Cautionary Hiking Tales: Be Prepared, be very well Prepared

The Rhino’s Horn is not one of those hikes that many people are aware of except for the ardent hikers. I only became aware of this little-known gem of a hike in the Drakensberg because a member of our Hiking Club, Clive Cameron, had hiked it many times as a youth having been raised in Kokstad in the southern Kwa-Zulu Natal.

If a 16 year old youth could easily climb this steep pinnacle in the Drakensberg and enjoy its stunning panoramic vistas, then why shouldn’t we also appreciate these little-seen views?

Rhino Peak acquired its name from the prominent horn like feature forming the eastern ridge of the mountain. This peak is located in the southern Natal Drakensberg and is the last major peak of the range.

Even though it is usually a day hike, the total duration would take 12 hours to hike 18kms, scale the heights and to climb back down again. That would require an early start at cockscrow, the earlier the better so as to reach the summit before the full force of the midday sun was beating down. So a 6:30 start was deemed necessary.

Being a day hike only, all that we carried were day packs with water, breakfast, lunch and ponchos. This would be the mitigating factor in this arduous climb; a light pack. Being seasoned hikers, a casual day hike up the Drakensberg did not warrant any more kit being taken along. Contrary to the instructions to fill in the Mountain Register before setting off and upon return and sign out, we did not comply with any of these requirements. If the truth be told, this would be a walk in the park for us experienced hikers even though this trail is officially graded as severe to extreme.

Promptly at 6:30, we left the Drakensberg Gardens Hotel; our first port of call being Pillar Cave which would serve as our breakfast area. Like most mountain climbs, the first few kilometres is quite benign with a cheery optimism prevailing. The crisp morning air also propelled us at a brisk pace. But who cared? This would be a doddle and by 10:30 or 11:00 we would be on the pinnacle of the horn itself admiring the view. What could be easier?

The main path from the hotel wandered in a north-westerly direction, parallel to the Mlambonja River. The path then meanders for about 1, 5 km parallel to the river but with the river on the right before crossing onto the left-hand bank for another 1, 5 km until Pillar Cave is reached. A cavalier attitude still prevailed at our chosen breakfast spot. By now, the sun was shining brightly and the warmth dechilled the bones as we languidly prepared breakfast.

Being mindful of the distance, we did not tarry too long. Shortly thereafter the path crosses the river again and another path branches off just below Pillar Cave and goes up to the three Little Caves before rejoining the Mashai Pass path. From the river crossing above Pillar Cave, a 4 km slog up the pass commences.

Rhino's Peak #2

What from afar did not seem too daunting is now revealed for what it is: a precipitous climb up to the peak. From all sides it presents itself as a vertiginous rampart much like the castles in the Middle Ages. Jittery nerves were calmed by Clive as he reassured us that there is a saddle which we would use to climb to the plateau. Quite frankly none truly believed Clive. That said, none rebelled or threatened insurrection if his reassurances were proven to be false but there would doubtless be consequences if their worst fears were realised.

The gradient steadily grew more severe. By now we faced the twin onslaughts: the rising heat and the gradient. For the most part from now onwards there was no designated path. Instead it was a case of every man for himself as we all fervently believed that their chosen path was the least arduous. This was a total fallacy, a consequence of our innate hubris and exhaustion. With frayed nerves and sweating profusely in the by now sweltering sun, we inched our way forwards and upwards.

The first to feel the deleterious effects of the climb were Malcolm and Gunther. Malcolm complained of being light-headed and Gunther of being dizzy. Not surprisingly I was not in much better shape. The heat had finally taken its toll. I stopped for my tenth water break. As I inserted my hand into my daypack, I cursed. The bottom was full of water. I surmised that I had forgotten to tighten the water bottle cap properly and now I was stranded without water. As a pulled the water bottle out, it felt just as heavy as I expected it to be with water. I was mystified. I opened the flap to investigate. Sure enough, it was full of water but the bottle was still full. Then it struck me. The sweat from my back had penetrated the pack but as the bottom was lined with plastic, the sweat had not been able to escape. There in my pack was 2 to 3 litres of sweat which I now poured out.

A deep feeling of lassitude overwhelmed me. My chosen path, if it could be called that, was an almost vertical climb up another 500 metres up to the saddle past the Mashai Fangs on the left and the Mashai Shelter which marks the top of the pass.

At this point I froze rigid with cramps. Clive, who played the part of a Saint Bernard dog, came to my rescue offering some anti-cramp capsules. That was it, enough was more than sufficient. How would I claw my way up another few hundred metres? By now, Clive’s muti had worked wonders on both Gunther and Malcolm who slowly inched past me each on their own chosen paths.

After a five minute break and much encouragement from the guys above, I finally arrived at the saddle. As it was already past midday, we were already behind schedule. Revived after a short break, we strode from the head of the pass to the top along the plateau to the Rhinos Horn, which is a distance of 2 kms. Even on this supposedly flat plateau we were forced to climb, gaining 150 m in altitude.

View of the path up to Rhino's Horn

View of the path up to Rhino’s Horn

Finally the goal was in sight: Rhino’s Horn. At this point it decided to start raining albeit more of a light drizzle than a determined downpour. The final climb to the top of the Horn is short but steep. Finally we could relax for an hour and enjoy another languid meal whilst savouring the stunning vistas of the Southern Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Rhino's Head

It was not to be! Instead it was a hurried group photo then a quick bite to eat as two weather patterns enveloped us. From above huge cumulo-nimbus clouds hastily built up while from the valley below, a thick impenetrable mist rose up. Shortly we were enveloped in an impenetrable shroud.

