Thabana Ntlenyana – 11,424 ft
Eric Gilbertson and Katie Stanchak
Date: September 16, 2015
Snow and hail let loose from the sky, pummeling Katie and me as we huddled under a small tarp. The knee-high grass and shrubs around us provided little shelter. We were too high up for trees to grow – over 10,000ft on the Lesotho plateau near the South Africa border. We had a tent, of course, but in this storm it would be hopeless trying to set it up without it blowing away or getting thoroughly soaked. A bolt of lighting struck the mountain just above us, and we were immediately shaken by a clap of thunder.
We had flown to South Africa a few days earlier, hoping to climb the highest mountains in four countries – Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland. All of the mountains were on or near the South Africa border, so the logistics of getting in between them would be simple. We’d already come off successful climbs of the two contenders for the Botswana highpoint, Otse Hill and Monalanong Hill, and on the night of September 12 we drove our small VW Polo rental car to the Inkosana Lodge at the base of the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa for a final shower before our next hike. (They have a good deal – $8 to pitch a tent in the back yard and you get access to the showers, kitchen, and lounge.)
We discovered that, logistically, there are two main options to climb the Lesotho and South Africa highpoints. Both mountains are essentially on or near the South Africa-Lesotho border, and the fastest way to climb them is as separate day hikes.
For Thabana Ntlenyana, the Lesotho highpoint, the fastest mode of ascent is to do a roughly 18-mile roundtrip dayhike from Sani Pass, one of the few roads through the Drakensberg. This option requires either having a 4wd vehicle to get up to the pass, or reserving a room at the Sani Top Lodge at the pass, and then using their shuttle service to get to the lodge.
For Mafadi the fastest option is to park your car at the Injasuthi trailhead and hike out and back to Mafadi. It’s roughly 25 miles round trip, but best done as an overnight trip because much of the route is not actually on trails, and would be difficult to find in the dark if you did this trip in one really long day.
The faster option of climbing both mountains on separate trips is also the more expensive option. You have to drive between the trailheads, pay for lodging at Sani Top, and pay the shuttle fee to go up and back from Sani Pass (roughly $30 per person each way as of 2015).
The cheaper option to hit both mountains is to hike in between them. They’re relatively close together, and both are on the popular Drakensberg traverse route. So the hike between them is very reasonable. There are not really any official trails along the Drakensberg traverse, but much of the route is above treeline on the Lesotho plateau, and the hiking is relatively easy. The cheapest option, we discovered, is to park your car at Injasuthi trailhead, hike up Mafadi and out to Thabana Ntlenyana, then return back to the Injasuthi trailhead for a roughly 80-mile round trip.
Katie and I had more time than money, so opted for the cheaper option. This also had the advantage of giving us more time to explore Lesotho and the Drakensberg over six days instead of only two or three.
On the morning of September 13 we talked to the owner of the Inkosana Lodge for advice about the hike, and he provided us with maps and the confidence that our plan was reasonable.
The Inkosana Lodge is along the road to the Monk Cowl trailhead, but we wanted the next trailhead south – Injasuthi – so we headed back the way we had driven the previous night, then turned in to the next road heading in to the Drakensberg. It’s amazing how stark the contrast is between the road to Monk Cowl and the road to Injasuthi, even though they’re only about 10 miles apart. The road to Monk Cowl has lush forests, a golf course, bakeries, fancy houses, and mostly white families. The road to Injasuthi, however, is mostly cleared of forests to make way for cattle grazing, the only houses are made of mud-bricks, only black Africans live there, and it is obviously very poor. Surprisingly to us, even 20+ years after apartheid ended there’s still plenty of inequality in South Africa.
We passed by the last of the mud-brick houses, went over a cattle guard, and started entering the forest and hills again. Eventually the road dead-ended at the Injasuthi trailhead and we parked next to a few other cars under some enormous Yellowwood trees. There was a small ranger building at the trailhead where we paid a $6/night permit fee for five nights in the Drakensberg and picked up a good topographic map of the area.
Just after lunch we hit the trail, following signs for the Marble Baths and Leslie Pass. The Lesotho border in the Drakensberg is like a fortress of cliffs several thousand feet tall, and only a few passes exist to allow passage through the cliffs. Leslie Pass is the closest one to Mafadi, and that was our destination.
The trail started out very well-maintained for the first few miles, but when we crossed the Njesuthi stream it quickly deteriorated. In hindsight I realize the true trail had not been cleared of grass beyond this point, and thus was easy to miss. We followed some faint user trails along the stream for a while until we intersected the real trail again on a steep grassy slope. Around this point I heard what sounded like an angry dog barking, but we knew by this point in our trip that it probably wasn’t a dog.
