Exercise Drakensberg Duke set off from Battalion HQ early on a Saturday morning to travel by coach to London Heathrow for a night flight to South Africa. In total there were twenty people ranging from the newest Kingsman all the way to the Commanding Officer, Lt Col Jonny Lighten. Ex Drakensberg Duke was the first overseas Adventure Training, apart from ski trips, planned by the Battalion in over ten years.
The exercise had a lot packed into it. The main effort was to complete the Giant’s Cup Trail in the Drakensberg Mountains in Kwa Zulu Natal province in five days. Although it was the end of summer in the region the weather there was changeable and the briefings had been clear – it would likely be very hot but you could even get snow! This would be a testing route and would allow personal development through experiencing adversity and obstacles.
In addition to that a challenging white water rafting program was also in the package as was a detailed battlefield study. The expedition would have the opportunity to conduct this on Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and, although these battles are not linked to the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment their significance to the army as a whole is legion.
After a night in a nearby B & B the expedition set off for the start point, Sani Pass. There the trekking group set off under Lt Col Lighten, as JSMEL, on their first day which was a leg of 15 miles and included an ascent of 1500 feet. The immediate challenge at this point was the weather. It was very hot, unseasonably so, and with only a limited time to acclimatise to the altitude this was going to prove no easy task.
The first leg contained truly stunning scenery with jagged mountain ranges mixed with high plains grassland. There were also streams feeding into mountain pools where a swim was possible to cool down. Although this was a well-known and travelled trail a lot of unofficial trails had been created which criss-crossed the route. In addition, at the start line, it had been reported by other groups and the rangers that there had been some deliberate attempts to create confusion by removing or altering marker posts. As the trail bordered private land in some areas, and the owners protected it closely, that made for an interesting trip. The stone huts at Pholea camp were the location for the first overnight stop and facilities were far better than anticipated with running water and flushing toilets.
Day 2 was a shorter leg but had the sting in the tail of a steeper climb! The weather was still red hot and for some the day became a real battle of wills and test of character. The entire group completed the day but one had now picked up an injury and this created a real problem. The camp at the end of the second day was not accessible by vehicle and therefore the casualty would need to be extracted elsewhere. There was a road into the camp area at the end of the leg of Day 3 but we were informed it was privately owned and warning shots could be expected if you tried to use it. That meant extraction going forward was two days down the line so in reality the nearest access was back the way the group had travelled. As there was only one JSMEL the group could not be split and re-traced their steps. The weather warning had been accurate. Just after arriving in camp torrential rain arrived cooling everyone down!
Thankfully the casualty did not get any worse and dug deep to walk out unaided. Having returned to the extraction point on Day 3 this meant completing the trail would not be possible as only so many walkers were allowed on each section per day and time was running out. Our JSMEL did a map appreciation overnight and the next day the group tackled a challenging ridge of peaks that overlooked the trail and investigated some tribal caves. This was not the end to the trek everyone had hoped for but it was a great achievement nonetheless and the views from the Drakensberg range carried for miles.
The white water rafting phase was led by Major Nick Kennon and the plan was to start on some of the calmer rivers in the region and build up to the mighty Tugela River which has some of the most challenging rapids in the country! It quickly became apparent that the calmer rivers were not that calm and Maj Kennon got to demonstrate what happens when you are washed down the rapids bouncing from rock to rock on no less than four different rivers in the end! The highlight was the Tugela and there were some nerves as the group tackled the well named ‘Mamba’ section. There were a few capsizes but everyone completed the section and were exhilarated to have tried and achieved something they had never had the opportunity to try before. Rafting on high grade sections of river is very physical and needs a robust outlook and a can-do attitude. Teamwork in the rafts is vital and was very quick to develop. On top of that two members of the group now want to become kayak instructors based on their experiences on this trip in white water!
The final part of the expedition was the battlefield study. An in depth review of the failings of Isandlwana and the great achievements of Rorke’s Drift were planned. A former South African Defence Force officer was engaged as a guide and his briefings were based on their doctrine which was very close to our own. It was clear what had gone wrong in the run up to Islandwana but also what had been done well in the stout defence that followed at Rorke’s Drift. As a result all ranks gained from this tour and bragging rights to having been to these battlefields were certainly going to be claimed upon return to the UK.
Spirits were high on the return journey as all recounted what they had experienced and achieved. Oaths were taken that people would return and complete the Giant’s Cup Trail and come back to explore South Africa. Adventurous Training is all about personal development which will go on to strengthen the unit and the army as a whole. In addition it is one of the best tools for recruiting and retention and the Brigade media team was well supplied with footage. This was certainly the case on Ex Northern Drakensberg Duke and there is no shortage of volunteers asking when the next one will be!
Maj Nick Kennon