Thursday, December 23, 1993

I'm famous, almost! :-)

In a minor sort of way. I kid you not. A friend of mine fell off a mountain several years ago and broke several bones pretty seriously and since we happened to be at the top of a major 3300m peak about a days hard walking from anywhere in bad weather, it quite quickly degenerated into an epic. The story has now featured as a chapter in at least two books and is now an article in the 'Getway' which is a very popular outdoors magazine in South Africa. My mother has been pestering me for years to write up my account of what happened but to be honest, it isn't a memory I really like to dwell on but I think the time has come to finally do it so over the next two weeks, it'll be appearing in dribs and drabs on this blog. Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 22, 1993

Mponjwane Adventure

I'm back after an all too short vacation to Lapa Lala which has absolutely no outside communications, not even mobile phones work there so I have been diligently working away on "Mponjwane Adventure" which has come along very nicely. I still need to check some of the finer details with Tim but on the whole it shouldn't change much if at all. Hope you enjoy it.

Most of the photographs are not my own but have been scanned in from the following publications:
Dragons Wrath - RO Pearse and James Byrom
Getaway Magazine - December 2006 edition, article by Robert Dalgleish
Dragons Wrath Revised Edition - RO Pearse and James Byrom
Barrier of Spears - RO Pearse
Serpent Spires - Duncan Souchon
I can't remember which photo's I scanned from which book but they're all there somewhere. The remaining photographs I took myself mostly while on the actual hike.

Tuesday, December 21, 1993


Whose idea was it in the first place? I can't tell a lie, it was Robs. The big question was whether we were up to it. All three of us had extensive experience with hiking in the Drakensberg as well as overseas but climbing is a different kettle of fish; our Drakensberg climbing experience was limited to climbing the Sentinel which was really pretty easy. The route which we were planning to take was quite an easy one and we had done several climbs of equivalent or more in difficulty in the Magaliesburg but never one which involved more than 3 or 4 pitches. Were we up to it? One never knows until one gets out there and does it.

A view of Mponjwane from the Mponjwane cave side.

The party consisted of Rob Dalgleish, Tim Keegan, Roland Elferink, Anne Hugo and Vivette Coltman. Vivette and Anne were coming along to stay in Mponjwane cave while the three of us climbed Mponjwane peak. All of us had been to the cave before and looked across the chasm to the peak a mere two hundred metres away as the crow flies but that 200m has to be seen first hand; no photograph even vaguely does it justice.

Map of the area. The route we followed was along the dirt road from the Police Station (just off the map) and past Scramble Kop then a left turn up the iNtonyelana river to Makhawela's kraal then continue up the iNtonyelana Entshopalanga river and finally up Rockeries pass to Mponjwane cave a distance of approximately 23km and gaining a height of approximately 1800m.

Monday, December 20, 1993

A long walk in

We drove down from Johannesburg in the morning, through Harrismith and into Bergville and from there we headed inland towards Woodstock Dam which was where the tar ran out. Thereafter we drove on a reasonable grade dirt road towards Isandlwana Police station where we were counting on leaving the cars. In 1993 the country was still in a very precarious situation politically so there wasn't actually anywhere safe outside of the police station to leave the cars. There had been an unusual amount of rain during the week and we were very worried that we wouldn't be able to make it to Isandlwana Police Station and if we didn't make it there, there really weren't any alternative options. We were all jammed like sardines into my bright red Volkswagen Jetta 1.6 with all the gear in the trailer borrowed from my parents. Rob at 6'2, Tim at 6'4, not sure how tall Vivette and Anne are but they are both taller than me at 5'6 so saying it was a tight fit was putting it mildly. When we encountered taxis turning around, unwilling to cross one of the river fords, we knew we were in a spot of trouble, nevertheless there actually wasn't an option so we pressed on. Just before Isandlwana Police Station there is a river ford immediately followed by a very steep muddy hill which we had to get over and since the Jetta was a front wheel drive, it was going to be interesting. We tried with all of us in the car but that didn't work at all so we evicted all the passengers to make the car lighter but that didn't help as much as required so in desperation we put Vivette and Anne on the bonnet to try and give the front wheels a bit more traction while two of us, I think it was Tim and myself pushed from behind the trailer. Not really sure how much we contributed but we slipped and slithered our way up the hill and over the top. As the car gathered speed over the crest of the hill I spent a bit of time skiing behind the trailer on the muddy road which was great fun until I thought about all the rocks in the road which I might collide with and the speed of the accelerating vehicle. I let go and managed to remain on my feet but some of the antics to do so must have been quite amusing since I was going somewhat faster than I could run, especially on a muddy road.
Arriving at the Police Station, we kitted up, divvied out the climbing gear which added about 4 to 6 kg onto my normal load of 23kg. Tim had forgotten his climbing helmet but fortunately Rob had brought a yellow cycling helmet along which he offered to use, him having the hardest head out of the three of us. After signing the mountain register and never imagining that this time we would actually need it, we started on the 23km slog up to Mponjwane cave, 1800m above us.

