Hike the Drakensberg Grand Traverse through South Africa and Lesotho
In September 2017, Ras "UltraPedestrian" Vaughan traveled to South Africa and the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho to take on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse. This roughly 140-mile trail was the furthest off-grid Ras had ever been, and he looked forward to the vexing extremes of the landscape. He also looked forward to being a visitor in a new place and meeting those who call it home.
Ras collaborated with filmmaker Joel Ballezza of The Wild Ones Films to document and share this journey on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse. Joel brought the narrative of Ras's time on the trail to life by reviewing and curating over 65 gigabytes of GoPro footage Ras brought back with him.
Interview with Ras Vaughn on Hiking the Drakensberg Grand Traverse
Ras took some time to answer some questions we had at Gossamer Gear about what his trip was like, why he chose to document it through video, and how others can prepare to attempt this route.
Gossamer Gear: Can you explain what an "only known time" is, and what you find appealing about completing these types of treks?
Ras: An Only Known Time (OKT) is like a Fastest Known Time (FKT) except that instead of trying to shave days, hours, or even mere minutes off of an established time, you are trying to establish the first FKT for a new route, a new iteration of an existing route, or according to a different ethic. Only Known Times are the Schrodinger's cat of the FKT scene because an OKT simultaneously exists as both the Fastest Known Time and the Slowest Known Time for a route until a second person completes it and the two possibilities resolve into a single reality.
How was your route on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse different than how it is typically hiked? What appealed to you about attempting to hike it this way?
The Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) is a route across the main range of the Drakensberg Escarpment from Sentinel car park at the north end to Bushman's Nek in the south. It traverses the heart of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The route crosses back and forth over the border between South Africa and Lesotho, "The Kingdom In The Sky." The DGT is roughly 220km (137 miles) long with more than 9,000 meters (30,000 feet) of elevation gain, although those numbers vary because it is not a set trail. The standards for the DGT were established in 1999 by Gavin and Lawrie Raubenheimer. The Drakensberg Grand Traverse is more akin to a peak-bagging route than a trail. The only maintained trails on the route are the first five kilometers out of Sentinel car park and the last ten kilometers into Bushman's Nek.
To complete the Drakensberg Grand Traverse one must achieve each of the following waypoints:
- Ascend the escarpment via the chain ladders at Sentinel Peak
- Summit Mont Aux Sources (the source of Kwazulu-Natal's Tugela River)
- Summit Cleft Peak
- Summit Champagne Castle
- Summit Mafadi (the highest point in South Africa at 11,319 feet)
- Summit Giants Castle
- Summit Thabana Ntlenyana (located in Lesotho, it's the highest point in southern Africa at 11,424 feet)
- Descend via Thamathu Pass to Bushman's Nek
My specific goal was to adhere to a strict unsupported ethic–no resupply or buying supplies along the way, no accepting trail magic or food handouts, carrying all your trash until the end, and traveling unaccompanied. I take a lot of inspiration from the climbing world, and in mountaineering this would be considered Good Style, or Fair Means. Accomplishing a project according to that ethic fascinates me, and I wanted to test myself on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse and see if I could be the first person to maintain that ethic and complete a Double Drakensberg Grand Traverse.
That question mark, that doubt about whether or not I could do it, really excites me and makes by brain light up and fire on all cylinders. Basically, the ethic you choose for an adventure determines the rules of the game, and the rules are what define the game itself. For instance, Rugby and American Rules Football are very similar games, differentiated by just a few rules. Those few rules, those slight differences, are what determine which game you are playing. Same with OKT/FKT.
Below are the stats for my single solo DGT:
- START AT SENTINEL CAR PARK: Day 1, 9:45 AM, Monday, September 11, 2017
- WAYPOINT #1 THE CHAIN LADDERS: DAY 1, 11:15 AM
- WAYPOINT #2 MONT AUX SOURCES: DAY 1, 2:25 PM
- WAYPOINT #3 CLEFT PEAK: Day 2, 6:25 PM
- WAYPOINT #4 CHAMPAGNE CASTLE: Day 3, 2:58 PM
- WAYPOINT #5 MAFADI: Day 3, 9:51 PM
- WAYPOINT #6 GIANTS CASTLE: Day 4, 6:50 PM
- WAYPOINT #7 THABANA NTLENYANA: Day 5, 5:08 PM
- WAYPOINT #8 THAMATHU PASS: Day 7, 8:15 AM
- FINISH AT BUSHMANS NEK: Day 7, 2:47 PM, Sunday, September 17, 2017
- 6 days, 5 hours, 2 minutes
When did you decide to make a film about this particular adventure? How did you go about capturing the footage?
