Getting there

We arrived in Johannesberg around four in the afternoon, flying SAA from Windhoek into the same dull overcast we’d left two weeks before, on our way through to Namibia. Canny travelers that we are we avoided the first onslaught of cab drivers but then were nearly scammed by a Tourist Authority official with a badge no less! If you arrive in Jo’burg by plane, avoid the airport at all costs.

We finally find a shuttle to take us to the City Lodge Motel, only fifteen minutes away; we notice it's in a guarded compound and even the shuttle needs to get buzzed in; it's no-frills but just fine for our needs. An OK restaurant backs right onto Map of Southern Africathe motel (with a security guard too) so we don’t have to do any more adventuring. The TV in our room has four sports channels with international rugby and cricket.

Next morning, we get the 8:30am shuttle bus to the airport and meet the Ramblers group off their flight; we all trundle our bags through to some lost parking lot, find our bus—a 28 seater for 21 people, with a towed luggage bin—and we’re off; only 400km to our destination!

We take the N3 highway south from the airport, down through industrial suburbs, bypassing the downtown core whose towers we can see in the distance. We’re struck by sameness and differences from our home countries. Jo’berg is like any modern city anywhere judging by the industry, sleek highway system and the modern houses we pass. Yet there are subtle differences: barbed wire on all the property walls; bars on windows; shanty towns in the distance. And of course we (Canadians) are still on the wrong side of the road.

We emerge into the countryside and find ourselves cruising through…not bush or wilderness but endless rolling fenced farmland, with cows and pastures, like Kent or again just about anywhere…four hundred kilometers of it.

There’s been an accident on the highway (an irritated traffic cop tells us) and it remains blocked by seven trucks that have been burning all day. This forces us on a long detour that adds two hours to the four hours planned. We pull into a full service mall. It’s a Shell station like any other, pumping out the same banal music we’d get at home except there are half a dozen black pump attendants sharing a job. We head for the [franchise] restaurant, order lunch, and as we eat the sky gets progressively darker and the rain starts. We finish lunch, pack into the bus and hit the road again. By late afternoon the rain is coming down in sheets. We turn off the main road and begin winding up into the mountains. People are getting scarcer; the houses are all shacks, roads are often flooded and it’s getting dark. The tour leader comes down the bus and in the midst of other details, warns us that hiking on our own requires caution as marauders from neighbouring Lesotho province have been coming over the mountains, rustling cattle and robbing tourists…!

Geez, what are we getting ourselves into?!

At last, high up the side of the valley, in near darkness, we stop at a security gate. Through the gloom, we can see…not a dingy shack with a barbed wire fence…but an attractive rock wall, a polished sign and a smart looking security guard. Things are looking up! We head up the approach road and see baboons scamper off into the grass as we approach; the bus driver warns us to keep windows in our rooms closed.  We emerge in a grove of trees and gardens, with neat modern chalets snuggled here and there. Grab bags, are assigned keys, find out chalet—No 18, “Dais”; we have all mod cons including satellite TV, hot shower, modern kitchen. Boy, are we happier.

Giant’s Castle

across the thatched rooftops, Langalibalele ridge on the left of the river in beyond. the Bushman river flowing left to right (out of sight) below.We’ll spend a week here. The chalets are beautiful. The forty-odd little thatched cottages are discretely located among gardens and trees up on the side of the Bushman River valley. It seems large in the picture but when we’re hiking, we can barely make out this small patch of trees in the vast expanse of grassland.

There’s a faint but pleasant odour of thatch at first in ours but we get used to it. We quickly find that a small but powerful electric radiator is the ideal solution for our daily laundry needs and there’s plenty of hot water for showers and washing.

On our first evening, we shower, change and then take the two minute lamplit walk through the garden to the restaurant. There’s a small bar where we order our bottle of wine (C$10-20) and step into the adjacent restaurant.(From their site) Dining RoomInside the chalets Another large group is already here (Brits also by the sound of it) and a few scattered tables of guests on their own up for the weekend from places like Durban perhaps. Our group is neatly dressed (“formal/casual”) but we’re outdone by some of the guests; the waiters are all in uniform. The number of other guests will fade to no more than half a dozen during the weekdays that follow.

