Northern Drakenbensberg – Mdedelelo Wilderness Area
Zulu & Stable Caves
The 88 grams I shouldn’t have left at home
Gathering eight friends in the Drakensberg on a weekday in August is an accomplishment in and of itself. Taking an abrupt hiatus from work in the long no-man’s land between Easter and Christmas, with not a useful public holiday in sight, we feel a sense of triumph just to have made it to the start.
Having diligently filled in the register at the Monks Cowl gate, and made a last civilised toilet stop, we head out into the mist of the first day’s walk. The upside of the cold is the sense of freshness it brings with it. The upside of the mist is that we have no regard for the steep incline we have tackled fresh out the gate. We wind our way further up Keartland’s Pass, into the berg and deeper into the mist. We keep tally of one another through brightly coloured rain jackets. In the mist the landscape is rendered moot and the powerful vistas of the mountains are now rivaled by the smallest intricacies of the path. The rock upholstered in bright yellow moss and the vivid red berries that adorn the branches we scrape past.
The mist is burnt off by the midday sun. We stop for lunch at the top of a bald with a magnificent view of Dragon’s Back and Champagne Castle. One of us is lucky enough to be carrying the first day’s food supply and we lighten her load, making quick work of the Provitas, tuna and sun-dried tomatoes.
Having walked mostly uphill to this point, we happily descend into the valley and onwards to the first of the two caves on the hike. Zulu Cave is an overhang, hidden behind a waterfall and some brush. It provides a confident shelter against the cold and dark of the night. Sleeping out in a group feels much safer than going solo. The fear factor decreases exponentially with each addition to the group. And yet, eight adults and all their bells and whistles are still no match for a mischievous pack of baboons who it seems have also made camp for the night – right above the roof of ‘our’ cave. We give them the benefit of the doubt, excusing the first two rocks that come flying over the mouth of the overhang as having been mistakenly dislodged. By the fourth and fifth rock, we take it personally and head out for toilet breaks in groups of two.
There’s nothing like the cold hard soil of the Drakensberg and troop of stone throwing baboons to get a group of friends discussing topics that are usually given a very wide berth. Lavatorial practices go from being politely announced, well, as politely as one could with a bright orange shovel in hand, to being openly discussed for tips on hole digging technique and efficiency.
Having survived the uneasy camber of the Zulu Cave floor, we are all up early for a huddle of oats and coffee in the freshness of dawn. We manage to pack up camp with a speed that is rewarded with the first warmth of the sun as we make our way back up the valley we had descended the day before.
The Keith Bush Camp valley had suffered a recent fire. As we walk the scorched earth into the heat of the midday sun, we are almost happy for the rain. Almost.
Covering up packs and pulling on rain jackets in a fluster of even brighter colour than what we already had on, we keep up the chatter and pace with a fair way to go to our next overnight stop.
Eras and I had walked this section of the route before and are happy to share the view with some of our best friends. Hiking amongst friends is a totally different experience. There is always someone faster than you, slower than you, chattier than you, quieter than you and it feels great to be ensconced in a group with patience for you.
We reach Stable Caves just before running out of our collective patience. It had been a long afternoon’s hike in really fowl weather. Cold. Windy. Wet. The worst that the Berg has to offer in August. Setting up camp on much more even ground we are lucky to have the weather clear in time to provide a beautiful sunset view of the valley below.
Having spent the last 48 hours together and all day talking, we craved a book, a pack of cards, an anything. In our conscientious bid to travel as light as possible, we have neglected to pack any form of distraction whatsoever. The sun sets early in winter and with the cold cave floor for a bed, an early night is less than appealing. It seems that the additional 88grams of a pack of cards would have been so worth its weight. I would trade the 78 grams of that fourth pair of socks I really don’t need. I would trade the 52 grams of Corenza C in addition to the 38 grams of the comb I have not even used once. A single pack of cards, minus the jokers - the 88 grams I shouldn’t have left at home.
Rising early from our marginally more comfortable level stone beds, a few of us walk to the cliffs that the Cape Vultures nest on to see them set off for the day. As we reach the top of the cliffs of Culfargie, the Cape Vultures take to flight, soaring out over the valley below. Unfortunately, we have to pack up and take the long way down.
A full day’s hike along the escarpment and down the valley delivers us back to Monk’s Cowl, where we can thankfully sign all eight of us back in. Eight friends all talked and walked out. Eight weary travellers soon to be reveling in hot showers, mediocre steak dinners and soft beds.
Trail Head Location (WGS84)
S29º 02’ 56.1” E29º 24’ 21.5”
Monk’s Cowl Forest Station
Other Trails At Destination
Network of trails starting and ending at the Monk’s Cowl Forest Station.
Various day and multi-day hikes to explore.
Total Distance : 39,5,4km
Distance Day 1 : 12,7km
Distance Day 2 : 15,1km
Distance Day 3 : 11,7km
Trail Type : Circular
Trail Markings : Not good. A good map is a must.
Starting Altitude : 1480
Summit Altitude : 2100
Lowest Altitude : 1385
Difficulty Rating : 7 / 10
Dustbins : N
Water points : Ample during summer – Check with Monks Cowl Forest Station prior to departure during dryer months.
Toilets : N
How To Book
Monk’s Cowl Forest Station
+27 36 468 1103
Permits need to be obtained prior to overnight hikes and the mountain registry need to be signed.
The route taken on Day 3 through Makhulumaan Forest is not one of the Parks Boards' contour routes and can be dangerous when wet. The recommended route is down Jacob's Ladder and around the base of Steilberg.
Hiked 9 Aug