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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland


EXERCISE NORTHERN NATAL - 32 SIGNAL REGIMENT HEAD TO SOUTHERN AFRICA

13 May 2016

Members of 40 (NIH) Squadron, based in Belfast, joined other members of their Regiment on Exercise Northern natal in Southern Africa.

Below is a fantastic account of their adventures:

Ex Northern NATAL was a Level 3 International Trekking Expedition in Southern Africa completing the Giants Cup Trail and summiting Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest peak in Southern Africa at 3484m.  The team was a fusion of Regular and Army Reserve personnel, embedding the pairing arrangement we have with 2 Sig Regt.

The team set out on a dull Glasgow evening to the airport to begin the 21 hour journey to Durban.  As we boarded the plane we bid farewell to the cold, damp climate, something we would not see again until our return a fortnight later.  With a quick change over in Dubai we were headed to King Shaka Airport and the real start of the adventure.

On arrival we were met by the In-Country Liaison, Paul, who took us straight to our first native experience, Steers, a fantastic Burger Restaurant serving half a cow in a bun for pennies!  A well deserved meal after plane food!  Our appetites satisfied, we headed out into the darkness to our first stop in Elandsheim ready to begin acclimatisation.  

We were woken to a hearty breakfast and roaming Antelope before climbing onto the transport and heading out to Isandlwana.  We were met by Sheldon a local guide who was brimming with knowledge and facts about the battles, and subsequent decision making that led to the events unfolding as they did.  You almost forgot you were acclimatising!  The day took us to ridgelines overlooking the Isandlwana Plain, Isandlwana and of course Rorkes Drift.  This part of the acclimatisation had a real meaning to the Regt, boasting Lt Chard VC as the former Adjt.  



Listening to the decisions he made and why he made them, stood in the same footprints as him was humbling.  After a full day of learning and walking we headed back to Elandsheim where we were met with a huge meal and cold drinks, perfect. 

The next morning was up to the same routine, so after breakfast we said goodbye to our gracious hosts and moved on to the next phase of acclimatisation in Dundee, where we were met by a local legend, Pat who writes books on the Anglo Boer War.  The day was spent in the same manner as before and before long it was time to jump on the transport to the next stop, Mountain Splendour.

At Mountain Splendour we were met by the owners who immediately set us at ease into our tents for the night and prepared a local stew that they had been cooking on an open fire since lunch.  The food was extremely tasty and satisfying and with nodding heads we ventured to our beds ready to get to our next destination.  We were taken to a local bakery for breakfast and then back onto the transport on route to the start line for the Giants Cup Trail. 

Our final proper night’s sleep awaited us at Sani Pass, where a lot of last minute changes to expedition packs were being made and final checks to make sure everything worked, thankfully it did!  After breakfast we said goodbye to Paul and headed out on the first day of the Giants Cup Trail.

The Giants Cup Trail is a 5 day trek across the Drakensburg Region.  The weather was overcast and quite cool, a blessing as the sun soon rose and burnt through it!  We arrived at our first campsite, Pholela in the afternoon to find a Ranger station with a shop, a rare treat on the trail.  Our first meal of dehydrated rations was consumed with gusto, becoming less enthusiastically devoured the longer we were on the trail!  As with most wilderness expeditions when the sun goes down it was time for bed.  With the peace and quiet you could hear the Baboons calling for bed and the Jackals calling for breakfast.

Day 2 of the trail took us to Mzimkhulwana, a remote area with a natural swimming pool!  The weather was a lot warmer so extra care was taken to ensure we were all hydrated and re-filling our water at every stream.  From a distance you could see the wildlife such as Eland, a one ton Antelope, and Baboons.  Eagles flew on the thermals searching for prey and South African Grouse shooting out of the bush when we walked past.  As the afternoon came about we reached our destination. Those that ventured up to the rock pool to cool off, were suddenly returning after encountering a Rinkhals (a Rinkhals is a native snake that hoods like a cobra, with an accurate venomous spit up to 2m).  

Day 3 began with breakfast basking in beautiful sunshine and then packs on to Winterhoek Hut. The scenery again did not disappoint as the trek ventured on.  This day was particularly hot and towards the end of the day, the teams were beginning to flag.  It was at this point we noticed a Country Club on the map and decided to use our charm and ingenuity to gain access.  By this I mean we walked up and asked if we could possibly have something to eat and drink? They were not going to turn down 14 ravenous people no matter how dishevelled we were!!  For the first time in a few days we had fresh rations and cold drinks, looking out on a private pond and grounds, smelling of hiking in the wilderness, it must have been a picture for the guests!!  Soon after we were on the path again and ended at Winterhoek Rondavels.  A chance to relax, build a fire and prepare for the long day ahead.

