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Snow jokes: The big freeze at Giant’s Castle

On the move. Sunday, August 29 at Giant's Castle Reserve. Pictures by Garth Johnstone

Garth Johnstone joined a group on a three-day, two-night hike in Giant’s Castle Reserve.

Tossing and turning, feeling “moerkoud” on Saturday night, I definitely had a “what am I doing here moment?”, but it didn’t last long as the knowledge that the next day was going to be amazing kept me going strong.

A few nips of whiskey may have helped the situation.

While sleet, snow and ice had thwarted our plans to get up a mountain pass above Bannerman’s hut and hike across the escarpment to Giant’s Castle area of the Drakensberg, plummeting temperatures and a cold front indicated we would wake up on Sunday to a winter landscape packed with snow. Exciting stuff for a former Durbanite who’d never been among lots of the white powder.

Saturday night was a long, cold night, but then came the rewards of Sunday morning.

I had signed up for a three-day, two-night hike with guide Drakensberg Hiker  that would start at Giant’s Castle picnic site, with a first day’s slog up to Bannerman’s Hut, the second day scuttling up Bannerman’s Pass, before walking and camping up at the top, and then heading down and back to the starting point by way of Langalibalele Pass on day three. Well, that was the plan, but of course the weather gods had other ideas.

Day 1, hot and windy, we hiked up the series of steep hills towards Bannerman’s Hut.

Having monitored the weather for at least a week, most of our group knew we were in for an unpredictable few days, as a big cold front swept up from the Cape, with a high probability of heavy rain and snow. But cancelling wasn’t an option, as we’d already been postponed once due to the recent rioting and looting in KZN, and the schedule could always be amended to allow for an adjusted hike, omitting the bit about “getting to the top”.

Mother Nature talks

Sure, it was disappointing, but Mother Nature always has the last say and it really is best not to mess with her. Backpacks were heavy with the extra gear as we all took precautions against the weather we knew was coming (We were, however, assisted by our porters, who seemingly effortlessly carried tents, gas, cooking implements etc).

Onwards and upwards.

In the group were guides Bruce and William, head porter Stuhla and his team of hard-working men, Judy and Andrea from Wartburg, Lourens and Joshua from Frankfort in Free State and Mikael (sorry if spelling inaccurate) from the Western Cape. Then there was myself and Alistair from Nottingham Road.

Day one was pretty straight-forward and proceeded as predicted. We walked 11km up some pretty stiff hills on a hot morning and with strong gusts of wind which made the going fairly tough. This was my first walk with a proper backpack, and it took some getting used to. I was pretty knackered when we reached Bannerman’s Hut, our home for the evening. That night lightning kicked off at about 9pm, followed shortly thereafter by bursts of rain before it set in properly just before midnight.

Sadly, day 2 was a game of hurry up and wait. But we felt pretty sure the next day would make up for it.

The second day was a game of hurry up and wait, as we stayed in the mountain hut waiting for a lift in the weather none of us suspected would come. This gave us a chance to get to know one another a bit better as we killed time. Conversations flowed across themes such as science, religion, the meaning of life, hiking gear, family and, of course, food – lots of talk about food.

Unable to get up the mountain it was decided – as there was another group coming up to use the hut that night – that we would walk a short distance away and set up a camp for the night.

Rain turning to sleet, time to set up camp and think about keeping warm.

At about 3pm it started sleeting, followed by small snowflakes from about 4pm before the real thing set in. Thank heavens we had our porters to ease our path by carrying some gear and setting up tents. That night was the coldest I’ve ever experienced, with the Mercury dipping to -12C. I also made a rookie mistake and got a small amount of snow in my single person unit as, cold and weary, tried to scoot my way in for the night while keeping dry. Anyway, it wasn’t a biggie, just something to be avoided in future.

Mountain spectacle

Sunday morning was a special day, from the time we staggered out of our tents at about 6am. I’m pretty sure I looked like a bewildered mini-saskwatch, who’d been dragged through the bushes backwards, but I didn’t care. A surreal picture, really difficult to do justice to on camera, presented itself as we took in the spectacle of the mountains covered in snow.

On Sunday morning (August 29) at about 6am, an amazing scene revealed itself. It’s difficult to do justice to such a magnificent sight.

Our frozen feet and fingers couldn’t dampen the delight at what we were seeing, as people stomped to and fro warming up and seeking a hot drink to further elevate spirits. All round were white hills, while in the distance, for at least 30km, were valleys blanketed in white powder.

One light-hearted moment was when we were all comparing our shoelaces, which were frozen stiff and needed some coaxing before they were anywhere near ready to be laced up. Taking pictures was a splash and dash affair, as taking gloves off for any length of time proved painful.

What’s the story morning glory?

Everyone was raring to go, as the morning sun warmed things up on a perfect day. After a quick breakfast we packed up and set off for Giant’s Castle main camp at quite a click. On the way we gaped at superlative vistas and the raw beauty of the Berg, as the snow revealed the tracks of myriad creatures … mice, jackals, baboons, antelope and a cat, possibly serval, while vultures soared overhead, surveying their lofty white kingdom.

Tips if you go:
*Take cold-weather clothes, even in summer, as the weather can turn quickly;
*A good pair of boots is a must and take spares shoes/boots if possible;
*When the weather sets in, try at all times not to get your hands and feet wet or cold. Try to dry out or warm them up as quickly as possible if you get caught out;
*Take lots of extra socks;
*Thermal pants and tops will make life so much more bearable;
*Sunblock, adequate water and a basic medical kit are also musts. Maybe share a medical kit if there are a few of you
*Take chocolate, sweets and a wee dram (or something non-alcoholic) to reward yourself when the going gets tough.

*The Drakensberg is known for its violent storms and changeable weather conditions. Listen to your guide, prepare well and be sensible when you go out hiking.

The route we had intended to follow, up past Bannerman’s Hut.
Up here, you quickly run out of superlatives.

Fooling around in the snow.

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