We find it a little clammy at night on the first night in our room, the occasional harsh bark of baboons on the slope above us serving as a reminder not to leave windows open, but we soon get used to it. 

And as the week wears on, we get more comfortable in our surroundings. A considerable variety of birds—some quite tame, others, like the sunbirds, spectacularly colorful—flit about, but their song and conversation is the constant reminder of our tropical surroundings. On some rocks behind our room, Lyn spots two Ground Woodpeckers. The Pin-tailed Whydahoddest is the Whydah, a tiny bird with ungainly long tail feathers that hops about on the lawn in front. There’s also a Black-eyed Bulbul that is almost as tame as our sparrows.

Complete list of birds/photos here

We have breakfast and dinner in the restaurant. Our meals are included in our package but we need to buy our own wine, and lunches cost about $8 a day, which seems expensive, given the relatively low cost of food here. And the lunches are awful! After a second day, we make our own with purchases from the small shop, and the whole week costs less than a single lunch bag. We can also buy chips and beer for our aprés hike refreshments. At the end of a week of carefree spending (nb: not all wine and beer) the two of us have accumulated a bill of less than $200—extraordinary! Staff are friendly although some are clearly just learning the ropes of this new profession.

Hiking

Sketch of Giant's Castle hikes. Our 6 hikes marked in reds/purple...sorry: not very clearWe’re up at 7am; breakfast at 7:30; ready for hiking at 8:30.  It’s a bit chilly in the mornings as the resort is 5,000 feet above sea level but it doesn’t take long to warm up; even on overcast days the heat bakes through, burning the unprepared quickly; factor 30 sunscreen is a norm, but thankfully no bug-off needed.

Because the weather hangs heavy over the peaks for the first few days, we don’t see until later in the week that we’re in a kind of ampitheatre, with a wall of peaks above us—Giant’s Castle itself is an impressive 11,306 ft. The top 500ft is a bluff of barren rock, but at its foot lays an apron of grassland, descending in a series of green velvet steps past the resort and down another 3-4,000 feet to the plain below. The apron across is folded into deep valleys and rounded ridges carved out by the rivers plunging from the heights above. Ours is the Bushman River valley. The resort is often visible behind us as we climb, a small dark copse of trees and thatched roofs easily visible against the green apron about two thirds of the way up to the ridge.

Home (beer) in sightThe area has its pluses and minuses. The huge plus is that it is all a vast expanse of largely uninterrupted grassland, giving us continuous panoramic views in all directions. We walk 80 kilometers in that first week covering very little of the same ground. It’s vast. The small minus is that it is all a vast expanse of uninterrupted grassland! It is not just that each hike offers only a small variation on the last but that each hour offers only subtle change from the last. We enjoy our week here but we agree that three days would be sufficient.

There are animals, birds, and flowers to look at. All are constant but we don’t see the frantic abundance of, for example, the flowers in our own alpine meadows, just constant and varying little flecks of color here and there as we march on. There’s a surprising dominance of blue flowers, all a little different from one another, none recognizable by our puzzled, erm...what is the flower equivalent to twitchers: potters? Among the identifiable flowers: frequent snakehead orchids; a rare glimpse of gladioli; a host—here and there—of red-hot pokers (we wandered lonely without no smokers...) and amongst these we usually see sunbirds.

Birds too are sporadic: small twittery things that we catch only glimpses of; overhead, the circling shape of vultures and buzzards but too far off to get a good look at; one closer flash of red, a distinctive flight-then-hover gives the game away on a Rock Kestrel. There is a report that someone has seen the rare Lammergeier (Bearded) Vulture.

There are however subtle changes of concentration—a flower or bird appears here but notFlower there; there is an amazing variety of grasses and our carpet changes as we move.

We’ll occasionally spot small groups of Eland, a large and nimble animal by reputation but we never see them at more than an amble. In the mating season, they’ll form a single large herd of hundreds of animals but we see groups of four to twenty; they are careful to keep their distance. Taando may stop abruptly to allow a snake to move off. Once in a while, we see a group of baboons looking for roots and grubs on a hillside or hear their distant harsh bark without seeing them.

