During April we three MCSA Stellenbosch section members – Sonja, Paul and me – made the long trek to that part of the Eastern Cape that forms the southern border with Lesotho, to participate in the MCSA national mini-camp hosted by the Free State section. Although I have been an MCSA member for almost two decades, this was the first club camp that I have attended. Some of the reasons are probably that 1) I am retired and have more discretionary time, and 2) that part of the country is completely unknown to me, an “empty quarter” on my personal map, so it sounded intriguing.
The camp was located in the Witteberg mountain range, an outlier of the Drakensberg at the southern tip of Lesotho, which rises up to two-and-a-half kilometres ASL. There are a few ranges with this name in South Africa, but this one consists of fragmented, shoreline deposits of shales, sandstones, and quartzites, resulting in its pale colours. The seemingly endless valleys and mountainscapes are managed by the farmers to yield rich grasslands for cattle and sheep.
Surveyed in 1861 by an Irishman, Joseph Orpen, the area’s farms and peaks are named after places in the Scottish Highlands and Wales – like Balloch, Snowdon, Ben Macdhui, Ben Nevis and Glen Gyle – and one can see why the landscape would have reminded him of them. The districts to the south are known as Wartrail and New England and were settled by descendants of the 1820 Settlers. The 105 or so participants camped at three spectacular base camps: Balloch farm, Reedsdell and Glen Lyon. SANParks is proclaiming a high-altitude, grasslands national park in the area, unique in the sense that it will be located in a working agricultural landscape.
We had to book our preferred hiking trails in advance, which is tricky if you have no idea of the terrain. Paul and I plumped for the Balloch Rim 3-day hike, ably and quietly led by Wium Adendorff, while Sonja went on the Telle Falls 3-day hike and another 2-day excursion. The Balloch Rim route circles to the east of the Balloch valley, takes in the summit of Balloch Peak (2647m ASL), and then descends back to Balloch farm. The uplands are characterised by windblown grasslands and endless vistas.
After two days on the road, the first day’s immediate 900m climb to about 2500m came as a bit of a shock to the unacclimatised, me included. The gradient was steep, the pack heavy and the air thin. I stopped often to suck oxygen into my lungs, and then plodded further. But is was a clear day and one could almost see forever. Towards afternoon we descended towards high, grassy plateaux. It was windy with wavefronts propagating across the grasslands. The Afrikaans language has an evocative description for the effect: “die jakkalse hardloop”, referring to imaginary jackals running through long grass.
Our camp could have been exposed, but the wind died at night while the temperatures plummeted to near zero. The next day we continued along the rim and then descended into a valley and a flat area near a stream for our second night’s camp. That afternoon we left our packs and summited Balloch Peak to the north-east, from where one could quietly observe the topography and gaze down on our base camp at Reedsdell. (Day 2’s GPX-track was recorded at a very low resolution because my phone was in “battery saving” mode).
A remarkable aspect of the hike, for me anyway, was the two farm dogs that accompanied us. They must have covered three times the distance, running back and forth and playing with each other. The older one spent all three days with us, snuggling up at night to whichever hiker seemed to be warmest, while the sheepdog headed for home during the first night, having obviously decided that hiking food scraps had offered too few treats and little dog sustenance.
We were lucky with the weather, catching a sunny window between sustained rains and hailstorms, and the forecasted snow. The MCSA Free State section hosted a convivial farewell dinner at the Wartrail Country Club, where I realised again that the MCSA members that attend are from an older cohort; most of the hikers were of our vintage or older. And they mostly know each other from previous camps over the years. Some have been amongst the leading lights in South African mountaineering. I made some interesting acquaintances and participated in many stimulating conversations. Mountain club members are often highly educated with deep life experience.