The Drakensberg Grand Traverse

29 November 2017

For most, the idea of covering 240km in 88 hours with nothing but the packs on their backs sounds like something only the crazy would do, well luckily these three guys are a little crazy.
In October this year, three Cape Town based trail nuts and adventure enthusiasts, Stefan Wahl, Armand Du Plessis and Simon Marincowitz did exactly that.
With no real knowledge of the route, some advice from fellow trail nuts and a map, these three took on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT).
After hearing the story of how the three of them almost spontaneously decided to book flights and head to the Drakensberg to attempt the DGT and finishing it completely self supported, we had to hear the story for them and share it with you!
There are so many adventures out there that get us amped to head out into the mountains, but none quite as much as this epic adventure!
We contacted Stefan shortly after the trip and asked if he would share the story with The Mountain Room.
Here’s what he had to say about the experience:

When did you start planning for the DGT and who’s idea was it to take on the DGT?

I’m not entirely sure who’s idea it was, but it originated from an overnight hike in Jonkershoek just over a month ago. Nothing like open skies and whisky to get the prospects of future missions flowing.
We didn’t even give it much thought and the following day when we got back down we booked our flights, without knowing a single thing about the route.
Planning started immediately after that, but was really slow going for the first two weeks. Initially it was just myself and Simon, Armand made a final decision about a week before departure. Needless to say, but the moment we realized what we had actually gotten ourselves into, excitement quadrupled and scared-levels went off the charts!

The record for the DGT was set by Ryan in 2014 in 42 hours. Was this something that you intended on achieving on this trip. Will you go back and give the record a go?

There was definitely no intention to rival Ryan and Ryno’s time. Many things need to align and be in place for such an attempt. You need to have a very long, and very clear weather window (definitely not October). You need to have extensive route knowledge and you need to be completely acclimated and very fit – physically and mentally. From the word go we had our sights set on four days which in my opinion is borderline between very fast and very slow.
At that altitude you become exponentially slower with the weight of your pack and we decided that 4 days would be the fastest that we would be able to do it whilst still enjoying it, and also having the safety of a warm sleeping bag and a rain cover. The day before we started we optimistically decided that we would attempt to do it with little to no sleep which theoretically changed our initial 4 days plan to 60 hours. Problem was that we weren’t acclimatized in the slightest and we packed for 4 days.
We were put back into place very soon by the altitude and we were back on plan A haha. We will definitely be back to do a faster attempt and I rate that a sub 50h is possible, but we would need a lot more ultra distance experience before that.

Did you have any support with you at all, or was it completely self-supported?

This was a completely unsupported attempt. The food that we took was enough for the entire duration of the hike and the only other people that we saw besides the Basothos, was a group on day 1.

What was in your bags?

Both myself and Simon had the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 35l packs. We had one pair clothing which included:
Short tights
Long tights
Running shorts
Shirt
Rain jacket
Rain pants
4 pairs socks
Thermal underwear (top and bottom)
Further I carried an Ice Breaker sleeping bag, a bivvy and Tarp, a rain cover for my pack, 500ml soft flask, 1l spare water capacity, camera, phone, knife, cigarettes, spork, headlamp and many spare batteries, battery bank, SPOT Gen 3 unit, 4 days supply of food, gloves, 2 x buffs, trekking poles, hip flask, duct tape.

An adventure like this over 4 days means that you must have been moving pretty quickly. What did you take with you in terms of shelter and food?

We were planning on making it to caves every day, but things didn’t turn out that way and luckily each of us had bivvy bags with us which was used every night. We also had the Ultimate Direction Tarp which was super useful on the first night when we were out in the open with no wind and there was a lot of dew during the morning. This tarp was ideal due to the fact that we could pitch it with our trekking poles so the tarp basically meant no extra weight. In terms of weight saving this was certainly a winning combination. On food we obviously also wanted to save as much weight as possible and we thus went for a high fat diet, I think haha!
We packed all the foods with the highest calories. This meant that we had futurelife and powdered milk for breakfast, a nut/seed/biltong and droewors mix for lunch together with some peanut butter Jungle Oats bars and Tuna/rice/Quinoa/Provita mix for supper, plus 85% dark chocolate before bed. This worked really well except for our obvious lack of sugar sweets during lunch – the craving was real!! And all the salty contents for lunch also means lots of cuts and sores on my mouth which got really irritating. On the 4th day we were able to move a lot faster due to the reduced weight and our bodies being more acclimated…

How much knowledge of the route did you have before arriving at the start?

