Just over a week from my last African trip, I headed back to South Africa this time with my tent and camping gear to climb the highest points in both South Africa and Lesotho. I used a few tricks to lower the flight price significantly. I flew from Birmingham to Madrid, On to Rome where I caught a direct flight to Johannesburg. The flight was quite empty and I had the seat next to me free so I could stretch out and relax for the 10+ hour flight. Food onboard was just okay but when I asked for Orange juice I was given red-orange juice.. Different. I was really pleased to head straight through passport control at JNB without even stopping this time, Collected my rucksack and had another yummy Wimpys as I had a few hours until my flight to Durban. I had read beforehand that there were new rules when flying onwards from JNB and that rucksacks needed wrapping as the straps were causing problems but I opted against wrapping and had no problems. My Mango flight was running slightly late but it was only a short flight which went well and I was soon in Durban.
I collected my bag and changed some money as I would be catching a taxi to the airport then a shuttle to the mountains then hopefully a lift/taxi back from Leslies pass and had no idea really how much that would cost or if possible. My bag was feeling heavy, I would be in the mountains for 4 or 5 days and decided chocolate and sweets were predominantly the way to go to save and faffing with cooking gear. I think I had gone a bit overboard with the chocolate bars mind haha! I headed out of the airport and caught a shared taxi to my hotel near to the beach in Durban. It was a nice hotel, big room and perfectly located for everything I needed. I checked in for the night and had a walk along the beachfront and had a lovely burger meal from Sears, It started raining so I jogged back to the hotel.
I contacted Nud express directly via Whatsapp and made a reservation for the following day as they run a shuttle service from Durban right to Sani lodge near the mountains by Sani pass, I had already contacted the owner of Sani Lodge who confirmed they had space for my tent. Nud express agreed to pick me up at 14.00 from outside the Mcdonalds in Durban the following afternoon. I had been keeping an eye on the weather as on Mountain Forecast it was showing a storm system heading through the mountains the next evening with 50+mm of rain falling in a few hours. Later that evening I received a message from Alex at Nud saying they were having a big problem as a large group needed picking up at the same time but miles away. He said the best he could do was “Try” to pick me up at 18:30 tomorrow evening. I now wouldn’t get to Sani lodge until well after 22:00 and during a storm, Brilliant. To compound the disappointing news I couldn’t find the adapter for my USB to charge my phone, I had brought two battery packs with me but must have left the wall socket adapter at home, Great! I popped out to a local shop for refreshments and asked if they did adapters to which the woman showed me a rather suspicious “Samsung” two pin one for £2. I accepted and although I don’t think it’s a genuine one it did the trick.
After a good sleep, I was still in two minds regarding the shuttle service as if he et me down I would be really up against it timewise and even if he turned up I would be soaked just putting the tent up in the dark, so not a good start. I sat in the reception area on a settee and considered my options. I had already booked another hotel in 6 nights time for when I got back to Durban from the mountains. Perhaps I could use this to my advantage, I could book there for tonight avoiding the uncertainty of the shuttle service and getting to Sani lodge after 22:30 in a storm, along with being cheeky and asking to leave some of my gear there for 5 days save carrying it with me. I already knew from planning there was a bus service from Durban to Escourt and vice versa so I would just do my route in reverse and hopefully get a lift down Sani Pass to save a long walk.
I checked the bus times from Durban to Escourt on my phone and headed straight to the Greyhound desk at the bus station, I inquired about the 06:00 bus for the following morning but the woman said, that service now ran at 08:30. The manager came past and said that there was a discount on that service saving about 30%. She asked if I wanted to book but I said I would have to have a think. If I caught it I wouldn’t get to Escourt till later and then needed to try and catch a taxi to the trailhead before a long climb into the mountains.
I decided it was still doable and booked it, I headed back to my hotel and made a booking to that evening at the same hotel I would be staying at in 6 nights time. I contacted both Nud express along with Sani lodge saying that my plans have changed due to the uncertainty of the shuttle service. I walked to my new hotel about 2km away, I headed through some pretty rough parts of the city with a lingering smell of urine. I saw several men just urinated up any building wall they saw, not discrete at all either! I continued and reached the Royal hotel, A posh hotel in a nicer area. They had my reservation and headed up to my room that was massive, I popped out for food that evening and came back but the door wouldn’t open with the swipe card. I sorted it out quickly at reception and relaxed in the room freshened up and went to have a shave but I noticed that the handle had snapped off. I was still just about able to use it by improvising and holding the end.
