After a pretty stressful couple months I was able to take a deep breath, pack up Diego (my backpack) and head out to see other PCVs. The last couple of weeks before leaving for vacation were not all butterflies and rainbows, but I survived as I led a successful but crazy World AIDS Day event and the backlash of negative attitudes from management after the Department of Risk Management and Labour concluded an investigation of fraud and corruption. Although I am unable to really discuss the investigation for obvious reasons, I can say the centre was not a fun place to be. Although as a PCV I have little to do with anything that was happening with the department I was exempt from being on the other end of anger and short tempers.
|Day one, at Kelley's site!|
As I left Limpopo into Kwa Zulu Natal all of the problems of the last couple weeks left my mind and I was excited to see some familiar faces. After meeting up in Richard Bay and grocery shopping for our hike four of us started the first part of our vacation in Salt Rock/Shakas rock near Bolito. It was very relaxing as we stayed at The Secret Spot Backpackers, walking distance to the beach. We enjoyed the backpackers and staff (ROZZ!) and friendly animals which we named (and I think some other guests might have thought those the real names, whatever) but the best part was meeting up with another PCV and her family. The Croffut family treated us to a wonderful dinner and wine, and we appreciated their love and hospitality more than we could explain! It is always fun to meet other friends families, and they were just as fun and kind hearted as Sam, so we had a great time! The other wonderful part was the beach and we found slush puppies, which, well, I can’t even explain our excitement about our ‘slushie americanos’.
|Kelley, me, Sam, Cathy, and Charlie|
I was out of the village, out of Limpopo, and not going to think about Peace Corps stuff for three weeks.
|The nice officer showing us to the trail|
After departing Salt Rock it was time to head to the Underberg area where we would start our epic hike. After a day of traveling and 7 (yes, 7) taxis and some questionable taxi rank meat we finally made it to the Sani Pass Backpackers. We all had large backpacks with hot/cold clothes and food for a week, sleeping bags and tents. At this point I was wondering how I would be able to survive hiking up a mountain for four day with all of this stuff when I struggled getting in and out of a taxi. We camped at the backpackers in effort to save money, so of course it stormed. After a wet night with little sleep we headed to the trail head. Walking from the backpackers to the trail we had to go a couple K down the road, luckily for us a cop stopped informing us we passed the start, and he very kindly showed us to the trail. That should have given us a clue how the rest of our hike would go!
The route we planned was partly on the Dragonhead Trail and party on the Sani Pass trail in the southern Drakensburg mountains. We estimated about 30 ish K to the top, sleeping in two different caves and on the escarpment. Trails are not marked and much of it is overgrown. I was a little nervous considered I have never really hiked in the mountains, especially not for four days.
|up, up and up|
Day 1 was both beautiful and difficult. The day started (after finding the trail and leaving the cop) sunny and hot. Right away we found ourselves crossing the river several times and when the trail would fade in and out I realized how hard this would be. After a couple K our spirits were still high, and I was blown away with every view. The Draks are a bit different from Limpopo, and I was loving every sight. After hiking straight up several different times in the heat we took a break. I was dehydrated and did not snack enough so was feeling pretty sick. We looked at the map after questioning where we were and realized we were, well, off track. The straight up we just did was not necessary and we needed to get back to the water and turn a different way. We got back on track just to find ourselves questioning ourselves again. We climbed through a cave where we had to jump over crevasses and pretty much swing on a tree to make it across, well I did because my legs are short! Once again, we went a couple K out of our way and had to back track but eventually found the trail we needed. It was afternoon at this point and the rain clouds were coming. After a couple more K and cold rain we reached a point where I thought to myself “no F’n way”. The hike at this point was still beautiful, but we found ourselves several time scaling rocks and on all fours. I had a more difficult time with some of the larger rocks as there was no way I could simply step up.
