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Published: January 5th 2012
Our 5-day 4-night hike in the Drakkensberg mountains of South Africa, called the Giant's Cup Trail, was actually the very first thing we booked in planning this trip to Africa. I can't remember if I found our accommodation at Sani Lodge, just outside of Himeville, in the Lonely Planet, via Google, or both. In any case, we left Durban on a Monday morning, stopped at Pick 'N Pay to stock up on camp meals, and headed North in anticipation of a week spent in the back-country away from the stresses of long-term travel. I really enjoy back-country hiking as a way to clear the mind and challenge the body, and to see vistas and sights that the average population may not get a chance to experience.
We stopped for lunch in a small town called Howick and this was our introduction to the strange European feel that permeates the Drakkensberg mountains and foothills. It was actually a bit of a culture shock to be suddenly driving past "manor houses" and through towns called Underberg and Howick, and to stop for a meal in a pub! We dawdled in Howick talking with some locals with whom we'd struck up a conversation,
and we arrived at Sani Lodge well after dark. We were greeted with saran-wrapped home cooking that we could heat up in the microwave and a cozy traditional-syle thatch-roofed rondavel (updated with tiles and cement rather than the hard packed cattle dung walls and floor).
The next morning we purchased maps and camp fuel (methylated spirits which we'd been unable to find in our shopping trips), asked for directions from the extremely helpful owner of Sani Lodge, and set out on the trail. We did not start at the beginning but rather took a side trail along a rocky brook which easily connected us with the Giant's Cup Trail. The trail is marked with white footprints along its length, which proved to be very helpful in the foggy days to come....
Our first two days of hiking were beautiful with great weather and a gentle, rolling trail which took us along the grassy escarpments of the Drakkensberg mountains. This area is a World Heritage Site for geological, cultural and natural reasons. The rock formations are black volcanic basalt (I am not positive about this but I think this is what our tour guide to Lesotho later told us),
there is a wealth of Bushman paintings to be found in the caves, and there are large and small mammals, flora and birds which are unique to the area. Chuck also found it interesting that the ridges and valleys were formed by water flow and erosion rather than the movement of glaciers, as in other mountain ranges. We didn't see any large mammals but we followed many jackal footprints and fat quail would burst out of the thickets and scare us half to death with their cries. The views of farmland, small lakes and neat rows of trees in the distance were very pastoral.
The reason I had booked the Giant's Cup Trail early was because I had heard that accommodation in the huts along the way could book up quickly, especially in the high season. What I didn't realize was that high season began the weekend after our hike. Therefore, we were the only hikers on the trail and staying in the huts at that time! The first hut, called Pholela, was a lodge-style building with bunk beds, picnic tables and fireplaces in the rooms. We had our pick of the beds and enjoyed a wood fire as
we cooked a late dinner. We had neglected to bring camping cups and the Conservation Officer and his wife were generous enough to lend us travel mugs so that we didn't have to drink wine, water and coffee all out of our Nalgenes. They told us that the hut on our second day, which was also the shortest day of hiking (only 9 km), was the nicest and we had to agree. It was truly in the middle of nowhere with no road access and our only neighbours were the ornery baboons that would shout at us from a distance. We spent the afternoon drinking red wine, doing a bit of laundry, reading, and catching up on our journals while sitting on foam mattresses that we'd hauled outside from the bunk beds.
Unfortunately, we woke on our third morning to the sound of rain on the tin roof. This had let up by the time we had finished breakfast, but the tops of the mountains were covered in fog. We doggedly hiked along hoping that the sun would burn some of this off and we could see some of the views that we had been promised, but we had
no such luck. In fact, the fog turned to cold rain when we reached the bit of trail that took us along a road (a necessary detour as the landowner in this section refused to let the trail cross his land) and we huddled under a tree hoping it would let up a bit so that we could hike the last hour to our third hut, called Winterhoek.
The end of our third day was very disappointing. We had hoped that the two kilometers or so along the road would be our only return to civilization and we would soon be in the back-country again. Instead, the trail took us past fields of cows, some timeshare condos and a local garbage dump. The hut was out of sight of these things, but we had completely lost the isolated feel that we had been enjoying, and we spent the entire evening drying our socks and boots in front of a smoky fire while we knew that people were comfortable in their condos just over the hill. We looked at the map more closely and saw that much of the fourth day would be spend in this type of countryside. We
decided that if the fourth day dawned with the same weather conditions as the third day, we would hike back out to the timeshare complex and take a taxi or hitchhike back to Underberg and Sani Lodge and salvage the week with a day hike or two.
On day four we awoke to the same foggy vista that we had contemplated the day before. The signposts for the Giant's Cup Trail directed us upwards into the grey clouds. We dawdled over our breakfast hoping that the clouds would lift, but we were disappointed. Trying not to feel like sissies, we hiked out to the road and the guard at the gate to the timeshare complex was kind enough to call us a taxi. We were vindicated in our decision to bail on the hike (and also to take a taxi instead of hitchhike) when it started to pour rain on the way back to Underberg.
That afternoon we spoiled ourselves by having tea at a snooty-looking place called "Moorhouse Manor" and watching the rain come down. It soon turned to thundershowers and we were very glad not to be cooking on a camp stove and spending another evening
trying to dry our boots. We awarded ourselves the consolation prize of doing a day tour of Sani Pass and the area of Lesotho above the Pass, which we wouldn't have had a chance to do if we'd stuck it out on the Giant's Cup Trail. It ended up being a really interesting day and we got the chance to learn a bit about the Lesothos and their shepherding culture. Stay tuned for the details in our next blog....
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