SUMMITING CLEFT PEAK [with the aid of our guide Moses] [Monday 18 May 2009]
As most of you know, the reason for my recent lengthy absence in blog land, was due to our long awaited 5-day stay at Cathedral Peak Hotel in the Northern Drakensberg, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa – a birthday gift from hubby. We left in darkness at 5am on Friday, 15 May to avoid the dreaded peak hour traffic here in Johannesburg. We could not believe how busy the highways were at 5:30am. We had our first stop to stretch our legs and have a hot drink, just after 7:30am near Harrismith at a Total Garage One Stop. It was freezing cold and we head straight for Maxis where Conroy ordered a filter coffee and me a nice cuppa tea. Firstly the service was everything but, friendly, more like the take-away attendant was doing us a favour. We asked for our milk separate and out came my cup of tea resembling a glass of hot milk rather than refreshing tea. So we sent it back and asked, yet again, for the milk to be separate which after what seemed quite a long while, appeared. As my nose reached into the cup for my first sip, I got whiff of something smelling really bad, which I assumed was the water. After Conroy confirmed my disgust by also smelling, it went straight for the rubbish bin. So without any hot cuppa for me, we got onto the road once again and headed for the final 1,5 hours towards Cathedral Peak Hotel. We arrived at CP a few minutes before 10am being greeted by beautiful blue skies and a lovely sunny winters day. As we were checking in at reception, a member from management recognised us, probably because we frequent CP so often. He asked us for how long we were staying and then asked the receptionist to rather check us into one of their new deluxe rooms. We had to wait an hour or so for our room (check-in is usually only at 2pm), so we were more than willing to wait, especially as we were just in time for morning tea and biscuits/cakes serviced on the terrace overlooking the majestic mountain splendour. Definitely, worthwhile waiting for after my Maxis experience. After tea we were phoned to let us know that our room was ready. We were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful modern furbished room which even surpassed the luxury of the honeymoon suite we have stayed in before. The whole wall in front of our bed was glass and we had a stunning view on the mountains, especially lying in bed and the added bonus was that we could keep the curtains open as no one could see in. The room also walked out onto a little patio area with a table and chairs to lounge in. Management came by the room a few minutes after we checked in just to ensure that everything was in order. Now is that service or what! Maxis catch a hint. We wasted no time unpacking, hanging our clothes and familiarising ourselves with everything available in the room. After packing out, we headed for lunch on the terrace where we tried to stay within the boundaries of our current eating plan and therefore ordered health bread with hickory ham, cheese and pickles i.e. 2 protein/1 dairy/2 carbohydrates were thus ticked off our eating plan. I lazed around after lunch whilst Conroy put in a session at the gym and was back to no surprise, in time for afternoon tea and biscuits/cake on the terrace. We watched some IPL cricket in our room and went for dinner just after 7pm. Dinner is quite an experience at CP from seafood, to soup, to a hot buffet, to a salad bar, to the biggest selection of deserts you can imagine to a delicious cheese and biscuit selection. The Kwaito Cheese was our favourite which we had with digestive biscuits and fig preserves after every dinner. Saturday morning, after breakfast we decided to hire a guide to take us to Cleft Peak on Monday and arranged this with Andrew, the hiking co-ordinator at CP. We requested that if possible, we would like Moses to guide us, as he has taken us up Cathedral Peak and on various other shorter hikes in the past and we were very impressed with his hiking expertise, always putting the safety of his hikers first. The Cleft Peak excursion, which affords some of the most magnificent scenery to be found anywhere in the Drakensberg, was then arranged and finalised for Monday, weather permitting.