“Baboons!” I said, pointing up above us. A small family of Baboons were climbing around the short trees above us, and we had apparently scared them. We quickly walked by before they got angrier, and soon turned off at an intersection pointing toward the Marble Baths.
The trail now left the Njesuthi streambed and started a traversing ascent higher into the mountains. We
crested a small ridge and found ourselves on top of the first step of the Drakensberg. The mountains here reminded me a lot of the Grand Canyon in the US, except covered with thick brown grass on the bottom half and thickets of trees in the streambeds cutting through the cliffs.
We soon reached the Marble Baths, and discovered an excellent spot to take a swim if it had been a little warmer. The water had sculpted big pockets out of limestone and filled them with water, just like bathtubs. As it was we were still in the tail end of winter in the southern hemisphere, though, and it was a little chilly out. Perhaps on the way back we could take advantage of this little swimming hole.
The Marble Baths is where the official trail ends and the unmaintained route to Leslie Pass begins. The route roughly follows the major Buttress Fork streambed, but occasionally veers into the trees, and even follows a ridge higher up to avoid some nasty boulder-filled thickets. The route is generally marked by cairns, but they can be hard to follow at times, as we would discover.
We followed cairns in the streambed for a little while until finding a nice flat spot to set up camp. It was getting dark, so we decided to call it a day and pitch camp here.
The next morning we got up at dawn and, after cooking coffee for Katie, continued up the streambed. A few times we lost the cairns and made some forays into the woods. Eventually I decided to just follow the streambed as far as I could and not worry about the cairns. This ended up being a bad decision, as we would find out.
The streambed turned into a jumble of boulders with dense trees in between, and after following this
upwards for a few hours we decided to cut into the grassy slope next to the streambed. This was also difficult, though, because the grass is very thick and nearly waist high, so progress is pretty slow. Eventually we cut back into the streambed above the thick trees, and finally spotted a cairn again.
I figured out that roughly where I had originally lost the cairns, the preferred route indeed leaves the streambed following a steep ridgeline, then traverses the grassy slope on easy user trails before re-entering the streambed. Future hikers should definitely take this preferred route (email me for a GPS track, because we took the preferred route on the descent).
Back on track we made good progress up the steep user trail toward Leslie Pass. We encountered a few other hikers descending shortly below the pass, but otherwise were alone. Just after lunch time we crested the pass, exhausted after a relentless steep climb culminating in an altitude of 10,000ft.
It was a different world on the other side of the pass. A huge plateau opened in front of us, with gently rolling hills, knee-high grass and bushes, and not a tree in sight. In the distance we could make out a stone hut with a grass roof. It looked like something out of the Stone Age. A stone wall made a sort of corral next to the hut, and a herd of sheep were grazing nearby. As we would learn over the coming days, quite a few people live up here on the plateau, despite there being no roads and the nearest village at least a day’s walk away. Everyone lives in the stone huts and survives by raising sheep in the surrounding hills. They eat the meat, and once in a while sell the sheep wool and blankets they make in a nearby village to buy food supplies like oil and flour.
We were running low on water so descended to a stream below this hut to fill up. We then ascended back up to the ridge at the edge of the Drakensberg cliffs and continued southwest along the border. We were officially in Lesotho, but nobody up here really cared that we hadn’t officially gone through passport control. As long as we returned to our car in South Africa we would be fine.
Higher on the ridge we passed a young shepherd herding his sheep back to his hut, and soon afterwards a few horses tended by another shepherd and his dog. The area up here was perfect for grazing – unlimited grass as far as you could see in any direction. Finally, we could see Mafadi poking up in the distance. It was a gently rounded hill with a small rock outcrop on top.
Just as the sun was setting we scrambled up the rock outcrop and reached the cairn marking the summit. We were now on the highest mountain in all of South Africa. We could see the broad valley of South Africa stretching out before us to the south below the Drakensberg cliffs. Lesotho stretched out to the north, in the final moments of light.
Sunsets on mountaintops are pretty, but unlike sunrises they always mean you’re about to hike out in the dark. Unfortunately we didn’t really have enough water with us to camp right there, so needed to descend. Most parties hiking Mafadi camp in the Injasuthi caves on the northeast side of the mountain, where I hear there may be water, but we were planning to head to Thabana Ntlenyana next, which was southwest of Mafadi. So I led the way heading down the south slope of the mountain.