From the moment the opportunity arose, I knew I had to do something more with it than just experience it and keep it to myself. Africa is where Human Life first emerged and the homeland not of Hominids, such as ourselves, but of Bipedalism, the very behavior that differentiates Humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.
I had heard stories of the Basotho Herd Boys that live and work in the Maloti Mountains in Lesotho and I wanted to be able to tell a little bit of their story. They are a culture that bridges the gap between our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the development of agrarian culture, and the encroaching Information Age. As a People, they sum up the struggles of all Humanity over the last 7,000 years. Plus, I knew I would be immersing myself in some of the most beautiful, rugged, and seldom-visited terrain on the planet and would want to document my experiences.
I had an old GoPro Hero 3+ and my friend Joel Ballezza of The Wild Ones Films loaned me a small powered gimbal (steadicam) to stabilize the shots so they would be high enough quality. I shot everything myself, so any shots of me hiking by meant I had to set up the camera, then hike past for the shot, then go back and get the GoPro rig. It was an interesting experience because you look at what you are doing differently when you are thinking about how other people are going to see it, how you frame shots, how you share your perspective. In the airports, I did a lot of passive filming, just letting the camera record as I negotiated the lines and security checkpoints and crowds, and I was really happy with how these shots captured the overwhelming nature of international travel.
How did this being an international trip affect your planning, as well as your experience once there?
My original plan had been to join a completely different project that I had been contacted about. But, after I had already purchased my plane tickets and made plans to visit my daughter, who was serving in the Peace Corps in Madagascar at the time, I got word that I would not be a part of the other expedition after all. So, I suddenly found myself with a roundtrip ticket to Johannesburg, and no solid plans.
Fortunately, I already had my gear and food and other supplies ready, so it was a fairly easy pivot. But, doing my route research once I was already in South Africa gave me a shorter window of time and more limited resources than I am used to for such preparations, so the entire adventure had a very free-flowing and last-minute character to it. But, southern Africa is a place where fluidity will be foisted upon you if you try to adhere to a strict gameplan, so this was actually an advantage. The international aspect of it had me in way over my head and far outside of my comfort zone, which is precisely the type of challenging psychological terrain I love to explore. So, I couldn't have asked for better.
Which Gossamer Gear items were the most helpful to have on your journey, and why?
The One impressed me beyond measure. It's so compact and light and functional, and yet surprisingly roomy. I'm 6' 3" and a lot of tents are quite cramped for me. The One has such ample space that it made a perfect home for me all across Lesotho and South Africa and on to Madagascar afterwards. It felt almost like a spaceship because I would hike until after dark each night, so in the morning I woke up to a new world that I had never before seen in the daylight.
The Vagabond is the perfect carry-on adventure bag. Crammed full, it still fits under the seat of an airplane. Through the airports I would wear it backwards as a front pack, which let me keep an eye on my film gear and easily access travel documents, layers, and snacks and beverages that I had with me.
LT5 Three Piece Carbon Trekking Poles came out just in time for this adventure, and their compact size when collapsed was absolutely key to them fitting in my checked bag. I can't imagine having to try to haul trekking poles around with me from plane to plane and airport to airport without breaking or losing one, so being able to fully collapse them and put them in my checked bag was essential. In addition, their full adjustability made it easy not only to customize the set-up of my tent based on the conditions, but allowed me to change their height from day to day to change the way my body was moving so I could rest certain muscles while engaging others.
Did you run into many locals along the way? How did they add to your experience of the trail?
The Basotho Herd Boys were amazing and inspirational. A few of them that I met had learned English and I was able to talk with them. Others were extremely young and inexperienced with Western visitors. One of them, seen in the video, was so shy that he flinched away any time I stepped near to him or when I offered my hand in greeting. His tentative and awkward wave, to me, sums up the precarious balance in which their culture hangs.
Meeting the Basotho people was extremely humbling. I was visiting their land with my aspirations of First World athletic achievement, and their lives made my elective striving seem silly and self-serving in juxtaposition. I would struggle all day long to move through this challenging terrain and beat my way to the summit of one of the peaks on the route only to find a stone hut occupied by Herd Boys just a couple hundred feet below the summit. What for me was a personal accomplishment was for them simply another day at the office.