Zero… Armand had some knowledge of the Giants Castle area but that didn’t really save us from walking a kilometer in the opposite direction before realising we are not getting any closer to the massive mountain right behind us hahaha! I have been on the path leading to the chain ladders although I have never even made it that far and Simon had never even been in the Drakensberg. So we went in completely blind!

Talk us through the route; where does the DGT start and end? Is it marked? Did you have the route pre-loaded onto any kind of a GPS device?

You start out at the Sentinel car park near Witsie’s Hoek and then you Ascent onto the escarpment and summit Mont-Aux Sources. Then you continue to Cleft Peak, Champagne Castle, Mafadi, Giants Castle and finally Thabana Ntlenyana. Then you descend down into Bushman’s Nek. Many of the valleys have sheep paths in which you can walk although you need to make regular checks on the route to know when you need to get off the track… Then some of the peaks have some cairns which you can follow but they are very minimal and there is obviously a path heading up to the chain ladders and the final descent had a path (worst path I have ever been on and it was cursed many many many times by us). We had two different routes loaded onto two different GPS handheld units and also had the routes loaded onto our Suunto watches (I actually forgot to load mine and Armand’s watch died after day 1) We also had contour maps printed of the entire route for in case all technology decided to fail.

What were the highs and lows of the whole experience?

Haha sho, there were many… I think I went through daily lows around the 12h mark when my head and body could not understand why I am still moving… On the second day I went though a real low patch when we didn’t have water for a really long time and the wind was blowing really hard and the stretch to the top of Champagne Castle didn’t seem to end and I couldn’t keep up with Simon and Armand… but as bad patches work, you get over them and carry on. On the third day I must have gone through one of the lowest patches I’ve ever been through. It was between 10 and 11pm and we were heading towards Thabana. We were skirting around some mountain on its contour path and it felt like hours that we just kept on traversing in the same direction. Eventually I came to the conclusion that Simon was leading us in circles around this mountain, haha. Then we reached a new river which kind of killed my theory. It took me a while to forgive Simon haha.

The sunrises and sunsets in the Drakensberg are absolutely incredible! We were awake for all of them and each time it took me into a whole different dimension.
On the first night while the sun was setting behind me, I was looking down into the valley from the escarpment and I was completely lost for words. We would usually sit down for supper right after sunset and then the wind would be gone and the Berg turns into the most calm and tranquil place… These moments of absolute quietness were really special. Our last sunset we were looking down towards the mist-covered Bushman’s Nek while the sun was setting… then we knew we were almost done and the sense of accomplishment was really big! Our encounters with the Basothos were also very special. They live such simple lives up there and there is so much happiness in their eyes while you try and interact with them, although more often than not the only common word that we had was “sho”.

How many hours a day did you spend hiking and when did you sleep?

We hiked between 15 and 19h every day and then slept for about 5 hours which was very luxurious and can definitely be cut down on if you want to go for a fast traverse.

The Grand Traverse

The Drakensberg weather can be very fickle. Did you encounter any problems with weather at all?

We basically had all types of weather possible. I got sun burnt on the first day then during the afternoon on the second day we found out that there was ‘heavy rains’ on its way and we consequently dressed up in all of our warm and rain gear. 10 minutes later we received a total of 57 rain drops and that was it… Later that night we could see the thunder in the distance and after settling in (basically at the top of Mafadi) we could hear that the thunder was getting much closer. Within minutes it was pouring down on us and we had to huddle up against the boulder that was right next to us. Luckily with the strong winds the rock actually provided quite a good shelter. The lightning luckily never reached us but we sure were in the most vulnerable position possibly. On the third day we got more rain as we were ascending Giants Castle but again just some quick light rains. Day four we had gale forced winds that almost blew us off Thabana and had us fighting balance all day. On our descent to Bushman’s Nek we had 1m visibility mist all the way which had us going straight down the mountain at some point because we couldn’t find the path.