My perfectionist husband then had to take us on a 5km trial hike Saturday morning, carrying the stuff we would when we will be doing Cleft Peak i.e. 3 litres of water each, plus a warm jacket and of course the camera. So we did a 5km contour route simulating the weight on our backs, we will be carrying up and down Cleft Peak. We have not hiked for a few years now and are totally out of practice and its amazing how heavy 3 litres of water can feel on ones back. Returning from our trial hike I felt that I would definitely be able to do Cleft Peak, but without weight on my back. Conroy then decided that he will carry all six litres of water plus my Canon EOS 20D camera so that I could just concentrate on summiting. At least the six litres of water will get lighter as one drink en route. The rest of Saturday we lounged around having terrace teas and lunch and headed for dinner just after 7pm again. During Saturday night there was a serious wind storm and it sounded like the roof was going to blow off and we woke Sunday morning with some seriously strong winds still blowing and of course concern for our Cleft Peak excursion started to haunt us. After breakfast we checked ourselves into the cosy lounge area overlooking the beautiful mountain scenery and of course reserving a spot where we could excitedly wait for our dear friends Michelle and Dereck’s visit.
Michelle and Dereck drove all the way from Pinetown just to come and visit us and of course we could not wait to hear all about their recent 5-week trip to the USA and England. So do yourself a favour and visit Michelle and Dereck’s blog where they documented their trip day-by-day accompanied with some beautiful photos. Michelle and Dereck were just in time for morning tea and biscuits and we chatted nonstop through tea and lunch. Me and Michelle also of course discussed a few minor details re my upcoming Makaranga Scrapaganza on 13 June 2009. Michelle and Dereck have also been ever so kind as offering to collect and take some of the stock for the Scrapaganza back with them to Pinetown. Thank you both for this unselfish, kind and generous offer ... Makaranga Scrapaganzas would'nt have been possible without the two of you and I will never be able to pay my debt. Michelle and Dereck left at 3pm and once again Conroy and I were in time for afternoon tea and biscuits ... by now you have all figured out the morning and afternoon tea and biscuits on the terrace, is the highlight of any Cathedral Peak stay. Oh yes, I can also recommend CP’s ratatouille and mozzarella wrap with fresh avocado and lemon dip which is an excellent light vegetarian choice. Sunday’s dinner atmosphere was quite tense as we were both apprehensive about the next morning’s Cleft Peak excursion and we were probably both telling ourselves what are we letting ourselves in for ... little did we know ... After Sunday dinner we collected our hiking lunch packs from reception so that Conroy could finalise packing his day backpack the night before.
We woke at 4:30am on Monday morning (18 May 2009), had some coffee and a muffin from our lunch packs as early morning sustenance. We got dressed, put some sunscreen on and double checked our gear before leaving the room at 6:15am. We nervously waited for our guide Moses at the usual sundial spot where all the CP guided hikes start from. We noticed as darkness lifted that the skies were clear with not a cloud in sight and the air was absolutely still with no wind ... we could not have asked for more perfect weather. Andrew and Moses were on time at 6:30am and we set off with Andrew wishing us everything of the best and mentioning that there is a 0% rain forecast. So off we went at 6:33am with an eerie atmosphere as darkness lifted and the cool air started filling our lungs. 23 arduous kilometres of technical climbing lied ahead of us as we started up the trail at an altitude of 1470 metres and aiming to summit Cleft Peak at 3281 metres round about 12:30pm which will be our turning time whether we have summited or not. This is a 1.811 kilometre vertical climb over a distance of 11.5km. We covered the first few kilometres at a very good steady pace still sporting fresh legs and lungs.
Our second stop after some serious climbing was a third way up the treacherous Camel where we each had an apple. The Camel in this instance is a strange animal with way more than two humps and which seems like an endless series of little hills that have to be climbed and crawled over. It took a great deal of courage, strength and balance to reach the Windy Gap and which felt like an eternity ... no time for fear of heights here. After rock climbing through the Windy Gap we could see the organ pipes towering over us on the left and Moses congratulated us on reaching this point. After the Windy Gap there was quite a dangerous section of narrow ledges we had to negotiate and only after our ordeal read in ‘A guide to the Drakensberg by August Sycholt’ that it may require the aid of ropes. Then an everlasting series of bugger gulleys (and buggers they were) followed where it was so steep that I found it easier crawling on all fours, rather than keeping my body upright (just imagine the sight Conroy had behind me and no wonder we did not see one baboon as they were probably terrified at the site of yours truly). I really struggled to breathe during this section and my chest was really burning with the over expansion of my lungs (a swimmer I will never be). Conroy was very encouraging all the way and said that I must just take 5 steps and rest, 5 steps and rest, which I did ... more like one step and rest. It felt like we were not moving at all, but Moses kept on saying that we must just aim to get on the plateau. After, negotiating the most difficult stretch I have encountered climbing up a mountain, we reached the plateau and we literally fell to the ground when Moses suggested that we have lunch and decide whether we will continue or turn back.
