This is a cautionary tale on the perils of hiking. Not that it was the fault of the trail or the environment per se, but rather the stupidity and bravado of the hikers themselves. In both incidents it was a dog that saved the day.
Main picture: Lesoba Hiking Trail
Anybody who has ever driven past the Ngodwana Paper Mill on the way to Nelspruit would concur wholeheartedly with me that snow in the area was highly unlikely, if not impossible. So when I received a somewhat franatic phone call on Wednesday 18th February 2003 from the Forestry Department that the Uitsoek Trail and its approach roads were impassable due to heavy snow falls, I was to some degree nonplussed. My first phone call was to Kurt who confirmed my skepticism. As the two vehicles being used were both four wheel drive, what hindrance would a little snow be?
The drive to the hut on Friday 20th February confirmed our suspicions. The road had a light dusting of snow but nothing more. A typical overreaction by officialdom but nothing more. That said, the peaks towering in the distance definitely still wore its mantle of snow like an enticing negligee – wispy, voluptuous and seductive. They beckoned beguilingly. Like pubescent youths, we viewed this as a challenge, akin to a fortress to be stormed. Around the camp fire, we made light of the challenge ahead. But like that article of bed clothes, it hid more than it revealed.
With an aura of brashness, we set off on a brisk Saturday morning. With clear virgin blue skies, the sun shone bright and strong onto our pulsating bodies as we lurched up the steep embankments, ever upwards to the snow’s tantalising embrace.
By 10 o’clock, we had reached it whispery edges. The fine dusty snow did not impede the march of the six raging men. It was only after crossing a deep valley separating our buttress from the one on which our overnight hut lay, alluringly awaiting us, that the magnitude of the problem assailed us. The snow was now a challenge. Being at least the depth of our boots, no markers were visible. Being novices on the trail, not even prior experience could provide some indicators of the possible direction.
It was then that Walter Baumgartl with his abundant experience in the German special forces, came to the fore. His ominous words of caution penetrated our over-exhausted brains. “Never lie down and sleep otherwise it would be the longest last sleep that one would ever have. When nightfall came, we would be compelled to walk in circles all night until the sun rose again.” These sombre words engendered a sense of urgency into our futile attempts at finding the path.
Aptly, it was Walter himself who made the deduction. It transpired that a woe-begotten mongrel of unknown heritage – part fox terrier, part Jack Russell – had followed us up the mountain. Uptil this moment its presence was almost unnoticed as it kept its own mangy company. Probably it was a dog of the black forestry workers. It had even kept its own counsel as we trudged up the mountain. Rather than making a fuss or denigrating our futile efforts, it now unassumedly slunk off. In Walter’s fetid mind, the penny dropped. This dog had been following hikers for years and knew the way.
We were saved.
The layer of snow grew every thicker becoming at least the depth of a cooldrink can at the hut.
Pride of place in front of the fire was reserved for the mutt of dubious parentage.
The Lesoba Hiking Trail is situated in one of the most picturesque areas of South Africa. The sandstone mountains with their eroded kranses make for a photograph’s dream. Hidden away among these mountains, rock pools glisten in the sun and the streams that feed them, trickle out of crevices in the rock like tears. Rock overhangs that have given shelter to human and animal alike over centuries, abound in the sometimes inhospitable environment that forms the border with the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.
Again it was not the trail per se but the humans not following protocols that almost resulted in a calamity. This hike was held over the last weekend of June 2017. The trail is named after a natural circular hole in a huge vertical rock at the bottom of a vertical rock face; Soba meaning hole in Sotho.
This trail, located no more than 10kms from Fouriesburg in the Free State, abuts Lesotho with the Caledon River serving as the border. The hiking huts and facilities accord more to our current status as gentlemen of leisure rather than rabid youths with testosterone coursing through our veins asserting ourselves in a orgy of muscular manly bravado. Long since are the days where we would eschew any hint of pain or tiredness. Now the grunts, groans and occasional expletive would resound across the brown stubby grass.
The arrangement was to commence the trail at 8am on Saturday so as to ensure that we would be back in camp early enough to drive through to Fouriesburg to watch the match between the Boks and the French. Peter being – well – Peter, prompt and impetuous, charged off at precisely 8:00:01, one second late, with Dion in tow. With nary a glance at the map which I was carrying, he stormed off. Five minutes later Arnold charged off, hot in pursuit while the four of us languidly sipped our cappuccinos and savoured our hard boiled eggs, unperturbed at the rush of events. After a leisurely breakfast, we sedately set off.
Like most hikes, there are a few challenging or tricky parts to traverse or navigate. On the first several kilometres, this is the almost vertical gully cut into the vertiguous rock face. Luckily eagle-eyed Cameron found this entrance up the rock face. It is a climb of more than 100 metres during which one crawls and pulls oneself ever upward, probably taking more than 20 minutes.
From the top, there is a narrow flat promontory towards Lesotho. Looking down two hundred metres towards the lesoba, was Peter crouching behind a bush with his pants down. With typical Peter expletives, we were left in doubt that we had interrupted his morning ablutions. They would have to backtrack to the gully to make their ascent.
Leaving Peter and Dion to their own devices, Kurt, Clive, Laurie and I walked back to the gully and then onto the plateau. It was then that Arnold phoned to inform us that, as he was lost, he had retraced his steps back to camp.
Footprints soon petered out but our saving grace was the Google Earth map. This indicated that we had to traverse this plateau in a south-westerly direction. Suffice to say but after a tortuous descent, by following the map and accepted hiking protocols, the four of us arrived safely back at base.
Not so the two wayward, overhasty hikers, Peter and Dion. Without a map, one could easily be trapped on top of this huge plateau not knowing which gully would take one down to the ground level.
Following them from the start were two dogs, an overfriendly Labrador, Lucy, and an aloof Jack Russell, Jakkaals. Being uninvited guests, they were generally ignored. It was only after the wayward pair had found the entrance gully and made their way to the top that they realised the error of their ways. Being unrepentant at their breach of protocol, they did what any self-respecting male would do: just soldier on. Naturally the further that they traversed over their terra nova, the more lost they became. As neither would admit the error of their ways, they stumbled ever onwards.
Little did they know that Kurt would not phone Axel to rescue them in his chopper, mainly because he had not taken delivery of it yet. Secondly, we were into the beers and they were an irritation. As it was their stupidity, they would have to rescue themselves.
Just when we were about to abandon them to a fate not as bleak as Shackleton’s on the South Pole, Peter’s booming stentorian voice could be heard from 200 metres.
The story was told and then retold of how the Jack Russell had saved their lives. When it had realised that the humans were lost, the Jack Russell took the lead. As part of the redemption, first Dion and then Peter had to allow this bush dog to snuggle on their laps.
After the obligatory mea culpas were not proffered, it was off to the rugby and beers in Fouriesburg.
Other photos of Lesoba Hiking Trail
Lesoba Hiking Trail
Lesoba Hiking Trail: Base camp for the wealthy
Lesoba Hiking Trail: View from the chasm