June 2009


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Expedition report:

North Drakensberg Escarpment, South Africa

From The Sentinel

South Africa’s thrilling and magnificent Drakensberg look like mountains from the plains of Kwazulu-Natal, but are in fact a vast escarpment forming the edge, at around 3,000m (10,000ft), of the Lesotho plateau. Volcanic basalt was forced up millions of years ago and spread to form a layer more than a kilometre thick over older sandstone. The eastern end has eroded into a line of tremendous cliffs over 200km long, which form the effective border between South Africa and Lesotho. Here you will gaze on famous and fantastical formations and long, grassy ridges and gorges descending into the plains some 1,800m (6,000ft) below.

The sandstone foothills – the Little Berg – are very special in their own right, a maze of canyons and rocky ridges. Their lush, flowery greenness for much of the year will surprise many travellers expecting desert and dry rock.

The scale here is deceptive: you have to concentrate to appreciate the vastness of the cliffs – drops of 1,000 metres (3,300ft) are not unusual. You can sometimes feel you are looking at the gorges of the Little Berg through the wrong end of a telescope.

Behind the escarpment is a broken, treeless plateau of rough grass and low alpine shrubs which is reminiscent of Scotland, or parts of Mongolia. Meeting the sudden jagged edge of the escarpment as you tramp across this beautiful but seemingly regular landscape never ceases to amaze.

Lesotho is a small, dirt poor kingdom trapped within South Africa. Here on the high plateau, you may meet the Sotho herdsmen living in rough little kraals in summer.

Drakensberg means “Dragon’s Mountains” in Afrikaans; they are the Barrier of Spears to the Zulus, whose kraals are scattered up the valleys of the Lower Berg, their herds grazing complacently on the lower slopes.

Many caves here contain paintings, some very fine, left by the bushmen, the area’s earliest inhabitants, who were annihilated in the great tribal movements that marked the rise of the Zulu kingdom.

The walk along the northern end of the escarpment passes through arguably the most dramatic – and remotest – scenery of all. There are few real tracks here: much of the time you are crossing rough ground, sometimes on tenuous animal trails. That said, much of it is surprisingly easy going.

The Sentinel

Across the Amphitheatre

Some highlights:

The trail from the roadhead, below the famous free-standing tower, The Sentinel, is a delight, winding round the contours of the ridge, then zigzagging up to the first stupendous view on the western rim of the Amphitheatre, immediately below The Sentinel’s thousand-foot red basalt cliffs.

After scaling the infamous chain ladders, the top of the escarpment is a revelation – the Scottish Borders: rocky hillsides rising from shallow, grassy glens, thistles and even heather eking out a living amid the tussocks.

At the top of the nearby Tugela Falls, you will intoxicate yourself with the wondrous view out from the middle of the Amphitheatre.

Day 2: a long but beautiful day, crossing the high plateau. You will pass Sotho kraals, ford streams, and enjoy wide and varied views, including the plateau’s sudden, brutal termination at the escarpment edge. Behind the relative order and reason of the plateau hillsides, all is crazed anarchy: violent spikes and broken buttresses appear and then vanish again amid shreds of rising cloud.


Sotho Kraal

Day 3: today's walk is close to the escarpment edge, regularly crossing the watershed and the national border. The highlight is the Hanging Valleys, which spill into the great hole that is the Mnweni Cutback. Fabulous spires come and go through the gauzy mist that rises, sensuously, around them, then vanishes as it meets the wind at the escarpment edge.

You have to sleep in the high Mponjwane Cave beneath a peak right on the escarpment edge. The berg is full of these caves - more wind-scoured overhangs, really - but this one is special, large enough to sleep 12, with views straight out onto the huge, free-standing Mponjwane Tower, across lower spikes, and down to the ridges and gorges of the Little Berg far below.