We heard that Armand had to leave the trip early. What happened there? Was there any point where you thought you were going to have to abandon the trip?

Armand had some business matters to sort out and after realising how much slower the going was than expected, he had to make a call to escape down Giants Pass before entering another big valley, with the next escape being at Sani Pass. It was a very sad moment because now we could no longer exchange our tuna meals for his bar-ones and Stroopwaffles! Armand is SUCH a fun guy to hike with! He always keeps the spirits up and always has a joke to tell. So The mood was definitely different after he had left.
After he left we knew that we would need to give it everything we had for the final 85km otherwise we would not make the 4 day self imposed cutoff and we would also risk missing our flights back home. After that we had to put our heads down a little and mission like the good old days, but never again did we consider not making it.

On a trip like this, before leaving, do you plan for an emergency? If something were to have happened, did you have a contingency plan? We know the Drakensberg can be a dangerous place with limited signal, how did you let people know where you were, or how did you keep in touch with home?

This was one of our main concerns, especially considering we had no knowledge of the route and where possible escape routes were. We spent some time talking to guys like Conrad du Toit and Andrew Porter about escapes and contingencies.
Before we left we had a comprehensive breakdown of all the escape routes and all of their GPS locations were saved on our GPS device. Andrew’s words: “If the shit REALLY hits the fan, just go in Lesotho as far as possible and at some point you will find a kraal or village. Your family might think you have died for a while, but at least you might come out alive at the end of the day”. This provided some comfort as a last resort haha.
We also carried a SPOT GEN 3 device that provided us with a lot of functionality with regards to emergency and also keeping in touch with family. I was able to send “I am OK” messages to my family at regular intervals during the day and I was also able to send a customized message of “We have arrived at camp and are done for the day”. The SPOT also gave us two different options to report emergencies, which would send out the severity of the emergency as well as our coordinates to the relevant parties. This provided us with a lot of comfort and did miracles to comfort my parents back home.

After following your adventures on social media, you clearly have a passion for the outdoors. How long have you been doing these sorts of adventures? What fuels your passion for adventure.

I think I’ve always enjoyed being in the outdoors. We have gone camping for as long as I can remember. My first year in varsity was definitely a changing point with regards to my passion for exploring some of our bigger mountains with Jonkershoek being in my backyard. This passion seems to grow exponentially stronger the more mountains I explore. I have an immense passion for everything natural and to me the best way to experience nature in its rawest form is to get to the top of a mountain where few people go. And then the journey of making it to the top of a mountain is always the funnest form of adventure and I love sharing these adventures with close friends. Being outside in the mountains put me in a very good mental space and I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything else. I also love pushing and challenging my limits or rather my perception of my limits and that is my motivation for the ultra distances that I take on.

We know that you are all avid trail runners as well. Do you have any big races coming up?

Myself and Simon will be running Salomon Skyrun 100km very soon and I guess Armand will be doing everything… who knows with him haha.

Do you have any more insane adventures lined up?

Definitely! We have been thinking of a few challenges around the Western Cape for the summer but I would owe my body some rest after Skyrun. We like to keep our missions on the down low, so you will have to wait and see 🙂 The mountains are there…

If you were to give 5 tips to someone wanting to take on the DGT, what advice would you give them?

1. Acclimatise well!!
2. Make sure you have a good weather window.
3. Take a proper hand-held GPS.
4. Plan well, and then even more. Go read up on Vertical-Endeavour and cover all loose ends.
5. Be very engaging with the Basothos – you are on their land, respect them!

The Grand Traverse

Words by: Stefan Wahl – Instagram: @natura_wahl

Images: Armand Du Plessis, Stefan Wahl, Simon Marincowitz

For the full podcast interview with Stefan click here

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