Weather: where are we again?The weather is the unremitting variable and we’re always on our toes. Lynda and I figure we’re in dire straits: the business part of our trip cramped our packing options, then leaning too much on bad advice, we brought only these dumb $1 plastic ponchos that are so flimsy they feel as though they’ll shred if we pass wind in them. We don’t want to be out on an exposed ridge during a thunderstorm.

one of several groups of eland that we sawWe've spotted a small herd of Eland (large antelope) today, and will later see a small group of baboons on a hillside above us.>For the first two days, dull overcast in the morning gives way gradually to increasingly dark clouds, and we get a bit wet as we re-enter the camp at the end of both days. On the second a thunderstorm breaks as we almost run down off the ridge and entertains us with spectacular bangs for the rest of the afternoon. But the best is yet to come. On day 3, we barely get to lunch before it starts; we make our way down in a mix of heavy rain and stifling humidity and spend the rest of the day drying out. The good news is that the “dumb” ponchos turn out to be brilliant. They not only stand up to a bit of wind but they’re so light and cool that we don’t have to take them off between showers.  Day 4 starts off with brilliant blue sky; it doesn’t remain cloudless for long and the views are spectacular….but we soon find out what a boon some overcast is: you can get toasted in an hour of this. Our last days remain warm and clear.

Our guide, Tando is a Zulu, orginally fromDurban; he wants to get rich showing tourists around and then open his own business. He keeps a steady tramp, occasionally pointing out the occasional distant wildlife or nearby snake. The silence (or group chatter) is broken sporadically by the jarring “drrring” of Taando’s cellphone alerting him to a text message coming in and he’ll occasionally get on the phone to do some business. It’s a different Africa!

We keep a steady but not too challenging pace, breaking every so often for a water stop or to allow the group to regather. Lunch, between 12 and 1, is often the turnaround point, and we are generally back at the resort between 2 and 4 to avoid the afternoon heat (or thunderstorm). We average perhaps 15Km, climbing and then descending an average of about 2,000 ft a day.

Our tribe: a motley crew (but no rock band this) of twenty one all told—mostly Brits, with one American and one Canadian couple (us). Stephen, our Ramblers group leader, hails from Manchester, which means that I have to translate most of his bon mots for Lynda. Once again, we are impressed that while we probably spend more time chatting with some than others, it is by accident rather than design. We’ve had five Ramblers trips now and never met anyone, other than one rather occasionally tiresome group leader, who we had any difficulty with.  

how to enjoy a downpour! a welcome cool one after the giant's castle hikeThis is great because it gives at least part of the afternoon to relax. Lyn and I try to watch the Winter Olympics on TV but the coverage is chaotic—we see Heat 4 of the speed skating and then move to snowboarding and never find out what happened in the speed skating. 


Detailed Notes on Hikes

NB: Day 1 is Feb 9th 2006, if you need calendar dates

Day 1: Worldview
Distance: 14km; Elevation gain/loss: 1350 ft.

Worldview knoll, our destination in the distance. TaandoLooking over to the Lammergeier Nest...for those that did see itWe head out from the resort along the road away from the peaks for less than a kilometer, dip left and take a zig-zag trail down to the Bushman River, which we cross, then climb 100ft up the other side and continue parallel with the road. We follow along the side of this ridge for about another six km, guided for much of the outbound walk by the quaintly named "Virgin's nipple" feature that Climb to lunch on World Viewends up on our left at the end. Finally, we climb the small knoll of Worldview which sits like a pimple above the end of a much longer and steeper drop to the plain below. We have lunch looking out over the immense scene below. On our way, we pass the Lammergeyer (Bearded Vulture) nest on the other side of the valley, where, in season, birding tourists can see them doing their thing.

See some Black-backed Jackal tracks but no other signs of animal. Plenty of flowers but can't identify many.


Day 2: Meander Hut and Valley
Distance: 21 km [13.0 mi.] Elevation gain/loss:  550 m [1,804 ft] up & down, 6½ hr

Meander ValleyOur direction is initially down the same road as yesterday but we turn right, up the side of the Bushman River valley, over the top and continue steadily ascending to a ridge that divides this valley from the Meander River valley. At the top of the ridge we find a couple of rangers sprawled out, watching the hills above, and trails below. Reassuring and unnerving at the same time.