The Mnweni Cutback

Day 4: today takes you down the Rockeries Pass gorge, a superb descent, beneath the incredible spires and towers of The Rockeries, on a zigzagging mule track, the first well-established trail since The Sentinel and the route of marijuana smugglers and rustlers, to the beauties of the Little Berg. You emerge into a new and wondrous world: a gorge winding amid tremendous cliffs and long tussocky slopes; waterfalls tumble in on each side, and the vegetation seems to change with each bend in the trail: meadow flowers, small shrubs, then cycads and remarkable proteas.

Day 5: the valley meanders between cliffs and sexily curved slopes and ridges. It can feel like a few minutes after The Creation. You will wade the thigh-deep river several times. The valley gets wider and softer and you pass grazing herds and neat kraals of round, thatched huts (and some newer, square, glazed ones) around little fields of maize.

Walkopedia rating: 92
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Our expedition was organised by the excellent Traverse Line, who were efficient, helpful and flexible to deal with and, we thought, good value.

Icon: Crater Lake, Oregon, USA

As with many of the world's best walks, Crater Lake is a bit freaky. A huge volcano exploded catastrophically 7,700 years ago. Nothing unusual about that, but get this: it left a perfect crater rim, up to 9.7 kilometres across, varying less than 300 metres in height in its entirety. Inside, beneath its cliffs, is a huge and very blue caldera lake, containing a new little ash cone. At 1,943 feet (592 meters) deep, Crater Lake is the seventh deepest lake in the world.

Walkopedia rating: 86
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Walkopedia favourite: Jomolhari Trek, Bhutan


Bhutan does things differently. A devoutly Buddhist, semi-closed Himalayan kingdom, it has preserved its ancient, essentially Tibetan, culture by avoiding the easy rush for western modernity. Its previous King spoke (famously) of pursuing Gross National Happiness rather than GNP. Its environment is largely pristine: 70% of the country is still virgin forest.

The Jomolhari Trek in the far north-west is reputedly Bhutan’s best walk, an eight-day horseshoe which follows ancient tracks beneath the spine of mountains separating Bhutan from Tibet, then turning eastwards to descend the valley high above Thimpu, the country’s capital.

This is a demanding expedition, with four bitter nights spent at over 4,000m and two passes over 4,870m, but superlatives fail to do it justice and it fully deserves its high Walkopedia rating. It has everything one could want from a walk, including (unless you are very unlucky) a competent and charming Bhutanese support platoon.

The trail starts at the ruined Drukgyel Dzong (fort), perched amid trees on a spike above the Paro valley, and meanders beside the river through terraced rice fields and villages of traditional Bhutanese houses, two storey wood and whitewash constructions with a space below the roof where winter fodder hangs to dry.

The track gradually steepens, the forest takes over and the farms become more isolated. Distant peaks, patterned with snow, loom at the end of side valleys. Stands of prayer flags patch the hillsides or are silhouetted on the ridges far above. The pine, oak and birch woodland is less view-obscuring than, say, the redwood forests of North America; dappled light, vigorous undergrowth and constant glimpses of high peaks and crags are the order here.

You will emerge the next morning into deep shade, wood smoke hanging in the cold, still air. The ponies will have been rounded up and will be standing patiently above the tents, awaiting their day’s load. This is gorgeous walking, cool shade alternating with sunny glades as you climb deeper into a cloud forest of oak and pine, dangling trails of moss above a riot of ferns. The track enters a high gorge, the river roaring below as you clamber up and down the side walls.

From camp 2

The last hamlet

The next day's walk is steadier, with the occasional glimpse of the snowy bulk of distant Jomolhari through thinning forest. You will pass a fine mani wall and some lonely homesteads, emerging above the treeline into close-cropped meadows, with snowy crags far above. The lee sides of the hills carry massed ranks of Prussian green rhododendrons. Below, the river is now milky glacier melt. Prayer flags appear on a boulder in the distance, then a ruined dzong on an outcrop and then, up a western side valley, the white vastness of 7,316m Jomolhari. It is a miraculous view.

