Since 1996 top athletes from South Africa and beyond have ventured to the little-known Eastern Cape Highlands to participate in what is probably one of the toughest adventure races in the country – The Salomon Skyrun. Starting in the picturesque town of Lady Grey, armed with their own supplies, a GPS and a map their aim is to run 100km across mountain peaks to finish at Tiffindell. The top runners finish in approximately 14 hours, orienteering themselves across the dramatic route through day and night.
The guest house owners of the Wartrail and New England valleys realised that it would be a travesty for this exceptional route to be the sole preserve of extreme athletes. Thus, the little sister to the Skyrun, the Wartrail Skywalk was devised to give us ordinary mortals the opportunity to experience the high mountain wilderness at a more leisurely pace. The Wartrail Skywalk is a fully guided slackpacking trail, covering approximately 60kms over 4 days. I was assured that all luggage would be transported between overnight stops, so that I would only have to carry my daybag. For me, a multi-day, supported hike sounded much more civilised and achievable than a single day’s run!
As we travelled along the R58 from Aliwal North towards Barkly East the road twisted through craggy sandstone outcrops and across intriguing river gorges. We left the tar road just before Barkly East and with it also abandoned all traffic, noise and signs of civilisation for the next week. At the Kraai River crossing we stopped to photograph Loch Bridge, built in 1893 and a little further on we had a fascinating view of the Barkly East railway reverses, one of only two such engineering systems in the world. We turned into an impossibly pretty valley with towering mountains on either side to arrive at the cosy Millard Mountain Lodge.
We were warmly welcomed by Kate and Phil from Wild Mountain Adventures (and Rosstrevor Guest Fam) who settled us down with a drink on the sun-drenched veranda and told us a little about what was in store for us over the next 4 days. Each day we would be walking approximately 15kms from farm to farm. Yes, there would be some steep climbs and descents but we would be able to take our time and go at the pace that suited the group. Phil and Kate asked about our previous experience and current fitness levels and explained that there are different route options available ranging from the stiff ‘up and over’ to the longer but easier contour route around the peaks. This helped to ease the nervous tension that had developed within our group during the journey. Dinner was a delicious showcase of local produce; juicy steaks, followed by fresh raspberries picked straight from Millard’s bushes that afternoon. Members of the group who were hoping to lose a kilo or two on this hiking trip were beginning to realise that weight-loss was not part of the itinerary!
The next morning we rose to natural music with wonderful sopranos performed by the Cape Robins, the deep soulful bassoon of the Sussex bulls and the sweet gurgling melody of the mountain river. God’s own orchestra! After a tasty farmhouse breakfast we set off with our guide for the day, Phil from Wild Mountain Adventures. To be accurate, Phil was the one providing interesting information about the area. However, ‘Number One Guide’ and pathfinder was actually Tinker the collie-cross who tackles her job of herding people with enormous enthusiasm. We took the initial climb slowly, allowing for the fact that that the air 2kms above sea level is thin. But it wasn’t the altitude that made me gasp; it was the views which were truly breathtaking. We enjoyed a packed lunch on top of the world, before making our way down to our new home for the night, Pitlochrie Cottage.
Joe Sephton gave us a warm welcome and as we had pre-dinner drinks he regaled us with tales of the 1950s when his father Paul was one the first people to snow ski in the Eastern Cape. They made their first pilgrimage to the slopes of Ben McDhui on horseback and lodged in the stock-theft police station a few kilometres from the mountain. Now of course ‘BenMac’ as it is affectionally known locally is home to Tiffindell Ski Resort. The theme of locally produced food continued as Joe rustled up a delicious roast chicken and we settled on the stoop to admire the crystal clear stars before a well-earned sleep.
After breakfast we set on our way and Joe proved he is an awesome mountain guide as well as a genial host and an excellent cook. He was born and bred on Pitlochrie Farm and is a 3rd generation descendant of the original 1860 settlers of the area. Speaking with passion about his farming operation at Pitlochrie, Joe is clearly a true custodian of this natural wilderness, stopping frequently to point out a delicate flower or a soaring bird of prey. Once again, a steep climb started the day, but the views at the top of Skidaw were ample reward for aching legs. He pointed out our next destination, Balloch, from the top of the mountain and we wound our way down through the tree-lined valley, reinvigorating our tired muscles with a refreshing river swim en-route.
This was mid-March; the trees in the Balloch valley were gilded with the first signs of autumn colour and the late afternoon light dappled the river in front of the guest cottages. We were introduced to Margy who would be hostessing and guiding the next leg of the hike and settled into the clean and well-appointed chalets. We were fast beginning to realise that the residents in the Wartrail area are a multi-talented bunch of entrepreneurs. Over the years Margy has built her own furniture, run a dress-making business, a trout-farming enterprise, raised a family and now operates a successful tourism business at Balloch. In her spare time (yes, she claims to have some!) she runs and mountain bikes regularly, taking part in marathon races. To cap it all, she can also cook up a storm and we eagerly devoured her tasty lasagne before retiring for the night.
