WELL. December was quite the month for us all, wasn’t it? That month, perhaps the most out of the six I’ve been here, was the most eerie. For Christmas in America, I’m used to driving down streets laced with twinkly lights and wreaths, decorating the faux ficus tree with ornaments I made when I was 5, drinking peppermint mochas as I window-shop Macy’s, watching Christmas Vacation with my family while downing an inordinate amount of (Dad’s special) eggnog, going to Chin-Chin for dinner and a midnight service at church. For New Year’s in America, I’m used to throwing a bash with friends, complete with disco balls, shimmery outfits, weird food, and just the eentsiest touch of alcohol. Although this year was drastically different, it was just as lovely, hilarious, and meaningful. (You should probably get a snack because I have trouble writing short posts, it seems)
It all started with the SA26’s IST in Pietermaritzburg for two weeks. At a hotel. With hot showers. And complimentary conditioner. And a pool. And a buffet. Did I mention the hot showers? In phases, each PCV was met by their principal, English counterpart, and Life Skills counterpart from their schools or communities to plan for the upcoming year with information sessions, goal-setting, and applicable activities.
It was fantastic to see all the PCVs again; it had been since our September Swearing In ceremony that we’d all been together. So after some intense catching up, using the hotel’s tub for laundry, and about 5kgs of pork roast and crème brulee later, IST was over and all PCVs were set loose on South Africa for their holidays until January. Scary.
I, along with eight others, launched off on a marvelously planned trip (mad props, Amy) to the Drakensberg Mountains, the highest mountain range in southern Africa. In Afrikaans it means “Dragon Mountains” and in isiZulu it means “Barrier of Spears”, for historical reasons. It is home to Bushmen cave paintings, infinite flora and fauna, incredible silence, and various surprises that we encountered. The nine of us gathered tents, stoves, warm clothes, food, and courage and set off for the well-known Sani Pass Backpackers at the base of some southern ridges. We each took a last shower, had a last beer, and camped in the rain for one night at the lodge.
Day 1… The alarm went off at 04:00 and I’m sure we all lay there for a minute hating ourselves for even thinking we could do this, but then we got up. After packing, downing a huge breakfast, and taking a final poo in a porcelain god, we set off on the paved road that shuttles in tourists and spits out hikers. As we walked, the peaks on each side looked rather ominous – if only we knew how small those ones were, comparative to upcoming days. The pavement eventually turned to a dirt road which eventually turned to a “well defined” trail which eventually turned to no trail. We knew that our campsite goal for the evening was “up”, so using a compass and a map (our trail being approved by the owner of the Backpackers), that’s the direction we went. It wasn’t long before we were met with quite a sheer grassy cliff, complete with a 70° slope and…baboons. We all tried to politely exude dominance over the natural wildlife, shifted our heaviest-they’d-ever-be packs, and ascended, via clutching hunks of grass for dear life. Once at the top we all ate lunch and felt like badasses. After ascending some more, edging around glassy cliff faces trying not to think about how your pack could quickly toss you downward, someone spotted an interesting looking grey curtain in the distance.
Ah, rain. This was a sight we quickly got used to. Every day on our trip, rain would roll in at almost exactly 14:30. We threw on ponchos (Katie’s and mine were by far the most camouflaged) and slopped up some more hills before hunkering down at a flat area by a river. Tuna melts, an attempt to get dry and warm up, a John Mayer jam session, and several games of 20 questions (shouted between four tents) later, we all konked out.
Day 2… Up at around 05:30, oatmeal and instant coffee had, we collected water at the stream (some used iodine tablets and some did not…sorry, Mom), and were off. But don’t let me forget to introduce a very important member of our group. My trowel, dubbed Flat Stanley (remember that grade 4 project?), was well-loved for six days. So, F.S. christened, we set off on semi-shaky legs. We continued to move up in increments and had lunch on a gorgeous flat grassland between two peaks. The shockingly green cliffs and contrasting blue sky were almost cartoon-like. Revived, we trekked some more until, and I’m serious when I say “suddenly”, the clouds were dark and the rains came in. Only this time, it was accompanied by hail. Visibility was extremely low, and we were all pressed against a rock face, wondering if that’s where we would have to hunker down for the night. If “Oh shit” was ever appropriate, it was then. One of our comrades went ahead and, gloriously, came back saying that there was a
sizeable cave only 50 meters away. Hallelujah! We stumbled in, dislodged ourselves from our packs and, just like that, the clouds cleared away, revealing that we were in the middle of this huge encasing cup of cliffs; they surrounded us in a large, rocky hug. Of course we decided to stay, partly because the weather was unpredictable and partly because we loved the idea of staying in a cave not marked on the map.
We collected rainwater as it poured in front of the cave, threw some tents up, made pasta with chicken and tomato sauce, watched the sunset, and slept well.
Day 3… well, naturally, as you ascend in height, you descend in temperature. Tally ho. It got cold overnight – our lovely leader, Brandon, had a compass with a thermometer and at one point it said 40°– inside his tent heated with multiple bodies. Waking up was difficult on this morning but once we staggered out of our tents, bleary-eyed and shivering, the view was amazing. The 05:00 sunlight was bright red, bouncing around inside our huge rocky cup, illuminating what we were about to climb: rockslides and more crumbly verticals. We kept fairly quiet the whole morning (quite difficult for us), just in case another rockslide was on the brink of coming our way. The pattern was: ascend up, around a turn, feel elated for completing it, and then be met with another vertical increment. It felt never-ending until finally, around 08:30, we flopped ourselves over an edge and were met with: a pasture – it seemed so surreal. A pasture, with horses, and beautiful foreign flowers, and mist, and success. We felt like the first explorers to have ever been there, and dubbed the peak Pride Rock. As much as vertical climbing can suck, what’s worse (at least for me) is flat ground. We plodded for hours on that pasture, which actually turned into a marshland.
