15 years ago, September 20, 2004, a well planned and thought out hike, taking months of preparation, finally arrived. The majestic Drakensburg with five days of an escarpment traverse including a peak. What we thought would be an amazing challenge turned out to be something we never had imagined.
Note: This story is shared from my own experience and no names have been used other than to refer to each one within my group as my hero. Without each one of them I honestly believe our story would have ended in absolute disaster.
20 September, 2004
If I recall correctly, this was day three of our hike. Already on the escarpment, we headed out early in the morning. A strong, fast and fit group. We would meet up with two other groups on day four of the hike.
Ahead of time we decided to bag a peak before we continued on our planned route. The weather was good. Cold, a little windy but clear. All dressed warm. We hiked up to Giant’s Castle Peak on the escarpment, spent some time taking in the absolute beauty and majestic view and then continued on our planned route, heading North along the escarpment edge. A stunning day.
Our camping spot arrived many hours later. It was perfect! Maybe just on a km in from the escarpment edge, a well-used camp site, with an ideal low flowing river perfect for massaging those tired feet. We set up camp and cooked a warm meal while the night sky slowly rolled in, causing the temperature to plummet and sending us all crawling into our tents early, to keep warm and to recover for the next long day.
It was a good day and not long before we were all fast asleep.
22h30 (or thereabouts)
Two of my heroes start to shout.
We hear ruffling outside. Some wake to packs being pulled from the storage area in their tents, other tents being slashed with presumably knives.
Then shouting. Unsure of what was happening, I immediately react without any thought and emerged from my tent. Unzip. Jump out. Wearing only my winter thermals.
That’s all I recall. A moment of deafening silence gripped me, followed by faraway screams and shouts that got louder and louder as I slowly came around.
I had emerged from my tent head first and came head-on with a swinging knobkierie, luckily to my head and not my face, knocking me off my feet and right back into my tent. I have to say, I have never in my life seen so many tweety birds, just like the comic books. Tweeting away, in a peaceful melody. It didn’t take me long to realise that that was just like a dream. There was no peaceful melody, as the pain dragged me back to reality. The warm blood ran down my cold face. I was gripped by instant fear, uncertain of what had just happened, unable to piece anything together.
What to do?!
Identify the threat.
I shouted for everyone to stay in their tents and fumbled around for my beanie to pull over my bleeding head. Grabbed my knife. Together with one of my heroes (sharing a tent), I gathered as much courage as I could. All we knew was that someone or something was out there. This time I dived out my tent as quickly as I could, no zips to unzip as they were already open and therefore no forewarning that I was coming out. I had to take them or it by surprise. That was the plan.
Really…I could seriously apply for a Wonder Woman stunt artist. It was superbly executed. I dived. Rolled. Found my footing and jumped to my bare sock-covered feet. Steady. Ready. Knife drawn.
And there he was. One of the basuthos from Lesotho. There were three of them surrounding us. According to the police there were six of them in total but maybe it was a good thing I didnt know that at the time. I was now literally face-to-face with one of our perpetrators. I can still smell that stench of a sweaty, dirty, alcoholic man who hadn’t washed in days, maybe even weeks or months. An old, hardened face. Full of hate. Bloodshot eyes. That’s how close I was.
Reality hit. I recall instinctively stepping back out of arms reach, carefully scanning around our campsite to see if there were others and where they were, making sure no one else was in danger.
I saw two other silhouettes closing in slowly. Even though it was dark, and the night sky dotted with stars so majestic, there was just not enough light to see the detail. Dark silhouettes and the sound of movement was all I had to go on. My eyes desperately trying to adjust. I tried to negotiate in a language unknown to my damaged brain. I was conversing in English, he in Sotho. A language I could not understand.
More shuffling. My heightened awareness of our surroundings strangely enough brought some order to the assumed chaos, even though I was concussed. Knowing where our perpetrators were was critical. That I knew.
Struggling to follow what was being said (or more like shouted), I asked my heroes to put together some food packs to offer. Maybe seeing what we had would appease them all and would cause them to leave. I was so wrong. He threw it back and shouted something in return as if I should know better.
Let me just say that it was very clear when we all looked back on just how many miracles we experienced throughout this ordeal.
The first one I can remember at this point, was where one of my heroes who understood a bit of Sotho was able to translate this response. Even though it was not a response any of us wanted to hear, it set the tone for what was to follow. In a shaking voice she called out:
“Ma’am, they dont want the food, they want you!”
