Even though the weather was not the best, Jessica and I decided to attempt a long hike on Friday. The start of the hike was literally just outside our front door! We got an early start and hoped that the fog would lift by mid-morning. We couldn’t see much early on in our hike since the fog was quite dense, but the trail was easy to follow and it was nice to be out in the brisk air, walking at a good pace.
The trail followed the side of a hill for a while and after about 45 minutes we came to Tiger Falls, which at this time of year is just a trickle, but is probably a very pretty site during the rainy season. (During this time I kept thinking about Jacob’s t-shirt that says “Take Tiger Mountain by Strategy”. I don’t know why). After the falls we continued uphill and went through some patches of jungle-like forest interspersed with the highveld plains. At a crossroads, we decided to hike up to a place called The Crack. We really had no idea what it was and our trail map didn’t have any descriptions. We tried to remember our mantra: low expectations.
After gradually going up hill for another mile or so, the trail became much steeper and we ascended the mountainside via short switchbacks and wooden steps. It was quite the quad buster. As we climbed, we entered a canyon which eventually narrowed until it was only 30-40 feet wide. The trail continued higher and higher until we were scrambling over rocks and boulders. At one point we got to a large boulder that was wet and slippery. The trail seemed to continue above it, but it was hard to see beyond. The wind was picking up a bit and it was quite cold. We considered going back, but really wanted to see what was at the top. I scouted ahead and found the trail, which became more difficult and wet. After a brief discussion, we decided to persevere and Jessica followed me up. We had discovered The Crack!
We had to climb up a short wooden ladder and then a longer chain ladder. After that the going became easier since we were walking on dirt and not rock and it was much less steep. A short climb up took us to the top of The Crack, which was a high, barren plateau.
The wind really buffeted us and it seemed much colder without the protection of the rock. We found a trail and carried on. The fog was really thick this high up and visibility was down to about 20 feet or so. We started to descend the opposite side when suddenly we heard this angry screeching noise followed by many voices raised in angst coming from the mist in front of us. We stopped dead in our tracks and looked at each other with jaws dropped. It took us a few moments to realize what was making the racket: a large troop of baboons were rooting on two males who were fighting! Jessica said it was the scariest sound she had ever heard. And it was coming from the direction of where our trail was heading. Baboons are large and can be aggressive. There are very few reported cases of baboons attacking humans, but we didn’t want to become that statistic. After waiting for a few minutes after the noise ceased, we proceeded cautiously down the hill. The fog rose for a moment and we could see a waterfall in the distance. We consulted our not-very-useful map and discovered that we were no where near where we wanted to be! We were on the wrong trail!
With the proximity to the as-yet-unseen baboons, we quickly decided to retrace our steps and return to the top of The Crack. We had only walked about 15 minutes in the wrong direction, but by the time we got back to a place we recognized, the wind had picked up a bit and we were both cold.
Our spirits hit a low point as we considered going back the way we came, however, the thought of down-climbing the wet and slippery rocks was not a pleasant option. After searching around the summit for a few minutes, being careful to not lose each other in the fog, I found the correct trail and we committed to making a loop.
The wind was biting on the exposed plateau and we walked quickly to warm up. We had walked for over three hours without stopping but didn’t want to take a break and get even colder. The walking was easier and I’m sure it would have been really pleasant, but the fog became heavier and we started to feel wet. My feet had been soaked since the start of the hike and my toes were going numb.
We walked for what seemed like an hour, but was probably closer to about 30 minutes, when out of the fog some buildings arose. We had made it to the half way point: a mountain lodge on the edge of the park. As we made our way through the cottages, we got a slight feeling of foreboding since none of them looked open and a few of them were in disrepair. But as we approached the center of the camp, we saw some cars parked and housekeeping staff cleaning. We breathed a large sigh of relief when we found the restaurant was open and warm.
It was so nice sitting inside a warm room and enjoying a cup of hot tea. We were both famished and decided to order lunch as well. The butternut soup wasn’t great but the grilled cheese sandwich (called a toastie here) really hit the spot. We felt very refreshed after 30 minutes.
The waiter told us it was a longer walk to continue the way we planned and he recommended we return down The Crack but the thought of the windy plateau and wet rocks convinced us otherwise: we carried on.
Our spirits rose a lot with hot food and drink and we set off at a good pace. The weather also improved considerably as the afternoon wore on: we started to get some good views of where we were. As we continued down the valley, the fog finally lifted and we were treated with stunning views of a verdant Mahai Valley. We passed several cascades and waterfalls and were able to look out at the hillsides and see our trail in front of us. We descended one side of the valley and passed through a small forest with a stream in the bottom and continued along the other side. Wildflowers were blooming everywhere, the grass was a rich green color and the sun tried desperately to peek out for a few moments. Above us towered the rocky plateau of the Drakensberg while below us the valley stretched out to meet the plains. We were in a bit of heaven.
Time passed quickly and soon enough we saw a sign indicating the trail to The Crack. It took us a few minutes to realize that we had stood in that spot hours earlier and had chosen the uphill trail. Without the fog, things looked completely different and were almost not recognizable. It was great to know where we were and to have an idea of how much further it was. The waiter at the restaurant was completely wrong: the way we descended after lunch was much easier and faster than it would have been to go down The Crack.
Another hour or so took us back to our chalet, and not a moment too soon. Jessica was growing weary and even I was a bit tired. We had hiked for over seven hours and covered an estimated 15-16 miles.
Taking my wet shoes and socks off, changing clothes and having a steaming mug of hot chocolate while looking out our door wall at the mountains (which we could actually see for a bit) really rounded out a spectacular day.