To see how far it is.
Posted by Doug Morton on Tuesday, 18 June 2013
The Giants Castle section of the Drakensberg Mountains is the cornerstone of the range where the Lesotho border changes direction
My first visit to Giants Hut was in a family group in 1978. The legs were stronger then, but no match for the kids’, whose ages ranged from six to twelve years. It was a bitterly cold, heavily overcast day in November, and we couldn’t see the mountains at all. It was a good walk.
So good, in fact, that when I spent a few days at Giants Castle on my own in June 1982, I went again, this time alone. The weather was sharply clear after a night that had yielded a minor snowfall, and I was able to take my time and drink it all in. It was an experience that’s stayed with me, and made me promise myself I’d do it yet again.
It took another thirty-one years to make good on that promise. I’ve been compiling an album of photographs on the Drakensberg over the past year, and there’s no better way to see Giants Castle than by walking to the hut at the foot of the mountain. So it happened that this past Tuesday I booked into a chalet in the hutted camp at Giants, and made myself at home, preparing for the long trek that I intended to do the following day. Firebreaks were being burned all along the way between Mooi River and Giants Castle
Driving to Giants I began to think I’d chosen the time of year badly. There was a pall of smoke totally hiding the whole range of the Drakensberg. It’s veld fire season again, and the farmers are smack in the middle of burning firebreaks, but it was too late to change my mind – I don’t think I can last another thirty one years. The approach road to the hutted camp is as I've seen it for decades, but different, now that I look...
The hutted camp at Giants has always, for me, been the symbol of hospitality in the Drakensberg. It's been the perfect example of indigenous gardening, of disigning with due regard for nature and its surroundings, and was always a place to sit back and relax. So it still is today, having gone through some unfortunat times in between.
My first job was to set up a computer for editing and contact with friends. I can’t describe the frustration of not being able to access the internet due to a poor signal for most of the time. The only spot I could find to receive a signal for the 3G modem was in the public lounge where a TV intruded into everthing.
The next job was to do three days’ cooking in one session. The braai fire was soon blazing for the pack of boerewors I’d taken along, and, yes, you guessed it, a potload of boiled eggs. With the addition of some breadrolls, that would see me through.
I was snug with the help of a log fire in the chalet, but it made me wonder how snug I’d be on the path at daybreak the next morning. First light on Giants Castle
I left camp later than I’d intended as it stays dark till much later in the morning in the deep valley that is the setting for the camp. I set off at seven o’clock, and was stopped in my tracks after just a few minutes by what was probably the loveliest show the mountains had ever put on for me. Giants Castle was ablaze in the first sunlight of the morning, rising majestically above the still-dark foothills in the foreground. The colour of the light was straight from an artist’s palette, and I believe that vista could compare favourably with almost any scene anywhere.
The first part of the walk was the well-trodden one leading to the Bushmens’ Cave Museum and past “75 Rock,” the focal point of the Langalibalele conflict in 1873. I’ll come back to that in some detail at another time. It’s a fascinating story and well worth the telling.
I was surprised at the almost total absence of frost, although the air was cold. There was a real bite in the air along the river, but the exertion of starting the climbing up the sandstone cliffs warmed me up quickly, except for my frozen fingers. I almost hoped not to see anything asking to be photographed. Once above the cliffs I was immediately into direct sunlight, and the cold retreated. I knew I’d not need my beanie and heavy jacket , and found the only bush in that sea of grassland to serve as a marker for for them, and travelled light from there.
Many of my photographer and FaceBook friends joke about my “addiction” to grass. The next spell of about seven kilometres along Giants Ridge provided me with colours and textures in the foliage that were a veritable treasure trove. Even in deep shade in the glens I saw detail and form that had me spellbound. As the sun rose above the “Little Berg” the light grew stronger, adjusting and enhancing the kaleidoscope of colour. I was truly in my patch of heaven, and put the camera through its paces without mercy.
It was interesting to see the well known range of mountains from a different angle, and as the day grew brighter the shadows added beautiful definition to the scenery. The set of peaks named for the five Natal Carbineers who died at the head of the Bushmans River Pass, now usually called the Langalibalele Pass, were very prominent, and I was able to see right up the pass, remembering that tough walk. The five peaks dedicated to the fallen Natal Carbineers.
All the time Giants Castle was getting nearer, and more imposing, seeming to ponder my assault on its privacy. I’d got close enough to be able to make out the wonderful detail in the rock formations, realising that, beautiful as the mountains are when seen from a distance, getting close brings them into sharp focus, giving them vibrancy and life.
Along the way there was a variety of wildlife to be seen, nothing like the Kruger National Park, of course, but just as fascinating, ranging from quite large to quite small. The Eland were part of a small herd of thirteen, the first herd I've seen at Giants for a long time. As the air warmed the lizards came out to fix their body temperatures, but I fear the snail was history, never to sprint again.
At several spots along the way there are cairns of rocks, gradually built up by hikers leaving their nameless calling cards. There’s no purpose in doing this, but it does no harm, and adds an extra dimension to the journey. The last one is at the meeting place of the Giants Ridge path and the contour path that runs all along the foot of the mountains. Contour path? I think that whoever gave it that name had a sadistic sense of humour. It contains some of the ugliest little uphills on the entire trip.
And then. Coming around the last bend on that tortuous path, the hut hove into view, still nearly a kilometre away. I suffer from a bit of altitude sickness, even at those low levels, and I’d been considering turning back, but was now glad I hadn’t. The isolation and solitude of the building is staggering, placed as it is between the magnificent range behind and the almost endless undulating grasslands in front.The hut was burned out in a grass fire some years ago, and is at last being rebuilt, the new roof now almost complete. There’s still a lot of work to be done to make it really habitable, but it should be ready before too long.
I spent some time at the hut, just enjoying the quiet and the sights. Part of the Giants Castle mountain complex is called the Elephant, as its profile supposedly has the shape of an ellie’s head and part of the trunk, and there’s a hole right through the massif that is in just the right spot to be the eye. This hole, and a smaller one nearby, is best seen from the area around the hut.
I’d taken four hours to do the distance, and timed my departure so that I’d be back in camp by around three o’clock. I’d run out of water by then, and found a running stream close by, and stopped to fill the Aquelle bottle with “aqua natura.” The slow-flowing stream was being fed by melting ice and snow as well as its spring, and the water was freezing. Lekker stuff.
By now the fires across the Midlands and farmlands had started again, and some smoke was beginning to drift toward the mountains, creating a haze and making photography a waste of time. The downhill walk, although a little quicker than going up, was more difficult, and in places dangerous due to the round pebbles all along the path, and in some places, a covering of dead grass stems that were really treacherous underfoot. I fell twice, not seriously, but the second time just managed to save my camera from destruction.
Embarrassingly, I missed the spot where I’d left my jacket and had to turn and redo a steep uphill of about a kilometre. I wasn’t too pleased with myself. The distance to the camp seemed to increase rather than lessen, and I felt like the proverbial horse that had smelled water, only in my case it was a beer. At last I was on the home stretch.
It had been a wonderful experience yet again, one that I can recommend to anyone with a love of nature and an eye for the beauty around us. It’s a long walk, and quite tiring, but worth every step. And it made that cold beer taste so much better.