Author: Colin van den Berg, Altra Ambassador and badass mountain runner
Rewind to 2019. I was going to be running my first Karkloof 100 miler, and so I had to make the decision of pulling out of one of my favourite races, The Mighty Mutter - a 65km self-navigating, self-supported mountain run that was meant to be happening just two weeks after Karkloof.
Natasha (then finance now wife) had been battling a bit of a foot injury since she finished running the Lynford Ultra 60km back in September and had initially wanted to run the Mighty Mutter 65km route in October.
Clearly this wasn’t going to happen and so the plan was for me to run the 100 miler at Karkloof and then a few weeks later, Tash and I would go and fastpack the full 65Km Mighty Mutter route.
Seeing as though Ultimate Direction makes some of the best hydration packs and FastPacks around it was a no-brainer to go with them. I got the FastPack 35 litre for myself and Tash got the FastPackHer 20 litre (which I may steal for future faster fast packing Drakensberg missions when I need just a bit more space but not a full-on hiking pack)
The Shoes: Altra Timp 1.5 for me and Altra Lone peak 4.0 for Tash.
The Kit: Various warm items (NOT enough! Note to self, always check the weather forecast)! Unfortunately, my sleeping bag is a tad on the old side (and thin!) and Tash's was a tad on the bulky side which made packing a challenge - especially when "Fast" packing and everything needed to be light and small! Clearly, we can’t get all the cool kit at once as it's a long, expensive process if you want the best!
We decided to leave the sleeping mats at home and hoped that the cave floor would be sandy and not strewn with sharp stones.
It was only one night in a cave, but we still took our "luxuries" with us; a mocha pot for coffee, pot for boiling water and cooking meals in; and last but not least a Lumen Noodle for ambience!
The route is a secret but pretty accessible if you know where to look! The Mutter race director doesn’t give the GPS route out and asks that people don’t give out their routes either. Instead, on race day he gives you a map, co-ordinates and set checkpoints that you need to get to. Some years it's the same points and other years he has added checkpoints.
Arriving at St Bernards Peak Lodge after 8pm on Friday night was a bit of a nightmare - especially when we were still meant to set up the tent to sleep in! But the owners Ian and Cheri wouldn’t hear of it and put us in a room for only the camping fee. (Go and support them, some of the best people around and the hotel is well situated for your mountain running needs)!
We woke up early to a crystal-clear morning and had a quick breakfast of yoghurt and Tash's homemade Granola. Packs were checked and packed, bakkie was parked under a tree and we were off!
The route starts gently with a meander across two fields (be careful of the wet cow patties). After a few easy kilometres the climbing starts - all the way to Thule Beacon (2537m) which borders South Africa and Lesotho. From there you skirt both sides of the border (no passport needed) and head off into Sehlabathebe National Park on the Lesotho side. Another easy way of hiking to Sehlabathebe is from Bushman's Nek.
Sehlabathebe is amazingly pretty with lots of tarns, caves and natural archways.
We were planning on doing the full route but had to take a detour as there was a massive dark cloud forming over the Garden Castle area and moving our way fast. No one feels like getting struck by lightning and after a very close call a few years ago we decided to make a bee line for the unnamed/unmarked cave before the storm hit.
Last year October was pretty dry in the Southern Drakensberg and when you can see the cave from the river and you still need to do another 200m vert with a few extra kilograms of water, it becomes a dreadful slog to get up to the cave.
The storm didn’t end up materialising, but we made ourselves comfortable, and bedded down on almost perfect beach sand whilst watching the sun set (Wearing EVERY piece of clothing we had and drinking some sherry to keep us warm)!
During the night we were only woken by a couple of jackals making a noise, other than that morning came quickly. The change back into yesterday's smelly clothes is always pretty grim!
We quickly found our way back onto the route and with lighter packs we were able to actually do some running instead of the fast hiking we were accustomed to the day before. We also knew we needed to get back to the bakkie early because we didn’t feel like driving back to Durban in the dark. After the 34km on the Saturday our legs were quite tired - especially when the morning started with an off-trail climb!
We spent the rest of the time just bouncing in and out of Lesotho, following the fence line until we got to a little hidden gem of a valley. Beautiful rock structures, caves, streams, pools, cows, sheep and the local shepherds were in abundance in the valley! The long climb out was definitely a sour point of the entire route as you know you're on your way home. Thanks to some insider information we decided to make a bit of a detour to go and look for some Bushman paintings and a crawl space underneath a rock formation. The paintings are wonderfully preserved and some of the best I’ve seen in the Drakensberg! There is a little bit of graffiti on one part of the cave but thankfully none where the paintings are.
From the paintings it's pretty straight sailing all the way back to St Bernards Peak Hotel - and a cold beer!
Without the fastbacks I don't think we would have been able to comfortably carry everything that we had and still move fast enough to cover the distances. The Fastback 35 also has enough pockets and space in front for a bottle, snacks, and your phone - so you don't have to stop and go digging in the back every time you need something. The stretchy side pockets are great for keeping extra snacks and water bottles as well. To date, Ive used this pack on multiple occasions, as well as for a speed Grand traverse attempt and would happily use it again!