You are now at 4080m, and an acclimatisation day is sensible, making an expedition to a magnificent lake at the back of a side valley, or up towards the base of Jomolhari.

The fifth day is the first Big One: the crossing of the Nyile La pass. The path labours up to a hanging valley near the almost ridiculously jagged peak of Jichu Drakye (6,989m). Eiger, schmeiger. A tough climb takes you to a yet higher valley and then the final scree-scramble to the pass at 4,870m. A huge lammergeier, its wings 5m across, circled above us several times, its shadow like that of a small airplane on the hillside. At the top is the mandatory pile of mani stones and prayer flags. All around is superb desolation.

High, windy pass

Lingzi Dzong

After a rapid descent of a steep shale slope, a long walk down the increasingly pretty valley takes you to a little whitewashed chorten on a ridge; on the far hillside, across a deep glacial valley, squats the lonely Lingzhi Dzong. To the left is a glacier tumbling from the back of Jichu Drakye.

The next day winds steadily up the beautiful Mo Chhu valley. Behind and far below, Lingzhi Dzong is framed by the steep valley sides, a white dot in a huge, empty landscape. You will have a painful slog up to yet another hanging valley, splintered peaks to each side and a high, jagged ridge ahead, tiny prayer flags indicating the Yeli La. You will struggle through tumbled rock to an ancient path built into the final cliff to the pass, at 4,930m. From there it is a long descent down a series of valleys to a small, sloping campsite in a deep gorge.

The sixth day descends a ravishing gorge, gradually getting higher above the wild torrent. The trees get stronger and the bushes larger, and then you are in the forest again. You will need a good lunch before the long climb to the ruined Barshong Dzong, on its rock a thousand feet above the river. Thence a long downhill scramble to the final campsite in a riverside glade, which is likely to be warmer, almost mellow.

The last day consists of a long, rather weary, climb and then descent through beautiful, varied forest in dappled sunlight. It remains utterly peaceful and remote, bar the odd trader leading his ponies.

Autumn colour

Walkopedia rating: 90
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Photo essay: Arabella Cecil on Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Filmmaker Arabella Cecil spent a couple of months on Kili, climbing it 5 times. Here are a few of her inspired and unusual angles.

Porters and film crew waiting for first light (15,500ft)   ´┐ŻArabella Cecil

The bluest day    ©Arabella Cecil

Kili's ephemeral gifts   ©Arabella Cecil

Giant senecio forest   ©Arabella Cecil

Giant lobelia in the giant senecio forest    ©Arabella Cecil

We filmed dawns and sunsets by the dozen    ©Arabella Cecil

Porters leaving lava tower (14,500ft)   ©Arabella Cecil

Kili as earth mother - her flanks support forest to 9,500ft   ©Arabella Cecil

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Vignette: Alex Edwards on turning the tables - stalking a leopard

It’s not uncommon for people to live in Africa for many years, without ever seeing a leopard. They’re relentlessly cautious, have the patience of …well, a large cat, and can melt into the background right in front of your eyes.

But in my experience, even a leopard can be caught napping. Going through an old diary of mine from Tanzania's Selous, I find an entry for a walk on 20th July ’97; “…crept up to leopard and watched from 35 yards…out in the open and completely at ease”.

Unsurprisingly I remember this day pretty clearly. In this part of the Selous, the Rufiji River comes out of a steep-sided rocky gorge and spills into a mile wide sandy area. Here it divides into a series of islands and channels, many of which are dry, or partially dry, in July.

These sandy channels make for excellent walking. Wild melons grow in abundance, acacia trees with fat, nutritious seedpods crowd the riverbanks, and fresh water flows continuously below the surface of the sand. With these ingredients, elephant are virtually guaranteed.

Arriving by boat, we began walking, barefoot, with the wind in our faces and the sun behind us. Almost immediately, we noticed a shape about ¼ mile ahead of us on the riverbed. More through force of habit than any real conviction, I checked it with the binoculars. And for once, it wasn’t a log, but the head of a leopard.