We soon happened upon a semi-level area with a small spring trickling out of the hillside. It was well past dark, so we set up the tent here, cooked some ramen noodles for dinner, and went to bed in the chilly mountain air.
In the morning I discovered we were camped just above a small south-facing ledge sheltering a big patch of snow. I’d heard it sometimes snows up here at the higher elevations, and we were here in the end winter, but I was still surprised to see this much snow in Africa.
As we hiked down into the valley, following the standard Drakensberg Traverse route, we encountered more pockets of snow, and even a few low-angle slabs of ice! If I had my ice tools with me I would have definitely clambered up these. Not many people can say they’ve ice climbed in Africa. But unfortunately I had not come prepared, so had to satisfy myself with eating some snow and continuing hiking.
Down in this valley we passed more stone huts, with shepherds tending to their sheep on the valley sides. It looked like this area was basically unchanged in the past thousand years. People still lived off the land in huts made from local resources.
We followed the Mahlabachaneng stream lower and lower as more minor tributaries joined up. Every half mile or so we would encounter another hut or set of huts, but the only people we ever saw were shepherds with their sheep out in the distance. The hiking was very easy, with some sort of trail usually following the streambed, perhaps created by people walking between huts or from herding sheep along the stream.
We eventually reached a huge gorge at the confluence of the Jarateng stream, and here diverged from the standard Drakensberg Traverse route. The standard route follows the Jarateng up to Giant’s Castle, then follows the border back towards Thabana Ntlenyana. But I discovered in planning that we could cut out quite a few miles by deviating from the standard route here, hiking up and over some hills, and regaining the route in the next valley. We were intent on getting to Thabana Ntlenyana, not Giant’s Castle.
So we crossed the Jarateng, and met up with an excellent shepherd’s trail along the edge of the gorge. We followed this past more huts as it wrapped around to the next valley. Here we followed the Moiteling stream up the next valley. The excellent trail eventually deteriorated as we passed the highest huts, but we could still follow faint animal trails through the bushes and grass. We continued south, reaching the end of the stream at a beautiful flat green grass pasture with several horses grazing. I couldn’t see their owners, but undoubtedly the owners were nearby watching us.
Above these horses we crested a gentle pass and began descending to the next valley. Here we got our first glimpse of our goal – Thabana Ntlenyana, the highpoint of Lesotho. It looked far away still, past a broad river bed nestled in another cluster of hills. We were getting closer though. It was nearly sunset now, and we were back on water patrol. We kept passing small dry streambeds, and finally as the last rays of sun left I heard a trickle of water, and we pitched our tent on a flat patch of grass next to a small stream.
That night we heard some yelling across the valley, and it sounded like the shepherds were coaxing some stubborn sheep back into the corral for the night.
The next morning we broke camp and dropped farther down into the broad valley. I spied my first non-domesticated wildlife here, a big secretary bird walking around the bushes, probably hunting small rodents.
We followed excellent shepherd trails here, which increased in quality as we dropped farther down. I had roughly plotted our intended track on the GPS, and cut into an adjoining valley cutting south as the major stream turned west. A few times dogs barked at us outside huts, but as long as we kept a good distance they didn’t cause any trouble.
We climbed higher and higher up this valley, until it looked like the stream was just about to turn dry. At this point, it looked like we might actually make it to the summit that day. The rest of the route involved following ridges, likely with no water sources. So we decided to drop our packs there, try to hide them under some rocks, and continue fast and light up to the summit and back.
A little above our packs we encountered two young shepherds, who approached us curiously. They looked to be in their late teens, and one of them actually spoke English. It turned out he had gone to school in the nearest village, Mokhotlong, a day’s walk away, when he was younger. He said his favorite subject was biology. The shepherds were wearing interesting attire – they wore big white rubber boots, with nicely-woven blankets over their shoulders. Rubber boots seem to be the footwear of choice because they are cheap, super durable, and waterproof. I’m guessing their families made their blankets out of sheep wool.
As we were talking a few mean-looking storm clouds started rolling in from the west. We decided to extend our break and see how the clouds developed. There were some small cliffs nearby we could potentially find shelter next to if the weather turned bad. I pulled out some chocolate and offered it to the shepherds, and they smiled widely as the put out their hands. Undoubtedly chocolate is hard to come by in the highlands here. They actually only took a small bite of what I gave them, saving the rest to savor later.
The dark clouds moved on and we waved goodbye to the shepherds as we continued up. At the next pass we traverse right along the south side of Thaba Putsoa (Blue Mountain, the shepherds said it was called), following a faint trail beneath some large snowfields. I was still amazed every time I saw snow. I mean, this was Africa!