We cross this high grassy plain and finally have lunch looking out over the Meander River plain below us. A large and colorful protea tree attracts a brilliant Malachite Sunbird for a few minutes which promotes chatter among the twitchers of the group. When we head back our guide Tando spots a few snakes. This doesn't help Lyn's blood pressure as we wade through another 5km of grass-covered trails.

We arrive finally at an outlook point where we can almost see the resort…and a glowering, dark storm gathering. The group stops to meditate but Lyn and I decide to hike ahead and beat the rain rather than test the real stopping power of our flimsy raingear. We're within 10 minutes of the chalets, descending the ridge, when we see a thousand swallows and swifts in the air ahead…huh? The answer is suddenly upon us: we're enveloped in flying ants! Fortunately they don't bite (we're covered in them). We get a few drops of rain on us, but we're showered and having a beer by the time the group gets in half an hour later...with the rain coming down in torrents and lightning flashing periodically.

Days 3-5 (Summary: details below):

At breakfast the following morning Michael and Rosemary report they returned yesterday to find they’d left a window open and a baboon had trashed their room. Lesson learned for everyone! The resort has abandoned its policy of shooting baboons that approach the resort (same as our bear problem basically), unless, as has happened, a male gets aggressive and attacks someone—usually a woman. Nonetheless, we're not keen to encourage them.

Quick bite looking backWe start into heavier duty hikes, heading up several routes to the peaks, and—in the case of Day 5—completing a circuit. We get soaked on Day 3: hit by rain at lunch and have to hike back through a series of shower/steaming episodes. But it was quite warm, and the weather improves markedly on the last two days.

Lots of flowers, plenty of sightings of Eland, a few snakes.


Day 3. Giant's Ridge
Don't sit here!Distance: 12 km [7.5 mi.], Elevation gain/loss:  540 m [1,772 ft]  Time: 6 hr

Almost sat on this snake. Out and back along the same trail. It is possible to do a circuit but to achieve that we have to climb higher to the contour path, and return along one of the other ridges. The glowering clouds, however, come down to meet us, and we march back in squalls of rain.

Day 4. Langalibalele Circuit
Distance: 16 km [9.9 mi.], Elevation gain/loss: 660 m [2,165 ft] Time: 8 hr

View of the peaks at last!Rain the night before can change things a lot!We waken, for the first time, to a cloudless day and views of the ampitheatre in its considerable majesty. It clouds in a little, thankfully, as this time we do hike one of the circuit routes, now in sweltering heat. The ridge is named after a chief who refused to surrender his guns to the British and underscored his point by defeating them in the initial skirmishes.

Day 5. Oribi Ridge
Distance: 17 km [10.6 mi.], Elevation gain/loss: 785 m [2,575 ft] Time: 6½ hr

Starting out to OribiAnother cloudless day. The ridge named after a local deer-like creature that we didn’t see.

Day 6. Bushman Caves and River Walk

Our group leader had saved a short, lowland hike for a day with really lousy weather but this was still to be done at the end of the week so we had a lazy last day, hiking up to see the cave paintings in the Bushman River, only a couple of k from the resort. Nice walk, through cool woods for a change. Cave paintings are only mildly interesting until one really looks closely and realizes the significance of them. Interesting presentation by a young local Zulu woman, pointing out the meaning of the paintings and in one instance, the presence of soldiers (the images pockmarked by bullets from the soldiers who also recognized their images).

Zulu dance troupeWe then took a path along the Bushman river banks, seeing plenty of birds and flowers along the lush valley bottom. About a 5Km day.

That evening, our leader Stephen and his partner Carol surmounted unsurmountable obstacles to arrange for some Zulu dancers to perform and we followed this with an excellent outdoor barbecue (fish course kindly provided).

Cavern Berg

We weren’t aware that our first week had only been the appetizer; the best was yet to come.

