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Drakensberg hikers rescued after river of trouble



Steven Crouse and his friends believe that being rescued from the Drakensberg wilderness on 9 April, two raging rivers away from safety, was their own Pesach miracle.

Crouse, seven friends and their mountain guide, had all but dismissed the bad weather warning, having many years of hiking experience, until they found themselves trapped at the mercy of the unrelenting elements.

“They say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” Crouse said. He, Neil Jankelowitz, Neil Hermann, Tal Twersky, Darryl Oberstein, Neil Novick, Darren Horwitz, and Brett Levitas and guide Deon Small, began their hike on 3 April.

Crouse, who has been hiking for 12 years, from the famous Otter Trail to the Kruger Park to the Fish River Canyon, had planned this challenging hike for at least two years. So, when the weather forecast predicted heavy rain, he and his group still decided to go ahead.

Their 75km adventure would take them along the Northern Traverse of the Drakensberg, on the northernmost section of the Drakensberg escarpment, along the top of the berg mostly through Lesotho, descending again into South Africa and finishing at Cathedral Peak Hotel.

However, when they became stuck at an impassable river, and even the Mountain Search and Rescue (MSAR) organisation couldn’t reach them or send a helicopter, they called on Jewish communal organisations, the CSO (Community Security Organisation) and Hatzolah, for help.

“To see the way they immediately rose to the challenge, that, for me, is the whole point of the story,” Crouse said. “We live in a unique community, and when the chips were down, we saw how the organs of the community came together for us. Just seeing how that worked was a massive source of comfort. It’s a remarkable thing.”

In the end, MSAR was finally able to reach and assist them across the raging rivers, but Crouse believes if it hadn’t done so, the community would have made a plan.

Crouse recalled his journey. “We walked for the six days as planned, and covered the distances needed, but the weather hit us hard, and we had more rain than anything else. And at an average altitude of more than 3 000m, rain isn’t your friend as nothing dries and your temperatures are already in the low single digits as it is. Our guide took the decision to plot an alternate route down to minimise the impact of having to cross the flooded rivers once we were back down in the valleys, a kind of ‘hope for the least-worst’ strategy.

“Everything was going well until we got to the second-last river crossing, just 3.5km from Cathedral Peak, and we found the Xeni River to be simply impassable,” said Crouse. “To even try cross it on foot, even without a 20kg backpack, would be nothing short of suicidal. This usually 2m wide, 25cm-deep river was flowing at full force, spanning about 6m and almost 1m deep in places, with rapids everywhere. We were stuck with nowhere to go and zero cellphone signal. We weren’t going to take any stupid chances.

“Our guide backtracked to higher ground, managed to get a signal, and called mountain rescue to send in a team to get us across using ropes and equipment. We were expecting them shortly before sundown on Monday, 8 April, but they never came. They were unable to pass the next river, the Tseke-Tseke, that was flowing even faster, deeper, and wider than the Xeni!

“After five nights on the mountain already, we were forced to find a campsite in the dark and the rain and set up camp for the night again – we just weren’t getting out that day!” He said they had enough food, but there were still fears they could run out. “We each had a bit of hot chocolate and cashew nuts on the Tuesday morning. But in the cold, you need energy, and your mind starts playing tricks on you.

“On Tuesday morning [9 April], Deon hiked back up early to get signal, and was told the team was on their way. But in spite of the best assurances from mountain rescue, they just didn’t arrive. At one point, they were given the wrong co-ordinates, and walked up the wrong valley, so it was a bit of a case of ‘broken telephone’,” Crouse said.

At this point, the group was essentially told to wait it out as there were no injuries or emergency, and mountain rescue would send a helicopter only if that was the case. In addition, the weather cleared, and the group enjoyed the glorious views from their campsite, surrounded by 10 waterfalls. “There are worse places to get stuck,” said Crouse. The rescue organisation advised them to find another route, but that was impossible as their current route was the safest option available.

“We weren’t in any danger,” he emphasises. At that point, “we managed to get hold of the CSO and with the limited signal we had, we were trying to arrange a helicopter to fly in and get us out to safety.” They also managed to reach their wives briefly and tell them about the situation.

“At about 12:30 on Tuesday, almost 24 hours after arriving at the Xeni, the mountain rescue team made it to the other side of the Xeni River from us, managed to get across to us, and secure ropes for a crossing. We all got across safely, and then had to repeat the exercise at the even more treacherous Tseke-Tseke River, a few kilometres downstream towards Cathedral Peak. All went well again, and we walked the last 1.5km to the hotel along with the rescue team of about 15 members!”

Crouse said that when he saw the rescue team arrive, “I won’t lie, I cried. It was such a sense of relief. They were like angels from heaven, and such good people. They came with a real sense of ubuntu. They helped us pack up camp, and we all made our way across the rivers together. There was a lot of adrenaline, and it was a hell of an experience. With an extra and unplanned day and night behind us, we successfully traversed the full Northern Berg, a bit battered and bruised, with a bit of help from MSAR, and a heap of gratitude!”

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  1. Deebz

    Apr 25, 2024 at 10:17 am

    Sorry, forgive me, but what was the actual problem here? They just had to wait. They could set up camp, with more than enough food, with shelter and no injuries. I am unable to see what the big issue is?

    • Steven Silverstone

      May 2, 2024 at 11:20 am

      So called experienced hikers should obey weather warnings and their guides should also have advised them to postpone or cancel the hike.
      They are endangering rescuers and helicopter crews as well.

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