What are the critical aspects when it comes to Drakensberg Hiking Safety?
So I have decided to go against my usual proverbial writing grain, given the topic of conversation, and keep this article on Drakensberg Hiking Safety a lot more formal than I usually do. The Drakensberg is an incredibly beautiful environment, but can quickly become hostile and dangerous. Hikers should always be aware of all the possible scenarios in a mountain environment and know how to overcome them. Follow the the age old philosophy of ‘prepare for the worst’, especially if you are hiking alone in the mountains.
Mountain Wisdom=knowledge + Experience
I have been involved in guided hikes commercially in the Drakensberg for over 15 years. I started hiking at the tender age of 10. My brother and I used to spend many days exploring the various routes and areas of the Barrier of Spears. As I grew older, we expanded our adventurous spirit to include many more challenging multi day hikes. And of course, as the hikes multiplied, so did the probability of something going wrong. And of course, when it comes to mountains, its not a case of if, but when. I had read all the books on mountaineering, navigation and surviving in the wild, but nothing compares to the actual experience of something going wrong.
And so my baptism of fire in the Drakensberg began.
There was many a trip that I got lost, couldn’t find water, nearly died of Hypothermia due to insufficient clothing or overestimated my physical capability. But I endured. And with this I started to learn, to evolve and slowly gain an incredible amount of wisdom with regards to Drakensberg hiking safety. 20 years later and my compounded experiences in the Drakensberg, Kilimanjaro, Alps, Himalayas, Andes and Russia have given me some insight into how best to survive in the Drakensberg.
When I look back on my mountaineering and hiking life over the past 30 years, I realize just how important the lessons I learnt were in not only my mental realm, but in my guiding career as well. Mountains have taught me an incredible amount. The list includes endurance, perseverance, both physical and mental, teamwork, comradeship, planning, the role of group dynamics and how to deal with adversity. It is a given!!! Things will always go wrong in the mountains. Things we have zero control over. Some are minor like broken soles on your hiking boot. Some are serious like a lost hiker, getting caught in a thunderstorm, dehydration or hypothermia.
I have come to learn that individuals react to adversity in various ways. Some people cry. Some people get angry. Some people go quiet. Things I needed to understand when guiding people in the mountains. I have also realized how incredible the human spirit is. The survival instinct is in all of us. It will mutate when the time comes. In waiting for that time however, it is best to be adequately prepared. This article is dedicated to Drakensberg hiking safety tips based on my combined years of mountaineering experience. and of course, I’m only human after all. So call of the lawyers if I have left something out or don’t agree with what I say.
Safety Tip Number 1: Navigation
Make sure you know how to navigate. I am old school. I like to navigate with a map and compass. I also carry a GPS for back up. If you are not confident with your navigational skills then look at investing in a good GPS that has the routes downloaded already. If your budget won’t allow it, and you have no choice but using a map, compass and entry level GPS then by all means give it a go. Maybe best to go on a map reading course beforehand. And please..learn how to use the GPS. Sometimes there are maps that need to be downloaded. Navigating in the Drakensberg can get very difficult at times. Especially on the less frequented routes and especially when there is thick mist. Sometimes the mist is so thick you wont see 1om ahead of you let alone find a landmark or plot your route.
Safety Tip Number 2: Correct Clothing
Do not underestimate the weather conditions in the Drakensberg. And do not assume that because it us summer it is hot. We have been on the top of Mafadi mid December in heavy rain, wind and temperatures of -3. Always make sure you have the correct hiking equipment. Failure to do so could result in life threatening conditions like hypothermia. Always make sure you have a good water proof jacket. Getting wet is not a good idea. Add wind, a drop in temperature and you are looking for trouble-especially on the escarpment where conditions can get hectic very quickly. Avoid cotton clothing. They do not dry. Wet cold cotton shirts cab be potentially dangerous in the upper regions. Oh… and don’t believe what the retailers tell you about their jackets being waterproof. Double check!!! Make sure they are-you don’t want to find out at 300om in a thunderstorm that they are not!! Goretex material is best although a tad more expensive.
Safety Tip Number 3: Water
Always plan ahead. Find out the location and availability of water sources. The winter and autumn months tend to be the most difficult was rain falls in the summer months. The maps do show the rivers. But they may be dry. Also take into consideration that some of the passes do not have water. make sure you always fill up before you start the hike up. Dehydration is also a common danger when hiking in the Drakensberg. The summer months can get extremely hot. Drink whenever you find water. And make use of rehydrate to put back the electrolytes. And always have at least 2 x 1 liter water bottles.
Safety Tip Number 4: First Aid
I’d go as far as saying that you should not venture anywhere near the Drakensberg without a proper First Aid kit and at least a level 1 first aid course qualification. Remember what I said earlier. Expect the worst. People can break ankles, get dehydrated, heat stroke, hypothermia or faint. You must have a kit and know how to use it.
Safety Tip Number 5:-Waterproof your stuff
Always waterproof your gear. That goes for your clothing, sleeping bag and electronics. So not rely on the cover that goes over the backpack. Spend 5 hours hiking in heavy rain and I promise you, everything is going to be soaking. The last thing you want is to get into camp and cant change into dry clothing or keep warm in a dry sleeping bag. The best waterproof bags are the Sea to Summit types ( as seen below). They work. And serve as a great pillow as well. Don’t forget to waterproof your tent and sleeping mat too.
Safety Tip Number 6: Fill in the mountain register
You’ve all watched the movie 127 hours. The one where the guy goes hiking and doesn’t let anyone know where he is going. Well you definitely don’t want a repeat of that. Always ensure you complete the overnight mountain register at the start of the hike. And make sure you complete it fully. You must include all the details. These include an exact description of your route, food supply, experience level, equipment you have, return date and contact details. In the event of you not coming back, the mountain rescue team will have a good idea on where to try and find you. Make sure you get the contact numbers of the park ranger and mountain rescue (0800 005133)
Safety Tip Number 7: Shelter
One of the critical safety factors to Drakensberg hiking safety is proper shelter. Make sure you have the correct four seasons tentespecailly if you are hiking up on the escarpment. The winds can reach up to 60km/h on the escarpment. A fong kong tent that you bought for R300 will get torn to shreds and leave you exposed to the elements. Even if you are going to make use of the caves, it is advised to still carry a tent. You never know what happens. You break your ankle. Can’t find the cave or just don’t have the stamina to make the cave.
Safety Tip Number 8: Know your limits
There is a saying in mountaineering. “IT’S ALWAYS FUTHER, HARDER AND HIGHER THAN YOU THINK”
Many hikers underestimate the Drakensberg. A lot of people don’t realize how long 10km in the Drakensberg takes compared to other hikes around the city. There are so many factors to consider. These include:
- The Terrain
- Hiking with a backpack
- The gradient
- The altitude
- Compounded affects of fatigue
- Your mental fitness
When planning your hike, take all these factors into consideration. You don’t want to land up hiking in the dark or get stuck on a ledge in the night time because you underestimated your capability. Our rule of thumb when it comes to hiking speed is 2km/h. So if you are going to be hiking 10km, plan for a 5 hour hike. Add an hour as an extra safety precaution.
Safety Tip Number 9: Hike in groups
It is advisable to join a group when hiking in the Drakensberg. Not only does it increase the odds of surviving or helping an injured hiker, it also helps reduce any incidents with rogue Basothos. There have been isolated cases of the Basothos stealing hiking boots, confronting hikers and so forth. Hiking in a group will be way safer.