The bus showed up at promptly on the Friday morning at Giant's Castle; we check out, pack in and are on the road by 10:15am. We stop briefly in the nearby town of Estcourt for some pharmaceutical supplies then hit the main highway heading to the Northern Drakensburg. The itinerary calls for a stop at the historic site of Spion Kop. We have trouble finding it, and the bus driver grumbles about this uncertainty so much that we were all close to throttling him. The twitchers, fortunately, are distracted by seeing an Amur Falcon occupying the low point of the power lines between each of the poles along this road. Returning from Spion Kop(some of us) wonder why we bothered. It’s been a 4 km hike up a hill to a very small monument in stinking heat. Not that the monument holds no interest at all, but, with such limited opportunity to see life outside the resorts, we pick one of such narrow interest.]

As we come down the hill and board the bus, an immense line of storms is blackening out the Drakensburg peaks along the horizon and creeping towards us. In less than half an hour we (once again) are heading up into the mountains in driving rain, near darkness, and incredible lightning strikes.

But the rain lets up and the sky clears somewhat as we make the last few kilometers; we pull up to a (guarded) gate with splendid lush gardens beyond. A young gentleman looking and acting in a manner faintly like a stormtrooper (perhaps it’s the motorcycle) appears and leads the bus up through a dark lane overhung with eucalyptus trees, and out on to parking lot, where, across an English lawn, sits a large and elegant lodge.

Life in General at Cavern Berg Resort

(taken from their website) Cavern Berg Resort aerial viewThis is a step up even from the comfort of Giant’s Castle! Our room is not quite as nice as the thatched chalets, but very comfortable. We’re attached to the enormous main lodge, which has a reading room, games rooms, TV room, internet access, a library, and a restaurant that probably seats 150 people. Outside our room, there are benches overlooking the bowling greens and tennis courts; below that are the stables (there are horse riding lessons) …and beyond a nice view of the ridge.

What was remarkable about this week was the lack of anxiety about anything. At Giant’s Castle we were warned about poisonous snakes (laughed off here as nothing more than, at worst, a painful bite), baboons in rooms (puzzled looks here, but the presence of three very large and boisterous lodge dogs might explain that), and Lesotho bandits (again, bewilderment but Lesotho was further West from here).

Is that you grasshopper? No baboons—we were invaded instead by moths. We foolishly left lights on and windows open in our rooms one evening and returned to find our rooms covered in hundreds of moths (etc). In spite of an hour spent shooing most out we still woke in the morning to find the bathroom with a carpet of corpses. We sneaked away hiking and left it to the maids, who somehow managed to remove all the victims.

No tipping here. Instead, guests leave a general tip for everyone at the end of their stay and it is shared equitably among all staff. It’s amazing how much this simplifies the ordering of a cup of coffee in the lounge in the afternoon.

The Dining Experience

It is worth spending a moment on our dining, as it was an experience of several dimensions.

We share a dining room every evening with another 40-50 people; we quickly (not immediately) learn that we are supposed to return always to the same two tables, where the same…or more or less the same…waiters will attend to our needs.

The salad buffet is our first stop. This will be followed by a choice of appetizer, then by a main course and finally by dessert, coffee, and if we want to return to the buffet, cheese and crackers. As this dawns on us on our first evening, there is almost an audible wiffle of people on diets mentally tearing them up.

Everything other than the salad is brought by our waiter—one to each of our two large tables.  Each waiter has his own style. Consider that each has to field the choices from about ten different people (there are 21 of us split between the two tables) four times at each meal, get rid of the empty plates from the last course and deliver the next set. At one table, a very nice but somewhat gruff chap, (who Lynda picks, rather accurately I think, to be a retired boxer), has delivered the soup before most of us are back from the salad bar, and it takes assertiveness skills to slow his avalanche of courses throughout the week. In like fashion, when he appears at one’s ear and points sharply at one’s empty plate, it is impossible not to react reflexively, delivering same with the utmost speed, and to cower until it is gone. At the other table, by contrast, is Robert. Amiable in the extreme, he waltzes down the table, performing a memory trick of remembering each of ten different orders. When Nick, who is descended from lions, places his usual order—one that I could not remember if it were the only one given—Robert does hesitate for an instant....but recovers and moves on. Sure enough, nine out of ten of the orders he returns with are right on. And that one order, well: differences there too. At the other table, there is a slight crouch when an order is questioned, a hush descends on the table; then relief: the offending order disappears and later in the week its replacement is provided...and never questioned. Robert however, is unfazed. He negotiates; compromises are found: maybe an order of toast unwanted could be exchanged for bacon requested; perhaps one egg appears on its own—within minutes! And perhaps we don't notice there was a wrong order at all because Robert is so charming. Subtle differences.