Not a trivial day to start with and by the time we started the last 3km which included 900 of the total 1800m ascent the party was pretty tired already. Vivette was in tears so Rob was consoling and encouraging her. Tim got to the bottom of the pass and declared that he couldn't carry the rope a metre further and someone else had to take it, that someone else was me of course since Rob was already way overloaded as usual. Furious that Tim had the temerity to just abdicate because it was tough; I stomped on up towards the plateau eventually reaching it but the thought of the final 50m climb to the cave was too much and I gave the rope back to Tim who by now had recovered somewhat. Not quite sure exactly what time we reached the cave but I think it was about sundown at 18:30 or 19:00. Very pleased to have made the first leg of the trip we had supper and hit the sack exhausted and looking forward to the climb the next morning. Unbeknownst to us, Rob asked Vivette for her hand in marriage as we were going to sleep but Vivette didn't say yes nor no leaving Rob on tenterhooks.

Photograph of Mponjwane cave from a previous hike. Rob is the one in the brown jacket smiling.

Sunday, December 19, 1993

A long way up

Woke up at 04:00 so that we could get a really early start on the day, we're not the fastest climbers so we are going to need all the time we could get. The descent down from Mponjwane cave to the nek between Mponjwane and the escarpment and then further on down to where we would start the climb was pretty easy and passed without incident. We were intending on following the route pioneered by George Thomsen in 1947 but as usual the route map and what one actually finds on a mountain leaves a lot to be desired. The route guide said 'water worn gullies' which we found quite easily and took a deep breath as we started what would undoubtedly be the most arduous climb we had attempted to date. All three of us were quite close in climbing ability although Rob was undoubtedly the strongest physically. I might have had a small edge on climbing ability but it was a 'might' and definitely not a given.

I led the first pitch up the water worn gullies and then Rob and I took it in turns to lead thereafter, pitch by pitch and there were an awful lot of them. The climb is quite nice because it alternates shorter more difficult climbs with relatively easy steep scrambles.
The route guide mentioned an awkward chimney which really was awkward but it was nice to know that we were still on the route. Losing the route is one of the difficulties in climbing that can get one into all sorts of dire straits and it was one of the factors which we were very aware of. Rob managed to get a hold with one hand and then levered himself up and over where after Tim and I both struggled up leaving us wondering how Rob had done it.
Traversing around the corner of the mountain on a sloping slab with undercut handholds was interesting and our first taste of real exposure. If one looked between one's your legs as one traversed the sloping rock there was absolutely nothing for close on 1000m straight down. Fortunately none of us suffer from a fear of heights as this would not have been a good time to suddenly find that one suffers from vertigo. Shortly after this a rainstorm blew over us and besides the rain there was a bit of hail so we took the opportunity to have a bite to eat in a shallow overhang.

It was about 13:00 by now and we were becoming a little concerned about the time since we were hoping to have summited by 14:00 and we clearly weren't going to do that and it was going to be a lot of pitches of abseiling to get off the peak. Fortunately it only really got dark after 19:00 so we decided to push on, we'd come this far and the summit felt like it was so close. I clearly remember watching Tim pick his way carefully up a grassy slope which really looked like a simple scramble and fretting about the time. We reached the last chimney which I led up and onto the summit. I have to admit that I didn't climb the pitch cleanly, at one point there was a very conveniently placed piece of protection left behind by a previous climber which I used. Not very ethical but what the hell, now wasn't the time to start worrying about ethics. By the time we had arrived at the summit it was 16:00 and a scant 20 minutes later we were on the descent after signing the climbers register under the cairn on the peak. Quite awesome views from the top, it really feels like one is on the top of the world. All that work for a mere 20 minutes on top but there was a real sense of accomplishment, now all we had to do was get back down.

