Haughty Hiking Cuisine: the lads try supping from a Giants Cup in the Drakensberg

This piece all started when I read about farro for the first time.  WTF is farro?  Farro is just uncrushed wheat, which is really just a variety of grass seed you can use to bake bread.  Even eland, which are really just wild cows, graze on a form of this high falutin’ nosh in the Drakensberg every season.  They just don’t pay US $2 500 (excluding airfare) to learn how to do it every summer with Nancy Harmon Jenkins in Tuscany.

Giants Cup Hiking Trail
+27 (0)33 845 1000
Southern Drakensberg

Apologies to Harmon Jenkins, her recipe for farro, speckled bean and olive oil soup, or Zuppa Frantoiana, is damn fine, even with barley substituted for farro.  And her course is really about ‘beyond’ extra virgin olive oils.  (Only Italians can pull off extra, extra virgin.  Morgenster, I suggest you don’t even contemplate competing head on with the Italians from slutty Somerset West.  Extra experienced local virgins might work better.  After all Mary has pulled off this concept for 2 000 years.)

Back to Chiantishire.  Accommodation at the elegantly restored Renaissance Villa Campestri Olive Oil Resort is also thrown in by Harmon Jenkins.  Batchelorettes – there may even be a brooding Luca waiting to take advantage of you.

But like the equally elegant eland you can grze and hike in the dramatic scenery of the Berg for far less.  Three hundred and seventy five rand to be precise.  For three days and two nights on the middle section of the Giants Cup.  Grazie. 

Here the seeds are still attached to the dry grass, which has the smell of dust – a nose common to Africa but not found in the Cape vineyards.  Not even in the tasting notes.  But what is somewhat similar to the Cape, unlike the rest of KwaZulu-Natal, is the flora.  Tree Proteas abound in the Berg and fynbos-like shrubs, such as ericas, brush ankles with their spiky-spindly leaves.

Our foraging started at Pucketty Farm stall just before you enter Underberg in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg.  Earlier passing through the Butt end of Boston, the car thermometer suggested it was two degrees outside, though we were toasty inside.  Climbing out of the cab at Pucketty the cold hit us like a snotklap from a seal, bringing on early arthritis and sending me scrambling for my woolen hat and fleece jacket.

Luckily the wooden shack ‘restaurant’ here sells piping-hot mugs of oxtail soup with freshly baked rough bread.  Inside the next door deli there is plenty of smoked trout, presumably from local dams.  This isn’t the paper-thin pink-orange version from Franschhoek that tries to be Scottish Salmon but a fat pale-pink fish.  Later this, along with trout pâté, proved to be a good first day lunch with the country bread (but too heavy to carry for the next two days’ lunches).  Debate among the staff at the stall here is: “Will it snow?”  Or maybe that’s just meant for us tourists.

As we drop one car at the hike’s end point, the Drakensberg Gardens hotel, the temperature sneaks below zero and it really does begin to snow.  Well just a bit.  This is confirmed by the Swedish technology on the dashboard of the vehicle (in the form of a virtual electronic snowdrop).  Iced old snow lies thick in the shadier spots.

On the way north to the start we drive through the twin villages of Underberg and Himeville, passing a Hummer struggling across the slippery road. (Our second car, a three litre non-turbo diesel Toyota Condor, appears to be only at a marginal disadvantage to the USA’s final and most desperate ego-boosting folly).

Because we start on what is officially the second day of the Giants Cup, our first night is at the Cobham campsite in the rustic stone hut known as Polela.  This was once the homestead of a friend before an earlier wave of nationalisation under the (you guessed it) National Party.  (This land grab wasn’t a bad thing as it extended the area of the Little Berg under conservation and they were paid out.)  Here, while there is no electricity, there is the luxury of hot gas-fired water, wood, indoor fireplaces an outdoor braai, amenities mostly unavailable at the other huts.

Because all the carrying of food up until now has been done by motorcar we are allowed to indulge in heavy fare tonight.  The Trombonist, an experienced Berg hand and the chef de hike, pulls out outsized rump steaks.  His least challenging task in the al fresco kitchen proves to be his only gastronomic boo boo.  The flavour of Limousin Oak is used to give weight to luxuries such as Bordeaux wine, single malt whisky and for smoking meat but the braai wood from the fallen oak tree in his Pietermaritzburg garden is as over wooded as one of those pee-yellow Cape chardonnays.  To overcompensate I drink my last bulk booze of the trip, a bottle of unwooded Nitida Sauvignon Blanc 20011.