Now may be a good time to explain my feet. Instead of hiking boots, I wore high school tennis shoes. I got a blister on my pinky toe within the first hour of Day 1, and throughout the trip had to wear plastic bags over my socks to keep them dry(ish). We assembled a bluegrass band, and throughout the trip came up with some very popular songs. Do keep a look out for Laura Bramblett and the Six-Year Tennies and any of our top-chart hits:
“Soup in My Shoes”, “Cadaver Feet”, “Plastic Socks”, “Muddy Laces”, “Eleventh Toe”, “Worn-down Treads”, or “Slippery Soles”. I digress. So we were squelching our way through marsh, over rivers, and around horse herds until a village and a road slowly become visible in the distance. We stopped a car to ask for directions and realized that, not only had we accidentally altered our initial path quite a bit, we were at our destination for Day 4
– the Lodge at the top of the South African side of Sani Pass, home to the highest pub in all of Africa! We couldn’t believe it. Ever since Day 1, beer may or may not have been our impetus in trudging on and here it was a day early. We enjoyed a 4-hour lunch, complete with huge burgers, altitude and beer-induced giddiness, and blissfully sitting on our bums. We backtracked a bit and camped in a semi-post-Apocalypse looking area, filled to the brim with happiness and flatulence.
Day 4… this day was crazy. If only we knew what we were getting into when we woke up. The usual oatmeal had, Flat Stanley employed, and camp packed up (we were experts by this time), we were off to our highest achievement, the 3200m Giant’s Cup – two peaks that made a huge bowl between them.
After enjoying the view from the top of the middle of the Cup, and taking those self-timed photos that catch you looking just so pensive and serene, it was time to start our descent, a 2-day trip back to the base Backpackers where we started only four days earlier (although it felt like a month). This got interesting…our group needed to descend 800 meters and find a place to camp before the rains came in. Of course it did not go smoothly, but where’s the fun in an easy ride? We stumbled, fell, butt-surfed, and lurched down a trail with a grade not unlike our vertical climbs earlier in the week. We were quite slow-going before we met some interesting trail-mates. Hearing the sound of quick footsteps, we looked up to see men literally running down the rocky, grassy mountain. We couldn’t even justify that they were better off than us: they all wore rainboots and had huge bags on their backs. These were dagga (marijuana) smugglers and, after a quick trail-etiquette conversation, apparently some also had diamonds. They had an interesting method: they would cluster behind a rock, one would run down and, if he made it safely to the next checkpoint, another would follow. They were really nice and unbelievably fast-paced; we were left in the dust in no time (go well, debauchery). Then the rains came…oh, joy. Our group was stratified along the trail at this point, so some of us went ahead to throw up camp on the “flattest” ground we could find. Once we were all together and had camp assembled, the rains stopped. Thanks, Murphy’s Law. Regardless, our campsite was gorgeous, in the belly of the Cup alongside a pristine river. I cannot adequately describe, nor can a photo display, the raw and untouched beauty of the Drakensbergs. Despite the chill we sat outside together, cooking and recounting the day – astonished at all that had happened, survival being one of them. In our colossal amphitheater, we watched a silent lightening storm far away before allowing ourselves to crash. Sleeping was interesting: because of limited time to choose a site, our tents were staked on uneven slopes that had the earth giving us unwanted deep tissue massages. You’d wake up all bunched at the bottom of the tent and have to climb back up, using the hunks of grass underneath as hand and foot holds. The fun continues, day or night.
Day 5… we allowed ourselves to sleep in a bit and have a lazy morning, accompanied by a shorter day on foot. We left around 10:00 and continued on our path back “home.” As our altitude decreased, we noticed changes in vegetation and temperature, more Amazonian now, and it became bittersweet that our trip was slowly coming to an end. We eventually joined up with the “well-defined” trail (although it seemed less maintained and…utilized than the smugglers’ trail we had been on the whole week) that would skate us all the way back to the Backpackers. The rains drizzled in, and we set up camp on the flattest ground yet. There was a sizeable overhang nearby that served as refuge in which to cook dinner and hang out. We realized that we had not gone as far as we thought, so the next day we’d have to book it in order to get back in our allotted time before the base would send out a search party (eek). So with that pressure on the docket, we had an early last night out in the wilderness.
Day 6… our earliest morning since Day 1, we hit the trail at 06:40 and positively hammered our final kilometers back, not even stopping for lunch. As we neared the Backpackers, we met day hikers with fun accents and fanny packs. After an impromptu water fight (since we didn’t need to horde it anymore), we rolled up to the Backpackers a little after noon, unglued ourselves from our lightest-they’d-ever-be packs, crammed
crackers in our mouths, and staggered to the beer fridge. We sat on the back porch, posed in front of our small portion of the southern Draks. We looked out onto Giant’s Cup and other peaks, re-living memories of trying times and tons of laughs; we were immobile on that porch for quite some time. When we checked in with the owner, we were ecstatic to learn that most people who begin the trail (or lack thereof) we took end up turning around and coming back down. Represent, PCVs! Countless memories were made on this trip, many bonds were formed between the nine of us, and more mushy mush concluding jargon…
Alright, now that we’re all eons older after reaching the bottom of this saga, I allow you to carry on with your day. The first part of my December was absolutely unforgettable. The second is coming soon and then we’ll be back on track – hopefully with shorter posts! Be well, my little Internet crawlers.