“This is NOT hiking, this is CRAWLING!” I snarled to Charlie, who thought that was rather funny and was able to snap a pic of me where you can only see my backpack…
Cathy was doing a great job leading, and made it up the part that I was cursing. I could not hide my fear as I could picture myself slipping and falling back and taking Charlie down with me. It would have been exponentially easier without a giant pack, but would have still been a challenge. Using hands and feet we had to pretty much rock climb to the top of this peak, Cathy at the top helped me spot where to hold on to and assured me I wouldn’t die. “If you can grab even a flat surface, it’s enough to hold onto” she said, and knowing she has climbed plenty and I had to choice I went for it. I did my best to climb the boulders and kissed the top when I made it safely.
|Cave, night 1|
After a couple more hours and one more time getting off course and back on, we were on the lookout for our cave. We knew it was not marked so did our best to get our eagle eyes out. We were freezing and wet and nervous to pass it. Cathy and I thought we saw potential caves, so we put our packs down and did some exploring while the other two looked in another direction. Cathy found a cave, but it was so difficult to get to without a pack and coming from it would be nearly impossible with our stuff we knew it couldn’t be that one. We met back with Kelley and Charlie and luckily Kelley found a trail leading up to what we hoped to be the cave. It was around 4:00pm and had been hiking for 8 hours gaining considerable distance and elevation. We saw a pile of rocks where the trail either continued forward or went straight up to our potential cave, we started hiking up for about another 15 minutes through thick vegetation and were beyond relieved to see another person. A shirtless man with a pop belly greeted us and confirmed it was the cave. There was another group sleeping there for the night. Comparing stories we realized how far out off the way we went and some of the straight ups we did were not necessary, but we made it! The cave was huge and I was so happy to be in a dry slightly warmer place to sleep. Most of my stuff stayed dry, but even with my rain cover for my bag some stuff was wet. Not exactly sure how far hiked, we estimated 15-20 K. After more trail mix and peanut butter we were all in very good moods in the cave. I was proud to have completed the day but also nervous for the rest of the trail.
|Day three, heading down|
Day two started wet and my stomach was not great. Despite using iodine to clean my water I had diarrhea and was dreading the day. I drank as much water as possible and took some anti-diarrheal pills I luckily packed but still felt horrible. Every incline was more difficult and I quickly fell behind. The group was patient was did not complain when I had to run off the trail. The morning passed bringing more rain and I luckily began to feel better. By noon, after five hours of hiking, I felt almost back to myself and kept with the AD pills and water. Our hike began harder between fatigue, cold rain, and an increasingly tougher terrain. Then came the realization of just how wrong we were. We missed a turn, but where? There was no other trail, anywhere! We were told there would be a pile of rocks and a faint trail to the left, but nothing. We continued forward hoping to catch on to another trail that would lead us to the same destination, just more difficult. After a couple more K, crossing waterfalls and rough rocky climbing we had to re-evaluate our plan and make some decisions. We were pretty sure we could keep going and make it to the escarpment and sleep there for the night but knew it would be very tough and miserable. We had been hiking for about 6 hours, were cold, wet, and the fog was only getting thicker. After considerable debate and weighing the risks we realized we had to turn around. With a sense of defeat we had to completely change our plans, and add more K’s to our hike. There were so many if’s, “if it wasn’t raining so hard” “if it wasn’t so cold” “if it wasn’t so foggy and we could actually see two feet in front of us” “if we KNEW what was over that peak” “if we weren't racing the sun” so, although a part of all of us wanted to risk it and keep going, we knew the safe and responsible choice was to go back to the cave we slept in the previous night. On the way back we tried to find the other trail, and although I think we might have that was also too risky to go on that one as if we were wrong we’d be pretty screwed.
We made it back to the first cave before the sun set and did our best to get circulation back in our hands and feet. I felt horrible, although relieved to be safe in a dry cave I was still recovering from being sick, muscles hurt, my feet were cut and bleeding (as were charlies) and was frustrated that we weren’t going to make it all the way up. After stretching and sitting a bit I began to feel better, and our feeling of defeat faded away as our circulation came back.