The following morning I separated my gear, negotiating to leave the excess in the storage room behind the reception for 5 days until I would be back. I then headed to catch my bus from the Greyhound the bus station. I had to walk quickly as my bag was weighing me down and I really couldn’t afford to miss the bus. I was hoping there would be a shop at the station but I had to jump straight onto the bus for the 2hr15m journey. We stopped several times en route and at one stop vendors came on board selling food and drinks so I was able to buy ice-cold water. The bus turned off the motorway at a service station about 5km outside of Escourt which was my stop. There was a garage and a shop, I brought drinks as it would be my last opportunity to do so for quite a few days.
I befriended several members of staff who eventually managed to order me a taxi to Injesuthi, I had said to offer 800 Rand as I was against the clock and had no wriggle room to barter. After 30 minutes and another call to them, the taxi minibus arrived and we sped off towards the trailhead. We reached a school along the main road where I knew we needed to turn left and continue for quite a long way but the driver hadn’t anticipated this and constantly said I didn’t think you wanted to go this far and that I would need to pay more as its a lot further. I just kept saying yeah 800 Rand and saying it wasn’t much further. We passed many huts along the way with locals staring as we bounced past. After 30 minutes of bumps and scraping the underside of the vehicle and with only 2km away we came to a part of the track that crossed a stream and was in very poor condition. I said fine, I will just walk from here, knowing it wasn’t overly far and therefore not having a dispute as he hadn’t taken me to my destination. I gave him the 800 Rand and continued along the track.
I saw a guy walking on the road who worked at the Injesuthi campsite but had heard there was a fee to be in the mountains, I spoke for a while and after telling him my plan he indicated there was a short cut to the site. Not wanting to be charged to go into the mountains I insisted that I would just stick with the longer route knowing full well I would be heading into the hills before actually reaching the site. As the road wound to the right, there were two small tracks that led in the direction I needed towards the marble baths. It was misty and having had the heavy rain over the last few days I decided to take the steeper path. This way zig-zagged up and didn’t meet the river in the valley until furth up, Which I thas the more gentle route crossed the river several times and could be quite deep at the moment. My trousers were already getting damp from brushing past the long grass that was totally saturated. The trail was narrow but well defined, There were a few stones placed as steps at the start but soon just turned into a just a narrow trail through fields with grasses and bushes.
I continued ascending steeply but didn’t seem to be moving very along the track with the bend in the road seemingly still below me. The clouds lifted now and then offering views towards the campsite as well as other high mountains and valleys on the horizon. The terrain started to even out and I could now start making progress distance-wise. I didn’t have a particular place that I had to camp that evening but I did know of certain options and of course the further I could push on the better. The going was quite easy despite having my rucksack and the clouds once again lifted to reveal massive cliffs and high mountains to my left. The grass had started to be replaced with ferns and larger vegetation and as I walked closer along the base of the cliffs there were many very large boulders that had broke away and fallen for kilometres from the cliffs above.
The bottom of my trousers had become saturated and started leaking into my boots. I belatedly put my waterproof trousers on and hung the others around my neck to dry. I rung my socks out and decided to put a fresh pair on that felt great straight away. The valley sides became steeper and I could see the track I was following ahead cut into the side of the hill before meeting the river. I was still below the cloud level, which was handy as it would have been pretty toasty had it been clear, although I would still be dry. After following the trail down until it met the river I knew from my map I needed to head to the valley on my right towards the marble baths and from there towards Leslies pass. There were quite a few cairns heading in the general direction I wanted to head in, My map showed a trail all the way to marble baths which I was able to find by ascending uphill on the left-hand side of the river. It was perfect, cut into the hillside running parallel with the riverbed that would have been a time-consuming exercise to follow otherwise.