The first abseil was from a large chock stone which must have been used by just about every climber, there must have been at least 20 slings of varying ages left behind. We used our own sling as a backup and used about 5 of the existing slings to check the strength of the purchase before we were off and on our way down. I don't know what it is about wet rope but they just don't behave very well when abseiling, they tend to tie themselves in knots and get caught on everything so we spent a lot of time retrieving rope and unknotting them. Within the first couple of abseils the rope had caught itself really badly around a chock stone and I had to climb back up the 9 or so metres to untangle it. I remember quite clearly getting to the chock stone and marvelling at how the rope had fallen. If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed that a rope could tangle itself up like it had. I untied the rope and then down climbed back to the stance. It was about 18:30 and we were still very high up on the mountain with a long, long way to go and climbing in the dark slows things right down and we were already very slow.

We had had sporadic showers with a small amount of hail all day but nothing really worrisome, the showers were gone almost as quickly as they came but after nightfall the weather took a definite turn for the worse and at one stage we considered stopping and weathering the night out and continuing in the morning but since we were already drenched and freezing we decided to carry on worried that we could develop hypothermia, especially since there really wasn't any shelter for us to use to even partially get out of the weather in. Tim and Rob cope much better with cold than I do, my teeth were chattering away as fresh storms lashed us and the thunder and lightening rolled around the peak. At the one stance a gust of wind struck just as I finished my abseil and blew me right off my feet and out off the ledge and into the dark void before the pendulum formed by the rope swung me back in and I regained the stance. Tricky stuff so we made absolutely sure we were roped in to protection at all times.

Some time later we had all finished yet another abseil and tied ourselves into a chock stone about the size of a small football when yet again, the rope caught somewhere in the darkness above us. There was no choice but to go up and fetch it, I was starting to fade and I'm not sure what condition Tim was in after 18 hours of continuous climbing. Rob was also pretty wasted but I think in the best condition of the three of us so it was up to him. It might have been his turn in any case so off he went climbing carefully upwards in the darkness hoping that the cliff was climbable. As it turned out, it was and we heard Rob calling from above in between the howls and sighs of the wind. He was worried about the purchase from which he was going to abseil and asked us to test it with our weight which we did and it held firm. Just as Rob was about to start the abseil I had a very bad premonition, as I think did Tim, and quickly tied the rope Rob was abseiling down into my harness. There was so little rope to tie the knot with that it barely deserved to be called a knot and we were still actually tying the knot when Rob said he was starting and at this point things went spectacularly awry.

The next thing we heard was an “I'm falling, aaaaargh”, thump and then both of us were pulled along the ledge towards the edge by the flying Rob. One moment we were both trying to burrow into the crack where the chock stone was to avoid Robs boots (size 14) and any odd boulders and the next we were flat on the ledge pinned under the rope. It happened so fast, it was like a train tried to pull us off the cliff.

No sounds from anyone as I'm sure all of us were thinking “Oh %&*, this is it!”, they say that your life flashes before you but it didn't for me nor for Rob. We must have been a little disorientated because Tim and I were discussing whether Rob was above or below us and after a couple of unanswered calls to Rob in the darkness we were starting to wonder whether this really was the end. Then a moan floated up out of the darkness but we couldn't tell it it was above or below but a moan is a moan and it means that he was alive at least and after a few more moans and an coherent “I'm below you” some hope started to return. The feeling that one of your close friends has just died is something one can only experience, not imagine. Our predicament was that Robs weight was pinning us both to the ground and had given Tim quite a nasty rope burn which we only found later. I had escaped with absolutely no injuries whatsoever.

