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Back into Africa

The birth of the new South Africa signalled its disappearance from our TV screens. Tom Hutton turns the cameras from the country's troubled townships to a landscape crying out for the cinematic treatment.

Back into Africa

At last the climbing eased. The path ahead contoured around to the right and ducked back into the shade. We caught our breath and, although neither of us spoke, we were both thinking the same thing; we must be near the top now! Seconds later the question was answered, the forest petered out and the narrow track led between pale sandstone cliffs to the saddle. We had been climbing for well over an hour and had been waiting for this moment to stop and enjoy some refreshment.

As Tim poured boiling water from the flask, I drank in the view; the City was sparkling in the sunshine directly beneath me but my eyes were drawn to the east. Here, sprawled across a flat sandy land that would have made up the ocean floor in distant times, were the Cape Townships - dull grey and scruffy blotches in an otherwise pristine landscape. With the view, came a realisation that, in this beautiful yet complex country, it is never really possible to separate the highs from the lows or the good from the bad. I came seeking adventure and yet, in the middle of one the biggest to date, I was still so conscious of the social situation that surrounded me, still so aware of the country’s dark past and, having grown to love this land, I was so desperately keen to see it all end happily.

When I planned the trip, I had two things on my mind; to climb Table Mountain and to see the country’s highest mountains, the Drakensberg. I realised, early in my stay, that this was only going to be a part of it. Fascinated by everything around me, I also wanted to see and understand the culture of the new South Africa. It was as if I’d come here to produce a wide screen, all-adventure thriller and was now also being compelled to produce a true-life documentary. The finished products were to have different stars and be acted out on very different stages but the message was to be the same; this is a wonderful country to visit.

The Mountain

"Yes, there are walking and climbing routes up Table Mountain but, it’s tough going in this heat and our insurance doesn’t cover you!" "If you can wait until Thursday then we’ll all be going up in the Cable car!" The words belonged to Mark, a friendly and very able tour guide on a package trip four years ago.

I vowed, there and then, to return; to climb, walk and explore this mountainous, adventure lover’s, paradise. Halfway up Kluf Corner Ridge (British equivalent 3S scramble) it dawned on me that the dream had come true - I was really doing it!

There are, in fact, many established routes up Table Mountain; they vary in grade from easy walks to extreme rock climbs but they all have one thing in common; they terminate on top of one of the World’s most famous landmarks. Ever since man first set sail around the great oceans of the world, ‘the mountain,’ as it’s known locally, has been something special. In those days it guided weary travellers into a sheltered mooring only a few miles from the notorious, treacherous waters of the Cape of Good Hope.


These days, it’s distinctive bulk towers over one of the most beautiful cities in the world, dominating, not just the skyline, but also, the daily lives of all Capetonians. Its effect on the weather is plain to see but it’s more than that; it crops up in almost every conversation and is visible from almost every street. There is little doubt that the mountain is Cape Town and Cape Town is the mountain - the two are inseparable! We walked, climbed and scrambled up the mountain for days on end; no two routes were the same and not one of them was without adventure. After two weeks it was time to move on, I felt that I knew the mountain intimately!

Today in the township

Langa, Gugulethu, Nyanga, Crossroads and District Six. There was a time, not so long ago, when no white man would dare to venture near these, or any other, of South Africa’s townships. Today it is possible, not just to visit the townships but, with the aid of a good guide, get a basic understanding of their history, culture, politics and even an insight into what the future holds for the people.

The Townships were originally planned as labourer’s houses. They consisted of basic, often squalid, tenements where men lived in appalling, overcrowded conditions. The inherent problems were only compounded by an influx of other migrants who flocked to the area in search of work. With no money and no housing, they built shacks out of any old scrap and very soon formed small cities of their own.

If the picture sounds bleak, it’s really not supposed to! My guide, Dumisani, himself a protégé of the ANC’s education scheme, showed me the positive side; the new houses, the ongoing development and the systematic destruction of the shacks. We even visited a women’s self-help project where single mothers pulled together to produce colourful, ethnic screen prints. The atmosphere was contented and peaceful; everybody I spoke to was positive. As Dumi later explained, these are the people with the most to gain from the new South Africa.