The trail had some ups and downs at points heading up quite steeply up and over the top of cliff sections but still easy to follow and well defined. The clouds had lifted further and some big mountains were on display on the opposite side of the valley, simply stunning. The trail wound to the left and followed another valley on more grassy terrain towards the marble baths. Just as I was descending to them I heard what sound like several dogs barking loud from over the river. Bugger I thought, Baboons! Wearing my light blue Berghaus waterproof jacket was quite a give away really so not surprised I had been spotted. They are noisy and protective but I knew the way I was heading was going to be straight towards the forest they were screeching from. I had a quick lookup while continued descending and crossing the marble baths with lots of rustling in the trees ahead. I saw a flat piece of land which would be a good place to camp, but thankfully I still had a few hours before it would be dark as I wouldn’t have fancied spending a night that close to the Baboons, who didn’t seem that pleased I was there.
From here route finding became a bit more difficult as it followed the general course of the river uphill, There were a few desire trails and cairns as the trail kept crisscrossing the boulder-filled riverbed. It then started to rain and the clouds rolled in from further up the valley. The one positive of having all this water around was I had brought my filtration straw with me so it was easy to just fill a bottle out of a puddle or stream and drink it through the filter to save carrying many litres with me. Every now and then I would hear the loud “barking” from the Baboons in the trees only a few metres to my right, At one point several were screaming in the trees but it was getting louder and nearer. I picked up a large stone so at least I had a few options should the situation change. I upped the pace and crossed the river so they could see I was not a threat and was heading away. After recrossing the riverbed I found some cairns and followed them until they led into the forest. This really isn’t ideal I remember thinking, I looked at the map and it only looked like a short section but I pushed on. After 5 minutes at a good pace, I came out back onto the boulders without being spotted by any more Baboons or other animals. From here It got steeper and the boulders larger in size making progress slower as the grouds and rocks were saturated and slippy.
By now it was 17:30 and would be dark before 19:00 I only had just over a kilometre until I would reach a small flat area that looked perfect to put my tent. Normally it would take around 15-20 minutes but carrying a heavy rucksack on large wet boulders in a riverbed, I knew it would probably be closer to an hour. The rain got heavier and my trousers started filing up my boots once more. I stopped to ring my socks out and pushed on. It was getting dull as I crossed the river for the last time, Had quite a bit to drink and filled up all of my water bottles and platypus as I wasn’t sure when the next water source would be available the following day up Leslie’s pass or on the plateau. I must have headed a bit too far down the river so had to clamber up the rocks on the bank and bushwhacked through spikey bushes until seeing a hill with long vegetation and grass. I wasn’t far away and was now actively looking for somewhere to put the tent. I relented and headed over a small steep hill. Just over the top I could a small flat piece of grassland about 20 metres away. I had made it! I quickly set my tent up took a few photos and videos and clambered inside. I took all my wet clothes off and hung them where I could in my tent to try and dry them a bit overnight. I wasn’t feeling overly hungry but squeezed a few chocolate bars down be and a packet of sweets as I knew there was gonna be a big effort required tomorrow.
I woke up early as it got light just after 04:00, There had been a light shower during the night but I was dry so that was a bonus. I had a few more chocolates and a good drink, I had slept ok but the clothes I had hung were still soaked. I packed the tent away and that was soaked too, Not the additional weight I needed really but I shoved the tent in my bag with my sleeping matt protecting my dry gear. I set off early as my aim was to get to the top of the steep Leslie’s pass, one of only a handful of passes onto the plateau then from there head along the summits of a few mountains onto Mafadi, the highest point in SA and as far down as possible as the following day would be a very long day heading towards the Lesotho high point.
I set off and wandered to the right following an indistinguishable desire trail almost from the start. After 50m it disappeared so I consulted my GPS I needed to head more to the left and follow the shoulder of the hill. I cut across and found the pretty decent trail which certainly wasn’t as well defined from where I had camped. Everyone must use the same shoulder of the hill to climb up so it’s more well used. It wasn’t overly steep but it was constant uphill. I had a few packs od sweets on the way up before the trail contoured to the left for a while before only gaining 100m as it wound around the side of a steep-sided hill. There was longer saturated knee-high grass and vegetation either side of the rut the trail had made meaning I had to stop every few hundred metres to literally empty my boots and ring my socks out as the water was running down my legs into my boots that had started to dry out.
