For the past five days, I’ve been exploring the Mnweni area of the northern Drakensberg. The Mnweni is actually not part of the protected area of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site; instead, it’s tribal land belonging to the Amangwane people, lying between Royal Natal National Park and Cathedral Peak.
But Mnweni is certainly worthy of formal protection (should the communities desire this, of course). Many Drakensberg afficionados – the local photographers, hikers, climbers and researchers who know it best – consider the Mnweni to be the most photogenic and wildest part of South Africa’s biggest mountains. It remains the least visited and least well-known part.
If you read the classic books – like Barrier of Spears by R.O. Pearse, or Encounters with the Dragon by John Hone, or David Bristow’s Best Walks of the Drakensberg – all these rate Mnweni very highly.
Listen to John Hone: “The eMnweni, in my view, has the very finest inland scenery of the whole of southern Africa…The rural charm found here, with its magnificent surroundings of the grandest of mountain scenery, is quite unlike that of any other region in South Africa.”
Well, when I read these words, I knew I just had to get up to Mnweni.
I met up with well-known local guide Caiphus Mthabela at the Mnweni Hiking Centre, which is in the foothills, where little Zulu homesteads dot the golden valleys. For four days and three nights, Caiphus guided me to some of the most photogenic spots in the Drakensberg.
As we walked, I got to know Caiphus well. His story is a colourful and hopeful one, and I soon realised that I was in very safe hands, because he knows the mountains better than anyone perhaps. The reason? He was once a dagga smuggler, walking the passes at night to avoid detection, meeting up with Basothos and their donkeys which portered the dagga.
From there, he’d guide the Basothos down the passes the same night, and smuggle the dagga to Joburg. A two-month spell in jail made Caiphus realise how important the mountains were to him.
“I used to dream about the mountains, and the freedom that I have here,” Caiphus told me. “Jail is very different to this,” he said, pointing to the views of the summits.
I couldn’t think of anything MORE different. Caiphus enrolled in a training program for local community mountain guides, and of course, he excelled. He’s a quiet man, but generous and kind, and quick to help set up camp or carry an extra load – in my case, my heavy tripod. As Caiphus stood serenely against another Godly view of the Drakensberg, I certainly couldn’t imagine him operating in the illicit underworld. It’s clear that these mountains are his home.
The first day, we walked for about six hours out of the foothills to set up camp near the bottom of Mnweni Pass. Below us were the sandstone hills and shelters, and above us were the high basalt cliffs. Even though it’s the middle of winter, the skies were clear at night, but cold. [Check out my video report at end of day one.]
I was sleeping in my K-Way Kilimanjaro Thermashift 2 sleeping bag and my K-Way Nerolite tent. I love the tent – it’s easy to set up (takes no more than five minutes), and is just big enough for me. I’m six feet tall, so if you’re taller, you may want a bigger tent, especially if you’re sharing with someone. The tent was effective in keeping the wind and condensation off me at night. It weighs 2,4 kg, so its light enought to carry on a long hike and it packs up easily. More on my sleeping bag a bit later.
The first night I woke up to hear some Basothos walking past with their donkeys. Caiphus told me in the morning that these passes are often used by cattle rustlers and dagga smugglers…as he knows all too well. So it’s important for hikers to sleep slightly away from the passes and trails, because although the Basothos hardly ever pose a threat to hikers, it’s not worth tempting them to have a look inside your tent at night.
Our second day was spent hiking uphill for seven hours, including the steep Mnweni Pass. If you’re not fit, then don’t come hiking here. You have to carry all your food and water, warm clothing, sleeping bag, tent and odds and ends, and you’re going to feel it when walking up a steep pass for three hours non-stop. I was using a K-Way Venture 70 backpack, and it made my hike much easier, with good padding on the hip straps.
We spent the second night on top of the mountains (video report of second day here), near the top of Mnweni Pass.
That night, the cold set in, and it was one of the coldest I’ve ever experienced. About ten years ago I hiked in the Everest valley of the Himalayas, and was very cold, suffering from hypothermia. My night at the top of Mnweni wasn’t nearly as cold as my Himalaya experience, but it was enough to keep me uncomfortably awake.