Unless we quickly evacuated this mountain fastness, we would have to spend a freezing night without adequate gear on a wind-swept mountain plateau. The drizzle gradually grew in intensity while the visibility declined to barely three metres.

As we scurried back to the exit from this mountain top, Werner shouted at us to stick together and promptly disappeared into the mist away from the main group. Clive was our saviour. With only one path down the mountain’s eastern slope as the other sides were vertical descents of hundreds of metres, he unerringly directed us in that direction. With his years of experience on this mountain, he ably guided us to the correct gully. In the meantime the irrepressible iconoclastic Werner had nearly met his Maker as he attempted to descend the wrong channel until a sixth sense at the last moment foretold of a sheer drop in front of which he was blissfully unaware.

The snake of hikers wound its way through puddles and gusting rain in a south easterly direction back to Mashai Shelter. Climbing down the first part of the gully was just as difficult as clambering up it. It was literally a case of climbing down, much like scrambling down a ladder as the slope was at least at a 45 degree angle.

This mist continued to shroud the summit of the mountain the whole afternoon. As if the peak and its slopes were parallel universes, the temperature differential between the two, even 300 metres down the pass, must have been at least 10 degrees.

It had been a close shave. Without Clive’s experience, we could have been trapped on the plateau without food or equipment until the rain abated and the mist dissipated. As the mountain was still shrouded on arrival back at the hotel, the reality is that a chilly night on the mountain top could have been our fate for the night.

Instead it was cold beers and a thick braai steaks with the wives.

Do not forget the warm soft bed afterwards and not a cold obdurate rock!

 

8 Comments

  1. We really enjoy this hike. Done it numerous times, last year we did it on the Thursday after Sani Stagger, 2012 we did on the Thursday after Comrades.

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  2. Hey Dean, thanks for sharing your experience. I grew up in rural 80s Impendle and used to be forced to summit Mt Impendle a few times a year from roughly the age of 10 in search of my father’s cattle. This gave me a permanent connection with mountains, especially high peaks, for my emotional breaks – either to cry or to celebrate. Though I am not into fulltime hiking I do enjoy a good challenge every now and then, and I have been invited to do Rhino’s Horn a few times. Sizing up the hike from a camp-chair at Drakensberg Gardens Hotel always tells me the hike is overrated and I can do it and back in time for lunch. Now I know.

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  3. Wow what a image you have painted, I am filled with both fear and excitement! We are planning to day hike this Peak for the first time this coming weekend, at least I have some points to keep in mind! Thanks for sharing your story

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  4. I was in the Drakensberg with my young daughter in about 2002. I met a guy who was a seasoned hiker/climber who had attempted Rhino Horn hike a few times,but different circumstances prevented him from completing the climb. He had come to the Berg with his family with the determination to complete the climb come hell or high water. I asked if I could join him. He was a fit,6ft something 40ish yr old and I was a not so fit 50ish yr old 5ft4in female. He laid down the rules the night before the hike. We were to walk together,if I could keep up his pace,but we were to consider ourselves as individuals,not responsible for eachother in any way.Being an experienced hiker he had all the gear and provisions for whatever nature through at us. I on the other hand had a small backpack with a flask of water and 2 muesli bars. As well as that my shoes were certainly not made for serious hiking.To cut a long story short, I not only reached the summit and have the certificate and a photo to show for it, we were hiking in December so I had on a sleeveless t-shirt and hadn’t thought to take a jacket or poncho. We got caught in one of the worst hailstorms that the area had ever experienced, but my well equipped companion was determined not to let anything get in his way of getting back to his family. He put on several layers of protection from the horrendous weather and made sure he was adequately nourished and so began our descent.Sheer determination and anger at my stupidity got me back to the hotel.I was almost running all the way down just to keep pace with him. Streams that we had to cross had become raging rivers.That was the only time I had to accept assistance. I could not have crossed those rivers alone. I willingly accepted a helping hand. No one could believe that we had actually hiked through that. The gardens were unrecognizable. Trees were stripped bare and many had fallen in our path. I looked like a frozen drowned rat to say the least,but that adventure is one that I will never forget.It was a very steep learning curve. My advice to anyone thinking of doing the hike up Rhino Horn is to follow the girl guide motto—BE PREPARED but enjoy the adventure!!

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      • Hi Dean,I feel guilty to this day. I collected both of our certificates from the Parks office after my companion left the Berg.I was going to post his to him but held a bit of a grudge re.his reluctance to offer me one of his 2 or 3 jackets and his insistence that we descend in those horrific conditions. At times I thought of sheltering alone in a cave, but I was too cold and tired to do that.I now live in Australia but try to get back to SA once a year.The Drakensberg will always be a very special place for me to commune with nature.

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  5. Thanks for sharing
    Brings back fond memories
    First time I stood on top of Rihno Peak was back in 1994, I was in standard 9 at the time.
    I have attempted a few times since and been beaten back by clouds and even snow. Made it twice though ;-) I’ll be visiting from USA this November and attempting it yet again with my wife this time and hope to show her the view from the top!

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