The 3 Peaks Challenge is a 6-day hiking trip visiting the 3 highest peaks in the Drakensberg, Mafadi Peak at 3451m, Injisuthi Dome 3410m and Champagne Castle at 3246m. It is not an easy hike; it is actually quite extreme for some but in reality, it can be rated severe too extreme for most people. The first two days is mainly a lot of climbing, however it is worth the effort as the views from the campsites is to dream of. The next few days is quite average with mainly down hills but the climb to Champagne Castle is not to be underestimate. The walk down Leslie’s Pass to Marble Baths is steep and very taxing on the knees and arriving at Marble Baths is a welcome sight. Here you can spend some time swimming and recovering before making camp in one of the two caves. The last day is an easy walk back to the main camp.
Our trip started early on day 1. The walk up Heart Break Hill is a steep climb in the heat of the day so an early start is required. The walk starts off relatively easy and once you have crossed the Njesuthi River, the path follows the contour until you reach the Fergie’s Cave turn off. The river crossing is a good spot to have a tea break before following the river for about 4km. The river at the base of Heart Break Hill is not only the last river crossing but also the last water till you reach Centenary Hut. After a good lunch break and filled up with water, we slowly started to make our way up the hill. The hill is steep but divided into sections with terraces that gives you a few breaks on the way up, especially on a very hot day. Climbing higher and higher we could start to see the escarpment coming closer and closer with spectacular views over the peaks around us.
The sun was beating down on us as we made steady progress and before long, we rounded the top section looking out over the rest of the trail as it cuts across the contour. The hut is actually hidden from sight and it’s just as you cross over the top of the last hill that it just appears before you. Centenary Hut is just a dilapidated shell of its former self. Unfortunately, the managing authority has not been maintaining the huts in the little Berg and this has now actually led to them being an eye sore. It would have been an excellent over night spot if the hut was still in a good condition. For us it now only serves as a camping area and its advisable to sleep in tents as the hut is filthy and looking at the area around it, reminds you more of a rubbish heap that a nature reserve.
Water at Centenary is an issue if you don’t know where to look for it and some carry water up from the last river crossing – others walk down to the river West from the hut. After setting up camp I showed the rest of the group where to find water that is a lot closer to camp and even have a quick wash before the end of the day. It was still very hot and we sat around and enjoyed the sunset before we started supper. As the sun started to set, we could feel the temperature drop and soon we had to reach for something warm. It was still early spring meaning that the evenings could still be quite cool and not uncommon to still have frost on the high Berg.
In summer it’s a good idea to have an early start as not only can it get extremely hot but getting to your camp site early lessens the chance of being caught out in the open during a thunderstorm. We decided to get going at 7:00 mainly due to the heat wave that we were experiencing. Although there are a few ways getting to the top of Mafadi, our preferred route was via Judges Pass, the walk in from the Hut is an easy path following the contour path. Just a note that Judges Pass is not indicated on the Drakensberg maps and at some places the path does seem to disappear but a keen eye will pick it up again.
Rounding the last corner, we could see the pass rise up in front of us and it looks more daunting and the easiest way to get to the top is to break it up into sections and tackle each one with some rest breaks in between. There is not too much water on the pass so when you find it you need to fill up and drink as much as you can. We made steady progress and as we came round the last corner, we could see the last stretch that will lead us to the top. The path contours round giving you awesome views over the pass and deep into KZN. The air was a bit hazy and we quickly tried to get cell signal to check on the weather and it did not look good for the rest of the trip. There was a strong cold front approaching and there was even a change for heavy snow falls predicted and by now the wind has picked up to nearly storm strength and we found our camp site and go our tents up.
The camp site is ideally situated close to water and on level ground, unfortunately this is a favored camp site for most and we found loads of hiker’s trash all over and in particular a lot of wet wipes that seems to have over taken the amount of toilet paper we usually see on trail.
The wind did not die down and was blowing the whole night and during the early morning we had a few drops of rain but with the wind it was all dried up in the morning. After a quick breakfast we got going aiming for Injisuthi Dome, the second highest peak. The wind has by now picked up in strength and made going uphill difficult as we had to fight against it. Summiting Injisuthi Dome and a few pics taken we headed on for Mafadi. Mafadi is little more than a “pimple” than a peak but at 3451m it still is the highest point in South Africa. We spend some time on top of the world, taking photos but the wind that now have turned cold, made us hurry down the ridge. It got colder and eventually started to cloud over as well.
