“A dragon without fangs is only a lizard”, I mused when Matthys and Werner raised the challenge to do the 250km Grand Traverse of the Umkhahlamba Drakensberg. “We need a real test, and the northern passes are spectacular beyond words.”
The official Grand Traverse goes up the rather lenient traditional start via the chain ladders at the Amphitheatre, but we decided to rather to ascend the Dragon’s head via Fangs – one of the superb & challenging passes in the Mnweni cutback.
Day 1 – Mnweni HC to Mnweni River
On 26 Dec myself, my brother Matthys, and our friends Werner Mennen and Federico Andrade made a late arrival at the Mnweni hiking centre. It’s a village-like cluster of buildings sitting in the foothills of the 2000m rise of the Berg: majestic basalt cliffs crowning verdant green slopes, speckled with creamy sandstone formations & interspersed with babbling streams tumbling into crystal falls. A land untouched, and, like all things truly wild, beautiful and dangerous.
Agrippa Zondo, the soft spoken manager of the centre, asked us to not try to cross the Mnweni-river after I boldly informed him that we’ll sleep in 5-star cave that evening. A silver headed Induna, years of wilderness exposure etched into his sinewy frame, just clicked his tongue, shook his head and muttered something about “too much water” when I mentioned Fangs pass in the next sentence.
We had a late start, carrying 30+kg backpacks with food, clothing, shelter and a few comforts for 10 days. The swollen Mnweni-river raged down the valley, frothing at the mouth after weeks of summer rainfall. We took to the trail at 4pm, chasing the setting sun into the Dragon’s jaws, our hearts galloping on the prospect of a true adventure.
A muddy, slippery and slow 3h30min later we pitched tents in swathe of green grass on the shoulder of a hill overlooking the river; deciding to tackle the crossing at first light. The river droned like far-off thunder in the valley; the air was filled with the chorus of a myriad of frogs; swarms of mosquitoes zoomed around us in their shrill search for blood; clothing sticking to our bodies in the hot, humid air. Our excitement flooded any notion of discomfort as we hastily crammed a sandwich dinner and piled into tents.