This September, my husband and I spent our honeymoon in South Africa. Over three weeks, we traveled by truck across 2,000 miles of mostly “out of the way” places. We went on safaris both by truck and by foot to see all of Africa’s most famous animals, explored exciting mountain ranges and secluded rugged coastlines, and explored rural townships and some of South Africa’s largest cities. One of the most exciting moments occurred while we were hiking in the Drakensberg Mountain Range.
We set out for the day with a warning from the women who ran the lodge that the weather “looked skeptical”. She advised that we turn back at the first peak if there was any question regarding the weather. We were hiking with a guide, who admitted that he had never attempted this particular trail before. He said, “I’ve been told that the first 1.5 hours is steep, then its pretty flat”. We were also hiking with a group of women from Germany who admitted that they had limited to zero hiking experience. We set off with this information and a hand-drawn map.
Over the first half hour, we had sunny weather as we strolled across rolling hills to explore San Rock Art that was believed to be drawn on the caves by people who inhabited those hills 30,000 years ago. Over the next half hour, we climbed a steep rock face to see a breeding colony of vultures that are on the brink of extinction. When we reached the top of the first peak, we were almost blown over by the gusts of wind (estimated at 40-60 mph) that were whipping by.
We found a covering and stopped for a break. The guide suggested that those who were not interested in a long hike turn back now, but he had been told that it was pretty flat moving forward. The inexperienced hikers agreed that the rocky incline we had just encountered would be tricky to go back down, so moving forward was the easiest option. The wind was picking up a little, but rain did not seem likely.
Over the next few hours, we trekked along a beautiful ridge of the Drakensbergs. The guide poorly hid his surprise each time we came over a peak only to find a valley and an even higher peak waiting on the next side. The complaints from the German hikers increased as the hours continued and the heavy wind gusts escalated. The trail itself was not well marked. Finally, the guide stopped and sat down. After studying the map, he walked to the edge of a ridge to look back in the direction that lodge should be. There was heavy pressure from the group to leave the trail and take off on a new path. Although the guide was actually unsure himself, my husband insisted that we had to keep going straight, even though this felt like the opposite direction of the lodge. “There is a reason that the trail is, where it is!” he said. Eventually, he was able to persuade the guide to follow him, so the guide gathered the frazzled group together and we pushed on.
My husband and I were at the front of the group, as we continued toward the location that the map indicated would wrap around the mountain and head back toward the lodge, the winds were picking up stronger and stronger. My husband approached the corner before me, and looked back at me and shouted “this is bad”, which I could barely hear over the roaring wind. His body hugged tight to the mountain as he motioned for me to move forward. I truly felt like if I stood upright, I would be blown off the side of the mountain. I asked him later what he would have estimated the speed of the wind at. He said, “I really have no idea, I’ve never felt anything like it; maybe 100 mph.” As he and I reached a slightly protected area, he ran ahead to ensure the trail we were on was the correct one. Then, he went back to help the other members of the group around what we would later name “the windy corner”. I was concerned that not everyone would be able to negotiate it. One girl was particularly scared and was hugging the ground, afraid to move forward. “Is it better over there?” she shouted at him. “No!” he answered. She said, “ just leave me here!”, but she did eventually get up and keep moving. We laughed about this later at the lodge. Apparently, he thought she was asking if there was an easier path somewhere else.
Just as the last member of the group made it around the corner, there was thunder and lightening followed by heavy rain. With the force of the wind, the rain drops felt like little knives against our skin. Everyone scrambled to cover any exposed area. Fortunately, this lasted only a few minutes and the excitement was over. For the next two hours, we followed a relatively well marked and flat trail back to the lodge. The easier conditions allowed ample opportunity for the group to resume their grumbled complaints. When we reached the lodge, the lodge owner commented that she was impressed that a hike that usually take six hours, in fact took us six hours, despite obviously challenging circumstances.
An exhausted group all went immediately to their lodges for a shower. However, back in the main lodge later that night, we recounted the adventure over some beers. Although the German hikers may not have enjoyed the experience at the time, they agreed that it was an exciting adventure that they would never forget. My husband and I agreed, it was definitely the most exciting hike we’ve experienced! I guess African adventures don’t have to involve lions, crocodiles and hippos!