“Mr Mark, how are you doing?” Samson asked me. Through very short and shallow breaths, I replied “All ok thanks, I think, how high are we?” “We are at around 2600 meters Mr Mark, lets take a break” Samson suggested. It took a few minutes to catch my breath and then we sat and chatted. Samson asked where I was from and I told him England. He went on to ask, “So Mr Mark, how high is it where you live?” I smiled, laughed, and answered “It’s probably close to being flat” Samson now laughed and gave me a disbelieving look. I am still not sure he believed me, but it is close to the truth. After an on-line search it turns out our home is 90 meters above sea level, so not quite flat.
After a lot of pre-trip research, I had chosen to spend a few days at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge to give myself the best chance of summiting the famous Amphitheatre. The amphitheatre has been described as the most spectacular cliff face in the world. In width it spans approximately 5 kilometres and the summit sits at just over 3000 meters. I spent a lot of time reading up and researching, as in 2006 I drove to the Sentinel Peak car park, the best place to begin your accent, only to be turned back as I was too late in the day to start walking. Since then I have visited Royal Natal National Park several times, where the cliff face provides a spectacular back drop, looked up and thought, one day I will be back up there.
Everything was pre-planned and booked prior to my arrival at the lodge. My room, evening dinner, a packed lunch for the walk to the summit, transfers, entrance and hiking fees, and most importantly a guide. The online service was excellent and a great help in the planning stages. I had opted for a guide, again, to give me the best chance of reaching the summit. I also wanted someone with me to share their knowledge of the area in general, the route and most importantly the weather. I was very aware that the weather can change dramatically in the mountains especially at high altitude. During my research I had read of groups of twenty plus being led by a single guide. This meant long delays in the latter stages of the walk and climbing of the chain ladders prior to the summit. Personally, I wanted an overall experience from the walk that I did not think a large group would give me. I wanted to do this for me, I was not there to tick it off as just another ‘travel thing’ completed. There is never a right time to confess a fear of heights, so now is as good a time as any. You will have also read in this paragraph the mention of chain ladders. The night before the walk I was feeling a little apprehensive and what did not help was being woken in the night a couple of times by howling winds.
Samson was my allocated guide and we met for the first time on the morning of the walk. Our transfer from the hotel, which I highly recommend rather than taking your own vehicle, was slow and at times extremely bumpy. The mountain road in sections between the lodge and the Sentinel Peak car park is in poor condition. On arrival at the car park we unloaded our day packs and Samson signed us onto the mountain register. From the car park I realised just how big everything was up here. It was, if I am honest, very alien to me. I had never been anywhere like this before. With it being mid-winter, and very dry, there was not a sign of anything green. Plant life here was either beige or black. There had been some controlled burning of fires creating black swathes across the mountain scenery. The only colour here was blue, vast amounts of clear blue sky, and the only sound was that of the wind.
We started at a height of around 2500 meters and I can tell you that the air is thin. I am sure more so for someone like me who hails from a near flat earth. The path is marked as you look forward, however there are sections where you need to make your way from rock to rock. I was grateful to have Samson leading the way. I watched his feet more than I took in the views as we moved along the pathways at what seemed a quick pace. We took breaks every twenty to thirty minutes where, once I had caught my breath, we sat and talked. Samson, at thirty-five years old with two young sons, had been guiding for twelve years. He was experienced and very proud of his time spent in the Drakensberg Mountains. He had not once had a guest involved in an accident or incident which meant he had not had to make an emergency call for help, which included doctors and helicopter evacuations. He is all to aware of mountain rescues up here, as he gets a call when hikers are in need of help. To mark an incident free decade, he was rewarded by his local tourism authority with a ‘trip’ He chose a busman’s holiday and climbed Kilimanjaro. It was now getting extremely windy as we passed 2800 meters.
We made it to the foot of the chain ladders in just under two and a half hours. This is quick time and Samson had been setting the fast pace to give us a chance of beating the wind. He had told me that during a rescue he could make it to the summit in an hour. We looked up at the ladder in front of us. We were standing at 2900 meters with only sixty meters of ladders and half an hour walk away from the summit. He told me that the Tugela Falls, situated on the summit plateau, were dry and not flowing. These are the second highest falls in the world. I knew what was coming next. During the last twenty minutes of walking I had been blown out of stride. The wind was so strong I could not even keep my hat on. “Mr Mark, its not safe to try and make it to the top. We will get to the top of these ladders, but with the wind strength increasing, it will be too dangerous to climb back down them,” he told me. I stood there, filled with mixed emotions. Yes, the idea of the ladders daunted me, and the wind was making me extra nervous. But here I was within reach of 3000 meters and this was a day that had been many months in the planning. However, I had taken the services of Samson to guide me, which involved getting me home safely.
Making our way back down other walkers and hikers were turning back, some with guides and some without. The descent was a little more leisurely and I was able to enjoy the magnificent views. Looking back at two dots on the path, that were a couple from Taiwan, the scale of the mountains really hit me. This is a breath-taking place of immense rugged beauty.
Spending a few days at Witsieshoek meant I could soak up the mountain atmosphere and environment. My chalet, the last in the row, looked directly onto the Amphitheatre. It was perfect for my stay. Spacious, open plan, tea & coffee station, with a good size bathroom. The glass doors opposite my bed opened onto probably the most inspiring mountain I have ever encountered. I was up before dawn and stood in the same position at dusk every day to watch the sun rise and set. There are over twenty shades of the colour red and I think everyone appeared either in the sky or on that vast cliff face. One other thing I must mention, is that this is the quietest place I have ever been to. At dusk and dawn the silence took some getting used to.
Meals are taken in the restaurant at the main lodge. The food was very good with a broad selection of dishes. I ate matured grilled rump steak served with potato croquette and seasonal vegetables one evening and on another, flame grilled gents lamb chops, served as requested, with just chips. Breakfasts are freshly cooked, with a mixture of buffet and cooked to order. Anywhere that serves savoury mince for breakfast, like here, always gets a thumbs up from me.
Jan and his team of staff were outstanding. From reception, to the guides, the servers and chefs to the bar staff (where I spent a few hours contemplating the amphitheatre) it is all smiles. There must be something in the mountain air? After my summit attempt, Magda, from the lodge office came to the bar to see how I had got on. I was sun and wind burnt cooling down with a Carling Black Label. Magda told me to stay where I was while she sorted something. Back she came ten minutes later with her home made after sun. I hate to say it, but it was better treatment than the lager. Before I left on my final morning I sat looking across at the mighty amphitheatre. Thinking again, I will be back. And then something very special happened, a bearded vulture came and visited the lodge. This was my second and by far best sighting of this rare and splendid bird. Jan told me they are going to construct a purpose-built vulture restaurant. As if I needed more encouragement to plan a return.