And at that point we had an exceptional bit of luck as the leopard, which hadn’t seen us, chose to lie down flat. He happened to be at a point where the riverbed dropped quite sharply, so was out of sight.

Walking silently in sand with bare feet is actually quite easy to do, but none of us really expected the leopard still to be there when we crept up close. But I can still remember the jolt of excitement when we were able to see over the drop in the riverbed. And there he was.

We were close enough to watch easily without binoculars while he rolled around on the ground playing with his tale like a large house cat. It was only after a few full minutes - on one particularly large roll - that he noticed the humans watching him.

To say he looked mortified is a gross understatement. To the creature that invented creeping up on things, to BE crept up on is beyond humiliating. The look he gave us as he shot into the bushes – a mixture of rage and profound embarrassment - made me feel just slightly ashamed.

With thanks to Alex Edwards

Alex Edwards' Natural High Safaris organise magnificent expeditions to Tanzania and elsewhere.

En Passant: Mineral Lake, Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China


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The Reluctant Walker: Serena Mackesy on how to put your children off walking

As we all know, a lot of our eccentricities in adulthood stem from our childhood experiences, and our choice of leisure pursuits is one of them. And one of the most effective ways of ensuring hostility to things other people regard as pleasurable is for a parent to get so carried away by their own enthusiasm that they forget that, often, they’ve developed that enthusiasm over the course of years after relatively gentle beginnings. The world is full of adults who groan at the prospect of galleries, museums, anything to do with science, unexpected foods, Jane Austen, horses, boats, skiing, football... and yes, walking.

Of course, you may want to put your children off this pursuit. It may be the only part of life that, since the joys of parenthood, you get to enjoy alone, or at least without the little blighters. Maybe you feel that growing up with a dislike of exercise will make their deskbound futures pleasanter.

Whatever your motivations, here are some pointers as to the best means of nipping any potential enthusiasm for walking in the bud. After all, admit it: you yourself would far rather spend eighteen years making sandcastles and queuing for roller-coasters, wouldn’t you?

  • Start them off by planning a really glorious, long tramp, preferably to the top of a mountain, to see a view. After all, one of the frustrating things about children is their lack of reference points as to what is, and isn’t, a lovely thing to look at, as evinced by their preference for plastic figurines of Jar Jar Binks over, say, the films of Peter Greenaway. The sooner they learn that the reward for hours of sweaty toil up rock-strewn paths is being able to look at miles and miles of barren countryside with Nothing To Do in it, the better.
  • We know that, after many years of whining about yukky food, boring books and car journeys of longer than two miles, you have developed selective deafness. Be mindful to apply this policy to any grizzling that goes on for longer than 10 minutes about hurty shoes, needing a rest, being thirsty or having a headache.
  • If your child has entered, or is nearing, puberty, make sure you respond to any complaints of tiredness by saying “you walked far further than this last year”. Teenagers are sulky. Everybody knows that. Also: make sure to deprive them of all Ipods, mobile phones or other musical devices.
  • Lie, consistently, about how much further it is. When children find out they’ve been lied to, they really, really resent it, and will associate the activity with a sense of betrayal. Result!
  • Assume that all children have a thorough grasp of abstract concepts like distances. Keep updating them on how far they’ve come every ten minutes or so, so that it can dawn on them, slowly and painfully, that they don’t, in fact, live a mile from the corner shop as they’d thought they did.
  • A really great way to introduce walking into their lives is to go suddenly from shuttling them everywhere in a car to dragging them 10 miles up a mountain. Walking should never be part of habitual life. They’ll only end up thinking it’s no big deal.
  • The phrases “hurry up”, “stop making a fuss” and “you’re spoiling it for everyone else” should be used rigorously.
  • Here’s a really great one, guaranteed to implant hatred of the whole enterprise, especially in youngest children: when your nipper is struggling and moaning up a steep uphill, stride on ahead to show them how it’s done, and then sit down and have a rest while they labour in your wake. The moment they make their final, red-faced approach, preferably when they’re still just out of earshot, jump up and walk on. After all, you’ll be well-rested by this point.
  • And while we’re on the subject of walking on ahead – it’s a good idea to do it a lot even on the flat. Few things concentrate the mind more effectively than solitude.
  • Kids’ shoes cost the earth, we all know that. So of course you are entirely justified in expecting the kids to do it in sneakers. After all, it toughens them up.
  • As most walkers know, steps are really hard on the knees and the general puff. This effect is doubled if you’re less than five feet tall. Find a really long flight, leading to nothing much, today.
  • If you have to accept that you overestimated their capacity and have to turn back, make sure you show your disappointment clearly.

