Play Pajero Sport. That’s the tagline of the television commercial for Mitsubishi’s latest SUV. And in the commercial, Mitsubishi encourages Pajero Sport owners to use their 4x4s to explore the country; to seek out those odd, interesting and awesome places that give South Africa its unique character.
We decided to accept this challenge
I didn’t want to look up. It was too depressing.
We climbed and climbed and climbed, but it didn’t feel as though we were getting any closer to the top. Like the end of a rainbow, the summit taunted us. The higher we climbed, the farther it retreated, remaining agonisingly out of reach.
My legs ached. The camera equipment on my back weighed a ton. The thin air made it hard to breathe. I decided to take it slowly, focus on the rocks right in front of me, and forget about the summit. I also vowed that I would visit the gym more oft en once we got back to Randburg.
We were scrambling up a steep gully between the Sentinel Hiking Trail and the top of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre. This gully, we were told, would give us the quickest access to the top of the plateau. And once on top, we would apparently be met by some of the most awe-inspiring scenery that South Africa has to offer.
I reminded myself that the amazing view would make the climb worthwhile, and redoubled my efforts. I scrambled up the loose stones. I felt I was making progress, but I didn’t dare peek upwards. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Repeat action. Focus.
When my lungs started to beg desperately for oxygen, I stopped to rest. Hesitantly, I glanced at the summit.
We were making progress!
The top of the gully was slowly growing larger. Feeling that I deserved a break, I sat down and drank some water. Dewald Theron, my travelling companion, sat down next to me. We didn’t speak. The difficult act of breathing required all our attention.
It was our guide, interrupting our precious break. She was a few metres below us, bringing up the rear. For safety reasons no one was allowed to climb behind her.
“How… far?” I managed to ask.
“You’re close. Ten minutes’ climb.”
We started climbing again.
Above us, close to the top, two Swedish girls who were part of our hiking group, bounded up the gully like mountain goats. Climbing the slopes of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre seemed to be about as challenging for them as strolling through a garden.
It was very discouraging to the rest of us.
Dewald mumbled something about a large, muscular male frame being much harder to haul up a mountain than a dainty female one.
Doing our best to ignore their pleasant jaunt up the gully, we focused on the task at hand and continued climbing.
HEADING FOR THE BERG
Our trip – now culminating in this tiring climb – had started with a television commercial. In the new Pajero Sport ad (for those who haven’t seen it) three guys sit outside a restaurant in Johannesburg. There is a pack of playing cards between them. One of the guys draws three cards from the pack, bids the other two farewell and jumps into his Pajero Sport.
After travelling for a while, he stops and takes out one of the cards.
The card says: Longest river – Orange River. The next shot reveals the Pajero Sport standing beside the Orange River. He exits the Pajero and takes a picture of the SUV next to the water. Similarly, the two other cards direct him to the Tugela Falls (the second highest waterfall in the world – the 1 054-metre high Angel Falls in Venezuela is the highest) and the Big Baobab near Tzaneen where he also photographs the vehicle next to these landmarks.
The commercial ends with the tagline, “Play Pajero Sport”.
The aim, of course, is to promote the exploration of South Africa in a Pajero Sport. The ad says: This country has a multitude of extraordinary natural landmarks that are worth visiting, so why not use them as an excuse to do a bit of travelling?
And the more we thought about it, the more we liked this line of reasoning. Why not do a bit of travelling?
As it happened, our long-term Pajero Sport 3.2Di-D 4×4 was parked right outside our Randburg offices. And for the last month or so, it really hadn’t been given an opportunity to escape Johannesburg’s congested roads. It was ti me to let it loose on the open road again, and a trip to one of South Africa’s landmarks would off er an excellent excuse.
But where to go?
After some deliberation, we decided on the Tugela Falls. The top of the Tugela Falls.
We would drive as far as possible, and then hike up to the Drakensberg plateau where the waterfall starts its 947m drop into the Royal Natal National Park.
To get to the top, though, you need to be accompanied by a guide. After an online search, we tracked down Amphitheatre Backpackers, a lodge between the park and Cathedral Peak Reserve. It offers day trips such as a Lesotho tour and a rock climbing outing, as well as other activities like mountain biking, fishing and game viewing.
But we were interested in one specific trip – the Amphitheatre hike. We phoned, and found that a hike was planned for that very Saturday. If we wanted to join them, we had to be there at 8am. We made the reservation.
It seemed a shame, though, to go all that way and not have some off -road driving. Surely, there had to be a 4×4 trail close to the lodge? Of course, Sani Pass was in the area, but we were looking for something a bit more obscure. And anyway, the trip was about South Africa’s landmarks, so we wanted to stay this side of the border.