Past Thaba Putsoa we crossed another small pass and started up on our last climb, up the northeast ridge of Thabana Ntlenyana. The winds were picking up here out of the West, and the air was getting colder. As we gained the ridge crest we dropped just below to the east to get out of the wind. Shortly south along the ridge we scrambled up a final rock band and reached the summit of Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest mountain in Lesotho.
I really felt remote here. Thabana Ntlenyana is farther away from the border than Mafadi, and it’s not really possible to see any signs of civilization from there. Perhaps on a clear day some stone huts could be visible down in the valleys, but they really blend into the surroundings given that they’re made of local rocks with grass roofs, so are essentially invisible from far away.
The dark clouds we’d seen earlier in the day had in fact not disappeared. We’d merely ascended during a break in the action. To the south a rain cloud was passing over the Drakensberg cliffs, leaving a stunning rainbow. More dark clouds were all around us, and I soon felt a smattering of raindrops on my cheeks, blown in from the westerly wind. A low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.
The highest point in the country was probably not too safe a place to hang out during a thunder storm, so we snapped some pictures and quickly descended. We dropped back down the ridge, rounded Thaba Putoa, and dropped back to where we’d seen the shepherds. They were long gone by now, probably trying to beat the storms back to their huts.
A storm cloud finally caught up to us just as we reached our backpacks, and let out a torrent of not rain, but snow and hail. The air up here near 11,000ft was indeed pretty cold. I briefly considered setting up the tent, but there would be no way to avoid getting it soaked in the process. Instead I whipped out my small blue tarp and draped this over myself and Katie as we rode out the storm. Luckily we were well below the ridges and summits now, as lightning struck the ridges just above us, rattling our bodies with the boom of thunder.
The storm was quick, though, rolling through in 15 minutes and leaving a dusting of white over all of the land. This definitely did not feel like Africa anymore.
We quickly set up the tent in the lull, mindful that another storm could come through any minute. The stream nearby provided ample water for our cous-cous and mashed potatoes dinner that night, and we took a well-deserved rest the remainder of the evening until bed time.
After a solid ten hours of sleep we left camp the next morning descending back down the valley. Now all we had to do was get back to the trailhead. We followed our same route back to the broad river valley, then ascended on the good shepherd trails. The weather had returned to the normal sunny, cool, and dry that we had been accustomed to the previous days.
At one point as we crossed a river I heard a yell in the distance and a shepherd was jogging over to us. Had we left something behind? Was he in trouble? We decided to wait and find out.
The shepherd caught up to us, and it turned out nothing was wrong, he was just interested in talking. He spoke excellent English, and said he was very surprised to see us hiking at this time of year. I suppose hikers pass through in the summer on the Drakensberg Traverse, but not in these colder winter months.
“What is it like living up here?” I asked. We continued walking up the river. He didn’t want to slow us down, but was just interested in having someone to talk to.
“I would say it is very boring,” he said. “I take care of the sheep every day, but it is every day the same thing.”
“I think it looks beautiful up here,” I replied. “But I guess I’m only visiting and if I lived here I may think differently. Do you ever go to any nearby towns?”
“Yes, I lived in the nearest village while I was going to school,” he replied. “Once a month I walk down to the village to buy supplies. I bring wool from the sheep to sell, some blankets that we make, and come back with supplies like cooking oil, flour and sugar.”
“Well, nice to meet you,” I said. “My name is Eric and this is Katie. What’s your name?”
“Leonard Atang Ntsiky,” he replied.
“Could you say that one more time?” I asked, not catching it completely.
“Here, I’ll write it out,” he replied, digging his hand into his pocket. He soon pulled out a cellphone.
What?! I thought, very surprised. I had never expected a shepherd up here on the plateau in Lesotho to have a cell phone. There were no towers anywhere nearby, no electricity, and apparently no use for it.
“Wow, I never expected you to pull out a cell phone,” I said, as he typed out his name and showed me.
“I’m on Facebook too,” he said. “Here, type in your name and I’ll friend you!”
I typed in my named, still stunned.
“I have a solar charger at my house to charge the phone,” he said. “If I hike up to that mountain up there I can see a village and get service, and I can connect to the internet with my phone on the cell network.”
“Wow, does anybody else here have phones?” I asked.
“Only a few other people, and if the phones break everyone comes to me to fix them,” he replied. “Hey, I would really like to migrate to America. It is my dream. Is it possible?”
I thought about this for a moment. Atang sounded really smart, and I bet many colleges in the US would love to have a smart student from Lesotho, especially with his background as a shepherd in the highlands.
