The Cavern’s Big5Hike for education… some did it for fun, some for the challenge, but I’m sure all did it because they believed in the cause – making a difference in children’s lives through education.

An education that begins with the inspiring work of the Royal Drakensberg Education Trust and their support of early childhood development, from infancy to 10 years in this rural and disadvantaged area of the northern Drakensberg. Their mission is to provide quality educational opportunities so that young children can #learn2read and in turn #read2learn, starting from infancy with the carer and baby programme, BabyBoost, to early childhood development with the Khanyisela Project which supports several creches in the amaZizi community, and the Royal Drakensberg Primary School (RDPS) which provides a quality foundation to learning for children from age four through to ten.

But to understand the heart behind the cause, we need to go back to the beginning. To when a young Bill Carte proposed to his darling Ruth, and together, 80 years ago, their dream to build a life together and to make a difference, to the land, and to the people around them began.

Bill’s reason for being can be summed up in the words he uttered in 1941; “Our work is to create beauty, to make the land more fertile, to make our living, to leave the world better than when we came into it”.

But as we all know, life tosses curve balls, and Ruth was widowed after 13 short years of marriage and left with a small guest farm, four children, gravel roads and no power. But she stuck to it and continued the vision of building a farm and leaving the world a better place. To Megan Carte Bedingham, Ruth’s granddaughter and owner-manager of The Cavern, she is her inspiration and her ‘ultimate warrior’. And in the same way that Ruth’s success and fortitude came from the support of those around her, Megan attributes the success of the Big5Hike, and by extension support for the Royal Drakensberg Education Trust, to the wonderful Cavern community and the greater community of sponsors, hikers and supporters that surrounds them.

A few weeks before the Big5Hike Megan was approached by some past RDPS pupils about joining the hike. She asked them each to send her a letter of motivation for sponsorship, which she then shared on social media and sent to their Cavern database. She included the stories of Mam Idah, who has been with them since the school began and Teacher Thoba, who in his 33rd year is living his purpose. Added to this was Lucy the spaniel “to mix to bring in a little bit of cuteness and tug at the heartstrings”.

Megan was astounded at the way the greater community had responded this small fundraising drive, which resulted in about R114k being added to their fundraising amount. “It was a global village that donated… we could do this” she said, “and as we raise these important Rands and challenge ourselves to long walks and scrambling up mountains we begin to feel like the warriors of Ruth’s legacy”.

Arriving on an unexpectedly wet autumn afternoon each of the hikers, who had each raised nine thousand rand – some even more, registered for the event and collected their goodie bag, filled to the brim, thanks to the generosity of sponsors. There was much laughter and conversation as friends and families united, some travelling from all corners of the country, and many having done several of the Big5Hikes over the years.

Most of the 93 hikers were doing the Big5Hike, a fairly strenuous hike with steep sections and some scrambling summits the five peaks around the Cavern and is approximately 18kms in distance and usually takes about eight hours to complete. The slightly less challenging and no less spectacular Little5Hike is for those who aren’t quite as fit or have a couple of health issues.

Wine tasting, thanks to Spier Wine Farm and Meander Fine Wines, set the tone for a festive and fun weekend. As did the hike briefing from Megan and the encouragement of those who had hiked before… with tales of camaraderie, exquisite views and the sense of achievement that would come from it.

We woke to a gloriously sunny autumn day, the air still and the temperature crisp – the puffer jackets and beanies from our goodie bags were certainly being put to good use! Photographer Grant Pitcher was all kitted out to capture the moments and Marge the paramedic was on standby, just in case but thankfully she wasn’t required!

Leaving in batches, from the ‘not-so-seasoned’-hikers at 06h30 to the ‘gazelles’ at 08h45, with the family hikers, and regular hikers in between, the Big5Hike began, with our group of Little5 hikers, along with Gusto the springer spaniel (Lucy had set off earlier to do the Big5Hike), setting off at a moderate pace at 09h00 from the Cavern front lawn.

The Little5Hike takes us beneath towering trees and along the gentle incline of the Fern Forest to greet the sunshine and the steep incline leading to the first refreshment stop – tea, coffee, hot chocolate and a M&B muffin or cookie kindly sponsored by Mugg & Bean Harrismith. All carried up before the break of day by the Cavern staff so that the kettle would be boiling on the open fire and the flasks full in readiness for the first group of hikers. Coffee and a Cavern crunchie have never tasted so good!

After a further incline takes us zigzagging to the top of the plateau and an imposing dome-shaped rock – we pause a while to appreciate the view. The path to the right leads up Rustlers Gap and Scillia Gulley – we take the gentle path left towards Echo Cave and the Big5Hikers continue up the steep incline.

We pass moss-covered rocks and mountain streams as we head into the forest, the path hugging the vast sandstone cliffs. The Echo Cave, which is more of a shelter than a cave, towers over us like a giant wave, its walls streaked with black stripes caused by cyanobacteria growing in the water seeping over the rocks.

We fill our water bottles with chilled mountain water before setting off into the yellowwood forest. The descent is quite steep, but the abundance of yellowwood trees make useful supports. Khulu, Megan’s Dad points out a small, delicate bamboo and tells us that it is rare and endemic, found only in the Berg.

We pass an ancient yellowwood, clamber over rocks and cross another mountain stream. Back in the sunlight we appreciate where we’ve come from but cannot see where we’re heading. We follow the Eland Contour, with its spectacular views, grasslands and proteas.