So there you go: a few pointers to get you started. We’re sure you can come up with a few more of your own if you think about it. Next newsletter: some ideas as to how to get your kids to think of walking as a fun thing that they want to do more of. But you don’t want to do that, do you?

Serena Mackesy is a novelist, journalist and travel writer. Her latest novel, Hold My Hand, is published by Constable, and can be found at www.amazon.co.uk.

Walking interludes

You may be in an area only briefly. Here are some unmissable walks, all a day or less.

Federal Pass, Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia

If you are in Sydney, you must get out to the Blue Mountains, and walk along the vertiginous ledge in their cliffs, the remarkable Federal Pass.

Walkopedia rating: 80
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Route of the Volcanoes, La Palma, Canary Islands

The spectacular central spine of La Palma links a series of colourful craters, lava flows and other volcanic features, all with wide views down to the sea.

Walkopedia rating: 88
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Jebel Toubkal Circuit, Morocco

There are some fine day walks to be made in the area of Kasbah de Toubkal, the spectacularly-situated fort where the famous Jebel Toubkal circuit begins. Walk the circuit’s first leg – or up the valley towards North Africa’s highest point. An alternative is to walk up from the south to the magnificent Lac D'Ifni.

Walkopedia rating: 87
Read more ...

Tai Shan, Shandong, China

China’s premier sacred Taoist mountain, steeped in history, magic and beauty – albeit a very tough walk. (There is a cable car if it all gets too much...)

Walkopedia rating: 84
Read more ...

Kierkegaard said: "Above all do not lose your desire to walk".

Deep thinker.

New on Walkopedia website:

Walk of the month:

Latest walk:

The Arsenale to the Salute, Venice

Kong Lin (Confucian Forest)

  • Venice hits you with the most intense assault of man-made beauty anywhere on earth. Almost any walk here would be unforgettable.
  • Stroll along and behind the waterfront from the Arsenale, the underpinning of Venice's maritime strength, to the magnificent St Mark's Square, Europe's lagest drawing room, dominated by St Mark's Basilica, the Doge's Palace and the famous Campanile.
  • Then cut through busy streets to the Accademia or Rialto bridges, where you can spend hours gazing on the sublime Grand Canal and its pullulating traffic.
  • Then enter dark passages to wind down to the Salute church, a magnificent landmark (although of questionable taste), near the canal's end: sit on its steps and contemplate.
  • Take your time: it would be negligent not to include lunch and jitter-inducing quantities of coffee.

Read More ...

  • Fascinating walk in the cemetery-park where Confucius, his descendents and many of his disciples are buried.
  • Innumerable memorials, mounds, gates and pavilions.
  • 20,000 trees in 200 hectares surrounded by 10km of wall.
  • The key sights can get crowded; strike off the main circular drag and stroll alone through this pretty woodland, amid endless grey stones. Contemplate gently.

Read More ...

Number of walks featured in Walkopedia:
over 300.

Other great walks recently added:

Table Mountain, South Africa

Read More ...


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Editors: William and Alexandra Mackesy

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