My blood ran cold.
My body was almost frozen.
We had all heard about rape victims.
Something from deep within my gut started to well up like lava boiling within a volcano, unable to bring any calm, about to erupt, it was imminent. I knew, at that moment, with absolute clarity that my mandate was to protect each and every one under my care. I would do it at whatever cost. It seemed to be the most natural and easy thing to do. No time to question. No time to think it through. Just do it!
At some point I was given a knobkierie by one of my heroes, handed to me through the tent while I stood my ground facing our perpetrators head on, which may have shaken them a little and caused them to back-off a bit. I chased them a little each time they attempted to get close to a tent, showing them who they were up against and then waited to see what they would do.
Out of nowhere, a storm of rocks came flying through the cold air.
The sound of material tearing as the rocks made contact with the tents, the thud as they made contact with my body, swooshing all around me. The rest of the basuthos had retreated back to the river and gathered a number of rocks and large stones and started hauling these at the tents. Almost like playing a game.
Ok…at one point I did use the knobkierie to try get in a few good cricket shots. It’s amazing how one tries to find humor in stressful situations. I may not have hit a six but I did manage to make contact with a few that protected my body a little. In fact, one of my heroes actually managed to throw a tin can of Ratatouille which made contact with one of the perpetrators we could not see. We all heard the thud followed by the pained reaction. It was a short lived moment of success.
The struggle went on and on. It felt like hours. Chasing, being stoned, watching! At one point, I was knocked right off my feet and barely able to stand up. It may have been the exhaustion but it was here where the advantage was given to one of the Basuthos. He rushed to me and grabbed my arm while I was attempting to stand up. Off balance I again collapsed and he attempted to straddle me. I knew that I couldn’t let this be how it ended.
I’m not very good when it comes to dealing with my personal space being suffocated and intruded upon without invitation. I was extremely grateful for having some knowledge of how to maneuver oneself out of difficult grasps and positions (thanks to my previous kickboxing days). I don’t think he realised just who he was playing with. My volcano had erupted and that means there was no stopping. I fought with everything within me knowing that enough was enough. He lost.
Being totally numbed by the cold, the pain was to a point bearable and the damage only appeared hours later. Another miracle.
00h30 (or thereabouts)
Two exhausting physical hours appeared to come to an end. The retreat. Silence returned. Shivering to my very core. Adrenaline still pumping. Intently scanning the perimeter around our camp. Unsure if they were hiding and waiting for our next move, wishing for just a little more light to see. We needed to move.
In one of the newspaper articles that was published after our ordeal, it insinuated that we were indeed ‘sitting ducks’. Many opinions have been thrown around this and to a point it was true, but only at this specific point which is why we needed to move. We had no other defense. We had no weapons other than my knife and hiking sticks and a knobkierie.
A decision had to be made. Allocating a spot nearby where it was open, with a large boulder as a landmark, dark enough to conceal our silhouettes, each one gathered the bare essentials to keep warm with as little as possible to carry, and quietly crawled to the allocated spot. We needed to move fast and quietly, capitalizing on the darkness to keep ourselves concealed. A gamble? Yes. But that’s all we had.
Once we had all gathered, I did a quick camp check and head count, and instituted a buddy system so that no one was ever alone, and then considered the way out. Despite my small concussion, I just knew that we had to follow the ridge running parallel to the escarpment edge, staying in it’s shadow and using the darkness to our advantage. We had to get back to the lower berg. No lights. No talking. We headed out. Trepidly taking it one step at a time. Two of my heroes came alongside me at this point and physically supported me as we headed out. Taking my pack from me they shared the load. I could not have done it without them!
The problem with darkness is that every sound, every distant boulder, every bush, plays havoc with the mind. Everything starts to look like the fears that have been concocted and visualized in your head, causing instant paralysis, unable to move forward. Hearts pounding while we hold our breath, expecting the worst. But it was a matter of being brave and little by little, we covered enough ground to get us out of any further known danger.
02h00 (or thereabouts)
We reached the end of the bottom of the ridge, and had to climb out of the ravine. I recall a slab of rock we climbed up and over, with a short hill climb leading up to our first resting point. Distance at night is very difficult to estimate especially when you are not giving your full attention to it. But no one had complained. We just did it. Somehow. Each one offering a hand and giving a push. Silently, staying close.
From what I could see, it appeared we were clear of any further danger.
