Quitting is simply not an option when attempting the gruelling Drakensberg Grand Traverse. Especially if poaching awareness is at the heart of your efforts. By Arnold Ras

Imagine trekking 230km through South Africa’s dramatic Drakensberg mountain range. Now picture carrying some 35kg and doing that for 12 days in a row. For four experienced hikers, SANParks Honorary Ranger Grant Melville, mountaineer Ian Shooter, Jeffery Mthabela and Robert Schmidt, unwavering passion for SANParks’ K9 anti-poaching unit was their one and only encouragement.

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Grant Melville posing for a snap as they make their way to Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest mountain in Southern Africa. Pictures courtesy of Climb for K9

On their journey the four men had to face steep and dangerous ascents and climb five intimidating summits – all of this with no predetermined route, in sub-zero conditions, and completely unassisted. Setting off from Witsieshoek in the Free State on 25 May, the climbers summited the 3,000m+ Mont Aux Sources, Stimela Peak, Champagne Castle, Mafadi and Giant’s Castle in the course of their journey. After a quick re-supply stop at the top of Sani Pass, a final descent through Thamathu Pass to Bushman’s Nek near Underberg marked the end of their journey.

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And their dedication paid off. “So far, a total of R89,100 has been raised for the SANParks K9 unit: R47,900 in funds, and R41,200 worth of food, equipment and vet supplies for the dogs,” says Lene Hansen, SANParks Honorary Ranger, KZN Region.

Wild chatted to one of the hikers, Grant Melville, about the daunting experience and his love for conservation:

What’s the fondest memory you’ll take from the Drakensberg Grand Traverse?

The pristine beauty of these eternal mountains that are relatively untouched by human development. The mountains made me feel small and humble in the vastness and timelessness of their eternal realm – and their power. They nearly had me conquered a few times. When trekking up there in the mountains, you feel so connected to the natural world, and so respectful. Our place in nature is not to conquer, but to work in harmony with the natural environment with respect and understanding. Our survival completely depends on our one and only planet Earth being kept healthy.

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Focused at the start of their journey.

What was the most challenging part?

The distance – 230km through the mighty and unforgiving Drakensberg mountain range is truly a long and brutal trek. It’s daunting to think of the Grand Traverse as one hike from start to finish. The relentless onslaught on your body and mind of trekking up one mountain then down a valley, and up again, knowing there are more peaks ahead, becomes mentally and physically exhausting.

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Approaching Cleft Peak in the Cathedral Peak area on day four.

From day one I chose to do this trek one step and one mountain at a time, mentally breaking each day down into manageable pieces. On day eight we encountered thick snow from two weeks ago and trekking through this proved incredibly difficult and taxing. Walking with wet and cold feet for kilometres in thigh-deep snow tested all of us to our limits. It didn’t help that the sole of my one boot split apart and snow and rubble got trapped at every other step.

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Cold but grateful – the men setting up camp at Senqu River.

Whose idea was Climb for K9?

I came up with the idea after hearing about the SANParks anti-poaching K9 unit at a meeting of the SANParks Honorary Rangers, KZN Region. I wanted to do something different to bring awareness to the issue of poaching by combining the stories of the K9 units working in the remote parks, and a tough long trek through the remote Drakensberg Mountains. In their different ways, both require stamina and courage.

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Ian Shooter and Robert Schmidt at the Drakensberg chain ladders.

I hope to grab the attention of the public and bring more awareness to the plight of our natural heritage. I didn’t want to focus only on poaching, but on raising funds for the K9 unit, which is proving to be such a positive game changer in the fight against poaching.

What did you learn about the Drakensberg Mountains?

As tough and unforgiving as these mountains are, they are also very fragile and need to be managed and looked after. What seems to be just rock and grass is, in fact, a very delicate and intact ecosystem that supports a variety of different life forms. In addition, a large quantity of our water supply originates from these mountains, which are the main catchment area for both KZN and the Orange River system.

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Dreamy and gripping – the view from Roland’s Cave.

Respect these mountains, appreciate their timelessness, leave behind only footsteps and take away fond memories. Oh, and bring sunscreen and good quality equipment if you plan a longer trip. My air mattress gave way after three days, and trying to sleep directly on the icy, hard ground is a miserable experience.

Your thoughts on rhino poaching?

The rhino is a flagship species and a top mega-herbivore of the African savanna. Sadly, poaching is not only about the rhino, many other animals are also being killed. It’s an attack on our entire ecosystem which might reach beyond the tipping point of self-sustainable recovery if we don’t stop it.

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View from Stimela Peak on day three.

Seeing butchered rhino – especially a dead calf next to its mother – is a highly emotive experience. But the scourge needs to be dealt with logically. There should be a zero tolerance approach, so that anybody involved in any form of poaching or trade of endangered wildlife must know they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Every effort needs to go into conservation to save species from extinction and the Climb for K9 expedition hopes to make a small difference in the bigger picture.

I have lived in the Drakensberg all my life. Before the climb I visited the Kruger National Park for the first time and saw my first ever rhino. Such a huge animal has roamed our lands for millions of years and now we are killing them. Unacceptable.
– Climb for K9 hiker Jeffery Mthabela

Why the Drakensberg?

It’s good for the soul… Jan Smuts – who may have had other failings – said it well: “When we reach the mountain summits, we leave behind us all the things that weigh heavily down below on our body and our spirit. We leave behind all sense of weakness and depression; we feel a new freedom, a gentle exhilaration, an exaltation of the body no less than of the spirit. We feel a great joy.”

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The magical sunset from Rhino Horn Peak on the hikers’ last evening.

Support Climb for K9

Want to donate towards this worthy initiative? Head to the GivenGain page and do your bit to protect our wildlife. Alternatively, you can make an EFT to the SANParks Honorary Rangers.

Banking details

Bank: Nedbank
Account no: 1585 392 448
Branch code 158550

Please use “YOUR NAME.KZN-DGT.K9” as reference and email a copy of your deposit slip to [email protected].

Note: As the SANParks Honorary Rangers is a completely voluntary organisation, all donations will go unabridged to SANParks Project Watchdog (overall fund for the SANParks K9 unit). All donors will be kept informed on how funds are spent.