After a bit of time while Rob thrashed around and tried to assess what was wrong with him and shouting up that he thought his femur was broken he found that he was in a cave of sorts. How on earth he managed to fall into a cave was, and still is, beyond me but he had ended up lying about 30mm above the floor of the cave so he manoeuvred himself as far into the cave as he could and untied himself, no easy feat, and dropped onto the cave floor. He had managed to take a 44m fall, the full length of the rope from 22m above our stance to 22m below our stance. To put this into perspective, it's like jumping off a 15 storey building and free falling all the way to the ground where the rope stops you. It is nothing like a 44m bungee jump at all.
We were in a bit of a muddle above Rob with the ropes in total spaghetti mode. Tim got right out of his harness in order to firstly talk to Rob and secondly to help with unravelling the spaghetti. After what seemed an age we were ready to go again and abseiled over the edge dreading what we would find in the cave somewhere down below us. We talked and shouted to Rob as we went down letting his voice guide us in to where he was lying. I think Tim went down first and stood on the one and only foothold next to the cave while I came down. The cave was about 10m above the next stance so we couldn't hang around outside the cave for very long before we had to decide what to do.

It didn't take us long to realise that we couldn't leave someone with Rob even though that is what we wanted and should've done according to the books we had all read. In order to get help, someone was going to have to walk all the way to the Isandlwana Police Station, this being in the days before cell phones, and someone else was going to have to climb back up to Rob with food, warm clothing and what medical kit we had. We decided that since Tim can easily outpace me, him being about 4/5ths legs that he would go for help and I would return to Rob as soon as possible.

Rob wasn't too happy with this but since he was the one with the broken femur, hands and missing teeth and a headache from hell to boot, he wasn't the one to be calling the shots at that particular moment in time. We left Rob, this lonely voice in the darkness and continued our descent and to make things just a little bit worse, our petzl headlamps started to fail so we were climbing almost totally in the dark.

It felt terrible leaving a friend knowing that this could very well be the last time that either of us speak to him. I think it was at this stage that Rob confessed that he had proposed to Vivette the previous evening and that we were to tell her that he loved her. What a way to spend what should be a highlight in one's life.

Saturday, December 18, 1993

A short way down

The climb just seemed to go on and on and I was pretty well toast by now and a couple of times caught myself nodding off at the most inopportune moments like just above an abseil point just before starting down. We were both so tired that we started taking chances we would never take if circumstances were any different, in particular I remember abseiling off an old piton because we couldn't find anywhere else to anchor the rope to. It seemed very firmly embedded in the rock but was more or less in the line in which we would be pulling, thinking about it now gives me the creeps. Fortunately it held and we found ourselves at the bottom of the gully at about 05:00 ready to start the climb back up to the cave where Vivette and Anne were waiting for us, by now aware that something was dreadfully wrong.

View showing the point that rob fell from, where we were when he fell and the cave into which he managed to fall.

We could hear anguished cries across the chasm from the injured one, alone and abandoned by his friends halfway up a cliff face with very little hope of surviving the ordeal. We reached Vivette and Anne at about 06:30 to 07:00 and Tim and Anne immediately set out for Isandlwana Police Station with lightly loaded packs to summon the cavalry. We later learnt that Tim and Anne had made it to the Police Station in 3 hours flat, a remarkable time given the terrain over which they had to travel. We were extremely lucky to meet up with Mike O'Reilly and Justin who were about to climb Mponjwane and were prepared to help with rescuing Rob, abandoning their own climb.

Mike and Brian


Somewhere in between deciding what we were going to take, distributing the contents of my backpack before packing it again I managed a 20 minute nap which I desperately needed. I didn't even take my helmet off, just lay down in my clothes and was fast asleep within 10 seconds. By about 08:00 we were on the move again back down the gully, across the nek and to the bottom of the watercourse where I once again started the climb as I had done 24 hours previously. Climbing with a backpack is a vastly different proposition to without one so I led mostly without it and then pulled it up behind me, the pack catching on all the little protuberances and sometimes forcing me to pull it so hard that some of the cordura was cut through.

