22-24 SEPTEMBER 2012
by Kathy Kruger

Pic - 1 The Devil s Knuckles, viewed at sunrise
Pic  2 The Devil s Knuckles, viewed later in the day

What an awesome 3 day hike! I can honestly say that this was one of the best hikes that I've done with the Mountain Backpackers Club/Midlands Hiking Club to date.

After eventually managing to locate someone from the SAPS to stamp our passports, we started off on our hike - without the pack mules that were supposed to assist in carrying some of our extra goodies. We learnt a valuable lesson - always be prepared to carry whatever you bring - after all, this is Africa and there are no guarantees that said mules that are booked and paid for will arrive on time or arrive at all. There was much excitement when, a few kilometers into the hike, the hired transport was spotted - but coming in the opposite direction. The mules were in fact horses and were on their way to make a drop-off at the border post before returning to assist us. Undeterred, we soldiered on. For the most part, the weather conditions were quite pleasant, with a bit of rain, mist and wind in the latter part of the hike. Derelict buildings of a now defunct Lesotho Border Post signified that we were nearing our destination. It was a worrying sight to see vehicles parked at the lodge, especially when we were under the impression that the lodge has been booked solely for our hiking group. Being so remote, there sometimes seems to be confusion over bookings. Fortunately the vehicles belonged to campers, though there was a very pleasant young couple from Switzerland who were staying at the lodge but who were leaving the following morning. If a romantic getaway was what they were looking for, we certainly put paid to that.

Sehlabathebe Lodge (also known as Jonathan s Lodge) is a self-catering lodge and was built in the 19702 s for the personal use of the then prime minister of Lesotho, Leabua Jonathan and is located in Lesotho's Sehlabathebe National Park, bordering the far southern Natal Drakensberg in the Underberg district and is at 2 400 metres. It is a prefabricated building complete with bathrooms, fully-equipped kitchen, dining room, lounge with central fireplace and several bedrooms - some of which have sumptuous king-sized beds. The adjacent outbuildings house the maids who make the beds, wash the dishes and start the fires. Everything is run on gas - this being the only drawback, as the gas fumes are ever present.

After unpacking and having a nice hot bath, we soon settled in to our weekend home. We retired to bed early after a hearty supper, the hard day s walk of 13 kilometres, via Bushman s Nek Pass, taking its toll. Sleep eluded some of us and a jackal was heard calling in the night&

Our 8a.m. start saw the majority of us head off to explore The Devil s Knuckles, which are clearly visible through the lounge window of the lodge. These magnificent mountains stand at just over 3 000 metres and are truly an awesome sight - small patches of snow scattered on the peaks bore testimony to a previous cold spell. After ascending via the gulley furtherest from The Devil s Knuckles, which involved some steep uphill climbing, we eventually reached the plateau and then walked along the ridge of the mountains. The altitude and one s degree of fitness plays a huge part in how one feels on reaching the top. A while later, we were elated to be standing on what was thought to be The 3rd Devil s Knuckle. Posing proudly, our elation was short-lived as we discovered that The Devil s Knuckles were in fact behind us - somehow we had wandered off course. Subsequently we proclaimed that we had discovered The 4th Devil s Knuckle. Back-tracking, we eventually reached The 1st Devil s Knuckle, where we had a welcome lunch-break. The weather was perfect with clear views - those of The 2nd Devil s Knuckle were particularly breathtaking. Sitting at this altitude, one can truly claim to be  on top of the world . While it s easy to tell The Devil s Knuckles apart when viewed from below, it s another story when one is standing on them and there was some friendly banter between our hike leader, Keith Ashton and good friend Dave Sclanders (also a hike leader) with Keith spurring Dave as to which of The Devil s Knuckles we had climbed - there was much waving of hiking poles by Dave on our descent. The descent itself was quite hectic and a sure and steady foot was required. We stopped to view the remains of an old stone shelter, used by the herd boys in days gone by. Similar other shelters and remnants of old kraals were seen dotted around the landscape. We arrived back at the lodge at about 3p.m. and shared our experience with the hikers who had remained behind and who had done some exploring of their own.

After a short break, six of us headed off to explore the area in the vicinity of the lodge. The sandstone rock formations here are incredible, interspersed with numerous tarns - probably some of the most beautiful and fascinating that I have seen in the berg. We visited Irish Cave, which, needless to say, has no roof, saw The Arch, through which there is a perfect view of The Devil s Knuckles and numerous other arches and interesting rock formations. This exploratory fun meander rounded off a fulfilling day's hiking.

That night, we were treated to a delicious Thai Chicken Curry, prepared by Jacqui, who had offered to cater for us.

Eight of us tucked into a really scrumptious meal while the remaining four enjoyed meals of their own choice. Some of us chattered in the lounge for a while after dinner and even  braaied marshmellows over the fire before retiring to bed.

It was an early start for some of us. Dave had said that sunrise over The Devil s Knuckles was well worth seeing and so, not wanting to miss this opportunity, five of us set off, in the dark and waited patiently in the chilly morning air for sunrise. Though we never got the full reflection of the mountains in the pool of water in front of The Devil s Knuckles, we weren t disappointed - the mountains were truly spectacular as they slowly started to change colour - they had an orange glow to them.

We returned to find most of the rest of our party up and about, preparing for our return hike. We stopped at Irish Cave and The Arch, for the benefit of those who hadn t seen them the day before and after a quick photo-shoot, continued. Further on, we passed The Tarn, with its many pools and popped in at Tarn Cave. We were fortunate to spot buck in the valley below (some were also spotted on the way back to the lodge after descending The Devil s Knuckles the previous day). Some fun was had a short while later at Hole Rock - as the name implies, a huge rock formation with a hole in it, a few metres from the ground - just big enough to pop one s head through and then slide through from the one side to the other, on one s stomach. After a short break, we continued, eventually reaching Cedric s Pool, where we stopped for lunch and where myself and another member of the party very briefly braved its icy waters. Since starting the day s hike, there had been some hectic uphill climbing and some seriously strenuous downhill walking. From here, it was relatively easy going back to the Border Post. The return trip from the lodge is about 12 kilometres.

The superb organisation of the hike leader, Keith Ashton, coupled with the hike itself, the candlelight dinner prepared by Jacqui and the overall good company of our fellow hikers contributed towards making this a fun and eventful weekend and certainly one of the  not to be missed hikes on the calendar. The lodge itself was a treat and it was nice to be spoilt with some home comforts, steaming hot water and cosy beds - it made quite a change to the usual cold showers and hard, cold floors that we as hikers are accustomed to. The highlight, for most I am sure, was the challenge of climbing one of The Devil s Knuckles.

It is indeed a privilege to have leaders like Keith and Dave who are willing to give of their time and to share their knowledge, for our benefit and to further share the experience with like-minded people.

Whilst by no means an easy hike (approx.35-40km in total), it is certainly well within the capabilities of the average regular hiker and one that I would recommend without hesitation. I myself hope to one day go back and climb the remaining two Devil s Knuckles.