Where: Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa (the link actually shows where we stayed)
Plate of food: The food that is memorable from my time in the Drakensberg mountains is biltong. Biltong is simply strips of dried meat. Full stop. Done. Lamest post ever.
Well, I guess I can elaborate a bit.
No one likes to admit that they like beef jerky, except me, that is. Biltong is tastier than beef jerky and generally easier on the mandibular joints. I liked trying the more exotic game meats which as far as I could tell were just beef that had been mislabeled.
You can find biltong in almost every shop/cafe/petrol station, so we often bought paper bags of it whenever the chance presented itself. Filling up the car? We should really get some biltong. Waiting for my mother-in-law to buy souvenirs? We should chew around on some biltong. Just ate breakfast 20 minutes ago? Man, I have a hankering for biltong!
It’s also a very handy food to take along on hiking trips. Those Voortrekkers really knew a good thing when it came to desiccating meat! We hiked nearly every day that we were in the Drakensberg and someone always had a stash of biltong to munch on. Besides being good fuel for some of the longer walks (we took Matt’s Mum on an unexpectedly long and complicated journey – this did not earn us ANY points with Matt’s Dad), gnawing on biltong made me feel like I was hardy and robust. Believe it or not (mostly not) I am neither hardy nor robust, as the story below will illustrate, but once in a while a girl wants to feel like she can conquer the wilds of Africa…one piece of biltong at a time.
It was part of the whole picture: walking many kilometres over rugged terrain, watching baboons thunder along the path in front of us, resting on huge rocks to catch our breath and look at the expanse of Africa below us, deliberately not thinking about snakes resting under those same rocks…and eating biltong. Do you get it?
The best: Surviving to see another day (see below)
Story that needs to be told: On our last morning in the ‘Berg a group of us decided to climb to the top of the Amphitheatre, a 5km long escarpment and one of the distinguishing features of the mountain range. It was rumoured to be a 5 hour round-trip, but we had an added time constraint in that the rest of our group wanted to hit the road back to Durban. Nothing like hiking under duress!
There was a helpful man where we parked our car who explained that there were two routes to the summit. Pointing to his right, he said “That way is behd.” And then pointing to his left, he said emphatically “But this way is werse.” He also informed us that the path to the right culminates in “the Chain Ledder“. Huh? What was that? Wait, I wasn’t paying attention! And with that, led by my father-in-law who only ever does things quickly, we set off at a brisk walk/jog along the path to the right.
The track was narrow and already very high – we had driven a long way up and started walking from the car park – and it clung precariously to the side of the mountain. At certain points there were coils of barbed wire set along the steep hillside about 10m below our track. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved that there was something there to stop my fall if I lost my footing or if I should be terrorized by the thought of getting tangled up in that barbed wire. I found a happy medium and went with “slightly terrorized”. To compensate for the drop of doom on my right, I spent most of the time jogging with a strong tilt to my left.
Up and up we went, until we came to the base of a cliff. There, dangling down, were the Chain Ladders. That’s not a euphemism; they really were ladders made out of metal chains. After running along the narrow path and then being faced with 40m of rusted, rickety chain ladder stretching up the rocky cliff, I did what any
person girl would do: I sat down and cried. I am not afraid of heights, but it turns out I have a healthy fear of falling from a chain ladder onto the rocks below and having to be carried 2 hours back to the car by people who don’t have nearly enough biltong to keep them going.
I told Matt I wouldn’t go. He told me I didn’t have to, which we both knew was rubbish, but it was nice of him to say. My feebleness was made worse (or “werse” which is how we still say it to each other to this very day) by the fact that we were hiking with my brother- and sister-in-law who are the sportiest people ever bar Olympians.
After some deep breaths I got up and grabbed a rung of the ladder. It felt dishearteningly thin. The chains wobbled as I put my weight onto them. The metal clinked and clanked with each step. I looked only straight ahead of me, seeing my white knuckles grip the next rung. I was sure that one chain link would give way. I mean, how often do you think this ladder is maintained? It’s such a bloody hassle to get up there with my tools…meh, forget it.
My heart was pounding and I was breathing loudly. Beside me was my unflappable brother-in-law who was chatting about this and that as he climbed effortlessly. Bless him for trying to maintain some semblance of enjoyment while I practised my histrionics. Eventually we reached the top of the ladder, but lo and behold, that was not the top of the escarpment. There was a small lip on the cliff and then…another chain ladder (only 20m high this time, ha!).
We all made it to the top, but I cannot tell you about the view. I remember it being expansive, undulating, and brown – the grass scorched from the African sun – but nothing else. I was still shaky and the knowledge that we had to return the way we came was never far from my mind. That first backwards step over the edge of the cliff with my foot searching in the air for the ladder rung was serious butt-clenching stuff. My palms are sweaty as I type, even 9 years later. How are you holding up?
The Chain Ladder experience has remained one of my defining moments. Many people do that walk and many people probably don’t bat an eye at it, but for one girl who is neither hardy nor robust, it was a big deal. It was the conquering of a fear that was heretofore unknown. I have returned to the memory of it over the years as proof of my ability to do things: move to yet another country, give birth to 2 babies, go for a job interview, write a blog, etc. I always end up with “Well, I climbed that Chain Ladder, so…I guess I can do this, too.” Come to think of it, biltong would have helped in all those situations, too…
What’s your equivalent of the Chain Ladder? What fears have you conquered? How sweaty are your palms after reading this? (Here is a spectacular 360 degree photo of the Chain Ladder – click and explore it for yourself!)
“Travel can also be the spirit of adventure somewhat tamed, for those who desire to do something they are a bit afraid of.” Ella Maillart