We were probably a sight for sore eyes and Moses doubted whether we will summit in time. We gulped down our sandwiches not tasting anything as the minds were in turmoil, but at the same time focused on summiting. We convinced Moses that we must move forward and only turn back when its 12:30. Moses said that it was 1hr20min to the summit from here. It is probably for the best that we did not know at this point what was ahead. The most difficult stretch was waiting for us, forever reaching up and up we just forced one foot in front of the other and dragged our tortured bodies up and up and up. By now every muscle started aching and the only thing that kept us going was the thought of summiting Cleft Peak which crept closer and closer.
We saw quite a few frozen small water waterfalls on this stretch and it was freezing cold causing our noses to flood continuously. At one stage Moses announced that a Lammergeier is circling above us and its diet consists mainly of bones which are swallowed whole or shattered by dropping them onto a rock slab. Yea right, I thought to myself not even looking up, its probably spotted yours truly’s nearly dead body and is preparing itself to collect my bones. We stopped one more time on top of the last little hump just before Cleft Peak where Moses said it is probably 30 minutes to the summit. We could not believe that our bodies made it so far and pressed onwards to the summit. We reached the summit with adrenalin at an all time high and could not contain our excitement and amazement at reaching the summit in time. Moses shook our hands and congratulated us as he was amazed that we summited in time.
Below: Cathedral Peak on far right at 3004 metres high.
Above: The awesome view looking northwards from the summit of Cleft Peak onto The Column, The Pyramid and the Cathedral Range.
For a brief moment we did not feel any pain and were running around like mad people taking photos and absorbing the most stunning scenery surrounding us. It did not feel real, more like a dream. We both realised that this was a once in a lifetime experience for us both and will remain in our memories forever. No sooner did we summit and we had to start our way down for 11.5km.
Its amazing how much faster one’s body can move downwards. And of course the down hurts one’s body much more than going up. Our feet really took a pounding during all of the 11.5km down. We only stopped twice for water on the way down, pushing time to make it back at the hotel by 5:30pm when darkness will have nearly totally descended. We made it back exactly at 5:30pm and our bodies were shattered after 11 hours of nearly constant walking/climbing/crawling and putting on the brakes coming down. Thank you Moses for looking so well after us and not losing faith in our ability to summit ... without you the fulfilment of this achievement would not have been possible.
We dropped down into some chairs on the terrace and I ordered a gin and dry lemon and Conroy ordered two cokes ... can’t remember when a gin and dry lemon tasted so refreshing. We staggered off to our room where we relaxed for an hour before we bathed and showered. We went for dinner just after 8pm and could hardly reach the dining room. We were both too tired to eat and more or less just settled for some soup and headed back to a very inviting King Size bed. Needless to say, the eating plan went out the window at breakfast on Tuesday morning where even a dry biscuit tasted delicious ... we were ravenous after expending so much energy the previous day without replenishing it in the evening. I went for a facial at 9am at the spa after which we totally vegetated for the rest of the day, refuelling our bodies with CP’s delicious cuisine. We made the five hour drive back home on Wednesday and it was a real let down being back in a concrete jungle ... should have pitched our tent on Cleft Peak for at least a week. Our bodies are still a bit tender (its now Friday), but we survived to tell the story. We will perhaps do another yoga class tomorrow morning to free our bodies of all the lactic acid. For those of you whose attention span lasted up to here, thanks for taking the time in sharing our amazing experience with us. Looking forward to hearing from any of you who perhaps had a similar experience of a lifetime. I will be visiting your blogs soon to catch up on everyone's recent activities.