Exploring the Dragon around Phuthaditjaba





South Africa
Trip Participants


Chris Sommers
Pieter Vrey
Karen Hauptfleisch

 Chris Sommers and Pieter Vrey wanted to explore the Drakensberg around Phuthaditjaba and as usual, a promise of snow was the carrot they used to lure me on the hike. Pieter had problems with his feet - an easy relaxed hike I was told. Khagiso, the owner of the land, met us at 22h00 in front of the University and escorted us to Tseki Hut, where we were informed that we could drive with a 4X4 to the Thabaputswa hut. So much for bickering about who was going to have to run back after dropping the rest of us with our backpacks. A cozy night on soft beds in the newly built huts followed while the wind started howling and Phil started snoring.

By 08h00 we were on our way with no sign of snow. By 10h00, Phil was suffering, according to him his legs felt like lead. Mmmm! Maybe me poking him in his ribs to stop the snoring had something to do with it, so I kept quiet, fed him energy bars and kept him company whilst Chris, Warren and Pieter raced to the top of Dagga Nek Pass. By 12h00, we joined them and had some lunch before setting off to explore. By 14h00 the wind had turned very nasty. Pieter’s feet were starting to bother him, Phil was still low on energy and it was a mutual decision to look for a place to sleep.

By 15h00 Chris had found a cave perched precariously halfway down a gully. I saw him slip three times returning from the newly found cave and when I suggested that we rather pitch the tents in a ditch I was informed that there was an easier way to the cave. By 16h00, there was no turning back. The wind was howling. Chris promised us that there was only one rather exposed part and didn’t say much when I insisted that he went back to fetch my backpack. “Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down, Chris, I’m going to kill you!” Once on as safe as you can get ground, I started “renovating” the cave or rather tunnel to stop my legs from shaking. I tried to watch the spectacular view at the other end but got dizzy just thinking of the sheer 500 m drop should someone’s foot slip. Pitching the tent was quite something with the wind now really blowing and the snow starting to fall. By 18h00 we were in our sleeping bags, freezing our butts off. By 18h02 Phil was snoring, the other three guys were competing with the wind and I was doing Sudokos – trying my level best not to think how we were going to get down the next day. By 22h00 I told Phil he would have to undergo surgery to stop his snoring. He accused me of being jealous because I could not sleep in adverse conditions. At any moment I was expecting the tent to be blown to pieces.

Lots of snow blows in at about 10 am.

By 22h30 the wind and storm had obliterated Phil’s snoring and the mountain was covered in snow. I tried to concentrate on the Sudoko thinking that God must be quite confused because at first I had prayed for snow and now I was praying for the storm to end and longed to be able to hear Phil’s snores once more.

06h00 Sunday the 6th: “Ooooo sheeeeet”, came Chris’s voice!” What? What?”, the rest of us shouted. “My sleeping bag was just blown off the cliff!” he replied. We helped one another to stuff the things in our backpacks with only one or two more losses. I tried not to think of trying to get down in the gushing wind. Chris had no choice but to come back for my backpack. I took it one step at a time all the while making all sorts of promises to God if only He could get us all back safely. When my fingers started to lose feeling, due to the cold, I abandoned Phil.


Warren climbing back out of “Dead-End Pass”in the howling wind

“One step at a time, one step at a time. Don’t look down. Don’t look down” How I got over the last bit, I really don’t know. I just knew I had to do it. Thirty minutes later we were all relatively safe going down an unknown pass. Ninety minutes later we were all crawling back up from a dead end – the wind and cold remaining relentless.

Once on top of the escarpment the wind was at its worst. We took the next unknown pass down. Thus far it had been impossible to try and drink or eat anything. Everyone was starting to feel the lack of fluids but the need to get down drove us on. Around 10h00 I started to enjoy the rocky pass covered in snow. The wind was not so severe and we could drink some water and have an energy bar. Around 10h30 we got to a tricky part. Chris said we could skirt around utilizing a very exposed grassy slope. I thought we could make it down the tricky part by lowering the backpacks using our thermal undies tied together, then lowering Chris and the rest. They could then all stand on each others shoulders to rescue me. Phil hardly said a word and kept on muttering to himself, “Why? Why?” It would take us at least two hours to get back to the top and the wind was still howling. Chris went exploring on the very exposed grassy slope. It was impossible to go further down the pass.


Chris slides down “Tsehlanyane Pass”

Another undo-able without climbing gear lay ahead. It was either the very exposed grassy slope and according to Chris it got a lot better around the corner where the wind was not so bad, or going back up. I agreed to do it on condition that he first escorts Phil across and then come back for me and my backpack.

Phil looked like a chameleon following Chris. It felt like hours before Chris came back for me. “Don’t look down, don’t look down!” I made him carry my backpack long after I felt relatively safe. I didn’t know if I should hug him or kick him, so I hugged him. I also hugged the other guys. We made it.

The rest of the hike was uneventful. Chris went looking for his sleeping bag but couldn’t find it. Once at the hut we all had a nice shower and then the talk about the nice pizzas waiting in Harrismith started. We all rushed to the 4X4 just to discover that it would not start. After several attempts to start it, we were left with a flat battery but we did manage to unfreeze the diesel by pouring boiling water on the diesel pump. Someone must have said another prayer because at the very last moment when everyone had given up hope and torn several muscles trying to push the vehicle, the vehicle started. We all cheered and then Chris and Pieter had to run to catch up with the vehicle. Inside the vehicle it felt so cozy to be sheltered from the wind.

All’s well that ends well. Phillip continues to snore but on the bright side he says that he has been cured of his fear of heights. He suspects that during the weekend his phobia was displaced by even greater fears. Maybe he heard The Dragon speaking. I should ask.


Saturday, July 5, 2008 (All day) to Sunday, July 6, 2008 (All day)