“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir
Giants Cup Trail in the Maloti-Drakensburg Park, South Africa
Once we sorted out our rental car we headed northwest from the Durban airport to the Sani Lodge Backpackers, a quaint and charming place. Having never stayed at a backpackers before we weren’t sure what to expect. The night we arrived we were not interested in pitching our tent since we wanted to situate our backpacks for an early start the next morning so we had booked a room with a double bed ($34/night). We were greeted warmly at the reception which had a small stock of essential food items and a closet where we were able to store the items we didn’t want to leave in our car or take on the hike with us. We were shown around the facility which included several ablutions with hot showers, a communal hang out and self-catering kitchen area, a fire ring, and restaurant with a small gift shop where we purchased detailed hiking maps (a must). The accommodations exceeded expectations and we found this to be the case at all of the backpackers we were to stay at during our tour of South Africa. We settled in for the night and sorted out our gear for the next five days.
Despite not having a 4×4 for this part of our journey we managed the rough unpaved road to the rangers station where we left our car for the duration of the hike. The backpackers offered a shuttle but it was to leave a bit later than we had planned on starting our hike. We had already secured our lift back to our car using the contact information provided on the official hike’s web page. Strapping on our packs we headed up the rough gravel road to the start of the trail.
At about 1km up the road from where we left our vehicle we found the sign indicating the start of the Giant’s Cup Trail up on our left. This was our first 5-day hike and we hoped we had neither packed too much nor too little. Ahead of us lay a field of thick green/brown grass in front of the beautiful mountains we were about to explore. On the first day we viewed the “Giants Cup” which the trail was named after and found a crisp, inviting pool at which to take a rest. We stripped down to our birthday suits and found a good spot to jump in. Splash. Wow! The water took your breath away but both of us climbed out and up onto a nice jumping rock at which to plunge back in.
I had looked at the map earlier that morning and saw a well trodden trail that followed the stream and off we went on a beautiful downhill venture. Approximately 45 minutes and 2.5 kilometers later Alex stopped and reviewed the map. We had been traveling in the wrong direction since lunch and after a small fit on my part we abruptly turned around and marched straight back uphill. We stopped at the same pool to have a bite of to eat as if our detour was planned all along.
At the end of day 1 we were happy to make it to the first overnight hut and stop at the office (then closed) to sign in on the registry indicating we were on the trail. Nobody else had started on the day we had and we ended up having each hut along the way to ourselves. We found suitable bunks, made a fire in the pit, and tested out our new camp stove. Though our canned Durban Curry vegetables and Jasmine rice lacked flavor, we were very satisfied to have a hot meal and and a place to rest.
After enjoying our oatmeal breakfast we started off the second day in good spirits and with great weather. We walked past a pasture of happy horses that then opened up into golden fields and peaks with pops of green. Boulders filled the day and made for an appealing trek. A herd of impressive eland crossed our path and stopped just long enough for us to get some good photos. The thunder of their hooves as they moved on was the only sound in the valley. A bit further along a fierce warning call of a male baboon echoed through Tortoise Rocks immediately to our left. We had encountered baboons before in Africa but something about being on foot sent chills down my spine when I heard the sound. Thankfully, the troop just watched us closely as we passed. A little further we stopped at a waterfall to top off our water vessels. Alex polished off a protein bar and I had a few handfuls of cashews.
The hike that day was short and we came upon our next hut sometime after noon. Sure enough on the doorstep of the hut was another inviting rock pool. We made short work of setting up our bunks. This time we needed our air mattresses as the bunk beds were only frames. Then, we stripped off our clothes and proceeded excitedly back to the pool to sun bathe and wash the salt from our bodies. Later, we opted to climb to the top of a nice 360 degree viewpoint and watch the sun start to set over the valley. We could see the baboon troop who had apparently followed us on the opposing mountain. To their dismay we had cleaned up completely after supper that night.
Day three was slightly cooler than the previous which proved to be perfect hiking weather. We found porcupine quils and scoured the surrounding areas for the culprits to no avail. Granted we were hiking during the day and they of course come out at night. After more stunning mountain views we made our way down to a lush oasis we spotted off a side trail on our left that looked like something straight out of a landscape magazine. A wide variety of flora filtered out from in between layers of stone surrounding a pool on one side while a massive boulder flanked the the other. The air made it a bit too chilly to take a dip, but the water served as an ice bath for my hard working feet.
The trail was pretty narrow and though it seemed we should be able to step to the right or left the grass was so thick and hearty that doing so was a tripping hazard. This sure made looking up to take in the views a bit challenging. This was the longest stretch of consecutive hiking days we had done and with intermittent rocky segments our feet were not happy to discover that we had to trek down a tarred road for a bit. After we turned off of the road we had a lovely short but steep ascent to conquer prior to making our way down to the rondavels we were staying in that night. I couldn’t help but think about the runners that were to start the annual Giant’s Cup Race the following day. They were to cover the same distance as us but as a 2 day run versus a 5 day hike. That ascent would come after some 30km they were to complete in their first day. Luckily at the top was the most awe inspiring view of Garden Castle, a rock formation on top of a mountain that had the uncanny resemblance to impressive castle ruins.
