Free State traverse: Flames in Transit
Disclaimer: the names of peaks referred to in this report are as per the Murch khulu list. Unless otherwise stated, the names were not allocated by either team member.
In a similar manner to most Gauteng hikers not visiting the southern Berg very often, I have tended to stay away from the Berg north of Didima. While Mnweni and RNNP aren’t that much further than Didima, Sentinel car park is a very long drive for those of us in the KZN midlands.
Now logically, if a region is too far to justify regular visits, it would be advisable to extend the duration of visits to the area. So, with this in mind, I decided that the best way for me to conquer the Free State Drakensberg would be to make a single visit to the region and attempt to knock off all my goals continuously.
My interest in the Free State Berg was sparked on 1 May 2012 – the date is easy to remember as it was the day I completed my first GT. I was chatting to Tony Marshall about the khulus in the area, and we ended up talking about the Free State Berg. We both agreed that some exploration was required. So the goal of a full traverse of the Free State Berg was added to my Berg to-do list. And it sat there, dormant, for 3 years.
When I was chatting to AndrewP earlier this year he mentioned that he was also keen to do a Free State traverse. And a few months later I found myself driving to Witsieshoek. Having only ever been there of 4 occasions, 2 of which were on the same hike (walking through between RNNP and the chain ladders) and twice for GTs, I wasn’t even entirely familiar with the route to drive there. Fortunately all is well sign posted, so I arrived in good order.
Armed with a 1:50000 topo map of the Free State escarpment (prepared by Map Centre in PMB – they did a great job with the map), Andrew and I jumped in the Witsieshoek vehicle at 5:50AM on Saturday morning. Our driver didn’t know exactly where he was supposed to take us, but with a bit of direction we found ourselves driving up a relatively steep hill near the Masaleng Police Station. We soon reached Tseki Hut where we were dropped off as the Dragon was turning red.
We checked the hut out – from the outside it looked great, but the vandalised interior was a sad sight. After taking some photos of the waking Dragon, we continued walking up the dirt road. After about 10 minutes we heard a car – and who could this be? Our driver had asked for directions, and was told that he could take us further along this road. We proceeded to drive for a full extra hour, over very rough terrain, sometimes very steep and eroded. But eventually we found ourselves jumping out of the car at a ruined hut right by the base of Dagga Nek Pass. A big thumbs up to Witsieshoek for getting us right to the start of our route – we are very appreciative of this.
So we filled our bottles in the not very full stream that flows down a gully near the pass, and began to make our way. There were white footprints at the start, and a pretty good trail, so we started off well. Soon the trail died and we were making it up as we went along.
After some slow slogging up a ridge we found ourselves in the correct valley. After a while we found the trail once again. We did lose the trail from time to time, but otherwise this trail is almost perfectly clear right to the escarpment.
While we were low down on the escarpment we saw smoke being blown into SA. We continued along slowly. We both noticed a gully just north of Dagga Nek that we thought might go, and around 2450m we saw a clear trail up it. Clearly someone is walking in this area!
Dagga Nek Pass, or Kgotjwane Pass as it is officially known (apparently), is relatively easy. It is no harder than Giants Pass, but not as easy as Bannerman Pass – so somewhere between a 4 and a 5 on Stijn’s rating scale.
Near the top there is a tiny 0.5 person cave, vaguely reminiscent of Rat Hole Cave – just far too small to be of any use.
Upon hitting the escarpment we saw a pair of gum boots, and a relatively small fire moving against the wind (not entirely sure how that happens, but anyway). Our first goal was Metjhantijane – the most northern khulu, and the most northern point on the Drakensberg escarpment. As it turns out – either I didn’t train hard enough for this hike (definitely true in part) or the slog from Kgotwane Pass to this peak is a real monster. After a long slog through the valley we found ourselves on the khulu.
Gliders circling above us, flying very close to the cliffs of Thaba Putsoa was an interesting sight. We had lunch on the summit, and observed how the Drakensberg always looks identical, yet completely different. One way or another – we were both happy to see something completely new.
From here we dropped down to the river. Noting a massive rocky pinnacle on the Lesotho side, and some clear trails coming up right by Metjhantijane from the Lesotho side along the way. We stopped for a break by the river. Water was clearly low, so we decided to fill up with enough water to get us through the rest of the day, including the night. This would allow us to head up the Kgotjwane Spons ridge without having to camp down on the river.
While we were at the river, a local with a horse and a cow came to say hello. He didn’t speak a word of English, and neither of us speak Sotho, so we gave him some sweets and took some photos with him before he moved on. He was the only local we saw on the entire trip.
From here we started the slog up the Kgotjwane Spons ridge. The Kgotjwane valley, like the valley above Gray’s Pass or Icidi Pass is actually mostly in SA. Like the others, a river has burst through the main watershed at some point in history and as a result, a small hard to pick line through the valley is therefore the boundary. The Spons ridge is a bit like the Icidi Back ridge – while it feels like it is in Lesotho, it actually is the border.
The ridge has 1 recognised khulu – Kgotjwane Spons – and I had noted 4 possible khulus along the ridge as well. The only problem is that the escarpment ridge also holds 3 khulus – so either a double back loop is required, or a separate trip.