A steep incline has us at Lone Rock, which is not actually a ‘lone’ rock, but rather the only rock in the area adorned with rock art created by the San (Bushman) people giving us a glimpse into the life of the hunter-gatherers of so long ago.

We rest a while enjoying tea, and sweet treats sponsored by Out in Africa a tour operator based in the Netherlands and long-standing supporter of the Big5Hike. From there it’s a reasonably gentle meander before a not so small climb into Cannibal Cavern where we meet up with all the other hikers for a festive celebratory lunch.

The Big5Hike got serious when the hikers took the path to the right ascending up the steep incline via the Rustler’s Gap and Scillia Gulley to Hlolela, which means “a kind of beautiful”, at 2,127m above sea level – this peak sponsored by Hollard. From there hikers’ contour along the summit of Hlolela and climb to Battleship, the second peak, sponsored by Dezzo Roofing. At Battleship there is a section of old rusted fence marking the boundary between KwaZulu-Natal and The Free State and offering views over the enormous Metsi Matso dam.

Despite the gloriously sunny day, I’m sure it must have been a bit breezy up there, so the winter woollies would most certainly have been required! Descending from Battleship, past a collection of natural pools, which would be a great bathing spot on a hot summer’s day, one reaches Sugar Loaf, the next peak.

At approximately the halfway mark, set on the sandstone cliffs and overlooking the valley below, is the ideal spot pause for a chilled water, energy drink and treats – sponsored by Sparkle Treats and then on to the peak of Sugar Loaf, sponsored by Audrey & friends’, and to take in the beauty of the unrestricted views over the valley below. From there it’s on to the highest point on the hike, Cold Hill, sponsored by ClucasGray – and as the name suggests its isolation also makes it a great viewpoint offering magnificent views of the Amphitheatre including the Sentinel and Eastern Buttress.

After a steep rocky descent down Devil’s Staircase and Cavern Gap hikers make their way through a forest of thick bracken and moss-covered trees to reach Cannibal Cavern, home to the ancestors of the amaZizi tribe – in earlier times it was home to the San people with two very faded rock art paintings faintly visible.

It was also where we were all welcomed at the Wimpy Stop in the Mooney Ford Cannibal Cavern for a Wimpy burger picnic lunch. It is a festive affair with hikers welcomed with cheers and Spier bubbles to celebrate the 4-down-1-to-go moment!  

From here a few hikers headed back towards the Cavern – a couple had spa treatments that could not be missed!

The rest made their way to the last peak, Camel’s Hump. This final peak, sponsored by SORO, is tougher than it looks but the 360-degree views that it offers make it well worth the climb. From there its one long, but final downhill via the stables back to the Cavern – that final small uphill is said to be the most challenging of them all!

Royal Drakensberg Primary School learners excitedly waited for hikers to return, thanking them for their support and gifting them with a handmade shopping bag (thanks to several of the teachers) and a packet of Epsom Salts to ease the weary muscles.

Welcome home drinks on the lawn was sponsored by TOTAL Gateway, which included cold beer and G&T on tap, thanks to Notties Brewery.

This was followed by a HAPPY hour from 18h15 thanks again to Spier Wines and Meander Fine Wines for the wonderful selection of wines. Followed by heartfelt thank you speeches by Megan as well as Georgie Carter (RDPS Board Member). 

“But just as in the case of Ruth, it’s the community, the friends, the supporters that come together and hold it up and so we extend our thanks to all our sponsors; Total Gateway, Melville Douglas, ClucasGray, Hollard, Dezzo Roofing, Audrey & friends, Mooney Ford Attorneys, Colenbrander, SORO Austria, Out in Africa Tours, the Netherlands” said Megan. “Special mention to those that keep us well fed and hydrated; Bergview Wimpy, Mugg & Bean, Sparkle Treats, Spier Wine Farm, Meander Fine Wines, Ataraxia and VDP Distributors”.

What began as a commitment to 10 Big5Hikes on Megan’s 40th birthday as a means to raise funds for uplifting children has now just completed its ninth year. It has grown over the years with the number of hikers and the funds raised growing almost every year (2023 was slightly down in the number of hikers but not in the funds raised). The Cavern donates two days of trading to this cause, “one that we believe in completely”.

“It’s about uplifting children and turning the tide on a shocking statistic that says 80% of Grade 4 SA children cannot read with understanding” Megan says. “Changing this begins in the first 1000 days where we stimulate neurological pathways through our BabyBoost programme. We grow and develop young children in our ECD, Khanyisela Project which supports 750 children and 50 practitioners and this all happens out of Royal Drakensberg, our hub and our heart… which incidentally has 103 little people enrolled in 2023. And our mission at Royal Drakensberg is that children learn2read so that they can read2learn”.

“To each person who participated in the Big5Hike fundraising weekend, you are the warriors that are helping make a significant difference in South Africa. Not only have you touched the lives of 102 children at Royal Drakensberg, but you have helped us continue our work through the Khanyisela Project and BabyBoost. Together we impact more than 1000 children and over 50 women from our community. Together this is amaZizi reads. We are doing our best to change that terrible statistic that says that 80% of SA children in Grade 4 cannot read with understanding”.

And as Megan says, “Here’s to 2024… the final round!” 

Words – Tessa Buhrmann / Pics – Tessa Buhrmann (Little5Hike) & Grant Pitcher (Big5Hike)

Read the story in Responsible Taveller digital mag HERE

NOTE – Read about my previous visit t the Cavern HERE – and all of the hikes mentioned here are available to do on any visit at the Cavern, some only with a guide and others unguided.