This is for dinner and breakfast! We try to mix and match, but as the week passes, we find ourselves drifting more often to Robert’s table.

Vegetarian footnote: the chef is brilliant. He dropped by our table on the first night, and finding a vegetarian on board seemed to perk his interest. There was no problem with the preliminary courses as all had a vegetarian option but the main course didn’t. So, as instructed, on the first night, I asked the waiter for the “vegetarian”, and slightly puzzled, he returned to the kitchen. Minutes later, he reappeared, beaming, with my specially prepared dish. And they were all brilliant that week—true vegetarian gourmet meals, not just the same plate that everyone else had with a space where the meat had been taken off.

The bird watching expert

We find out on our first evening, that David Johnson, a local bird expert is up for the weekend and will be putting on a talk in the convention center. For even the mildly interested this sparks interest. So far we have seen many birds but can identify none.

The talk proves to be excellent. Now, rather than a find a bird in a massive book full of a thousands of birds, we get to know the mere hundred or two known to frequent the area. David announces that the following day there will be a bird watch tour of the grounds at 6am, a second walk at 9:30am, and another at 2pm the next day.

Because I’m leery of another week of more-or-less the same hikes, I opt to spend the day birdwatching, while Lyn plans to go with the group.

2b-Resort-view from room.jpg
Day 1:Twitching

6:00am. I'm fairly promptly out on the lawn in the slight chill of the early morning (we're just under 5,000 feet here too) and am surprised to find a fairly large crowd—perhaps a dozen or more—already there, binocs already aimed at something in David is pointing to. The group includes a few who are curious rather than real twitchers.

Quite a morning! Nothing is going to escape this crowd: within an hour our 360° vision has spotted more than 30 different birds, including four different kingfishers—an occasion that David has only experienced once before here—and a couple of paradise flycatchers. We’re not talking about sparrows either, but colorful, exotic feathered folk, and that's only their names! Chattering too: David hears many of the birds before we see them. Even the non-enthusiasts among us are enthusiastic.

The later morning bird-walk is just as successful: David also sees a Mountain Reedbuck (a small deer), a sighting that he says is rarer than seeing a lion...and much to be preferred considering we're in an open field. We see Steppe Buzzards and a Martial Eagle—another rare sighting.

I miss the afternoon walk as I am busy trying to catch up on my internet blog and generally taking advantage of the extra time to look around. The walk the following morning, perhaps because of the slight drizzle and wind, is not nearly as eventful, but at this point, nobody really cares.

David does explain a few interesting features here. In the winter, there’s little rain and yet plenty of heat and the occasional thunderstorm. We all look nervously out at the vast plain of grass and ask about fires. It turns out that grass fires are de rigeur: they are required. The grass burns but the trees are fire resistant. In fact without a certain amount of heat protea seeds won’t germinate! And it’s true! On our walks we now notice that the protea trunks are all charcoaled.

Complete list of our bird sightings (including Namibia) here

Hiking

Sketch of Cavern/Natal ampitheatres

The hiking is far better here. We have similar heights, stepped grassland and rivers. But the grassland is broken up with protea trees rather than unremitting grass; we spend more time in out of woodland, which is cooler and more interesting; and we also, on two hikes, clamber up through narrow crevices onto the tops of the escarpment peaks, which are a more surmountable 6,000 feet. We also have the benefit of the Royal Natal National Park next door, and make two hikes into that area.

The weather too favoured us—it was very hot for the most part. Our fourth day was a little cloudy and we decided against a planned hike to the heights but were able to do this on the last day.

Day 1: Camel's Hump
12 km [7.5 mi.], 550 m [1,804 ft] up & down. High point: 1,892m. 6½ hr.

Lynda’s report this, I was twitching (see above).

Sunny, hot, windy at top. Saw a Rinkhals (Spitting cobra) with a frog in its mouth. Circled along Surprise Ridge to Cannibal Cave and down.

