The Mountain Strikes Back

My Dad and I decided that we would escape the routine of daily life and go away for a week. I told him: “Pick any location in the whole of South Africa, and we will go!”. Needless to say, we settled on a mountainous area. After a bit of scouting, we decided to spend a week camping at Monk’s Cowl in the Drakensberg.

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Our campsite for the week. The peaks in the distance, from left to right: Champagne Castle, Cathkin Peak, Sterkhorn

Monk’s Cowl is an isolated camp site in the heart of the Cathkin Valley. It is literally situated at the toes of some of the biggest mountains in Southern Africa, including Champagne Castle and Cathkin Peak. After arriving, we quickly set up camp and set off into the foothills. We spent the first few days exploring the surrounding trails and peaks. On the third day, we decided to hike up along Sunset Trail and find a place in the mountains to set up our little two man tent and spend the night under the stars and shadowed by the dramatic peaks of the escarpment.

We set off at exactly midday, with the intention of reaching the mini escarpment by about 14:15. The heat was intense, and was made that much tougher by our 16kg packs that included all the essentials for a night in the Berg. We had clearly underestimated the challenge of the trail. A constant climb with very little water. We knew we were in for a long day, but the hope of reaching a secluded spot to set up camp was keeping the momentum going.

At 14:15, exactly as planned, we reached the mini escarpment at an altitude of 2000m. As we crested the north face that we were climbing, we were greeted by a very unnerving sight. A monstrous storm was heading straight for us. Coupled with heavy rains, constant lightning and horrendous hail, we made the wise decision to abort our adventure of spending a night in the mountains and decided to retrace our steps to avoid the storm (or though we thought).

As I am a true sucker for mountains, and simply can’t resist the temptation of a significant peak, I decided that I would quickly scramble up to the Matterhorn (a significant peak that sits just above 2000m above sea level). As I reached the summit, just like clockwork, the storm unleashed itself on us. At this point, my Dad had realised the tricky situation that we were in and decided to get a head start on me by heading back down the trail that we had just climbed up seconds earlier. As it suddenly dawned on me that we were in some trouble, I booked it down to the escarpment and caught up with my Dad. By now, lightning was striking with unrivaled fury all around us. One bolt struck within 15m of us, with a  deafening explosion, it dropped me to the ground in fright. It wasn’t 10 seconds later when hail stones, the diameter of a 20 cent coin started attacking us from above.

At first I thought that this was a pretty crazy adventure, but as the hail started to strike us with increased aggression, and the lightning struck closer, my mindset quickly changed to that of undoubted concern, and a bit of panic.

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The lightning on the mini escarpment

We hurried as fast as we could down the steep, and now slippery switch backs that we thought would take us to safety. It wasn’t 5 minutes before the trail was white with hail and flowing with water. With countless lightning strikes, narrowly missing us, we realised that we needed to find shelter. We knew that there was a bit of a forest enclosure down the trail, however, that would be an hour away down the trail. In these conditions, trying to brave the storm for another hour could well have resulted in being our last decision.

As we hustled down, to my left, up a 10m scramble of vegetation, I noticed a small gap beneath a rock. I had to shout as loud as I could to my Dad, who was a mere 3m away, to stop and try get under the rock. I climbed up, threw my bag inside, ran down, grabbed my Dad’s bag and we both climbed back up into the shelter. As it turns out, this was a small cave that could fit both of us in comfortably. Finally, we were out of the painful hail, but not safe from the lightning just yet.

My Dad standing in the cave, photo taken from the trail. Its amazing that I managed to even spot it whist being battered by the storm.

It wasn’t 5 minutes after climbing into the cave, that the unthinkable happened. A sudden flash of light, an instantaneous explosion of thunder and an electric shock like you cannot believe all played out within a 10th of a second. I got such a fright! My leg went numb… I moved my foot to see if it was still working. Fortunately I could see my foot moving, but I could not feel anything. This sensation lasted for about 3-4 seconds before sensation came back to my leg. Relieved, yet still shocked. My Dad was leaning against the wall, of the cave, and he felt a massive shock surging through his back. We figured that the lightning had struck the rock that we were hiding under, and referral charged radiated out to my foot and my Dad’s back.

For the next 20 minutes, I went into shock. My legs were shaking uncontrollably, even though I wasn’t cold. We quickly decided to get into dry clothes, and to sit on top of our bags in an attempt to remove ourselves from the ground in case of another strike close by.

There were several other nearby lightning strikes as the storm made its way over head and to the north. Slowly, the frequency of flashes eased up and we could take true stock of what had just happened. In total, we waited out the storm in cave for about an hour. During this time, to help calm the nerves and to lighten the mood, I pulled out my little gas stove and kettle. I proceeded to make the best coffee for my Dad and I that I have ever had! Whether it was truly really good coffee, or the fact that it symbolized safety, I will never know.

Sitting on our bags in the cave making some much needed coffee, waiting for the storm to pass
Turns out, the coffee we made was aptly called “Runaway”… Coincidence?

We eventually climbed out the cave and continued down the mountain. Believe it or not, we did not find a resemblance of shelter for the next hour, meaning that the hidden cave that I managed to spot was the only one on offer! As we made our way back down, another storm started closing in on us. As you can imagine, this sent the anxiety levels through the roof. The last thing that I wanted to do right now was to relive the past 90 minutes of my life. We sped down the mountain, and eventually made it to our campsite. Relieved, but incredibly shaken up.

The fact that this storm surprised us within a matter of minutes just goes to show how dangerous mountains can be. I have always, and always will have the utmost respect for mountains, and this experience has just reinforced that. There is an old saying that goes: “A man cannot conquer a mountain, the mountain simply lets the man reach the top.” This resonates with me on so many levels.

With all this said and done, that hour that I spent in the cave with my Dad was undoubtedly the best bonding experience that we could ever wish for, and a top class experience (now that I am at home, safe and sound).


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