Barrier of Spears

The Drakensberg, which translates literally to "Dragon Mountains", are not so much a group of individual peaks, like the Alps or the Pyrenees, but a long escarpment that runs for over 200km along the border between the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal and the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho. It is split roughly into 3 sections; the Southern, Central and Northern ranges. The Central Berg is probably the most popular but we’d chosen to cross the Northern Berg; a five day, 65km backpack along the most dramatic section of the whole escarpment.

A first sight, the Drakensberg was everything I had dreamt of and more. As we toiled up the long track past the aptly named Sentinel and onto the escarpment near Mont-aux-Sources, I witnessed the most dramatic, spectacular landscape I had ever seen. The Zulu’s named the mountains "Quathlamba" or "Barrier of Up-pointing Spears"; a more fitting description would be hard to imagine. The escarpment, which in places rises nearly 1,000m from the green carpeted valleys below, is punctuated along its length with jagged spires and huge pinnacles that appear to come straight from a JRR Tolkein story. Narrow, basalt aretes reach out into the gaping void and vultures circle high above on rising currents. 5 days of this was to be 5 days in heaven; I hardly noticed the weight of my pack!

It is common practice in the Berg to sleep in caves, what they don’t tell you is the exact definition of a cave! In places, I buried my head in a frost covered bivvi bag under no more than a narow overhang. The caves had their compensations too; on the third morning I awoke in Mponjwane Cave to be greeted by a crimson sunrise over a sea of cloud below. The Mponjwane Tower and its adjoining pinnacles glowed pink in the early morning light. As if to put the icing on the cake, one of South Africa’s rarest birds, the lammergyer, a vulture-come-eagle with a 3-metre wingspan, glided effortlessly past our exposed perch, I could hear the wind on its wings! To witness this amazing creature at such close range was another dream that had come true.

The crossing had been awesome; on the last night we watched the sun set over the escarpment and could make out the outline of the Devil’s Tooth and the Sentinel against an orange and blue sky. It was hard to believe that we’d walked from there only 4 days ago. It was with great sadness that we commenced the long descent but all good things must come to an end and, after 5 days in the wilderness, I was relishing the thought of a cold beer!

Reports from the hills

Even at 3,000m, the social-political side of South Africa is never far away. Throughout the five days in the mountains, the only other people we saw were Basotho, the people of Lesotho, who use the mountain passes as trade routes and illicit border crossings. They appear mystically, almost mirage like, on the hillsides in small caravans, often disappearing just as quickly. It wasn’t until the fourth day that we finally got a chance to greet a small group. The men had weathered faces, they were dressed in t-shirts and cotton trousers and their protection from the winter cold was no more than a large woollen blanket; our Gore-Tex layers seemed very out of place. The donkeys, which followed dutifully behind them, were laden with huge panniers; the contents of which remained unknown, but will probably end up mixed with tobacco and wrapped in Rizlas!

They seemed peaceful enough and we exchanged friendly greetings as we passed. We were, however, warned that there have been problems in the past and that hikers are advised by the mountaineering club to travel in groups of at least three people. It seemed, once again, as if this kind of thing is always present in this country, yet, like everything else, the risk is exaggerated and you’d have to be incredibly unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Perhaps the most fascinating example of regional cultural differences came on the journey to Durban for a SAA internal flight back to the Cape. Even from the van, Zulu-land looked and felt different to the South Africa I had seen to date. Zulu-land is almost a country within a country; it still has its own monarchy, most of its’ people are subsistence farmers who live in extended family groups in small clusters of huts. Their land is leased from the King. Each family group has a head and he, in turn, is watched over by a chief.

It was fascinating to see and even more interesting to experience first hand. Despite all of the horror stories you hear; the people that we met were largely friendly. The most worrying moment coming when we managed to get tangled up in a political rally in a small Zulu town. Here, we witnessed a barrier of spears of another type as young men, dressed in full Zulu regalia and carrying shields and spears, marched battle-like, down the street. The excitement was fever pitch, something I later learned, may have been due to the fact that Sunday is also a heavy drinking day in these parts. Needless to say, they paid us scant attention and carried on with their demonstration.

Final Scenes

Like all good feature films, if not all documentaries, my experience of South Africa had a happy ending. The climbing, walking and cycling were first class; the scenery stunning; the people warm. For me, at least, sequels will follow.

The township streets may have relinquished their nine o’ clock news slot, but from what I saw it’s only a matter of time before this magnificent, mountainous country gets British bums on plane seats. Trust me – it’s going to be a box-office smash.

©2015 Tom Hutton All Rights Reserved