Day 2: Tugela Gorge
16 km [9.9 mi.], 350 m [1,148 ft] up & down, High point:1630m. 6½ hr

Tugela CrossingTugela Falls, 2nd highest in the world The Cavern transported the group over to the KwaZulu-Natal National Park—a journey of only about 20 minutes from the resort in an assortment of vehicles. We struck out from the car park up the trail towards the gorge; the trail dipped through some woodland early, but we were soon out on the grassland and plodding up, with the Tugela River about 100 feet below. An hour or so of this and then suddenly trail and river converged as we entered the beginning of a canyon, with twenty foot walls on either side. We were forced to make three stream crossings to negotiate otherwise impassable sections of the river. Three of us managed all three without taking our boots off but the rest doffed boots, waded the (fast moving) stream, and went the rest of the way in sandals. The gorge came to an abrupt end at a 20ft wall of rock, the river appearing from a subterranean tunnel at the bottom, and forming a marvelous green pool before continuing its troubled descent. Above the wall of the gorge, we could make out the escarpment higher up, and could see the glistening stream of the Tugela Falls (second highest waterfall in the world) coming down the face.

[† Thongs for North Americans. Stephen tells me that in the UK this term is used to describes the working uniform of lap-dancers in the early part of their performance.]
Day 3: Sugar Loaf Hill
10 km [6.2 mi.], 700 m [2,297 ft] up & down, 8 hr High point: 2085m.
Resort-sugarloaf

Warm days these. Today we headed straight for the peaks above us (that's Sugarloaf, the boob-shaped bump on the ridge, showing between the rooftops of the resort). We made good time, winding our way up through the proteas to the narrow gulley of Sugarloaf Gap. It took a bit of puff to get there in the heat. Once there we had a bit of scramble up through the steep gulley, and then we were out on the top, with stunning views in all directions.

At first glance you may think this is a big cave. Have a look at the people (bottom left) to get a real idea of the scale!However, we found to our surprise that there was not the same steep drop-off like the one we had just climbed, but a high grassy plateau that fell gradually away from the ridge we were on, with the dam and reservoir in the distance.

Sugarloaf is a small high point along the ridge from where we take a short break, and were about to depart for it when one of the lodge dog showed up. It turned out that he had got away from his leash and followed a couple who had left behind us on their hike. However, he had then spotted our group a few minutes ago, and had bounded off after us with the hope of better mooching in a larger group.

Lunch looking out from Cannibal Cave. I had the vegetarian After the short, sharp climb up Sugarloaf and a leisurely rest break, we tied up the dog (leaving him for the group coming behind) and made the far more perilous descent through Cavern Gap, where a couple of people had difficulty. From here we crossed again to Cannibal Cavern and had lunch. The Cavern (and hence the name of the resort) is named after a tribe that in the 1800s, hiding from the purge of the Zulu chief Shaka, survived here by eating passers-by. We were content to make do with the excellent lunch bags provided this week by the resort.

An hour’s hike down, and we’re back at the resort, and establish the practice of having a beer out on the lawn after our hike; today it is so hot that we take a swim in the pool as well.

Day 4: Surprise Ridge
15 km [9.3 mi.], 550 m [1,804 ft] up & down, 6 hr.

Royal Natal escarpment From Surprise Ridge First Ridge->We climb First Ridge up to Surprise Ridge, that separates Cavern from Kwa-Zulu Natal National Park, and descend to the visitors’ bureau there, where the transportation from the resort picks us up and drives us back.

Pleasant day. It’s a longer trip down than we expect and we are caught in rain for the last hour, with low cloud drifting up from beneath us.

Day 5: Bishop's Inkala and Alpine Heath
15 km [9.3 mi.], 525 m [1,722 ft] up & 630 m [2,067 ft] down, 7 hr.

Hmm. Not sureSomewhere on our Alpine Heath walkSome of us had planned to take a more difficult hike over Holele Ridge today, to avoid what seemed to be this less ambitious hike. But the weather was overcast when we awoke so we postponed that trip. But we began with a partial ascent of the same ridge, heading over the opposite flanking ridge from yesterday. A brief detour under the bluff, into Echo cave, brought us beneath an enormous overhang, perhaps 75m in width, with the lip about 50m above us projecting out almost 30m.