Day three started early, we would be back tracking to the base of the mountain. By now, we had a better idea where to go as we remembered all the wrong turns we took we were determined to stay on the right trails and make it back early. Our spirits were in good shape, by now we accepted the fact we were going back and decided to take public transport to the top of the mountain to the chalet in Lesotho where we planned to stay. We went down much more than we did up which was much more difficult that I expected. Charlie and I had wrapped our feet and I was wearing my hiking boots in stead of my hiking sandals which helped a bit, but they still hurt pretty bad and going down hurt much more than going up.
|near the bottom|
Every steep part we went down I remembered two days going up and seeing it from the top I couldn’t believe we did it all plus the parts when we were off course. Because the whole day before was continuous rain the trail was very muddy and slippery. There were parts when we all had to go down on our butts, even those with long legs! Some parts going down were equally as frightening as going up, but mostly I accepted I was going to fall and get muddy. And I did, we all did. Our ankles were tired and everything sore. Most falls didn’t hurt too bad and I was able to avoid some by voluntarily getting on my butt- but some were unexpected and not so graceful, and getting up with a giant wet pack is not always easy.
We were tired. We had to be close. We wanted to just be done. When all of us felt especially beat we could see the beginning of the trail in a distance giving us the boost we needed. We knew we only had about a half an hour left and trekked on, we made it to the flat bush by the river leading to the road and were ecstatic, then, it happened. My stomach. It had been 6 hours since my last AD pill and I guess when they say take them every 4-6 hours they mean it. I was fourth in the line, closest to Cathy and yelled “um. Oh god. Hold on.” And they saw my pack fly off me as I ran into the bush. Kelley and Charlie were in the front and didn’t know what was going on, most likely frustrated that we were stopping so close to the road. I emerged from the bush and said “shit. They aren't kidding about every 6 hours” which I guess explained why I stopped and the annoyance suddenly turned a little funnier.
We made it to the road, walked a couple K to the nearest hotel and paid for transport to the border of Lesotho, then took another public transport from the first border check up the mountain to the next border check then to the backpackers both times paying much more than we wanted. It took over an hour to get up the mountain, and we understood why it was so hard and expensive for us to find transport. The road up was less than, er-developed- but because of that is was beautiful. I couple times we thought we might roll backwards off the mountain and were going through thick fog. The four of us have been here long enough, however, to just accept the shady transport and enjoy it. Despite it being a bit uncomfortable, the way up was pretty fun! It was pretty sweet to see the way up in the hiking perspective and the driving perspective!
We finally made it to the top! We were in Lesotho, bruised, sore, and cold. It was Christmas eve and we were finally able to relax! We originally planned to camp while there, but we were so cold and everything was wet! Our options were either the Sani Top Chalet which only had expensive rooms left, or a minimal backpackers that was affordable. We chose the backpackers, which is close to the warm chalet home of the highest pub in Africa. The backpackers and chalet is located in a very rural village area with no electricity, but it is beautiful! We spent time in the pub by the fire and drank hot cocoa and tried the local beer, and cooked with the propane stove. The pub overlooks the mountains and we were able to see several rainbows. We were so exhausted we went to bed early and woke up Christmas morning to clear skies and sunshine. We enjoyed our Christmas breakfast at the chalet and went for a walk through the village. On the way back from our walk we saw the clouds coming, we got back just in time for hail!! It wasn’t exactly a white Christmas, but I guess hail is kind of winter-ish?! We couldn’t believe how cold it was, and it is there summer! I can’t imagine the winter!
|Sani Pass, elevation 9400ft|
It was a very relaxing beautiful day. I didn’t really think too much about the holiday as I was sad not being with my family, but I appreciating the experiences I had had so far. That evening before our fancy dinner of rice and beans I was able to call my family (service in one little spot outside) which was nice. When I reached them they were opening presents, even though sad I was not there with them I appreciated the opportunity to talk with them!
|our walk on christmas|
We spoke one of the owners of the chalet and learned more about the area, and also learned more about how far we had actually hiked. We realized we almost made it to the top, meaning we essentially hiked up AND down the mountain, then drove back up. We agreed no regrets the day we turned around, and after thinking more about all we did I really have no regrets and although being lost and turning around, I do not feel like we failed. It would have been awesome to complete our original plan, but we saw beautiful scenery and hiked a LOT of kilometres! Our group got along great and I have countless wonderful memories with the four of us.
|highest pub in Africa!!!|
The day after Christmas we went we got back down the mountain and were off to Durban. I loved Lesotho, despite the cold, and I think that week was by far the most beautiful travel weeks of my life. I was proud of all of us for making it and looking back even the tough parts seem enjoyable now. Although sad to see the mountains go I was excited to head to Durban, meet up with more PCVs and start part two of my vacation!