Tuesday, May 20, 2014

There be Drakens

Post by Josh.

The Drakensbergs form a great wall in eastern South Africa - a long series of 1,000 foot tall basalt and sandstone buttes and cliffs that stand as the natural boundary between the surrounding country and remote, mountainous Lesotho. The Zulu people called them the Barrier of Spears for their jagged peaks, but British and Dutch explorers thought instead that their lofty plateaus and cloud-shrouded ravines were surely a place where dragons still roamed wild. Several of our friends recommended them as a place of great beauty and excellent hiking, so we put South Africa on our itinerary as a place to explore amazing mountains. It did not disappoint.

The target of our trek was the Amphitheater Escarpment, a particularly dramatic part of the high mountains. Our guide told us that it is ranked as one of the Top 10 day hikes on the world. The route would its way up to Tugela Falls, the second-tallest waterfall in the world, and normally featured breathtaking views down over the lower Drakensbergs and across the infinite African plains beyond. What we saw was instead an infinite expanse of cloud. Swirling right below the edge of the cliffs were the dense clouds as far as the eye could see, roiling and seething and boiling off just before they could claim the top of the plateau as their own.

I actually found being amongst the clouds a more exciting experience than seeing the advertised distant vistas. As we climbed up the last steep gorge, clouds whipped above us in ragged tatters as they were pushed between the rocks. Our lunch location, perched on a promontory above the Sea of Cloud, saw masses of vapor waft over the cliff edge in front of us and dissipate back into the air like waves breaking on the shore. Thin mists whipped around and over us as we hiked back down, rejoining the ever-growing cloud mass behind us. It was like wandering in the playground of an aerial giant, with enormous rock sentinels floating amongst the wild heights of the sky. It was a spectacular hike, and definitely one of my favorite experiences in the trip, even without any dragons.

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