From here we continued down and across the flanks of the high ground, passing the Bishop’s Inkala (Incaba?) "Navel", and on through quite interesting woodland. But eventually we leave the marked trail and strike out across a dull series of low level grass ridges (Lyn grumbling about this because of the snakes the whole way) until we finally reach the distant Alpine Heath resort. We were picked up by the transportation.

This—for my money—was a day that started out brilliantly but ended on a long dull note.

That evening, we were entertained by the staff choir, a surprisingly talented mixed group that sang and danced just the right amount before retiring untheatrically. Then later, we were entertained in a different way, by a huge storm: lightning, thunder and torrential rain.

Day 6: Holele Ridge
[Approx]: 16km [10miles], 2700’ ascend/descend; High point: 2103m; 7hr

Thursday dawned with clear skies, settling things: the main group would do a half day, hiking over to Silent Woman. We six “rebels” would hire our own guide and take on the challenge of Holele Ridge. What had prompted the group leader’s unwillingness to try this with the whole group was that his notes (provided by a previous group leader) warned that the difficulty level might be beyond the abilities of some of the group.

Holele Ridge, seen from the 
resort as we After some puzzling over our plan for the day we took off, initially up the same route as yesterday, led by our large guide, Sherlock. We had only to reach the bump of battleship at the far left; the top of Echo Cave just visible in the escarpment to our leftScilla gully (named for the Scilla plants—like orchids, emerging from the wet rock faces), just beyond the turnoff for Echo Cave, to see that the group leader had indeed made a good decision: here was a serious challenge.

Scilla Gully: The Horrors! [Oblique reference to Apocalypse Now] We started up a very steep and rocky gulley. It was similar to Sugarloaf Gap and the more demanding Cavern Gap we'd done earlier in the week. But Scilla was steeper; we had to inch our way up—sometimes over Almost at the top of the spine; looking back on ascent and resort large rocks with few handholds, clinging to bamboo stems, Scilla roots or anything and hoping it would hold. Half way up, Sherlock, who was leading the way, slipped on the wet rock and fell backwards. I managed to grab him...and we all were hugely relieved when, after a long pause, he said he was OK. He kept going but it later turned out that he had banged his knee and that it hurt more than he had admitted.

Our route to Sugarloaf We made it out of the gully and made the mistake of looking up. We were already poised high on the escarpment and had a last steep ascent of about 100 feet to go...up a narrow spine with the escarpment on the left and a sheer drop of 50ft on the other side! It turned out to be less hazardous than it looked and soon we were on top of the world…where our camera failed. Thanks Nick for the photos!

looking behind the escarpment to the dam and reservoir. Kwa-Kwa area But it was a brilliant day. From the top, we had views in all directions. And it was a cake-walk (well, 4km and about 300ft ascent each way) around the top of the escarpment to Coldhill Peak. This time, as we passed around behind Sugarloaf (rather than unnecessarily climbing up and down it) we could hear bells on our right, and a herd of sheep with attendant shepherds and sheepdogs, appeared below us. From Coldhill, we could look out over the adjacent Natal National Park escarpment, and see Tugela Gorge.

Now we headed back, coming down through Sugarloaf Gap (rather than the nastier Cavern Gap); Sherlock was now at the back and clearly limping. We really appreciated that he’d continued and saved our day.

Last Days

Steady rain on our last morning cancelled the planned hike to breakfast. Some of us breathed a sigh of relief as we’d already packed our gear and didn’t want to add a bag of muddied footwear. Still more drama: there’d been a tussle with the bus company that brought us here and were refusing to pick us up, so Stephen had called Ramblers who’d arranged for another company to do so. The driver from the first company, apparently unaware that he’d been made redundant, appeared around 9, wringing his hands, and mumbling something about even blocking the road if this couldn’t be resolved. However, our bus shows up at 1pm as planned, and we dropped the others off at the airport in Jo’burg without further problems.

The flight back to England after our two further days in Jo'berg (see Overview) was less tiresome than the one in, mostly because we both slept well...12 hour layover in London (also see Overview)...son Dean met us at the airport in Vancouver and were were back.