I dug into my bag and found my cell phone. Giving it to one of my heroes with a few instructions, an emergency call was made to MTN 112. I needed to put my head down just for a minute. The signal was not constant, coming and going with only one or two bars making the connection almost impossible. But eventually, it held for just long enough to make the distress call and give sufficient detail for a potential rescue. What happened from there was out of our hands. I kept my phone close.
Exhaustion was setting in fast, we needed to rest. We had covered a lot of ground without even knowing it. Knowing that someone now knew our circumstances, allowed for a short moment of relief. We walked a little further and eventually came across a flat piece of open ground with some elevation on one side that allowed for a little protection. It was also the start of the more dangerous section at the top of Giants Castle Pass, the steeper side one wouldn’t want to attempt in pitch darkness. If any of us had walked any further we would have had a serious injury or two to contend with, as the drop off was literally the beginning of the escarpment edge. Indeed another miracle.
We laid down like sardines, lying close in a huddle to keep warm and together, some managing to get a little sleep. I did not sleep. I watched the horizon for the first sign of light. I scanned intently all around our surroundings for any movement. My eyes so heavy. My body slowly succumbing to the damage, the pain becoming more and more unbearable as the adrenaline slowed to a panic. This night must end!
There it was!
A slither of light on the horizon. I got my heroes up and we got going. Just enough light to find the right path to the pass where we would descend and walk out to the Giants Castle Camp. We were ok. There was no sign of any basuthos. My body ached, but just seeing the relief on everyone’s face made me feel so much better.
Halfway down the pass my cell phone rings. An unknown number. I answer it and on the other side, a familiar voice. The head of the SAP K9 unit was calling together with the SA Air Force. In that one moment I knew it was going to be ok. Relief swept through my body causing my legs to simply collapse beneath me. I just sat in a heap and listened. Advising him we could walk out, he insisted for us to sit still and wait for the Oryx helicopter to arrive and fly us to safety. He was onboard and already airborne.
The instructions were simple:
- Find an open spot
- Create a signal (of which we used a rescue blanket)
- Wait an hour to be rescued
I shared the news. The impact of the good news initiated a frenzy of activity, be it all in slow motion. We laughed. We splashed. We washed in the little river running down the pass. We changed pyjamas to something a little more decent (for those who managed to carry a change of clothes)! After all we were being rescued! I even recall us agreeing to put on happy faces.
Despite the outer facade of everything being ok, I noticed my body as I washed a little, covered in dried blood and dark black bruises the size of my hands. The images from the previous night’s ordeal flashing before my eyes. I watched my heroes as each one in their own way performed a cleansing ritual of the horrific night we had endured together. One of my heroes bruised on the side of her face, another with a bruised injured hand. Thank God nothing was broken and that time would heal the physical wounds. The other wounds far below the surface, invisible to the eye, well those would take much longer.
We cut across out of the pass and onto the ridge where the chopper could land. We waited.
The circle shows where we waited…
There were many miracles on this night. I could never deny that God was not watching over us. He was, in every way.
My group of heroes did not create chaos. They held it together and supported each other. The call to MTN 112 was passed onto the nearest police station in the allocated area where we were hiking. It just so happened that the person on duty that night personally knew the CEO for whom I worked, and since the early hours of that morning, had organized a rescue mission with the SA Air Force, a hotel with food and rooms, and medical care for when we were found. He had also communicated to all our families. This man, a CEO, after we had been found and flown out to safety, was the one ready and waiting for us, with tears in his eyes, hugging each and everyone of us as we crawled out the helicopter.
We were further flown to hospital for our wounds to be attended to and after being released and taken back home, I was smothered with thank-you notes and gifts of sincere gratitude and love. I was even given a standing ovation from my place of work.
Little did they all know, that the cost of being the hero of the day was not my choice. It was simply a responsibility that was embodied in the very essence of being the leader of the group, something that would almost kill me later.
Three newspaper articles were published. News spread like wildfire. I even received an email from a man in Switzerland who in 1981 experienced this kind of treatment in the Drakensburg, where tents were slashed and ransacked, equipment was stolen, leaving his group without boots and shoes. They had to walk to safety barefoot.
Believe it or not, this whole ordeal was the easy part. We were alive. What came after was not that easy. But I want to leave you with this poem written by one of my heroes shortly after the incident and really does prove that not only I saw the miracles, we all did:
The true heroes of the day was each and every one in my group!