At a height of 3051 metres in the southern Maloti-Drakensberg mountains, RHINO The Peak is Southern Africa’s ultimate mountain challenge. Distance approximately 23kms up and down.
In November 2015 I was invited to climb Rhino with some of my trail running mates – but I decided I needed more time to get my head around this climb as I knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. So in December I put it out to some mates that I was keen to climb Rhino in the New Year and before I knew it we had 14 people signed up to tackle the beast.
As soon as the date was set I started to get my head around what I was in for – I stuck to my running program in the week but dedicated Thursday hills to “hiking” in the Virginia Bush Nature Reserve with a 5kg pack on my back and brought out the trekking poles for practice.
When 16 January 2016 finally arrived I felt ready although very apprehensive of the unknown. In March 2015 Malcolm Millar took me on a 4 day hike in the Southern Drakensberg – we slept in 3 different caves, I carried a 20kg pack on my back so I kept thinking if I could do that I could do Rhino.
Our group of 16 adults and one 9 month old baby met at the Garden Castle Reserve at 5am – we were disappointed that it was raining and misty but the general feeling was let’s start and take it from there, if it gets too unpleasant we turn back.
Rain jackets on and an extra layer we set off – the first 5kms to Pillar Cave was relatively easy going with a few river crossings. I opted to wear my hiking boots rather than my trail running shoes because of the rain and felt my boots would have more grip. At Pillar Cave we bid farewell to our friends with the 9 month old baby – they’d only planned to hike to Pillar Cave. After a snack we were ready to move on – plus hanging around we were getting cold as it was still raining at this point.
At no stage on our hike did we clearly see the Rhino Horn – the day was very misty and every now and again we had a glimpse of blue sky. On our way out we were passed by Andrew Barnes and Ross Treleaven who were running – I met Ross the year before at Mutter (trail run in the Southern Drakensberg) and Andrew I know through business. On their way back I asked them roughly how long the run would take them and Andrew replied about 4 hours – RESPECT!!!
As the day wore on the path got steeper and steeper, the beautiful fauna and flora took my mind off the thin air – we saw one small grey snake on the path and as we headed into the gully we had some Dassies sunning themselves on the rocks and looking curiously at us. The rain had now stopped and the layers were peeled off – we were warm but as soon as we stopped we’d start to feel cold again so the idea was to keep plodding on at a slow pace.
Our one friend at this stage wasn’t feeling well so she decided it was time to turn back, we all know you never leave anyone alone on the mountain so one of our party went back to Drak Gardens with her.
For me the gully was the trickiest and most challenging part of the climb – the slippery shale down into the valley and the very steep climb up was tough! I abandoned one trekking pole and used my other hand to hang onto either rocks or strong tufts of grass.
When we reached the last overhang we left one of our mates there who was suffering with knee pain and the rest of the party pressed on to the escarpment. We stopped for a group photo as this was certainly a welcome stop and a hurdle achieved.
The escarpment was still covered in mist, we saw sheep and horses on the plateau – we picked up the pace to the summit. When I reached the summit there is that last big rock to heave your body up onto and at this point I just gave up – after some encouragement from our leader I hoisted my butt up onto the rock – swung my legs over and got to the summit. We took a quick group photo and decided to head back down to the overhang to find our mate and get down the gully as quickly as possible as we were worried about the mist.
When we found our mate he had the company of 3 shepherds and a dog – we exchanged greetings, much laughter from the shepherds – we said cheerio to them and went on our way. We must have been moving for about 10 minutes when we heard this mighty crash and the next minute a round bolder the size of 2 soccer balls came bouncing and hurtling towards the group – it missed our leader by about 1 meter, it was a very scary situation. We all felt a bit uneasy and decided to try and get down the gully as quick as we could – this is no easy task as the terrain is very steep, I spent a lot of the time on my butt, I felt more comfortable being closer to the ground. After a few tumbles and slips we were back on the well marked path and heading for home. We stopped for a 20 minute lunch break. We were fortunate to see an Eland.
Perhaps the altitude had got to the party but the river crossings on the way back seemed so much higher – I managed to keep my boots and socks dry on the way up but wasn’t so lucky on the way down. The downs played havoc with my toe nails – my toes were hurting and as a result I have a few blue toe nails now.
It took us 6 hours to reach the summit which is exactly as I predicted – and 5½ to get down – I think I slowed the party down in the gully. I had envisioned a 10 hour day but we were out there for 11h30 hours – my Garmin recorded a moving time of 7h30 hours.
A tired group of happy hikers were grateful to the mountain Gods for looking out for us – we all stopped at the Drak Gardens bar for a well deserved beer.
Would I do it again? Not right now, I would still like to do the climb on a clear day for the views and perhaps next time take a local guide with.
Photos by Greg Labuscagne Photography