My K-Way Thermashift 2 sleeping bag was simply not warm enough, even though I was wearing thermal underwear, my long cotton pants, two fleeces, my beanie and two pairs of woollen hiking socks. I’d also had my usual hot bowl of two minute noodles with tuna, and a cup of hot tea before going to bed. A tough night.
My sleeping bag is rated to minus 8 degrees Celsius, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be warm at minus 8. It just means you will survive at minus 8. So I urge you to get a warmer sleeping bag – something rated to minus 15 at least – if you’re going to be sleeping on the ‘Berg summits in winter. Fortunately, my K-Way Ussuri fleece kept my upper body warm…I really have come to love that fleece!
The next morning, there was a thick frost on the ground and my tent. Watch my morning video report here. Very, very cold.
Caiphus told me that for some reason, when there is frost, temperatures are often colder than when it snows. I’m not sure of the climatological reasons for this…anyone know why?
We took it easy on our third day, hiking just a few kilometres across the top of the escarpment to set up camp at the top of Rockeries Pass, another superbly photogenic spot. I needed the easy day, because I’d hardly got any sleep during the cold night, and the altitude – above 3 000 metres – forced me to breath harder, especially in the cold.
Caiphus and I soon warmed up in the sun, and our moods warmed up too. We enjoyed just sitting and admiring the surroundings, watching Cape Vultures and Bearded Vultures flying overhead and laughing at the baboons played on the cliffs opposite us.
We ate an early lunch (provitas, cheese wedges, salami and chocolate), drank lots of coffee (with plenty sugar), and realised how lucky we were. It was a Wednesday, we were alone on top of a mountain, enjoying the simple pleasures of life: the warmth of the sun, the taste of food and drink, and the beauty of some of South Africa’s most photogenic scenery.
As always, whenever I’m in a wilderness area, I’m reminded how the simple things in life matter most. In the rushed modern world, we take water, food, sunshine and shelter for granted sometimes…rather than seeing them for what they truly are: blessings and benedictions.
During the day, we watched two Basothos come slowly up the pass with their donkeys, and when they arrived at the top, Caiphus asked them if I could take their photo. I felt like I’d been transported back a few hundred years, because this is how people have been living here for centuries…yet despite their lack of material possessions, the local people are happy and courteous.
The third night was easier – it wasn’t as cold. Watch my video report of the fourth morning here.
On our fourth day we headed down the steep Rockeries Pass, which was tougher than I expected. There is a lot of loose stone and gravel, and you have to constantly judge your balance and direction. It took us about two hours to get down, and then another few hours to walk back to the hiking centre, where we started.
On the way back, we stopped to swim in some beautiful rock pools, my first wash in four days! Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm to jump into the river, I forgot my iPhone was in my pocket of my pants, and it got drenched.
I was despondent for a while, because I had used my phone to video some of the trail’s best moments. I nevertheless soon got over the disappointment, because the memories of the hike had been burned into my heart for a long time to come. (A few days later, after having dried the phone out, I recovered the videos and photo from my phone! Great news!).
Check out my final Mnweni video report here.
To contact Caiphus Mthabela, call him on 073-603-9107. He charges R400 per day minimum for guiding people. If you haven’t walked in the Mnweni before, then I recommend you hire a guide. The paths are not always clear and the passes are numerous and tricky. It’s easy to get lost, and it can be dangerous up there.
To get to Mnweni Hiking Centre, follow the signs from Bergville on the R74 road. After about 16kms, turn left, then after about two kilometres turn right at the sign to Mnweni, and carry on for about 14 kms till you see the hiking centre on your right.
On the food front, be sure to take 50% more food than you think you will need. Hiking in the high summit area saps a lot of energy, especially in the cold. So take lots of chocolate, and plenty of high-protein, high-energy food like cashew or almond nuts.
Also remember to take a decent gas cooker. You must eat a hot meal at night and in the morning. My little Butane cooker stopped working in very cold and windy conditions. Caiphus had a storm cooker, with methylated spirits as fuel, and it was very effective. But most important of all, take a very warm sleeping bag. If it wasn’t for my K-Way Ussuri fleece (which has become my favourite piece of gear), I would have been dangerously cold at night, rather than just uncomfortably cold.
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.
Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.