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TR: Rhino Peak; Drakensberg, 3050m 8-Nov-2016 At 2:42:57 PM technogeekery
This is not a climbing TR - but I recently spent a week in the mountains of South Africa, and thought some of you might be interested. The Drakensberg is the main range of South Africa, a little bit like the Great Dividing Range here, but much more spectacular. It rises from the foothills in kwaZulu-Natal at about 1500m in a dramatic escarpment of 1500m, so reaches well over 3000m in places. It is mostly a huge barrier range, with a few well defined peaks on the main escarpment. The foothills and valleys are through a sandstone belt that is split by countless beautiful little rivers, and the sandstone forms dramatic spires, caves and other formations. This area is home to dense vegetation, and wildlife including eland (world's biggest antelope), klipspringer (small reclusive buck), baboons, and fantastic birdlife. The higher slopes are covered in endless grasslands, and then the dramatic escarpment itself is basalt ramparts and towers going up to the high windswept plateau, and Kingdom of Lesotho.

You typically access the top by walking up one of the river valleys, and then slogging up incredibly steep and tough "neks" or passes to the top. There is climbing here, but it is oldest of old-school climbing - long hard approaches, setting up base camps in caves, then vertical spelunking up dank gulleys, terrifying vertical grass slopes, "library climbing" where you pick out a handhold, and replace it if you don't like it, and general choss-mongering. The weather is incredibly variable, snow is possible at any time, you frequently go from howling winds to suffocating heat to zero-vis fog and back to hail in a single day. Berg adders lurk, waiting to bite you as you tremble up the grass tufts in terror, pitons are still the only reliable pro, and vultures big enough to fly off with whole lambs swoop on your firstborn if you look in the wrong direction. Route descriptions are from old Mountain Club of SA guides from 1958, and typically consist of entries like "Khumba Yah - 230m, F3. 6 pitches, Up SW ridge for 3 pitches, grass & loose rock, left at obvious corner, up 3 more pitches. Bertie and Anne killed on FA by lightning. Good climbing."

I did quite a bit of this sort of nonsense when I was young and impressionable - nowadays I climb on rock, but still enjoy walking in the 'Berg. The scenery is incomparable - my phone pics don't do it justice - and the walking is wild and beautiful. We were staying at a fantastic quiet resort in the foothills called Castleburn (highly recommended) and every day woke up to the sight of Rhino Peak high above us. After some shakedown walks, my brother and I decided that we were up for the walk to the top. After all, trail runners do it in sub-3 hours, how hard could it be? 18km, 1400m vertical gain, rated "Extreme" - but they always over-estimate the difficulty, right?

View of Rhino peak from the beginning of the walk:

The walk is almost flat going up the Mlambonja valley - awesome scenery

There are giant boulders all up and down the valley - many of these would make a decent "crag" in Sydney by themselves!

The Pillar Cave is a great spot for a break, or for use as a base camp for the area.

The hard work begins up the Mashai Pass. It gets increasingly steep all the way up, 4 more kms of slogging up the river, whcih turns into a rockfall, and 45 degree scrambling

Finally we reached the top of the pass, and the great Lesotho plateau. The Rhino is thankfully much less formidable from behind - a simple 1.5km trek along the plateau, and a short scramble to the peak.

My brother on top, happily unaware of the storm brewing in the mountains behind him.We took 4 hours to get here - no records, but not bad for a couple of middle aged blokes.

We soaked up the views - amazing how small those valleys and dramatic features look from up here.

Endless views over kwaZulu-Natal

We'd been there for 15 minutes when we heard thunder, and black clouds boiled up over Lesotho. We hastily packed and trotted off, but the storm caught us as we started down the steepest bit of the pass - howling winds, rain, lightning, then hail - the mountain telling us we didn't get away so easily. We slid and stumbled down the pass, both privately thinking about how much sh1t we'd be in if we broke an ankle or got struck by lightning. The maxim of the top being only half-way was again painfully evident... But in a couple of hours we were back at Pillar Cave, the sun was out, it was hot, so we stripped off and swam in a rock-scoured pool with malachite sunbirds flashing from flower to flower. We signed back in to the mountain register 15 minutes before we'd estimated, and 30 minutes later were drinking beer by the lake and soaking sore feet in the water. We hadn't seen a single soul on the mountain, and had all this wonder to ourselves.

This isn't one of the many world-class climbing locations in South Africa - but if you ever get a chance to tour the country, make time for a Drakensberg trip - it is a truly fantastic place.

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