But, they were all friendly and interested. One young man hiked along with me for about five kilometers talking with me the entire time. Then he suddenly stopped and announced, "I must get back to my goats because of the jackals." He was 21 and had gone to a school when he was younger, so his English was very good. He was very proud to be a Herdboy. He thumped his chest with his hand and said, "I am a Herdboy! I don't wear trousers, I wear shorts! I don't wear a shirt, I wear a blanket!" He had made his hat by weaving grass together with fibers from maize bags (like woven plastic feed bags).
But, many of the Herdboys have smartphones tucked into their blankets, as well, and they trade videos and music with one another via bluetooth. The influence of Western culture is just a click away. Despite his proud identity as a Herdboy, this young man told me he doesn't like Basotho women, and he wants to move to America and marry a white woman.
The Herdboy culture is teetering on the brink between the ancient and the modern, but this balancing act won't be able to go on for long. I feel incredibly blessed to have gotten a glimpse of these amazing People at this equally amazing moment in time.
What's the best way someone can prepare for hiking the Drakensberg Grand Traverse? Is there anything you would've done differently looking back?
The Drakensberg Grand Traverse involves mostly off-trail travel, and backcountry navigation. Other than the first and last few kilometers, there's no maintained trail on the route. It's all cross-country travel and linking together game trails and stock trails used by the Herd Boys. In most instances, these don't even head in the direction you are trying to travel, so it's a constant matter of making sure you are on route. Long routes in the United States like the Grand Enchantment Trail and the Oregon Desert Trail would be good test pieces.
It's important to be prepared for the cross-country travel, as well. The terrain is challenging and you will not make the same sort of daily mileage as on a marked and maintained trail. So, it's key to plan a schedule based on shorter mileage days that take all day to achieve.
In the end, weather ends up cutting your trip short from what you had originally planned. What did that feel like and how did you make peace with the change in plans?
Honestly, to this day, I have not made peace with the change in plans. In retrospect, I think I should have turned around at Bushman's Nek, headed back up into the Maloti mountains at least as far as the cave, and tried to weather the storm there with the possibility of continuing on after it passed. But, it was a big storm that knocked out the power and internet as far east as Durban, South Africa, and continued for days. So, it's unlikely I could have continued on without either being delayed multiple days, thus stretching my food extremely thin, or by violating the strict unsupported ethic I was attempting to maintain.
It was the tail end of a cyclone. The Drakensberg Escarpment rises drastically and dramatically to the highlands of Lesotho, so weather rolls in off the ocean and over the savannah until it suddenly hits a wall of rock 3,000 meters high. This produces the sort of extreme and quick-developing storms for which the Drakensberg is famous, and which ended my Double Drakensberg Grand Traverse attempt, leaving me stranded in an unfamiliar part of a foreign country with no friends or connections I could contact.
If it had been in the North Cascades in Washington, or on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, or any number of other places, I would have risked it. But with the language barrier, the international borders, a lack of detailed maps, little knowledge of the surrounding area, and no local connections to call on, I didn't have the bailout possibilities I would have had at home.
But, even though on some level it still bothers me, it's just the nature of the game. Publicly announcing a goal and risking failure before the eyes of the world is just the ante in the FKT/OKT world. That risk of public failure puts some skin in the game, puts something at stake. And, I enjoy playing the game in that way. Generally, I learn more interesting things about myself and the world in which I live from my failures than from my successes. Our lives are a collection of the stories we live. And, "Everything went exactly according to plan and I succeeded," isn't a very interesting story.
It was an amazing blessing to complete a single Drakensberg Grand Traverse. Aside from the weather, I had exactly half my food supply left and half of my batteries charged, so I was in perfect shape to finish the Double in 12 days. I feel good about what I accomplished, and it would be an understatement to say I had a life-changing experience. Meeting the Herd Boys of Lesotho was amazing. In the end, the story of my failed Double Drakensberg Grand Traverse is about the Herd Boys, more so than about me. And my failure to achieve my first world athletic goals only makes for a better story. "White Man Triumphs in Africa" is a headline on the wrong side of history, and an overused one at that. I had expected to be humbled by Africa, and I wasn't disappointed.