Near Tragedy in the Drakensberg

The 'Big Snow' of 1988

©Roger de la Harpe
Icicles and snow forms in the Drakensberg Mountain ranges in winter.

In the Mkhomazi region of the Drakensberg, a small and inexperienced party set out from Lotheni one sunny Friday in July, under the leadership of medical student David Harrison. They were bound for Lotheni Cave, up the already snow-filled and never very pleasant kaMashilenga Pass, and a hike they will never forget.

That was the weekend of the 'big snow' of 1988. Harrison, his sister and two friends were not equipped for snow (they had no tent and only one had proper boots), and even before they reached the summit they were wading through deep drifts. That they reached the top at all is an indication of either their tenacity or their foolhardiness.

They never found the cave; in fact snow covered everything and they couldn't recognise any feature at all. Near tragedies led to amazing escapes, first over the lip of the Escarpment (down sheer cliffs, using the snow as a cushion as they leapt over precipices and down ice falls), and then into a tiny shelter that finally saved their lives (but not all their digits from frostbite).

For three days helicopter rescuers searched for them, finally locating Harrison, who had left the other three to go for help, in the maze of Little Berg ridges and valleys where they had gone off course. It's a harrowing story, and well worth locating a copy of Reg Pearse's book - The Dragon's Wrath (later published under the name of his co-author James Byrom), for the full account.

By David Bristow