Though worn, we were treated to a spectacular sunset while sitting around our best fire yet. An elderly eland bull mysteriously appeared behind the rondavels after sunset and remained in the same spot while we tucked ourselves in for the night.
Standing at the base of Garden Castle we looked up at our morning workout. We began our day by pushing up and around the side of the mountain. Pausing for a moment at the top, we removed our shirts to dry off a bit. We followed the ridge line for the majority of our hike that day descending just as we could see the final hut. As we marched along the last flat kilometer a troop of baboons ran along behind us dipping into a crevasse while another lone eland bull watched on (perhaps the same one from the night before?).
By the time we made it to the forestry hut mid-day I was a bit knackered. Shortly after setting our things down inside a troop of baboons casually meandered by the windows. I suppose they were welcoming us to their territory. We then managed our way to the rangers station to let them know we had arrived and to see if they had suggestions for an afternoon activity. It was recommended we check out the swimming hole down from the hut next to the road which sounded nice to me. However, Alex had a bit more energy and suggested a day hike. My fear of missing out overpowered my lack of enthusiasm and I tagged a long. He had spotted a trail to Sleeping Beauty Caves that followed a stream up into a valley flanked by high rock pillars.
Not far along we spotted a small waterfall and hurried over to climb on the rocks above, fill our water bottles, and splash our faces. As we continued into the valley the vegetation got dense and much more lush and green. It began to feel as though we were in a different world. Fern Gully came to mind just as we approached the mother of all boulders. Alex could barely contain his excitement and it didn’t take him long to find a way up. I followed and the view we had at the top was incredible. We could see deep into the valley and knew we had to go there.
As we proceeded there was an overwhelming feeling that this wild and magical world could only exist in the absence of humans and that we were extremely privileged to have discovered it. The stone pillars on top the high cliffs on either side about touched the heavens. We were mere mortals in this place of ancient spirits. The sun lowered in the sky and we knew if we were going to reach the caves we would have to get moving. As the valley narrowed there was no other way but up, straight up. We climbed and climbed expecting to find the caves just up and over the next natural stair case. Try as we may we knew if we wanted to make it out before nightfall we needed to turn around and so we did. Neither of us wanted to leave. The energy there was pure and good.
With our souls cleansed we washed the dirt from our skin in the hot shower back at the hut. This was the first hut to have electricity and hot water and we happily indulged. We slept soundly that night in our bunks like naive children spared from the woes of the world.
Renewed we headed off to complete our hike. The trail backtracked for a while and then split off in a new direction. There was a herd of small antelope in the distance but they were too far away to identify. We encountered a fair amount of gradual ascents throughout the day and by the time we had reached the saddle we were ready to consume the last of our muesli and share our last soft citrus which we decided had become hiking essentials.
It was the second day for the Giant’s Cup runners and the first guy passed us as if he had just started off when in reality he was nearing the last downhill before the finish line. He manuevered the rocky terrain with ease and it would be a good hour before we saw the next runners.
We slowly made our way down the final hill carefully placing our feet and closed in on some cottages. It seemed the runners went just a bit further than us and we had mistakenly followed their track a little. We walked through the row of cottages and across the adjacent restcamp to the rangers station to report that we had made it out. Turns out there was not a final registry (nor was there a party for us) so we walked back to the sign to take some victory pictures and high five. We then found a small stream to soak our feet in one last time and toss around a frisbee until our ride back to our car arrived.
Matthew, from Lesotho, was a retired gentle and kind soul who enjoyed driving hikers back to the start as a part-time gig. We listened as he shared stories about his own adventures. He had been featured in a documentary entitled Perilous Journey’s and he had lived not far from the start of the trail back when traders traveled via horse or donkey through the Sani Pass to and from Lesotho. On our way back to the car he pointed out the ruins of the once prominent trading post as well as the house he had lived in which was now part of a holiday lodge. After saying farewell and collecting our vehicle and belongings we made our way to a restaurant Matthew had suggested. We indulged in a round of cold beers and a celebratory meal before driving back to Durban so I could attend the annual International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine Conference (IAAAM) hosted by Ushaka Marine World.
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2 thoughts on “5 Days in the Drakensberg Mountains”
SA is one of my favorite places on Earth! So magical. I love reading about your adventures. I hope they lead to us so we can share our beautiful Island home with you!
Thank you. I didn’t know what to expect but quickly realized the magic you speak of. The fact that you chose Saipan after all of your travels speaks volumes!