KwaZulu-Natal South Africa
Mountain of the Dragons
South Africa’s mightiest mountain range with its spear-like peaks – reminiscent of the saw-toothed spine of a gigantic dragon.
Where Adventure beckons..........
DRAKENSBERG WILDERNESS PHOTOS © WILLEM PELSER
“I HAVE TOUCHED SOME
OF THE MOST MAGICAL PLACES IN THE DRAKENSBERG WILDERNESS,
PLACES WHOSE BEAUTY
IS SACRED AND SPECTACULAR AND WHERE MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO GO”
THE BRIGHT FACE OF DANGER
Let’s talk about some of the dangers that maybe encountered in the Drakensberg. This mountain region is becoming increasingly popular among the general public as a place for recreation, where one can escape, if only for a brief while, from the pressures of life. But it has its dangers, and unfortunately all too often visitors to the area are completely unaware of these dangers. More and more people are becoming victims to these hazards, and every accident means the calling out of rescue teams, entailing loss of valuable time to the team members, and often endangering life and limb. Accidents should not happen in the Drakensberg. They are almost always the result of carelessness or sheer recklessness. It is hoped that we can create an awareness among the public of the latent dangers and a desire on their part to do all they can to minimize these dangers.
At the same time, the Drakensberg should not be regarded primarily as a potentially dangerous place. Rather it is a gateway to joy and peace, to physical exhilaration and fitness, to relaxation and spiritual renewal. Let us do all we can to keep it so!
Blizzards in the Drakensberg have been the cause of a number of tragedies and deaths. What can we say about them? The weather pattern in the Drakensberg is fairly predictable, but it is wise to remember that the unpredictable can happen. A basic knowledge of Drakensberg weather, and of what sudden changes may be expected, is of tremendous value to the hiker, for sudden changes can spell disaster. Obviously one must prepare to face, and to cope with, such changes.
Weather patterns are governed by a complex interaction of a number of different factors. One should be familiar with the general pattern.
Broadly speaking, there are four main factors that govern Drakensberg weather.
First is the configuration of the land. The Drakensberg forms the edge of a high, inland plateau which, towards the west, slopes gradually down into Lesotho and on to the west coast, and to the east drops almost sheer from a height of 3 000 m down to the plains of KZN, first to the Little Berg, at a height of roughly 2 000 m, and from there more gradually down to the foothills and the plains of KZN. The sheer drop from 3 000 m to 2 000 m is known as the escarpment. Altitude plays an important part in weather changes.
Secondly, we have the high and low atmospheric pressure systems. Generally speaking, in summer high pressure systems form over the south-east Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, while inland, especially over the Northern Cape and north-western Free State and Gauteng areas, we find low pressure systems. In winter this is reversed, low pressure systems being found over the Southern Ocean areas, and high pressure systems occurring inland over the Free State and Gauteng. These high and low pressure systems determine the direction of airflow, winds blowing from high to low pressure areas.
Thirdly, we have a regular system of cold, wet air moving up periodically from the Antarctic Polar regions towards South Africa, always in a north-easterly direction and travelling roughly parallel to South Africa’s east coast. This movement of cold, wet air is called a cold front.
And finally we have the warm Agulhas Current, flowing in a south-easterly direction along the east coast of South Africa, above which is a layer of warm, moist air.
This may appear to the experts to be an oversimplification, but it is all the hiker needs to know if he wishes to understand Drakensberg Weather.
Rain occurs in the Drakensberg in two different ways, as a result of the movement of two entirely different systems.
In summer the warm, moist air over the Agulhas Current moves inland, from the high pressure system over the Indian Ocean to the low pressure area of the interior. It strikes the Drakensberg Escarpment and is forced upwards, into the cooler air of the heights, where it condenses to form huge masses of cumulo-nimbus cloud, towering high up into the atmosphere. In summer, from midday onwards the whole summit of the escarpment is often covered, day after day, with these heavy cumulus clouds. Soon they break into afternoon storms, with lashing rain and sometimes hail.
The second system is the moving up, from the south, of a cold front, which creeps slowly up from the Cape to KZN, in a north-easterly direction. In winter these cold fronts, laden with moist air, can be particularly severe, for in the higher areas the rain turns to snow and that is how blizzards occur.
These blizzards strike with unbelievable ferocity and speed in the Drakensberg. There is a common believe that South Africa is a land of sunshine and of balmy, warm days: blizzards are associated with places like Switzerland and the Himalayas. This is certainly so, but blizzards can occur in the Drakensberg, and they are sometimes as lethal as anything experienced in Europe.
For the ill-equipped hiker or mountaineer these blizzards can be terrifying, but there are one or two reassuring facts. Although at the time they strike with lightning speed, they can, in the long term, be foretold, so long as one can interpret the weather signs. For instance, they are often preceded by several days of hot berg winds. These westerly winds are regular features of late winter and early spring weather in KZN. On the 3 000 m summit plateau they blow for days on end with a ferocity that is hard to believe. It is impossible to stand upright against them, and the hiker simply has to call it a day, find some sort of shelter, and sit it out. Then comes a sudden drop in temperature, and the blizzard is upon you. But remember that this cold front usually takes several days to move up from the Cape. Although it adds to the weight of your pack, it is a wise precaution, especially in winter, to include in your pack a small radio capable of picking up weather reports. The experienced mountaineer, fortunately, can usually sense beforehand, subconsciously, a change in the weather, and plan accordingly for it.
