From Royal Natal National Park in the furthest north of the Drakensberg mountains, the next stop to the south is Didima, also known as Cathedral Peak.
The Cathedral Peak area of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site is as beautiful as Royal Natal (I think), with incredible views from the valley below.
This area is also home to some of the most impressive rock art in Southern Africa. And in the past few days, we’ve experienced the best of both scenery and rock paintings.
In terms of scenery, the 9 to 10-hour day hike to the top of Cathedral Peak itself is a rite of passage for Drakensberg visitors, and offers up some of the best views in these mountains.
I’ve always thought that the word “cathedral” is an apt term for the Drakensberg mountain chain, because of the huge amount of rock art that is found here. More on this in my next blog, but to the Bushmen people who once lived here, and painted thousands of exquisite figures on the sandstone walls, this area was undoubtedly a hugely spiritual place…and it still is for many people, both locals and visitors.
So back to the hike: it’s a tough walk, starting out from the beautiful Cathedral Peak hotel in the valley below. From an elevation of about 1450 metres above sea level, it’s a solid, steep six hours to the top of Cathedral Peak, which is 3 004 metres.
We started out at about 8am, and although we kept a steady pace, (stopping quite often for photos of course!), by 12:30pm we decided that if we were going to get back before dark, we would have to stop before we reached the summit.
So we had our lunch at the top of a very steep, murderous gorge, whose name Bugger Gulch is most appropriate (it’s a bugger, trust me). We stopped many times to catch our breath in the thin air, and during one stop, we watched a jackal buzzard soar low over our heads, not in the slightest bothered by our presence. It’s moments like these when I feel connected to a greater power.
The top of Bugger Gulch is the last place before hikers have to start scrambling up steep loose rock to get to the summit, so it seemed like a good place to enjoy the panoramic views. Our lunch break at about 2 700 metres tasted as good as at 3 000 metres! For the record, brown bread with marmalade and cheese, with biltong, bar ones and almond nuts, with a few fruit juices. Best tasting lunch I’ve ever had!
While we had lunch, we noticed a helicopter land on one of the adjacent peaks, which was on the same elevation as us. For a fee, visitors to the area can be flown up to the top of these peaks, but we felt like we had earned the spectacular views.
We got back at about 4:30pm, an hour before sunset, so I guess we could have pushed on to the top, but there’s always a next time. Besides, as a photographer, I’m always surprised by how much better the views are when one is just below the top of a mountain. This way, you introduce scale to your photos, and instead of looking down at a scene, you are eye-level with it.
Our legs were a bit wobbly when we got back to the beautiful Didima camp, which is down the road from the hotel. Managed by Ezemvelo, it has a distinctly different feel to the hotel, but has equally good views of Cathedral Peak, and the Inner and Outer Horns, which lie adjacent.
A hike like this one always makes one think deep, maybe silly thoughts. We had seen no-one else on the trail the whole day. We had been alone in the mountains, and although we’d cursed a few times at the steep ascents, we’d savoured every minute. I jotted these thoughts down just before I went to sleep (at about 7pm – haha!):
1. Live each moment of life to the full. If you live completely in the present, the future takes care of itself.
2. These mountains are 200 millon years old – a fraction of the age of the Earth, which is 5 billion years old. What does my few decades of life matter actually, and so why should I worry so much about things out of my control? It’s a short ride, so you may as well enjoy it!
3. Water, bread and cheese taste so much better after hiking for six hours up a gorge. Simple things take on their true meaning when you’re on top of a mountain, alone with a loved one.
4. From high up on a mountain, the concept of a city seems totally mad. Wilderness is the Earth’s greatest treasure. Without it, man is lost, and has no way to recalibrate his moral compass.
5. Always carry extra chocolate on a long hike.
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.