACK Beginner’s Kit
Training Tips from Shona Hendriks, sports scientist
- Build cardiovascular endurance, strength in your legs and glutes, a conditioned core and perform proprioception and balance training [Ed: with a BOSU balance board, for example] to assist with the unstable, rocky ledges.
- Combine your routine with a mixture of endurance and strength training. Much of this can be done in the gym.
- For concentration, the fitter a person is, the longer (and more effectively) they will be able to concentrate.
- Keep hydrated and take plenty of water.
- Avoid very sugary snacks. Energy bars, dried fruit, wine gums and peanuts are good. Crackers with a protein like chicken or tuna are nutritious and easy to carry.
- For sustained energy, consume 20-30 grams of carbohydrates every hour, especially on long hikes, rather than one big meal. Use dinner to replenish your energy stores.
- Most injuries for an unconditioned person occur from falling or tripping while fatigued or from uncoordinated movements. Ensure you train sufficiently.
**DISCLAIMER: Always consult a medical practitioner before commencing training for the first time. These tips do not constitute professional medical advice. Consult a trainer or sports scientist for professional assistance**
Kat’s Favourite Hikes
Find Kat here: http://myslowjourney.com
- The Amphitheatre – a great day hike
- Camp on the Amphitheatre and hike to the majestic Mount-Aux-Sources
- Monk’s Cowl. Challenging, especially getting up into the “little Berg”.
- Make this longer by camping overnight and hike to Keith Bush Camp at the base of Gray’s Pass. My husband proposed marriage in this area on a gruelling hike in 2007.
- Wish list: The Drakensberg Grand Traverse, a 220km hike across the Berg, starting at the Sentinel and finishing at Bushman’s Neck, considered one of the toughest on the continent.