I think we got back to Rob at about 11:00 to find him still alive although not in a very good state, specifically he desperately needed warmth, water and nourishment not to mention medical treatment if he was to survive. First thing up was to get him onto a sleeping mat and into his sleeping bag so that he could warm up. The cave in which he was had little if any direct sunlight on it so it was quite chilly and up until this time he was still only in his climbing clothes, jacket and rain suit. His leg was tight in the rain suit but he could still wiggle his toes and feet so we decided that rather than do what I suspected the doctor would do we would leave it in the trousers and move it as little as possible. This made getting him into the sleeping bag very awkward but ½ an hour of careful manipulation and he was lying in the bag zipped up and starting to warm up. We had brought some myprodol (painkiller) and I knew that two pills was the recommended maximum dose and that it had to be taken on a full stomach. I thought that since we were way into the exceptional circumstances category with a suspected broken femur and there was no way Rob was going to have a full meal any time soon, whatever damage the myprodol was going to inflict was probably going to be a distant second to everything else, I fed Rob four at a time every few hours. Rob was muttering on something about wanting to feel the pain so that he would know that there's something wrong. Didn't make too much sense to me since we already knew we were in desperate straits and so in the myprodol went, about 30 minutes later Rob pipes up with a “Hey, these things really work, check this!” and proceeded to move his leg causing the bones to grate together. “I can't actually feel that” he continued.

Next problem was dehydration and sustenance so I set about making soup and feeding Rob what I could which wasn't much since he had broken some teeth as well. By now I was seriously hungry as well not having eaten properly since breakfast the previous day so when Rob said that he couldn't eat the packet of jelly babies I had laboriously carried up for him I demolished the entire packet in one go before he could change his mind. Not very altruistic I'll admit but it's what happened. After I had finished all this, Justin and Mike chatted to Rob while I sunned myself on the rocks about 15m below him and about 30m to the south and contemplated the predicament we had managed to get ourselves into.

The cave in which Rob ended up was pokey to put it mildly and while there was quite a nice step to stand on about 1m below the cave to the left there was absolutely nowhere to attach a rope anywhere close to the cave or inside it, even having a piton and hammer courtesy of Mike didn't help us at all. The cave was about 2m wide and about 1m deep although the back of it was so low that it was effectively unusable. In order to cook we would put the stove on the inside of the cave and I would cook bending over Rob to reach it. The floor of the cave was slightly concave with just a faint hint of a lip which was a total blessing. It also sloped slightly down towards where Robs feet were.

We were constantly talking about Tim and whether he had managed to get word out and one so desperately wants to hear helicopters that half the time we were actually imagining the sound they would make. After an afternoon of this we finally heard what was unmistakeably a helicopter and saw it fly around the back of Mponjwane cave and then an abrupt silence. Surely the sound shouldn't just stop like that we thought, it turned out that the helicopter had suffered a malfunction and dropped out of the sky from about 20 metres breaking it's undercarriage but nothing nor anyone else fortunately.

At about 17:00 when it became clear that the rescue party wasn't going to get to us that day so we decided that I would stay the night with Rob while Mike and Justin would return to Mponjwane cave. So there we were, the two of us stuck in this tiny cave literally half way up a cliff face with a broken femur and assorted other injuries in the most remote section of the Drakensberg and to top it all off the weather closed in again. I must admit that the very last thing that I wanted to do was to stay the night, the thought of waking up next to a dead body didn't really excite me at all not to mention the night itself which promised to be long and uncomfortable.

As darkness closed in on us, the rain started along with the thunder and lightening which reverberated around the peak along with the sound of numerous rock falls. The rain bucketed down and although we were in a cave, ostensibly out of the rain we didn't escape completely since the roof of the cave was rounded and any rain running down the cliff face would follow the curve of the roof and land on us. We tried as best we could to arrange the emergency blanket to drain the water off us but in the end we just resigned ourselves to sleeping in a pool of cold water. Since there was no protection in the cave at all there was nothing for it but to just lie still and sleep as best one could and turning over definitely wasn't an option at all. We chatted and played the mouth organ which I had brought up with me before we both retreated into our own worlds, each of us desperately tired.

Friday, December 17, 1993

A little up and a little down

Quite a nerve wracking night lying on the edge of a cliff with about 10m drop a few inches away and not being tied in but morning finally broke after probably the longest most uncomfortable night of my life. Rob had slid down a little bit during the night so instead of only his foot dangling out over space, the edge of the cave was up to his calf. I actually think this made his femur a little more comfortable since it put a little bit of traction on it from the weight of his foot. It was a size 14 after all.