We decided on Day 4 to combine both walks to give ourselves the best chance at the summit attempt, so we set off early doors on our longest day.  The higher the team climbed out of the valley the more stunning the view, rising above the early morning mist felt like walking above the clouds.  



The day was full of beautiful vistas and seeing from a distance the wildlife, until it was broken by a lone man wanting to walk with us.  After a chat we agreed, it turned out he stayed in another hut along the trail and was held at gunpoint and mugged by a 10 year old Basotho child.  Being alone he wanted a bit of safety so we walked with him until he cut away to find civilisation.  A stiff reminder of the dangers in the Country.  The first half of the day passed in a flash as we took in Swiman Hut down in the valley floor. At this point a sharp left took us onto the final leg, we were commited to the new strategy.  A few false summits and 10’s of Km later we finally arrived at Bushman’s Nek Hut.  This hut is best described as desolate with occasional desperate use, all part of the adventure!  Hoping not to get bitten by vermin etc during the night the tired team took to their beds.

Day 5 was an easy day, up and walking a couple of Km’s to Bushman’s Nek Campsite, which on reflection would have been the better option to stay at.  Members of the team walked to the site shop to purchase cold drinks and ice cream, the breakfast of adventurers.  A few pictures taken and we were off to Sani Pass to the next stage of the adventure.

4 x 4 transport was waiting for us at the drop off point to take us to Sani Mountain Lodge, boasting the highest pub in Southern Africa.  The drive up the pass was exciting with steep drop offs and tight bends, all of this paled into insignificance when you saw the views.  A couple of border control points later and we were in Lesotho, home to Thabana Ntlenyana, our next objective.  A hearty meal followed by bed was the order of the day, another early start to tackle the summit.

As dawn was breaking we were sat having breakfast simply looking out at the landscape - breathtaking.  We were met at breakfast by the guide who would take us up Thabana Ntlenyana.  Thabana is the highest peak in Southern Africa and was only discovered in the 1950’s by a Royal Engineers Survey Team.  The day begins and ends with a long walk-in and the views through the first half of the walk are pretty uninspiring, you could be anywhere in the UK.  After the first ascent you begin to see more and you start anticipating the summit view.  By the third ascent the views were stunning.  The day was arduous however the team all managed to get to the summit with a feeling of great achievement and pride.  Nature’s reward was a view across the entire Drakensburg Region to the East and infinite views in all other directions.  Whilst on the summit we saw a pair of breeding Black Eagles soaring on the thermals (Black Eagles are endangered and sightings must be reported) so this was pretty special.  Not wanting to leave but sadly having to, we descended the summit and headed back to the hostel, this time toasting our success in the highest pub in Southern Africa!

The next morning was quite a late start by the expeditions’ standard, again just staring out at the views whilst having breakfast.  A quick drive down Sani Pass, which will appear on Top Gear in June, we were met again by Paul and taken to St Lucia (not in the Caribbean unfortunately).  Luxurious accommodation awaited and an end of expedition meal was deservedly eaten.

To begin the decompression phase we went on an estuary cruise to see Hippos and Crocodiles.  We were introduced to the famous “Townie” pod, a group of Hippos that ventures into St Lucia most nights to feast on the sweet grass in the town.  With a top speed of 55Km/h we were advised to give them a wide berth if spotted!  We saw the Hippos and a couple of young Crocs.  Once we bid our farewells it was straight to Hluhuwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve to have an evening game drive.  This was in open 4 x 4’s driving through the reserve in search of the big five - Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino, Leopard and Lion - named the big five because they are the hardest to hunt on foot.  On the game drive we saw Wild Dogs, Rhinos, Giraffes, Buffalos and Lions.  We were then dropped off at the restaurant for a late meal followed by a traditional Zulu dance.

The morning game drive was much the same with more animals rousing from their slumber.  In addition to last night’s sightings we saw Baboons.  Wild Boar joined us for a coffee at the rest point.  With the game drive over it was almost the end of the exercise, landing in Glasgow 21 hours later.  A thoroughly enjoyable and challenging experience was had by all, with many personal goals and objectives achieved by the team.  A huge thank you to all the team for their effort, determination and resilience throughout.