Pausing to catch my breath I asked Deon “How high are we?” He glanced at his watch and replied, “Approximately two thousand meters” It must have been the altitude that made me say “That’s a clever watch and we are about nineteen hundred and ninety meters above my hometown”
I was back in the Drakensberg Mountains with local guide Deon Small of Berg Adventures. It was a hike that had been cancelled, postponed, cancelled then rearranged, redirected and reduced in length. This was all down to my travel plans that revolved around the UK covid red list. But here I was after two long years, breathing in the clean, warm mountain air. The altitude for the first hour or so was making me breath hard and meant a couple of times stopping to catch my breath. Between me and you, but I am sure Deon knew, my excuse for those early stops were to take in the vast views that surrounded us and snap the odd photo. There are so many photo opportunities for big scenery, birdlife and wildflowers.
It was my first-time meeting Deon, after months of emails, and my first-time hiking in the Highmoor Nature Reserve. I am going to mention three degrees of separation again as I did in my previous article. My wife went to school with Deon. The world may be even smaller than I thought.
The Drakensberg Mountains, like the majority of KwaZulu Natal, had received heavy summer rains. Some of the pathways we followed resembled streams, and rivers were in full flow. Our first river crossing was easy to negotiate using a sturdy wooden bridge. Deon, like a mountain goat, made short work of our second river crossing. He walked quickly from rock to rock keeping his balance on the unstable, slippery, water covered surfaces. I watched, did not fancy my chances of keeping my balance, and decided to find a narrower section to jump across. I threw my camera to Deon and took a few paces back to give myself a run up. I did not resemble a leaping goat. My left leg did not make the opposite bank and in it went up to my thigh.
I needed to be goat like for the next stage of our hike. We were heading to a secret location, not open to the public. An ancient San art gallery hidden away in a cave and far from easy to access. This time I followed Deon’s every step as we climbed and scrambled through thick vegetation searching for an access point. On the steep sided mountain slopes, I used my hands to grab hold of anything that would keep me upright. I am not great with heights, so this was a challenge. After what seemed like a long search we finally broke through the undergrowth and made our way under a huge overhanging rocky outcrop.
The rock art here could date back to over three thousand years. Clearly seen are paintings of local wildlife including mountain reedbuck, eland and leopard. There are also people, hunting and taking part in ancient rituals. Deon located a truly fascinating painting and described the scene depicted to me. It shows a shaman, a traditional healer, with people in the foreground as he enters a trance taking the form of praying mantis. The weather over the ages has taken its toll on these irreplaceable works of art. At best some are faded, at worst collapses in the rock face have destroyed. and lost forever, these ancient and priceless master pieces.
Our final destination was a huge cave accessible only by a steep stairway cut into the mountain slope. On the opposite side of the cave entrance was a waterfall which flowed at great pace down into the valley below us. Here Deon made us fresh coffee and I took the weight off my feet enjoying the cool air and the noise of the cascading falls. The cave, like many in the Drakensberg Mountains, is used by hikers for rest breaks and overnight sleepovers. There is something quite magical and primitive about spending time under overhangs and in caves. These ancient places, now mainly used by baboons for shelter not people, are thought provoking and soul stirring. We should all spend time in the mountains if only to take us away from our everyday lives.
What a pleasure it was to meet and spend some quality with Deon in his back yard. His knowledge, which he freely shared, was immense. He pointed out the surrounding mountain peaks and the snakes that occasionally crossed our path. Having a great guide is truly beneficial. Thank you, and I am already looking forward to the next Drakensberg adventure.
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