Mountains out of time at the Drakensberg “July Camp”

Since 1921, the Mountain Club of South Africa has hosted “July Camp” in a different location in the Drakensberg, offering campers, hikers and day-walkers one of South Africa’s most unique escapes from the downsides of urban life.

Scenic view in the Drakensberg

Photographs by Wayne Potgieter, Digisky Photographic
(This article by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/08/11).

It’s about 6.30am and there’s a problem. Small wonder, since the ten hours since yesterday’s light faded have borne weatherbeaten witness to a gale howling down the valley. Imagine it: counting the six hundred long minutes as a mischievous primal force slams itself, again and again, against the thin fabric of the tent that’s separating you from the outside world. Will the pegs stay fixed, and will the guy-ropes hold? Was that the beginnings of a tear you noticed when you checked things before sundown? And what if the wind brings rain, or snow?

 

The morning problem is negligible by medical and safety standards: all the campers and tents have weathered the night’s battering quite fine, bar a few frazzled nerves. In fact, the old-hands are decidedly chatty – they remembered to pack earplugs to block out the noise of a wind whose bluster is generally worse than its bite, and spent a cosy evening nestled in sleeping bags, probably chuckling to themselves about newer neighbours who’ll learn for next time. No; this crisis is of a different order. Humanitarian, even. The MCSA “July Camp” sees a nomadic tent village located in an ecologically pristine and sensitive environment, and it is run according to what is called, circa 2012, a strict environmental impact plan. Back in ’21, they just called it good sense and caring about the mountains. Either way, thetres chic khaki enclosure around the trench-and-trowel toilets that was standing proud and upright last night is now a disheveled tangle of twisted poles and torn seams. The morning problem, thus, revolves around matters of decorum and privacy  that you’d never pause to consider in your daily suburban life.

 

In an odd way, it’s little niggles like these that are the delight of the “July Camp” excursion. That, and the time-honoured solidity of rituals like the morning coffee, the metal gong sounded to summon campers to tea and dinner, the access to the MCSA hiking maps which chart a wealth of geological and environmental secrets, the tales told around the campfire by people who were last there a decade before, or are experiencing it for the first time. It’s a camp in a style that’s been forgotten in an era of mountain B’nB’s, portered hikes and 4X4 trails. The Mountain Club’s Drakensberg “July Camp” does what it says on the box: it’s a camp, in July, in the Drakensberg, and there are mountains. It’s run by the KwaZulu-Natal section of a club that’s well over a century old, and happens, as it has 92 times before, from the first weekend of July to the third weekend. Meals are catered for on open fires and a cast-iron stove grid by Vusi Ndlovu, son of Ishmael Ndlovu, who was the first camp’s first cook. Another Ndlovu, Vusi’s son, Jabulani, is being trained on the job to take over when the time is right. Experience like that, and proper planning, mean that there’s a second trench loo anyway, and the camp organisers re-rig the enclosure long before the post-breakfast demand, so no real indignity is suffered.

 

Each year, about fifty campers trek to wherever “July Camp” is being held that time, some staying for just a few nights to do day walks, some spending a night in the base camp and then heading out for week-long Escarpment summit hikes, or for shorter overnight trips to nearby caves. Ages range, literally, from toddlers to octogenarians. There’s Dave, retired now, who’s been to more than forty such meets. There’s Leila, six years old, and now grown into the one-piece all-weather jumpsuit that was a tad too big last year. There’s Eric, eighty years old, who pitched his sun-bleached dome tent in under twenty minutes yesterday, and then kicked back with a beer, watching the sun burn gold and ochre on the valley flanks. There’s Wayne, who read about it in on a climbing website and is back from three nights out up valleys he’s only ever seen on maps. Already he’s talking about next year, and how he’ll be bringing his teenage son and stepson. There’s Tammy, who creates luxury perfumes for five-star establishments, but loves a night or two here, away from everything. And there’s Rikki Abbott Wedderburn, who first bent the rules by attending the camp as an unaccompanied minor, and took over the running it all a few years back.

 

With modesty has been restored to the ablutions, Abbott Wedderburn’s concerns turn to a morning checklist that includes things like rations of meat, vegetables and dry goods and checking the firewood stock. Also, while the jackals laid low last night during the storm, they’ll likely be back again tonight, so the food stores need to be properly secured. Then, she must ensure that all the departing hiking parties complete the mountain register. Word is that the teeth of wind shrieking through these foothills was the lower jaw of a storm that saw snow and driven ice force back a party on the peaks above who were hoping to get in some ice-climbing. We’ll know the full story in a few days when they’ve trekked back down and returned to the base camp. They have a cellphone with them – it’s a requirement that trail leaders carry “comms” – but that’ll only be turned on if really needed. Part of the reason most of these folk are here is precisely because it’s a haven from the email and SMS interruptions, and the deadlines and demands of so-called civilisation.

 

Happily, she’s also thinking about the report she’ll pass on to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife about the fauna sighted on her camper’s excursions. A rare lammergeier was glimpsed yesterday, soaring down past the Hodgson’s Peaks and, below Fingal’s Rock, a party reported an eland “hotel” – a sheltered valley spot where the antelope gather during inclement weather. On day-walks along the Emerald, Pholela and Mzimkhulwana streams that carve down from the Escarpment to form the valley of the camp, parties have also sighted the antelope in what seem to be at least three groups; hopefully a sign that the ongoing anti-poaching patrols are a success.

 

“July Camp” 2012 was in the Southern ‘Berg at Cobham, below the more frequented Giant’s Cup hiking trail between Bushman’s Neck and Sani Pass. Last year, it was in the Injisuthi Valley and, before that, the 90th incarnation was celebrated near Crystal Waters. The camp is set up in the “Little Berg”, the foothills of the Drakensberg proper, usually a solid two-day march from a pass that can take the summit walkers up to the Escarpment. Inevitably, there are caves nearby and, fortunately, a wealth of oral knowledge to be had from the long-time attendees who, often, were part of the Mountain Club exploration teams that helped to catalogue the Bushman rock art found in some, and to assist with mapping those that can shelter a group of intrepid hikers. Next year, it will be somewhere else, and there’ll be days of sun, some of wind, and maybe even rain or snow, and the campers will all be back. Perhaps a few more, now that the secret’s out.

Find out more on KZN.MCSA.org.za or by mailing the July Camp convenor, Rikki Abbott Wedderburn atronwedd@netactive.co.za.
This article by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/08/11
Photographs by Wayne Potgieter, Digisky Photographic
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