Mike’s Pass, a 4×4 trail close to the Cathedral Peak Hotel, was the answer. Dewald and I left for the Drakensberg on the Friday, at 5am. We weren’t in a hurry. The aim was to enjoy the journey, not reach the destination as quickly as possible. So, at 9am – aft er two leisurely stops for coffee along the way – we reached Sterkfontein Dam. Having camped there before, Dewald suggested that we pull into a viewing point that overlooks the dam.
It was a wonderful setting. The crisp winter air turned the dam’s water a deep blue. But we had more exploring to do, so were soon on the road again.
Located right next to the R74 (and about 24km north of Bergville), Amphitheatre Backpackers was easy to find. Once we had booked in and confirmed our hike for the following day, we jumped back into the Pajero Sport and headed for Mike’s Pass.
The entrance to the pass is at Didima Camp, next to the Cathedral Peak Hotel.
As soon as you enter the Didima gate, the pass is on your left -hand side. But before you can enter it, you need to go to the camp’s reception and pay R50 entrance fee per vehicle.
Enthusiasts looking for a real 4×4 challenge will be disappointed in Mike’s Pass. The trail is very easy and did not test our Pajero Sport. But this was probably a good thing. The view is so spectacular that it is very difficult to concentrate on the road in front of you. Though it doesn’t off er real off -road driving, the scenery definitely makes the trip worthwhile.
There are few spots in the Drakensberg reachable by vehicle that allow you to see the mountains from such a spectacular vantage point, so if the thought of hiking to the top of the Amphitheatre fills you with dread, Mike’s Pass is the answer.
HIGH AND DRY
After spending some time at the top of the pass, we drove back to the lodge. Once there, we had dinner and decided to get to bed early. We needed to be well rested for our hike.
The next morning the hiking group assembled at the lodge’s reception. Eight of us were going up – four men and four women. Our guide for the day was Zimele “Zee” Ndaba from Africa Untouched, an experienced mountain climber.
We were herded into a minibus and driven to the Sentinel parking lot. Here we began our hike.
Although quite steep and rocky, most of the hike wasn’t too difficult. We impressed ourselves – we were conquering the mountain with ease.
After a while, our guide said: “We’re almost at the gully. That’ll be your challenge for the day.”
The statement sounded vaguely ominous, but we weren’t too worried.
After hiking for about 90 minutes, we stopped for a break. To our right, the rocky path meandered up the mountain. To our left , a steep crevice filled with boulders stretched to the top of the Amphitheatre.
“This is the gully,” said Zee. “It’s our route to the top. There’s no real trail to speak of. Just take it slowly and find your own path up.”
We started climbing.
The excursion may have started as a scenic and fairly easy hike, but it had devolved into a very serious climb.
It was exhausting. Every metre in altitude gained felt like a victory.
The group (apart from our Swedish companions) climbed slowly. Though the gully is only 250m long, it took nearly an hour for the entire group to get through. But the important thing is, we made it.
About two and a half hours after leaving the car park, we reached the top to find the two Swedes munching on sandwiches and appreciating the view (we later found out that they were not new to mountain climbing, which made us feel a bit better).
The view from the top defies description. No adjective can do it justice. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest experiences the country has to offer.
After some time having lunch and admiring the mountains below us, we trekked to the Tugela Falls – the ultimate destination of our Pajero-inspired trip. The leisurely walk along the plateau to the point where the waterfall is situated took about 30 minutes. At least, we reached the point where the waterfall is usually situated. You see, the waterfall dries up during the winter months. If you’re lucky, you may see a tiny trickle flowing down the cliff .
The Tugela may be the highest waterfall in Africa but it certainly is not the biggest.
But that hardly matters. The view is grand and the Tugela Falls are unquestionably worth a visit, even if you catch it during the dry period.
WHAT GOES UP…
It was after 2pm and ti me to head back down.
We wanted to be down the mountain well before the sunset. We left the plateau with the aid of two hanging ladders. Apart from the gully, these ladders are the only way to get up and down the plateau. It is easier to ascend and descend via the ladders but be warned, it can be quite intimidating if you’re afraid of heights.
Once at the bottom of the ladders, we were back on the hiking trail. Around 90 minutes later we reached the car park and returned to the lodge where, exhausted from our outing, we enjoyed a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we headed for home. With the aid of our long-term Pajero Sport, we had visited the second highest waterfall in the world, and it had been a memorable experience.
Now we’re planning our next Pajero trip. That Big Baobab near Tzaneen sounds interesting…