I stopped and sat down to ring my socks out just before the route became steep again as it headed up and across a steep boulder-filled watercourse. There were cairns again marking the way, upon reaching the other side the route became pretty steep and I had to use my hands on rocks and roots to ascend with my rucksack pulling against me at times. The trail continued winding uphill but became less steep, zig-zagging instead. I pushed on until I noticed something out of the corner of my eye above to my right. Jesus, I said out loud, The clouds had parted for a second and there was a massive steep mountain peering down at me. I took a few photos and videos before continuing, My pace was slowing down and rest stops more often but I didn’t mind as I wasn’t in too much of a rush and knew there was still a lot of walking and climbing ahead on this trip. I was soon at cloud level I could see the mountains once more up ahead and confirmed with my map the general route it looked like I would be taking to the plateau, It certainly looked doable. Every step now pushed me higher and higher above the cloud level extending the view even more. There were mountains in the distance poking through and what had seemed a massive beast of a mountain to my right an hour ago now looked almost within reach. I continued on turning right then heading the final 100m of ascent zig-zagging up a narrow valley which brought me out onto the summit plateau of Leslies pass.
It was pretty steep looking back down that way, emphasised by the clouds which were now well below me. I had some food a drink and took a few videos before continuing to the left along the Plateau. I started descending a little towards the valley before realising it might be better if I just contour around and maintain as much height as I could, albeit perhaps taking longer as I would need to avoid cliffs and other obstacles associated with the summits. As I reached the summit of the first hill the views were stunning, The cliffs were formidable and headed straight down into the clouds several hundred metres below. The terrain was quite flat and covered with rocks but due to how vast the area was distances were quite deceptive. I carried on up and over summits following desire trails as and when they appeared while trying not to descend too much. The effort I had put in ascending was starting to catch up with me a bit so I sat down for 10 minutes to take the weight off my legs for once.
It certainly helped and I pushed on sweets in hand up one last hill called Lithobolong (3375m) where I could see Mafadi waiting for me just over the back. There was a man on the summit, While climbing the up ridge of this hill I had crossed into Lesotho and he turned out to be a local shepherd, It’s perfect for farming on the plateau. The only English he knew seemed to be “sweets” so I gave him a chocolate bar. I said to him “Mafadi” but he pointed in the wrong direction, Not very useful! I said bye and carried on in a straight line towards Mafadi, the highest point in SA. I passed another man on the way with his dogs barking but he just waved as we passed, I headed directly to Mafadi and clambered up onto the rocky summit plateau. There were quite a few cairns and it was difficult to tell where was higher so I headed to each one. You could still see the cliffs fro the one side and from the actual highest point you could see down to where I needed to head and further into Lesotho. I took the customary photos and videos but was fully aware I wanted to get as far down as possible to set myself up nicely for the long day tomorrow.
It was quite a quick and pleasant descent on a mixture of grass and small rocks which made the descent quick. I headed in straight lines looking at my GPX map as reference the picking a point in the distance and heading there. There were many animal and mainly sheep trails a bit further down on the descent which proved useful as I headed down towards a river than I would follow for as far as I could while it was still light before putting my tent up somewhere. I walked for a few hours meandering with the river, There were quite a few local round huts with local tribesmen in who would ask for sweets or smokes as I past paired with a barking dog or three. It started getting dark and I knew I had to find somewhere to put the tent ideally near the river for water but out of sight of a hut or specifically the dogs. I passed a hut and dropped over a hill back onto the river, there was another hut about 400m away but I decided this would have to do.
I found a flattish area and pulled up a few roots and plants to level it off, I heard a man shout from the hill over the valley. Oh, brilliant I thought. Not only does someone know where I will be for the night but they will probably have alerted the dogs from either hut to my location. He descended and crossed the river to me, His dog sniffed around my bag as I shook the man’s hand. I offered him a sweet and he smiled. I made a sleeping gesture with my hands and he nodded. I think it’s always good to clarify, He soon wandered off but a dog from the hut came over the hill looked and started barking for 5 minutes before getting bored. I waited for 10 mins until it got dark before putting my tent up. It had been a long day but felt nice to relax, After 30 minutes I heard a shout, then an echo and a man who must have been on the hill over the river shout back. This went on for 15 minutes having a log range chat via echo. I heard him walking away over the hill and then had some well-earned food and drink and noticed I was camping at 2750m quite deceptive, Before a good sleep ready for tomorrows fun.