It is a late start the next morning.  Today is the shortest hike of less than nine kilometers along a contour path dotted with frozen snow but like every other day there are river valleys to descend and then climb out of.  Stationary eland are spotted in the distance.  Typical trail mix of low-salt peanuts and raisins, dried fruit, biltong and the only guilt-free chocolate you will ever eat spurs us on.  You can literally feel your body burning up the cacao as you wolf it down.

In the early afternoon we arrive at the Mzimkhulwana hut.  After a quick lunch of the trout we lie down exhausted and bake in the winter sun, which is soon to disappear behind the mountain.  In the twilight the man who loves nothing better than to “chew the fat” notices a couple of jackals trotting across the other side of the dusky-gold valley.  There is excited talk of a hot shower (the good Doppers of the University of theNorth West, formerly Potch, have renovated the place) but leaking gas from the geyser canister stops that idea in its tracks.

By now the temperature is plummeting and cooking is embarked on before it becomes completely dark, while we nibble on a mildly spiced chourico sausage.  The Trombonist pulls out smoked chicken.  It is both light and preserved from smoking but at these temperatures you can perish any thought that it will go off.  His idea of a moisture-free bird strikes a chord with the weight-watching backpack carrying class but can he make a respectable dish of it?  You bet.

Basmati rice is boiled and a butter chicken powder called Curry Tree (imported from India but bought from a Pick n Pay in Pietermaritzburg’s Victoria Road) is added.  It isn’t available at the Gardens Pick n Pay in Cape Town which is a pity as it is good enough to convince even a Fresnaye foodie dinner guest that it is cooked from scratch.  Or possibly at high altitude it just tastes authentic.

The communal cooking-dining area has a roof but is so ‘open plan’ with nature that it is missing a wall.  The exposed design makes it very difficult to stay up even with all your clothes and wooly accessories on.  A couple of whisky shots from the hip flask hardly help.  Yet it is not quite 8 pm.  So off to bed in one of the bunk rooms that do have four walls.  The problem is that you wake up at 4 am with literally little more to do than twiddle your thumbs (inside the sleeping bag).  Unless of course you are so comfortable in your own skin that you can relish the dark stillness for a couple of hours.  In a way learning how to relax with nothing but your thoughts is part of the point of a rustic vacation in nature.  For an aclimatised city slicker such as me it isn’t that easy to attain this state on a short hike.

Finally the birds start to sing, a sign that the first light isn’t far off.  But of course it takes direct sunlight before the frost crunchy ground starts to thaw and there is nothing instant about the instant coffee in this climate.  Any finicky tasks requiring the removal of gloves, even tying shoe laces, are a bit of an ordeal.  Washing the dishes from the night before in icy water is a task best shirked.  Finally after what feels like well over ten minutes hot caffeine and sugar are coursing through our veins.

Then it’s a breakfast of chocolate ProNutro (I didn’t know the brand still existed).  This meal is purely functional so there isn’t even the bother of pre-mixing of powdered milk, rather it is simply sprinkled over the cereal.  I read on the box that there is already milk in ProNutro so forgo it, though including it would probably help avoid the sensation that you are eating ready mixed concrete.

Today is the most challenging walk, while only around 13 kilometres, it involves two climbs with the rest thankfully on a contour path.  Though at least two of the other three exercise regularly, we are all dog-tired at some or other point.  Gyms and most other forms of exercise don’t require you to carry a 12 kilogramme backpack.

Here we are up close and personal with the basalt of the Big Berg (while not quite in it) and get our best and last view of the Giants Cup before it fades into distance.  The Cup is the crescent between the two Hodgson’s Peaks.  The Giant, as in Giants Castle, lies passed out on his back further to the north but is just out of view.

At the top of the first ascent we arrive at a little highland lake.  Snowy peaks are perfectly reflected in its still waters that appear only recently melted.  Time to take those packs of and find comfortable rocks to balles bak (put our feet up, literally bake balls).

Now we are walking into a valley of the sandstone Little Berg before the second big climb of the day.  As we begin the ascent the stark beauty of the imposing volcanic ridge before us stirs the soul.  At this elevation little grows much higher than the knee.  From up here we gaze down on a softer, tamer, yet tight-twisting, gorge.

