Exercise Drakensberg Duke 2 saw 4 LANCS returning to South Africa for a second year, keen to test itself once again on some of the challenging trails of the Drakensberg Mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal province, a World Heritage location. The expedition was led by me, Major Nick Kennon, with WO2 Richard Shipton as JSMEL and Cumbria’s answer to Steve Irwin! This year we also invited a representative of our paired Regular Bn, 2 LANCS, to join us. So 10 people of all ranks from across the Bn footprint formed up ready for the off.
The exercise had a lot packed into it and incorporated lessons learned from being on the ground last year. The main effort was to complete the Giant’s Cup Trail in five days. Although it was the end of summer in the region the weather there could be changeable and the briefings had been clear – it would likely be very hot but you could even get heavy rain and maybe snow! The heat and altitude, along with a couple of nasty ascents, meant this would be a challenge.
In addition to that the group would river raft for a day, conduct a battlefield tour of Spion Kop and climb the Sphinx in Champagne valley. Spion Kop had great Regimental significance and also was a pilgrimage for our staunch Liverpudlian CSgt Tony Moran.
We flew from Manchester, via Dubai, into Durban and stopped there overnight before travelling into the mountains. Durban is a beachfront city and quite lively after dark. From our gated hotel we watched the antics having been warned not to wander off by ourselves by the locals!
The first day of the Giant’s Cup Trail was a leg of 15km and included an ascent of 1500 feet or so. The immediate challenge at this point was the weather. It was very hot and with only a limited time to acclimatise to the altitude the trail was tough. 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. The excitement of the first day was our encounter with a puff adder. WO2 Shipton spotted it sun bathing on the trail so we went around it. However, the snake was clearly not in a good mood as it charged out of cover and tried to bite our resident Harry Potter lookalike, Kgn Johnny Pegg. I had an excellent view as the snake went through mid-air and missed him as he finished jumping over a river. Crisis averted we carried on to be met at the overnight hut by a troop of dozens of baboons!
Day 2 was a shorter leg but had the sting in the tail of a steeper climb! The weather was miserable with driving rain and a test of character. WO2 Shipton, supported by MLT CSgt Lee McDowell, pushed the group through the weather whilst battling his man flu and the group managed an early night in the next hut, disrupted by the chronic snoring of one or two in the group.
The weather on Day 3 picked up but so did the altitude with some particularly steep ground to cover. The baboons continued to be a presence but acted as an excellent incentive not to fall behind or become separated. Day 4 was blisteringly hot and despite WO2’s best efforts Kgn Pegg and Tolmie, with their new partner in crime Pte Becky Harper of 2 LANCS, tried to sun bath wherever possible. Their fashion sense reminded many of an episode of “The Inbetweeners”! However, morale soared at the end of the day when the G4 team of CSgt Moran and chef extraordinaire, Cpl Mark ‘Schoey’ Schofield, arrived with fresh food for the braai (a South African version of BBQ but on a huge scale). At my insistence local Vorst sausage had been obtained in large quantities along with steak which Schoey served with a cold beer. Watching the sun set over the mountains from outside the mountain hut, with wildlife everywhere, was a fantastic experience and everyone in the group commented they would not forget it. Suitably refreshed the group set off on Day 5 with renewed energy. The final hill was epic in the hot sun but the group reached the finish point on the border with Lesotho in good spirits with the only issue being a few cases of sun and wind burn to deal with, apart from the obligatory blisters. The 59.3km of trail had been a challenge in amazing scenery and all could be pleased with their accomplishment in completing the same.
The expedition then moved to 4 Rivers Rafting for a day of white water rafting on the Tugela River. Although the water was low and we had to use two man rafts the rapids were still challenging. WO2 Shipton took a tumble into the water and the two man G4 raft with the admin team in started off at the back but gradually worked their way forward to show the youngsters how it was done! A cold beer awaited us where we took the rafts out of the river.
The final challenge of the expedition was a planned one day ascent. The initial route was the 3000m ascent of Cathedral Peak but due to the unseasonably high temperatures of 35 degrees plus the mountain rangers declared the 10 hour trek unsafe so the group ascended the alternative trek of the The Sphinx. The group concluded this day was the hottest and toughest of the entire trip but reached the summit undaunted. Once again South Africa proved itself to be a gruelling location for adventurous training.
Having completed the AT phase the expedition conducted a battlefield of Spion Kop. Walking the ground it was easy to see how a dawn assault could have become confused on the false summits of the peak. It was a sobering moment to see how many soldiers had fallen in such a small area of ground.
We also were fortunate to visit the UmPhafa private game reserve and be allowed to take part in a walking safari. The game reserve is a charitable organisation linked to Colchester Zoo and is attempting to preserve the endangered white rhino. We walked to within 50 metres of a pregnant mother with her two and four year old young. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we were so lucky to be there. As a thank you we donated some of our personal field kit to the game wardens to help them in their duties, a worthy cause since they run the risk of encountering armed gangs of poachers.
As we returned to the UK everyone had plenty of stories to exchange as there had been so many activities conducted. The expedition had succeeded in its main aim of completing the Giant’s Cup Trail and also many secondary ones. Adventurous Training is at the core of military values and invaluable to recruiting and retention. This expedition was only possible due to widespread support and specifically The Ulysses Trust and The Duke of Lancaster’s Regimental HQ.
Maj Nick Kennon