Be Prepared: Cautionary Hiking Tales

In Articles, Sports & Hobbies by Dean McCleland1 Comment

The Rhino’s Horn is not one of those hikes that many people are aware of except for the ardent hikers. I only became aware of this little-known gem of a hike in the Drakensberg because a member of our Hiking Club, Clive Cameron, had hiked it many times as a youth having been raised in Kokstad in the southern Kwa-Zulu Natal.

If a 16 year old youth could easily climb this steep pinnacle in the Drakensberg and enjoy its stunning panoramic vistas, then why shouldn’t we also appreciate these little-seen views?

Rhino Peak acquired its name from the prominent horn like feature forming the eastern ridge of the mountain. This peak is located in the southern Natal Drakensberg and is the last major peak of the range.

Even though it is usually a day hike, the total duration would take 12 hours to hike 18kms, scale the heights and to climb back down again. That would require an early start at cockscrow, the earlier the better so as to reach the summit before the full force of the midday sun was beating down. So a 6:30 start was deemed necessary.

 

Heading Out

Being a day hike only, all that we carried were day packs with water, breakfast, lunch and ponchos. This would be the mitigating factor in this arduous climb; a light pack. Being seasoned hikers, a casual day hike up the Drakensberg did not warrant any more kit being taken along. Contrary to the instructions to fill in the Mountain Register before setting off and upon return and sign out, we did not comply with any of these requirements. If the truth be told, this would be a walk in the park for us experienced hikers even though this trail is officially graded as severe to extreme.

Promptly at 6:30, we left the Drakensberg Gardens Hotel; our first port of call being Pillar Cave which would serve as our breakfast area. Like most mountain climbs, the first few kilometres is quite benign with a cheery optimism prevailing. The crisp morning air also propelled us at a brisk pace. But who cared? This would be a doddle and by 10:30 or 11:00 we would be on the pinnacle of the horn itself admiring the view. What could be easier?

The main path from the hotel wandered in a north-westerly direction, parallel to the Mlambonja River. The path then meanders for about 1, 5 km parallel to the river but with the river on the right before crossing onto the left-hand bank for another 1, 5 km until Pillar Cave is reached. A cavalier attitude still prevailed at our chosen breakfast spot. By now, the sun was shining brightly and the warmth dechilled the bones as we languidly prepared breakfast.

Being mindful of the distance, we did not tarry too long. Shortly thereafter the path crosses the river again and another path branches off just below Pillar Cave and goes up to the three Little Caves before rejoining the Mashai Pass path. From the river crossing above Pillar Cave, a 4 km slog up the pass commences.

 

The Climb

What from afar did not seem too daunting is now revealed for what it is: a precipitous climb up to the peak. From all sides it presents itself as a vertiginous rampart much like the castles in the Middle Ages. Jittery nerves were calmed by Clive as he reassured us that there is a saddle which we would use to climb to the plateau. Quite frankly none truly believed Clive. That said, none rebelled or threatened insurrection if his reassurances were proven to be false but there would doubtless be consequences if their worst fears were realised.

The gradient steadily grew more severe. By now we faced the twin onslaughts: the rising heat and the gradient. For the most part from now onwards there was no designated path. Instead it was a case of every man for himself as we all fervently believed that their chosen path was the least arduous. This was a total fallacy, a consequence of our innate hubris and exhaustion. With frayed nerves and sweating profusely in the by now sweltering sun, we inched our way forwards and upwards.

The first to feel the deleterious effects of the climb were Malcolm and Gunther. Malcolm complained of being light-headed and Gunther of being dizzy. Not surprisingly I was not in much better shape. The heat had finally taken its toll. I stopped for my tenth water break. As I inserted my hand into my daypack, I cursed. The bottom was full of water. I surmised that I had forgotten to tighten the water bottle cap properly and now I was stranded without water. As a pulled the water bottle out, it felt just as heavy as I expected it to be with water. I was mystified. I opened the flap to investigate. Sure enough, it was full of water but the bottle was still full. Then it struck me. The sweat from my back had penetrated the pack but as the bottom was lined with plastic, the sweat had not been able to escape. There in my pack was 2 to 3 litres of sweat which I now poured out.

A deep feeling of lassitude overwhelmed me. My chosen path, if it could be called that, was an almost vertical climb up another 500 metres up to the saddle past the Mashai Fangs on the left and the Mashai Shelter which marks the top of the pass.

At this point I froze rigid with cramps. Clive, who played the part of a Saint Bernard dog, came to my rescue offering some anti-cramp capsules. That was it, enough was more than sufficient. How would I claw my way up another few hundred metres? By now, Clive’s muti had worked wonders on both Gunther and Malcolm who slowly inched past me each on their own chosen paths.

After a five minute break and much encouragement from the guys above, I finally arrived at the saddle. As it was already past midday, we were already behind schedule. Revived after a short break, we strode from the head of the pass to the top along the plateau to the Rhinos Horn, which is a distance of 2 kms. Even on this supposedly flat plateau we were forced to climb, gaining 150 m in altitude.

 

Reaching Rhino’s Horn

Finally the goal was in sight: Rhino’s Horn. At this point it decided to start raining albeit more of a light drizzle than a determined downpour. The final climb to the top of the Horn is short but steep. Finally we could relax for an hour and enjoy another languid meal whilst savouring the stunning vistas of the Southern Kwa-Zulu Natal.

It was not to be! Instead it was a hurried group photo then a quick bite to eat as two weather patterns enveloped us. From above huge cumulo-nimbus clouds hastily built up while from the valley below, a thick impenetrable mist rose up. Shortly we were enveloped in an impenetrable shroud.

Unless we quickly evacuated this mountain fastness, we would have to spend a freezing night without adequate gear on a wind-swept mountain plateau. The drizzle gradually grew in intensity while the visibility declined to barely three metres.

As we scurried back to the exit from this mountain top, Werner shouted at us to stick together and promptly disappeared into the mist away from the main group. Clive was our saviour. With only one path down the mountain’s eastern slope as the other sides were vertical descents of hundreds of metres, he unerringly directed us in that direction. With his years of experience on this mountain, he ably guided us to the correct gully. In the meantime the irrepressible iconoclastic Werner had nearly met his Maker as he attempted to descend the wrong channel until a sixth sense at the last moment foretold of a sheer drop in front of which he was blissfully unaware.

The snake of hikers wound its way through puddles and gusting rain in a south easterly direction back to Mashai Shelter. Climbing down the first part of the gully was just as difficult as clambering up it. It was literally a case of climbing down, much like scrambling down a ladder as the slope was at least at a 45 degree angle.

This mist continued to shroud the summit of the mountain the whole afternoon. As if the peak and its slopes were parallel universes, the temperature differential between the two, even 300 metres down the pass, must have been at least 10 degrees.

It had been a close shave. Without Clive’s experience, we could have been trapped on the plateau without food or equipment until the rain abated and the mist dissipated. As the mountain was still shrouded on arrival back at the hotel, the reality is that a chilly night on the mountain top could have been our fate for the night.

Instead it was cold beers and a thick braai steaks with the wives.

Do not forget the warm soft bed afterwards and not a cold obdurate rock!

About the Author

Dean McCleland

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Dean is a keen runner, clocking in around 2000k's per annum for the past 23 years. He has also completed most of the long distance races in South Africa, but has yet to take on the Two Oceans marathon. Dean has been hiking his whole life, and runs a hiking club called Quo Vadis. Trained as a Chartered Accountant, Dean rose to FD of a Barloworld subsidiary, but then switched over to IT. Dean loves the outdoors, staying fit, blogging and hiking.

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