Made some more soup and fed Rob yet more water while we listened to the clink of climbing equipment as the rescue party slowly made their way up to us. By about 10:00 we couldn't understand why they hadn't reached us so we had to make a decision for me to once again leave Rob. The problem was that although I could get down from Robs cave, there was no way for me to return without someone to belay me so it was with great trepidation that I left Rob, down climbed the 10m of cliff face and went in search of the rescue party.

I found them just below the top of the water gullies unable to get over an awkward part, not because it was particularly difficult but the water made it really slippery and the doctor was taking no chances of having a second accident on the mountain. The relief on the doctors face when I poked my head over the ledge they were trying to scale was obvious and his first words to me were “Pizza Delivery” which was kind of amusing given the situation. The doctor's name was Roger Natrass who besides being a doctor was also one of the leading sport climbers in South Africa at that stage which made Rob feel like he was in very good hands. The “Pizza Delivery” joke was repeated when Roger reached Rob, bringing a welcome smile to Robs face.

Along with Roger, Mike and Justin once again climbed up this time with two 100m 11mm ropes which weighed a ton. They were instructed by Roger to go and make a belay as close to directly above the cave as they could and that it had better be the best belay they could make. While Mike and Justin were busy with this, Roger and I climbed back up to Rob to get him ready for the descent.

The first thing that needed to go was the sleeping bag which was pretty much soaked through after the night. I can still picture the steam rising from Robs body as the bag was unzipped as well as the smell. Whewee!, the closest I can get for people to imagine it would be a bad case of wet mouldy wool.

Roger cut Robs pants away to have a close look and for a change our luck was with us, although the femur was definitely broken there was relatively little swelling which meant there was a really good chance that no major arteries or veins had been severed. After checking the hands and teeth and discovering some broken ribs we started to splint the femur with the fancy blow up splint which Roger had brought only to have it deflate almost immediately. Fortunately I had brought some tent poles with me the previous day so we used these to splint the broken leg and then splinted both legs together to provide even more support. After this it was time to manoeuvre Rob onto the stretcher, tie him firmly in and then it was time to leave our little home and make our way back to the big world.

Getting a stretcher down a mountain is no easy feat, what the procedure is, is to tie a person to the bottom of the stretcher with about 1m of rope and then attach the stretcher to the belay ropes controlled by Justin and Mike. So far so good but as the stretcher comes out of the cave both the stretcher and myself fell about 2m as the slack went out of the rope. This was quite terrifying as I could just imagine the two of us cartwheeling end over end down the mountain attached to each other by a metre of rope. Fortunately both Justin and Mike had done a good job and it was left to me to wrestle the stretcher down the cliff face which isn't nearly as vertical as I would have liked it. Half the time I had to physically pick half of Robs 85kg up and drag him slowly downhill as Mike and Justin payed out the rope. One of the most difficult parts of the stretcher work was stopping it turning around and scraping Robs face on the cliff face and there were times where it took all the strength that I could muster to prevent the cliff rearranging yet more of Robs anatomy.

We finally made the bottom of the gully at about 17:30; meeting the rest of the rescue party who would take over from here. We were in the gully when we heard a shout of “Rocks below” as Justin dislodged a few rocks and I cowered over Robs face protecting him as best I could and hoping that nothing substantial hit us. Apart from a resounding thunk on my helmet and softer thuds on Robs' chest, we were fine but the gully was clearly not the place to spend a night especially given the number of rock falls which we heard the previous night.

I can't remember who spent the night sitting with Rob in the gully but I have to take my hat off to him, that couldn't have been a pleasant night. I took my leave from Rob and climbed back up to Mponjwane cave reaching there at 19:00 just after supper had finished. I was ravenous, I hadn't actually eaten anything solid for close on 3 days, all I had had was some soup, jelly beans, nuts and raisins on the first day and water. Fortunately there was a little of supper left over which I was going to attack as soon as I could. Unfortunately I turned my back for a few seconds and within that space of time, someone else ate it. Bastard. So I went hungry but to be honest, I was so tired that I didn't have any trouble at all falling asleep immediately.