Lush with thriving vegetation we pass giant boulders perched on deep pools of water.  Fantasies of naked nymphs sunning themselves on rocks abound before the valley bottoms out into commercial farmland, burnt black as in a scorched earth policy.  The cheap fantasy – brought on by fatigue and a lack of women – abruptly ends.  Here the walk even takes you briefly on the tar road to Drakensberg Gardens and over the snaking Mzimkhulu River.

Then the trail planner (or a ‘bastard’ white farmer declining walking rights) plays his cruelest card in the final approach to the Winterhoek Hut.  There is a third steep climb up yet more sooty and eroded grassland.  All this when a floodplain-flat approach to the south is ignored.  On summiting the koppie there is a grand view of the Castleburn resort garbage dump.  This is not a view the guests see but I guess like all refuse sites someone has to see it.  Pity it is nature-loving hikers in this case.

The hut has more of a countryside than wilderness feel but has pleasant enough views over the grassy plains and in the wet summer months one is even allowed to light a fire.  Again the Trombonist starts cooking before sunset – this time whipping up a quick meal of couscous laced with dried chunks of what I recall as sweet and spicy North African flavours together with and butter-fried fresh red peppers and onions.  While he is slaving we pass around tapas of paper thin (read light) slices of air dried hams from Woolworths.  Porky Serrano Ham is best followed by salty Parma.  Chewy prosciutto, or Parma that isn’t from Parma, is stirred into the couscous and veggies.

So for two nights in a row we enjoy gourmet hiking meals.  However, the facts that we only spend two nights camping and don’t have to carry tents do lend an element of slack packing to the endeavour.  Six nights of hiking with tents would have seen us revert to the dehydrated freeze-dried Smash and Imana flavoured soya of our youths.

The next morning the Gentleman Biker, the custodian of the blue butane and propane mix gas canister tries in vain to light the cooker for the morning coffee.  No success.  Eventually the technically talented Gentleman and the Trombonist give up after realising it has been so cold the gas has turned to goo, or kinda frozen.  Sheepishly the Gentleman admits he left his door wide open overnight in order to “catch a few moon rays”.  Vok, and we asked him to sleep with the bloody canister. 

He is soon forgiven as the adrenalin caused by a steep early climb fills the hole where the caffeine should be and eventually the glow of endorphins takes over.  Thoughts of hot coffee are long forgotten. 

Just as we are ‘on the cusp’ of summiting the ridge (every mountain has seven summits according to the Trombonist’s late mother), a couple of eland startle us and us them.  These normally sedentary antelope bound off into the distance offering some light mental relief from the slog mentality.

On the ridge we encounter more burnt veld, one of the disadvantages of hiking in the dry season.  It is plain sailing and relatively uneventful for these last 13 kilometres, save for an excited secretary bird, as we gaze on down at our final destination in the distance, the Swiman hut near Drakensberg Gardens.

Gradually the Fat Chewer’s Merrell boots have curiously detached from their soles so at increasingly regular intervals he needs to invent Heath Robinson-like repair jobs with spare shoe laces.  Despite the remedial work being as implausible as the contraption for “resuscitating stale railway scones for redistribution at the station buffets”, we arrive just moments before the boots’ built-in obsolescence kicks in.  These boots weren’t made for walking.  You and me were.  Do it.  Sup from the Giants Cup.

Notes on Hiking Haute Cuisine:  Other light, small, tasty and nutritious ingredients include: dried porcini mushrooms and dried stoned olives (vegetarian biltong) for snacking.  The dried mushrooms have to be soaked in hot water for at least 15 minutes so maybe not such a good idea.  Garlic flakes, well there is something I’ve never knowingly eaten.

I didn’t give enough thought to the meals (the Trombonist did that) and asking around very few foodies had ideas that didn’t involve carrying an AGA stove and Le Creuset pots.  Hikers – you must have better ideas.  Please send them in below.

If it is winter buy a red gas cannister (as opposed to blue) with a different gas mix. 

Clarification: mountain climbers mean rock climbing when they say climbing.  The rest of us – who use the Oxford dictionary – mean either rock climbing or hiking when we refer to climbing a mountain.  We only walked the middle three days of the five day Giants Cup.

Tom Robbins
Posted September 16, 2011

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