Until recently Louis Trichardt meant no more to me than that he gave his name to a town in the Soutpansberg, which now has been renamed Makhado.
But then we became fellow travellers, so to speak. Let me explain.
Trichardt, back in July 1838, set out from what he called the Zoutpan Berg for Delagoa Bay, looking for a route through the northern Drakensberg.
I have also been looking for a route though these mountains, as part of a mountain bike trail stretching from Limpopo via Mpumalanga, the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal to the Eastern Cape.
My interest in such a trail is simple: riding a bike in or near mountains is one of my favourite things.
Trichardt (or Trighard as he called himself) was wary of traversing the northern side of the ridge because of tsetse fly and hostile locals.
The Drakensberg is inhospitable in these parts. It is both rugged and, on the south side, rainfall challenged. Rocks thrive, as does the odd baobab, but not much else.
To add to the inaccessibility, the Oliphants River runs for several hundred kilometres against the mountain. It drains a vast area, at times of the year being difficult to cross.
We started our trip near the hamlet of Haenertsberg, a one-time gold-rush town in the Magoeboeskloof. It offers bed and breakfasts, restaurants and pubs.
A 40km dirt road takes you to the top of the Wolkberg where the Serala peak, the highest in the area, dominates. Forestry plantations end at the top of the escarpment as you enter the Wolkberg Wilderness Reserve, a wonderful but apparently little-visited facility.
A campsite offers a place to put up your tent and facilities to heat water, as well as secure overnight parking for hikers.
There is little to do here except enjoy the views, the solitude and the sense of wilderness.
A 14km 4×4 track goes to the Mohlapitse River, which runs along the top of the mountain. Progress on an overgrown track was very slow. You cross and recross the Mohlapitse 16 times in all.
Baboons were our only company, one large fellow taking off in fright just a few metres ahead of me.
After 12km the Mohlapitse turns south towards the Oliphants. TV Bulpin, in Lost Trails of the Transvaal (1956), says it was called uBalule (isiZulu for long river) before the trekkers came along.
Basing his account on Trichardt’s diary, Bulpin says Trichardt arrived at the Oliphants in October 1837. He had sent a letter ahead to Delagoa Bay to announce he was on his way, but the Portuguese could not read his Dutch so his postscript, for instance, had no meaning for them: “PS — If you can trust us up to a matter of 50 or 60 dollars’ worth of clothing linen, thread, needles, some thimbles and sewing rings, please give the goods to the bearers, De Buys and Waai Waai, with a statement of your account. My wife asks for 3lb of tea, 5lb of coffee and 5lb sugar.”
Where the Mohlapitse turned south, we went north up the Orrie Baragwanath pass. This is a rutted donkey track.
At the top the berg plateaus into The Downs, part of the Lekgalameetse Reserve.
It took us two hours to trudge to the top, but Trichardt took several months to get his wagons up.
Typically his party would manage a skof of about 6km to 8km a day, Monday to Saturday. But getting over the mountain was not easy. They scouted, heaved and pulled.
Then the trekkers gave up and tried following the Oliphants instead, fording and refording the river two or three times a day, crossing it 13 times in five days.
The area had four days of rain and the river we saw was very full. There was no way you’d get wagons across it. It was so full, a local told us, that the crocodiles had moved upriver and away from the full river, leading to the cancellation of an annual school hike.
But Trichardt could not follow the river. “Undecided among themselves, the trekkers settled down to quarrel,” writes Bulpin. “For four days they argued about what to do.”
Eventually through sheer bloody-mindedness they got their wagons over the 1 940m-high ridge.
Darkness had fallen as we made our way through Legkalameetse. We put on jackets and head torches. A night-jar flitted by.
Bright eyes looked at us from behind a hedgerow. Whatever owned the eyes appeared to be standing on two legs to get a better look at us. I told myself this cannot be. There were cow pats. It must be a cow.
Along the track was another bright-eyed beast. It was not at all scared of us, once getting as close as two metres. It was a jackal, standing on its hind legs to check us out.
Now, bizarrely, we reached a tarred road and signs telling us that we were at the top of the Orrie Baragwanath pass. It becomes a two-lane autobahn, complete with a shoulder.
We careered down the autobahn to the camp entrance and chalets on the Makutsi river.
In Trichardt’s day Chief Sekororo ruled here. The trekking party had been plagued by rustling, Trichardt responding by taking several Sekororo women with him as hostages when he left for Delagoa Bay.
Bulpin says the Sekororo still have a saying about white people: “When are the women going to be sent back?”
Louw Booysen, who grew up in the area and has a keen interest in its history, has a concession from the incumbent Chief Sekororo to run 4×4 trails, including on the route followed by Trichardt.
Booysen is developing low-impact tourism in the Wolkberg and Lekgalameetse, having won a tender to do this.
The 4×4 trail is part of the African ivory route, which links trails in remote and inaccessible parts of the country. It is guided by Booysen, who tells the story of Trichardt’s hard-fought battle to get through the mountains.
The trail passes a cave large enough to accommodate 35 people and a site where until a few years ago a man spent each day digging, convinced that the Kruger millions are buried there.
Ours was a short trip. We had no sooner crossed the Oliphants near the JG Strijdom tunnel when the pair of us came down with a virulent bug and had to abort.
Trichardt got to Delogoa Bay, but sad to say half of his party of 53 died of malaria. He watched his cherished wife die before he too succumbed to the disease.