My climbing helmet came off for the first time since Friday morning which felt very weird as I had grown so accustomed to wearing it. I think Vivette was really glad to see me, especially knowing that Rob was halfway out and on his way to hospital. There was still some doubts about how to get Rob out since getting him up the gully and to the cave was near impossible but going down the gully might not get to anywhere that a helicopter could get him either. Nobody knew where the gully led but it seemed the better option on the balance of probabilities.

You can just see Vivette peeping out of her sleeping bag on the far right hand side.

Thursday, December 16, 1993

A long walk out

We woke up, packed up and got going as soon as possible, the general feeling being that we had outstayed our welcome on the mountain and the sooner we departed the better. The rescue team descended to where Rob had spent the night and spent the next 6 hours manhandling him down the gully until it was wide enough for the helicopter to hoist him up using a cable.

The helicopter landed about 1km away on a spur and transferred him from the skids into the cargo area.

For us there was no excitement or easy way out, we had to hike the 23 long km's back to the Isandlwana Police Station. We had just finished the descent of the Rockeries pass and were getting going on the long grind along the valley when we saw a helicopter coming up the valley, I couldn't but get my hopes up that they were actually coming for us but that really would be too good to be true. As the helicopter flew past waving at us I knew that it really was too good to be true and resigned myself to the long walk. I really desperately wanted the helicopter to pick us up because I was now seriously running out of steam, my legs were feeling a bit like jelly and wouldn't stop shaking. I really needed food and lots of it.

Just as I resigned myself to the slog, the helicopter made a sweeping turn and dropped to pick us up. The skill of the pilot was truly remarkable, the hillside we were on was too steep to land so he kept one wheel on the path, the rotors missing a nearby tree by a couple of feet and as each of us boarded would adjust the helicopter to take account of the new weight distribution. Within a short space of time we had all boarded and were off to Isandlwana the easy way. We landed shortly before the helicopter carrying Rob landed, took Vivette on board and flew off to hospital.

Reunited with Tim and Anne we had a lot of catching up to do during the 3 1/2 hour drive back to Johannesburg. Arriving back at Johannesburg my parents had been following the story on TV and in the papers and were relieved to have me back and we had a great supper while I told them all about the rescue. A story I was to repeat many times in the subsequent weeks.

When I finally got to bed, exhausted, I was really expecting the emotions of the preceding days to come out. When you are up there on the mountain you can't afford emotions, you have to know what you must do and you must just do it so I was expecting whatever emotions that I had been suppressing to come bubbling out but there just wasn't anything. I did however have to work very hard not to play the “what if”game which can drive one truly insane since there were so many “what if this or that” had or hadn't happened the outcome would have been vastly different. One just has to accept that this is how it played out and accept it.

Rob, in the meantime, had managed to survive until he was admitted into Durban hospital but he was still seriously in danger and spent some time in ICU before being moved to a general ward and then finally to a hospital in Johannesburg. In all he spent about 3 months in hospital and I remember visiting him once when he was out of danger, I happened to be there at the same time as a mutual blonde acquaintance who was inordinately interested in all the levers around Robs bed and pushed one as she asked “What does this do?” Well, that particular one collapsed the bed and I just saw Rob go pale white with pain as she registered what she had just done.

Sunrise from Mponjwane cave

Wednesday, December 15, 1993


A year later we organised a get together with everyone who had been involved in the rescue on the anniversary of the rescue. A day before the anniversary, I receive a call from Rob. “Ummm” he said, “we're going to have to cancel the get together”, “why?” I ask, “because, ummm, Vivette has just broken her back falling off a climb and is in Sandton clinic as we speak”. Go figure.

It is now 13 years on and Rob is still climbing around the Drakensberg and amongst other high peaks, I have done the odd bit of sport climbing but have vowed never to climb in the Drakensberg again. This experience having very clearly defined my own personal acceptable risk threshold. Tim has never climbed again to my knowledge.

So, if I had to wind the clock back would I do it again? Obviously if I knew that the adventure was going to cause the near death of a friend, the answer would be no but as a general question about life, the answer has to be yes. I strongly feel that if one isn't constantly attempting more than what one knows one can comfortably achieve, one isn't really living and that is what life is all about; the experience.