The Drakensberg mountains captured my imagination the first time I visited them. Straddling South Africa and Lesotho, the range stretches over 1000km, reaching heights of over 3400 meters. The Drakensberg can loosely be translated as “Mountain of Dragons”, a name easily justified by its rugged pointed peaks that resemble the back of a dragon. Or by the mist, which appears like smoke from deep inside its valleys. With countless shear passes and innumerable peaks, one could explore these mountains for a lifetime, and still not uncover all of their secrets.
Weather is the ultimate opponent in the Berg and is as temperamental as any I’ve experienced. Summers are wet, winters are bitterly cold, lighting routinely strikes the hills and valleys alike, and I've seen winds rip tents apart. Regardless of the season, I pack with all conditions in mind and rely on my gear to live up to the rigours of the mountains. The F-Stop Sukha is as tough as they come, crafted from durable, weather-proof materials. I’ve hauled this pack with rope up rocky faces and hiked through snow and rain. It’s solid and reliable.
I’ve opted for the F-Stop Small ICU system to house my Sony Ariii, Sony 16-35mm f4, Sony 70-200mm f4, filter kit, power bank, batteries and cleaning kit. The ICU system, along with a rear access panel makes getting what I need fast and easy. On top of this I pack my First Ascent Ice Nino sleeping bag (wrapped in a waterproof stuff sack), JR Gear insulated sleeping mat, dry First Ascent thermals (wrapped in a waterproof stuff sack), food, water, map and compass, and a first aid kit. My Vango Mirage 200 tent is split into its separate pieces and distributed between the exterior side and front panels of the bag. I strap my Sirui ET-2204 Carbon Fibre tripod to the left of the bag, and my First Ascent Vaportex shell to the right. All told, the backpack usually weighs in at around the 20kg mark.
Shouldering my pack and putting boot to trail gives me a sense of freedom unlike anything else. Contrary to what social media would have you believe, real life isn't banging sunrise after the next. There’s no one highlight on these adventures, but rather a series of moments each with its own charm. Sure, some are awe-inspiring: the morning sun casting its glow over peaks that rise up through a low inversion. Others are a burst of excitement: rushing to find a composition when the sky finally opens up at sunset after the rain has kept you trapped inside your tent for two days. A simple peanut butter sandwich at the head of a sheer pass is exceptional in its own right. And truth be told, just finding the cave you’re spending the night in after being lost in a blinding mist is just as sweet as any of the above. It’s all these moments together that make for a memorable adventure…and what keeps me coming back for more.
To anyone wanting to explore the Drakensberg - or any other wild space for that matter - is to do just that. Read, research, prepare, pick a route within your abilities, and go and explore. When it comes to equipment, spend more and buy less - always opt for quality over quantity. Also, don’t fret too much about the gear you don’t have, you can do a whole lot with very little. And for those serial over packers... trim it down. Understand your needs (weather, terrain, duration), scrutinise your gear, and ditch anything that isn’t essential. Waterproof stuff sacks are man’s best friend - I never leave home without (at least) one. And unless you’re sharing a tent, a change of clothes is overrated - rather pack some extra food and a good book.
Today, the mountains seem to dominate my life, but I wasn’t always an outdoorsy person. Picking up a camera early in my twenties changed that. It instilled in me a craving to seek out beauty. And a strong desire to tell the stories of these places has kept me coming back. As I’m writing this - in August 2019 - from my apartment in Johannesburg, I’m getting ready for a new adventure: a one-way ticket to South America that's booked for January 2020. I’ll be packing my life into my trusty Sukha, and heading off to slowly explore altogether new places. Photography started me on this path, and it’s pushing me to keep going. As for my beloved Drakensberg, I know they'll be waiting for me with open arms when I get back.
Matt Bouch is an outdoor and landscape photographer from South Africa. He prefers a sleeping bag to his own bed and will take any excuse to swap the city for the mountains. It seems that the further away from cellphone reception he is, the happier he is. Matt and his trusty old Defender, aptly named Grandpa, can be found exploring the rugged countrysides of South Africa, capturing images that inspire a sense of freedom and adventure. Follow his work or drop him a DM on Instagram @mattbouch_