We reached the top of Leslie’s Pass and walked down to the river and had our lunch. I decided that due to it still being very early, that we should carry on walking towards Champagne Castle and find a camp site close to the Old Woman Grinding Corn. Eventually we found an ideal site right next to the river and a stones throw away from where we want to be for the next day.
The weather did not improve and it started to look like the cold was beginning to roll in. The mist was starting to roll in and by the early evening a fine drizzle started to fall but fortunately did not last to long. We all had to retire to our tents to get out of the wind and the cold and we all cooked in our tents and had an early night. The wind was buffeting our tents and sometime during the night it started to rain and I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, I was woken up by the rain pelting down on the fly sheet – it was still very early and as I poked my head out the tent, I could see the mist rolling past us. The wind was still very strong and the gusts were shaking the tent violently at times. We agreed to all get up at 6:00 and that meant that I had a few minutes to stay in my warm tent.
Two of our team members did not feel too great and asked if they could stay back when we tackled the last peak, and I made use of this opportunity to suggest we leave the tents up at our current camp site – this will help us with not having to pitch wet tents later on. The rain did not ease up too much and by the time we all had breakfast and were ready to take off, the weather turned a bit better and we could have our first glimpse of the proposed route we wanted to follow.
We made our way over the river and picked up a feint path that was leading off in our general direction and this eventually took us over into the valley where we could just see the outline of Ships Prow Pass before the mist rolled in and we walked the rest of the way in thick mist. We eventually made our way around Ships Prow and made our way up to the top of Champagne Castle. The weather had turned really bad and not only was the wind freezing cold, but we were pelted with small ice pellets. Once on the summit we only had time to take a group photo as it was so cold and windy that we could barely move our fingers. We made our way back down to camp and at times the weather did seem like it wanted to improve but it basically stayed misty, cold and rainy for most of the day.
It did not snow as was predicted but the next morning we woke up in a true winter wonderland with thick frost over everything. The temperature on my Garmin registered -7°C. We all found a little spot in the sun slurping our coffee trying to get warm, chatting about our experiences over the last couple of days. We all packed up and had to scrape the frost off our tents before we could even start to pack them away. Some of our team had single wall tents and they were frozen inside and out and although they were light it made me think twice because of all the condensation on the inside.
As we made our way back to the top of Leslie’s Pass the mist started to come down again and we did not see any blue sky till much later in the day. We had to make use of all our skills to find the top of the pass in the thick mist and once we found it, we could slowly make our way down the badly eroded path. It zigzags down and in normal clear conditions gives you awesome views over the peaks, but today we had a view of a few feet in front of us with the occasional clearing just to show us what we were missing. The section down the spur just before the river crossing is the most eroded part and maybe also the most difficult part of the way down. Once over the river the path contours around and then follows the spur down to the camp site by the river.
As we got down the spur it started to clear from about 2400m and we could see some blue sky as we started our long trek down the river to Marble Baths. This section of the trail is surprisingly long or at least it feels like its never ending. Once we reached Marble Baths, we had time to relax and chill as it was a trying last few days and just to know that the worse was over made us enjoy the down time even more. We had a bit to eat and just soaked in the experience before making our way up to the cave. There are actually two caves, however we chose to sleep in the main cave as there was more than enough space for all of us to spread out in. Some took the opportunity to start drying their clothing but for most it was time to just sit and relax.
The next morning dawned misty and wet but we did not have issues with it as we were on our way home. The walk was uneventful as the path back was clear and easy to follow. The rivers we crossed were flowing strong and this was pointing to a good year with plenty of water all around and good hiking condition. By the time we got to the last river crossing at the Njesuthi River we had a quick break and everyone was now ready to get back into civilization.
All in all it was a good trip with all 4 seasons wrapped into one and with good strong walkers that made the trip a very memorable one. I hope to see them again soon as its on hiking trips that friendships are made and through suffering that character is build.