On Shada Ridge

This is a 4 day 3 night overnight hike traversing the contour path from Injisuthi to Cathedral Peak, our aim was to start early on the Wednesday morning finishing on Saturday afternoon. I would rate this as a difficult hike for most and an extreme hike for the unfit, this is mainly due to the amount of climbing and then of course the fact that due to this route not being done to regularly, the path almost disappears at certain sections. This makes navigation quite challenging and in misty conditions this could quite easily get you lost. Luckily for us most of us have done this walk before and it was actually surprising how over grown certain sections of the path started to get. Other sections have seen a lot of traffic, and if I have to guest, I would say it could be from traffic from Lesotho.

After chatting online and making arrangements our team made up of Ruan – our trip leader, Andre, Alta Anneley, Etienne and myself, were ready to take on the challenge. We all met up on Tuesday evening at Injasuthi camp and we set up camp for the night as we aimed to leave latest 7:00 the next morning. The camp sites were still full of campers and after finding a site and meeting each other we set off to sign the register and getting our plans sorted out. The weather did not look too great for the next couple of days, but today looked great for us and we so far had a great day with no rain and blue skies for the first time in a couple of days. We had supper, showered, packed and sorted our last bits of gear and had a relatively early night.

A stormy evening in the Drakensberg

The next morning dawned with blue skies and the promise of it being dry and looked like a good day to hike in. We shouldered our packs, loaded, heavy with gear and extra rain gear as we were expecting some heavy rain later during the trip. We had our first river crossing right at the camp and we could see that the water level was quite a bit higher, but had dropped enough for a safe crossing. We slowly made our way up Van Heyningen’s Pass and on to the contour path is Shada Ridge. 

The path up the ridge is not very steep, but in the heat, it felt like it went on for miles and it took its toll on us and we sweated our way up to the contour path level. We contoured around in and out of the valleys and we could see Blind Man’s Corner but it was still a distance away. We found a small stream and decided to have our lunch while trying to hide from the sun. We contoured around until we found a flat spur to camp on close to water about half way between Blind Man’s Corner and Hlathikulu Neck. Water was about 200m away from us and luckily most of the streams were flowing strong. 

A very early start to our day

The weather was beginning to build quickly over towards Monks Cowl and we quickly pitched our tents before the heavens opened up over us. We could see the storm pass to our right and spill out over the valley below. The wind was quite strong and really tested our tents strength and luckily it died down as the storm moved down the valley. We started supper relative early so as to be finished and washed up before another storm might hit us. The wind picked up again and we made sure to secure our tents and make sure that all was tied down and all pegs securely in the ground, and as the rain started to fall down, we all retired to our tents for the night.

It did not rain as much during the night and the morning dawned with the promise of being another great day to hike in. The sun was beginning to paint the sky orange and the sun started to heat us up, just as we started with breakfast. Just as quickly as the sun rose the mist started to roll in and soon we were surrounded by mist and our route totally disappeared in the blink of an eye. We finished packing up, shouldered our bags and started on the path to Hlathikulu Neck. I have done this section a number of times and the zig zagging in and out of the valleys makes this section feel a lot longer than it is. We made our way down to the eMhlwazini River and after finding a safe river crossing, we started the painstaking task of fighting through the thick riverine under growth trying to find a proper path to re-connect us with the contour path.

Crossing the Ndedema River

Eventually we pick a good line and joined up with the path and started the climb back out of the valley. This part of the contour path does not see as much traffic as the rest of the path as most people turn off to either Zulu Cave or Keith Bush Camp to summit Greys Pass. Our aim was to get as far as we could on the contour path and camp on a flat spur close to water. 

We started to walk around Gatberg, that was still covered in thick mist and as we made our way down to the Nkosazana River that looks up into, what I think is one of most awesome parts of the Drakensberg, the back section of the Dragons Back and Vultures Retrieve. The Nkosazana River plunges down the steep ravine in a few waterfalls all that was still hidden behind a wall of thick mist. There used to be a nice camp site close to the river crossing, but we could not find it due to being totally over grown. Even after crossing the river we had to yet again fight our way through thick bush before we could reach the path. This section is quite steep to walk back out of the valley, until you reach the neck and all of the sudden the valley just opens up in front of you, and looking out over the Inner & Outer Horns, Bell and Cathedral Peak. Looking back, you can see Gat Berg, Cathkin, the Monk and Champagne Castle. On this section the path is very feint and we had to just pick a line and contour around to where we could see the path in front of us. The going was slow as we were fighting the grass and hidden rocks, but we made steady progress. 

Our main aim was now to find a suitable camp site and settled on a flattish spur relatively close to water and with an almighty view all round. From the spur I could see the location of Stable Cave – an overnight spot of a previous trip. We again could hear thunder in the distance and soon we felt some big drops pelting down on us. It rained on and off most of the afternoon and well into the evening. In-between breaks we tried to get supper going and most of us eventually cooked supper in the vestibules of our tents. As the rain fell on out tents we all fell off to sleep with the hope that tomorrow would be another good day.

Sunrise is always a special time

After looking at our map and the weather report for the next two days, we could see the possibility of heavy rains hindering our next major river crossing at Philips Folly. This will help us to not only cross the river safely but will also help us if the next day was rainy and wet, we didn’t have too many km’s to do to get back to camp.

The benefit of hiking in summer is the extra hours of light available and this meant that we had been starting our walks very early and most mornings we could start before 7:00 and this also meant we could get camp set up early. With our bags packed, we set off on the contour path down Eastman’s Ridge and slowly made our way down to the river. 

Clouds were beginning to build over the high Berg and we were bathed in bright sunlight, however the heat and humidity was unbearable. As we made it down to the Ndedema River we could see the river was fuller than we expected but we could still cross it safely. We took off our boots and made our river crossing and decided to have a quick swim just to cool off and wash the sweat off. 

The water was freezing but refreshing and after a short walk up the valley, we started our climb out of the valley, and soon we were all sweaty again. Philips Folly is most properly the most intense part of the walk as its maybe not as steep but in the heat its long and feels like it might never end. Soon we reached the crest and met up with the contour path. From here it’s a lot easier and we quickly made up lots of ground as we started to hear thunder in the distance.

We had a quick lunch on the “jeep track” before making a decision to push on to get as close to Cambalala Hut as we could. We would camp close to the hut and that will allow us to walk out easily on our last day as this will also give us a chance to travel back to Injisuthi to pick up our vehicles. Tents were pitched just in time as the rain started to fall and the mountains behind us disappeared. I counted about 5 or 6 storms passing over us and down the valley from the time we got there and then just as suddenly it stopped. We actually even had time to play some games to pass the time, before the heavens opened up again and it did not stop until well into the night. 

Our next morning dawned misty but dry and we packed up and made breakfast before setting off. Today was the shortest of the walk and as we walked down Mikes Pass, we could see how green the valleys are and water flowing from just about every stream. We made our way a “short cut” that turned out not to be that short and after fighting our way over the last river we made our way up to Didima Main Camp. A quick change out of wet clothing we all squeezed into the bakkie and made our way back to Injisuthi Camp. 

This is an enjoyable trail, not easy at times with some challenging parts but always worth the effort. The feeling of being surrounded by huge valleys, with the high peaks towering over you making you realize how small we actually are in this great expanse. And yes, we will be back, wiser, better prepared, and even more hungry to enjoy our happy place – The Drakensberg.  


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