A week ago I reached the summit of South Africa’s highest peak, Mafadi, in the Central Drakensberg. At a whopping 3451m above sea-level it is just 32m lower than Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest in Southern Africa. I did this in memory of my late friend Andrew Melck and in support of the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR), who are doing amazing work in our country to drive the fight against blood diseases.
I was incredibly lucky to be guided safely up and down the mountain by an extremely accomplished mountaineer, Gavin Raubenheimer. Gavin operates Peak High Mountaineering and set the original record for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse of 105 hours. He has years of experience climbing in the Drakensberg as well as all over the world and I couldn’t have been in a safer pair of hands than his.
We decided to do the summit and return trip in just 3 days. Starting day 1 at Injisuthi Camp, the first 5km’s were quite relaxed with a lunch break by the Injisuthi River as well as a quick pitstop to see some bushman rock paintings. However, the next 5km’s yielded an elevation gain of almost 550m and a total gain of 900m over the days 10.6km ascent to Centenary Hut. A large portion of the day’s terrain had been ravaged by a recent fire so while much of the brush had burnt away, the new growth and occasional blossoming flower were a beautiful accompaniment to the trek.
Centenary Hut is sadly uninhabitable and consequently we set up our tents on the flat area surrounding the hut. A semi-cold beer eased us into the early evening as the light faded and the majesty of the Trojan Wall looked down upon us. By this point I had discovered that I had not worn my shoes in properly, nor worn the correct socks and had taken all the skin off both of my heels. I knew I was gonna be in trouble over the next 2 days but I figured my feet would heal, however, my pride would not. So I strapped them up as best I could and tucked myself in for the night.
Day 2 kicked off completely shrouded in the grey haze of the omnipresent cloud cover. This soon dropped to just below our altitude of almost 2300m, bathing the expansive Drakensberg peaks in a warm orange glow as the sun rose steadily above the horizon. A quick refuel, pitstop and pack up saw us back on the trail for Judges Pass relatively early as we had a fair amount of ground (and climbing) to cover.
Judges Pass is aptly named as it puts you through your paces over its 2km stretch. With just over 700m elevation gain and 0m lost, it’s a fairly gruelling climb that’ll test even an accomplished climber’s mettle. The top of the pass spits you out onto the escarpment at an altitude of 3136m and you remain above 3000m until you start descending the following day.
The first 3km following the top of Judges Pass feel like small respite after accomplishing the climb since it’s the first bit of elevation loss you experience before you start climbing again to reach Mafadi Summit. However, you can see your prize off in the distance and it’s the next 3km’s where things get a little more difficult. This last portion is mostly hiked in absence of a path and so finding your way across the uneven terrain can be quite tricky. The final stretch up to the Mafadi Summit is thankfully quite easy to follow as the path reappears and is a fairly gradual climb up final 60m elevation gain to the top. The actual summit itself is very flat and quite large so you’ve got loads of room to pick your preferred photo spot and uninterrupted views of both South African and Lesotho.
Since this hike was in memory of my late friend Andrew Melck and in support of the South African Bone Marrow Registry, I decided to do a buccal swab test on the top of the mountain. The hike represents the uphill battle that these patients face post diagnosis and I wanted to show the public just how easy it is to get yourself tested and potentially join the registry. Even on top of South Africa’s highest peak! I even took Kwanga the Bear (SABMR’s mascot) with me on my journey and he got to take in the sights as the highest bear in Southern Africa.
The buccal swab test collects cells from your cheek for Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing and is a non-invasive testing alternative to blood collection. These tests can also be self-administered so they can be completed by anyone in the comfort of their own homes. The HLA typing is used to match patients and donors for bone marrow transplants. HLA’s are proteins (or markers) found on most cells in your body. Your immune system uses these markers to recognise which cells belong in your body and which do not. So finding a very close HLA type match is a critical step in the process of ensuring that a transplant is completed successfully.
Once we’d successfully accomplished our summit, completed our swabs and taken a few mandatory snaps, we meandered our way down and around the next rise to Upper Injisuthi Cave. This is the highest cave in the Drakensberg and can be found at an altitude of 3289m above sea-level. The cave offers great shelter and absolutely spectacular views out over South Africa, especially of the Injisuthi Triplets. The sun rise from inside the cave is the cherry on top when you get up early the next morning to begin the gruelling descent back to Injisuthi Camp. I was just happy to have finished the 15km day and have a place to rest my head after gaining almost 1300m in elevation. I can’t say I was awake very long once I’d eaten my dinner and tended to my aching legs in preparation for the day to come.
Day 3 began with a jaw dropping display of crimson and golds as the South African landscape is illuminated before us. By now my feet were already in absolute tatters so I’d doubled up on socks and plasters to try and ensure I would make it through the day. A brief climb up to a crest brought us back to the upper reaches of the escarpment and off in the distance we could see the top of Judges Pass. Some Basotho herders were on the escarpment with their donkeys and put on a show for us riding off, bareback, out of site. It was at this point that I knew the day was going to be a long, hard slog to the finish but I was determined to see it through to the end.
The descent into Judges Pass began without incident and it wasn’t until about halfway down that I started to feel the gnawing pain as my toes gradually crushed themselves into the front of my boots. My legs weren’t doing too badly though and I felt like I was supporting myself quite well. Gavin even remarked that he’d expected me to take longer on the descent so by the time I reached the bottom, we were still making good time. The steady decline back to Centenary Hut was a welcome rest period in which I marvelled at the beauty and sheer immensity of the Drakensberg range. It really is a wonderous landscape full of splendour and mystery.
Having lunched at Centenary Hut, Gavin and I set off for the final descent back down to the Injisuthi River. This section proved to be one of the toughest, leg punishing segments of the whole hike. Between my raw heels and my crushed toes, my feet were in pure agony and my legs had started to fail me. We’d covered 15km’s already (40km in total since day 1) and the next kilometre would see us lose another 350m of elevation. Needless to say, it took me a LOT longer than Gavin to make that final descent to the river.
Once we’d stopped, had some deliciously refreshing mountain water and rested a wee bit (not that Gavin needed it), we set out of the final 7km stretch to Injisuthi Camp. I couldn’t keep pace with Gavin and he eventually went off ahead but it gave me a lot of time to just appreciate my surroundings and bask in the comprehension of what we had just accomplished. Mafadi Peak is no joke. It is a serious hike and requires a fair amount of fitness and hiking experience. Both of which I thought I had, until I embarked on this adventure. And so it was, as I hobbled home, that I had a deep sense of achievement coupled with the humbling realisation that I had been way out of my depth but had vasbyt to the end not only for the goodness of the cause, but for my friend and also for myself.
I’d really like to thank Gavin Raubenheimer for his patience, great sense of humour and his guidance. I felt safe and well looked after at all times, really enjoying myself when my feet weren’t trying to detach from my body. Thanks also to Nadia Chalkley from the South African Bone Marrow Registry who was principal in putting this all together. I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to please make a donation to the registry or better yet, join the registry today. You can make a difference and help save a life. Every little bit helps and together, we can create a better future in our beautiful country of South Africa.
To join the registry, please visit: https://sabmr.co.za/become-a-donor/
To donate to the registry, please visit: https://sabmr.co.za/donate/
I hope you enjoyed my journey to Mafadi. Thanks for reading and hopefully one day you will summit South Africa’s highest peak too. In fond memory of Andrew Melck.