Against this is the fact that the summit plateau is bleak, desolate, and inhospitable. There is hardly any shelter. At one time the Basutoland Government tried to establish a police post on the summit at Mont-aux-Sources, but this had to be abandoned as it was found that the area was too bleak, and at too high an altitude, for permanent occupation. There are few caves on the summit, but even the best of these is open to the weather.
It follows from all this that the mountaineer and hiker, on the summit at least, must always be on his guard against a change in the weather. In addition to the signs we have already described, watch the clouds. The sudden appearance of high cirrus clouds in the west is often a sign of approaching snow. An unexpected rise in temperature during very cold conditions can also herald a snow storm. A build-up of thick, black cumulo-nimbus in winter is a sure sign of thunder conditions and the certainty of a bad blizzard.
The Little Berg, of course, the mecca of your average tourist, is a different matter altogether. Here hotels and permanent dwellings are never far away, there are innumerable caves, and the snow is never very deep, nor does it last long.
First of all, make sure that you are properly equipped. Practically all of the blizzard tragedies have been due to the parties being improperly equipped. Always, even in the hottest summer weather, carry plenty of warm, windproof clothing, wear heavy boots, and, if you are up for more than a day, carry at least one sleeping bag, preferably two.
Nowadays it is especially necessary to give a warning against thieves. Also, be sure that you have at least two or three days’ reserve food, even if it is only an extra packet of oatmeal and a few slabs of chocolate, enough to keep body and soul together in an emergency. Carry with you more gas cooking cylinders than you need. Make sure your first-aid kit is adequate, and don’t rely on caves for shelter. A light tent is the answer.
If you see a blizzard coming on, it is better to get down from the summit in good time if you can. The danger is that the passes leading down from the summit, through the precipitous rock wall, are few and far between, and even the best of these can become so choked with snow and ice as to render them impassable after a blizzard. Remember, too, the extreme danger of breaking or twisting a leg or ankle while walking over snow on the summit. That glistening sheet of snow that so entrances you can cover huge rocks and fissures, into which you can slip or fall with dire results.
If you can’t get down, and have no tent, find what shelter you can, a cave or rock- overhang. You are more likely to find these on the actual edge of the escarpment than further inland.
If the worst comes to the worst, your food is running out, you are mist-bound and lost, and there is no hope of descending into KZN, head for Lesotho. Here, within a day or so, at lower altitudes, you are sure to find a shepherd’s hut, or shelter of some sort. Make sure though, that you are heading in the right direction. Don’t depend on a compass. In this rock-strewn mountain area a compass will often give you a faulty reading. Simply follow a stream. On the summit streams will always flow in one of two directions, either eastwards over the escarpment edge (you’ll soon know if, in the mist, you have chosen such a stream!) or westwards to south-westwards into Lesotho. Keep to the stream-bed and you can’t go wrong, though it may take you a few days to reach help. Today there is a rough mountain road from Butha-Buthe to Mokhotlong, running parallel to the escarpment and from 20 to 50 kilometers inland, along which vehicles periodically pass. You will strike this road eventually.
The biggest thing to guard against in a blizzard is hypothermia. This is the lowering of the temperature of the body’s inner core to a point where the vital body functions, such as of the heart and lungs are impaired, resulting in death. It can be a rapid killer.
Cold, alone, rarely causes hypothermia, certainly in the Drakensberg where temperatures rarely go below minus 15 degrees Celsius. It is cold plus wind plus wetness that causes the condition. Cold is difficult to avoid, but with due care one should be able to avoid the other two determining factors. So if you have to sleep out in a blizzard, try to get out of the wind, and have dry clothing to wear.
The main symptoms of hypothermia are slurred speech, a dreamy, confused state of mind, loss of memory, stumbling and falling, and bouts of shivering and cramp, followed by eventual collapse, loss of consciousness and death.
To treat a victim of hypothermia, there are two essential things you should do. First of all, raise the victim’s body temperature – not an easy thing to do if you are out in a blizzard. Warm baths are obviously out of the question! What you can do is get the victim out of the wind and into dry clothing. Then put him into a sleeping bag – if possible a warm sleeping bag. You can do this by first putting somebody else in the bag for a short while, preferably stripped so that his own body heat can be more quickly, and easily transferred to the bag. Another way is to put someone else in the bag with the victim. Then give him warm, sweetened fluids to drink, and feed him well with high-energy foods, such as chocolate, dates, and glucose tablets. Throughout the treatment the victim should be kept awake. Don’t give alcohol!!
We as hikers, explorers, and adventurers have the absolute duty to respect and protect our Wildernesses. Nobody else will do it for us. Take ownership!
References and Acknowledgements
From the book – “Serpent Spires” – D Souchon
Photos: Willem Pelser
Compiled by Willem Pelser