“I think your best option would be to apply to college in the US,” I replied. “If you’re accepted at a college in the US, you’ll automatically get a visa to come over to study, and once over in the US you could try to get a green card to work and stay. Let’s connect online and I’ll send you the details! There’s a college in my hometown, Berea College, that’s actually free if you’re accepted and would be perfect.”
I typed in my name and email on Atang’s phone, and we continued walking up. As we started climbing out of the valley we took a short food break, and I offered Atang a bag of snacks. He gratefully accepted, but wasn’t quite sure how to close the ziplock bag. I shouldn’t be too surprised – they probably never use such bags up here. We showed him how to close it, and parted ways so he could get back to work tending the sheep.
[Note: I later connected with Atang on Facebook and we discussed how he could apply to colleges in the US. The biggest difficulty is that all colleges require the SAT or TOEFL test, which I’m sure Atang could pass, but he would need to travel to Majuro in Lesotho to take them, which sounds difficult. I’m still hopeful that he’ll be able to apply soon.]
We crossed over a pass and dropped back into the next valley descending the Moiteling stream to the large gorge, and then ascending up the Mahlabachaneng. We passed a few more young shepherd children, probably only ten years old, and gave them some extra snacks.
By evening we set up camp right next to the stream and began cooking dinner. An older shepherd descended from the hills and wanted to talk. He was a very friendly man, asking what we were doing and actually offered that we could sleep in his hut that night if we wished. In hindsight I wished I would have accepted, but given that we already had our sleeping bags set up in the tent and dinner cooking, and his hut was kind of far away uphill, I unfortunately told him thanks but we would probably be fine just sleeping where we were. I gave him the last of my chocolate, though, and he seemed very grateful.
The next morning we continued up the Mahlabachaneng valley, back to the summit of Mafadi. We could
have skirted around, but thought we might as well tag it again for the good view. On Mafadi we basked in the sunshine, but just below the Drakensberg cliffs South Africa was enveloped in clouds. It made for some amazing pictures, but we worried what it would be like down there when we descended.
We hiked back down past some horses, following our route of ascent, and a group of three shepherds quickly walked towards us. They were friendly, and spoke English. I was worried that they would ask for food, and I had given away the last amount I could spare. But they were had a more interesting question to ask us.
“Do you have a jeweler’s glass?” one shepherd asked me.
“Um, no,” I replied, confused. “What for?”
He held up a small clear rock that looked like a crystal and dropped it in my hand.
“We think we have discovered diamonds, and want to know for sure,” he said.
I carefully looked at the rock, and it looked like crystals I had found before in the woods of Kentucky. I can’t remember ever seeing a real diamond, but I seriously doubted this was one. There did exist diamond mines in other parts of Lesotho, though, so I couldn’t be certain.
“I really think it’s a normal crystal,” I replied, “but I’m not sure.”
“Thank you,” the shepherd replied. “Have a nice day!”
They returned to the place where they’d found the crystal as Katie and I continued descending. Progress was getting harder for me, though. Over the past few days a blister had developed on one of my feet, and I had changed my gait slightly to avoid it hurting. But this gait change over several days must have strained some muscles in my lower leg, and now every step was very painful. The route was all downhill and straightforward from here, though, and I decided I would tough it out.
We dropped down through Leslie Pass, entering the clouds. The warm sunshine soon turned into a cold rain, soaking us thoroughly. We followed the cairns carefully this time. When we reached the stream, instead of descending into the boulder thicket we traversed the grassy slopes on the user trail. This way was infinitely easier than our route of ascent, and eventually brought us back down to the stream.
At the stream we stopped to rest, and I briefly considered camping there. It was almost dark, and my leg was hurting pretty badly. But we were soaked and the rain wasn’t letting up. We could either have a wet night in the tent tonight and my leg would still probably be hurting tomorrow, or we could hike through the rain and pain tonight and get it over with. The pain actually lessened as I was hiking (perhaps as my muscles warmed up) so we decided to push on. If we could at least get to the trail at marble baths by dark we knew we could continue, but if we were stuck in the streambed at dark it would be nearly impossible to navigate in the dark and fog with no real trail to follow.
It was a little easier following the route through the streambed since we had already been here, and by dark we reached the marble baths and the official trail. A few hours later after hiking in the dark rain we finally emerged back at Injasuthi. We were too tired to cook dinner, so instead snacked on what food we hadn’t given to the shepherds, and slept in the car.
Our next adventure would be Emlembe, the highpoint of Swaziland.