We woke with some nervousness as we had been warned that Day 3 was the shortest, but toughest part of the route. We were heading up and over the Balloch Wall, and nervous discussions ensued as to whether the name came from the degree of angle or the mental challenge that it involved. For the first hour Margy found some wonderful ways to distract us from our fears by showing us some of Balloch’s incredible secrets. Rock formations that defied gravity, fascinating rock art sites that included a well-preserved big cat, huge sandstone caves and even the original ox-wagon that early settlers used in years gone by. We could have stayed on the farm itself all day, but we couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to face The Wall!
To be fair, we had been offered an easier contour route around Balloch Mountain, but despite the previous days’ hiking we were feeling well-rested and strong, so we decided to give The Wall a go. It is indeed a steep ascent, although not rock-climbing as the name might suggest. I confess I stopped for lots of extra photos and spotted a number of imaginary birds just to slow the pace. Margy was incredibly patient though and we never felt hurried as step by step we got nearer to the sun. A beautiful mountain reedbuck bounced ahead of us to the summit, making the climb look impossibly easy. We reached the top with brimming smiles and a tremendous sense of achievement that I won’t forget for a long time. We were lucky enough go get a thrilling eye to eye view with a Black Eagle as it soared the mountain. During our picnic lunch the wind picked up and I saw Margy’s own eagle eye keeping a very close watch on the thunderclouds that had started to gather. We made it to Reedsdell Farm as the sky grew ominously dark.
Within an hour we were treated to a dramatic Wild Mountain storm of ‘hail and brimstone’ proportions which included a spectacular natural light show. We remembered Kate’s words at the start of the week that the only thing predictable about mountain weather is… that it’s unpredictable. Late afternoon thunderstorms do occur regularly in this highveld region, hence the guides were always careful to ensure that we arrived at our accommodation by 3pm. By early evening the storm cleared to produce a stunning double rainbow and then a balmy autumn evening. We eagerly tucked into roast Barkly lamb and retired to Reedsdell’s charming sandstone cottage.
The next morning we had a better opportunity to explore Reedsdell and to learn more about our hosts Chris and Kath Isted. Again, we were charmed by this enterprising couple who have created many strings to their bows. Chris combines traditional sheep and cattle farming, whilst looking for opportunities to diversify. Emu production certainly wasn’t one of the industries that we had expected to find in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg and Chris’ prehistoric looking birds were hugely intriguing.
Kath clearly enjoys raising her delightful children in Reesdell’s mountain paradise and combines this with her tourism businesses. As well as the guest farm operation she has launched a tea garden and Woolly’s of Wartrail craft shop at Reedsdell. As the name suggests, the shop specialises in woollen products and with the aid of a small grant she was instrumental in founding the Masibambane knitting group. This lovely community project has given local women the skills and resources to create their own products and thus earn an income whilst based on remote mountain farms. The quality of the beanies and scarves for sale in the shop was very high and I am told that they are popular with the Tiffindell ski crowd who descend to the area each June and July.
Chris and Kath employ a local guide, Tskholo, and he proved to be an absolute wealth of knowledge about the traditional cultures and plant species. As we started the final leg of the hike along a gurgling mountain stream he drew our attention to wild flowers and indigenous bushes, explaining their medicinal uses. The views along the Edgehill valley under the stony-faced shadow of Halstone Krans were magnificent and once again we were reminded why this is known as Wild Mountain Country. We had by now hiked for almost four days and not seen a single soul, bar the occasional farm hand. We celebrated the last climb of the week with a wee dram of whisky, mixed with the pure spring water we had gathered from a natural fountain before making our way down to Bidstone farm at the base of the Tiffindell pass. We remarked again on the fact that each farm has its own unique character and Bidstone’s tree-lined garden overlooking the river was a delight. As ever we were greeted warmly, this time by Janet and Andy Viedge. A hearty beef stroganoff that evening was accompanied by a few bottles of red wine and wonderful memories of the special week that we had enjoyed.
It is hard to pick a highlight from this stunning walk on “The Wild Side of the Drakensberg”. The food was excellent, the accommodation of a high quality and of course the scenic hiking was literally breathtaking. However, if I have to single one aspect out it was the amazing hospitality of the fascinating people that we met along the way and the generosity with which they shared their knowledge, their farms and their incredible energy with us. What a privilege to be welcomed into this warm-hearted community, if only for a week.
With sincere thanks to Perri Crossley, Greg Stokes, Carol & David Powter!
Kate & Chris at Wild Mountain Adventures on +27 (0)45 971-9064.