We started by climbing the first possible khulu. We then proceeded to the actual khulu – Kgotjwane Spons – and noted only 950m of separation and about 30m prominence. So the former summit narrowly misses out on making its way onto the khulu list.
The sun was setting when we were on top of the khulu, so we decided to find a camping spot. About 100m from the summit we found a flat spot with a bit of cover from the wind. It may sound odd to camp on top of a ridge in winter – especially with the risk of wind – but the fires near Kgotkwane Pass were still burning, but this spot put a 5m high cliff between us and the distant fires (the dry riverbed in-between was unlikely to do much good).
On the morning of day 2, we awoke to strong winds. This probably cost us 15 minutes as we didn’t particularly want to get out of the tent. I say we, but “I” would probably be more accurate 😆
We decided that there was no point in checking out the other possible khulus on the Spons ridge as this would stop us from claiming the khulus on the escarpment edge. Based on a visual inspection, 1 seemed to be more than 1km away from Spons, but had very little prominence. The further one was barely a peak, and also looked far too close.
We hit the Kgotkwane river, traveling slightly north to hit the saddle between Kgotkwane Peak and Palisades (incidentally, the maps show Palisades as Kgotkwane Peak, which would mean that Murch’s Kgotkwane Peak should actually be called something along the lines of Kgotkwane Pass Peak, Kgotkwane Falls Peak or Kgotkwane West). Nonetheless, we climbed the Kgotkwane Peak near the dry waterfall. We noted the remains of a destroyed hut nearby, and stashed our packs by the remains of a large rusted water pump station.
We made our way up the first khulu for the morning, enjoyed the view for about 8 seconds before rushing down to get out of the howling winter gale. We could be grateful for clear weather – but strong winds in winter are to be expected, especially when a cold front is near.
From here we made our way up the Palisades. We had noted from a distance that there appear to be 2 large distinct peaks. We climbed the northern one only to find that the next one was about 5m higher. Fortunately the degree of separation isn’t as big as it looked, and soon we were on our second khulu for the morning. Our goal was 10, requiring 1 khulu for every hour. Unfortunately we were almost a full hour behind schedule already.
From here we made our way up the ridge to Kgotkwane East – the first time we would actually summit a ridge to cross into a different valley. The large gash next to the summit provided some great views, and as with all the khulus we had done so far, the view was outstanding.
We had our first break for the morning down on the river south of Kgotkwane East Peak. We knew the 4 Transit peaks were up next – I was hoping to make up some time here.
The Transits all fell relatively easily. 1 and 2 both easily had 50m prominence as measured by both of us (using handheld GPS devices, allowing for a 10% margin for error). The saddle between 3 and 4 did seem to be a tad suspect. All 4 peaks are close enough that further inspection is required, but only Transit 3 may lose its khulu status based on our fieldwork (pending analysis of GPS data).
We had a break just past Transit 4. I hadn’t been feeling well towards the end of day 1, and I was starting to feel roughly the same now. We had a good long break before tackling Namahadi Corner – a peak with very little prominence, but sticking quite far out and offering great views of the surrounding terrain.
From here we crossed the small ridge behind the peak before making our way towards a real monster of a summit – a khulu called “Mom”. Stashing packs on the peak, we slowly made our way up this large peak. Standing on top we noted a small rocky summit between Mom and Dad and we immediately started discussing it. Naturally we referred to it as “Kid”.
After bagging Mom, we dropped down to the river and pitched the tent. With more than 30 minutes of daylight left, this felt rather odd – but it had been a long day and 30 minutes was unlikely to produce another khulu.
After pitching the tent, Andrew decided to take a jog up Kid. He measured the saddles on both sides as well as the summit (i.e. a GPS altitude isn’t very accurate overall, but it should serve well in giving you relative altitude). As it turns out, the peak has more than 50m prominence and thus it finds its way onto our khulu lists. The adding of khulus is a subjective matter, and I am aware that many don’t regard this kind of khulu – but at the end of the day, a khulu list is a personal thing, and we both agreed that this summit is worthy of recognition and therefore we both see it as a khulu.
So that gives Andrew 10 khulus for the day, and 9 for me.
Camping on a flowing river, out of the main force of the wind, we had a better night than the first night. The gusty wind continued through the night, but we managed to get out of the tent when we still needed headlamps, and were walking when it was just light enough to put the headlamps away.
We started the day by walking up Kid. There is an easy scramble low down, and a slightly harder one higher up. The summit is small and proud – definitely a great spot to watch the sun come up.
We followed this up with a visit to Baghdad, I mean to bag Dad. Yet another big slog up an impressive peak – well worth the effort. From the top of Dad we noticed another possible khulu. After getting back to our packs, Andrew went up the peak to check for prominence, perhaps the parents had 2 kids? As it turns out, the peak between Dad and Namahadi Ridge Peak only has about 45m prominence and therefore did not make the cut. I can’t say I was sad – I knew we had a long way to go, I had seen how far away Sentinel still was.
Dad was the last khulu that Andrew needed to get to 100% of the Free State khulus, so upon determining that the summit south of Dad wasn’t a khulu, he had now completed this impressive feat. What I find most impressive is how he did this – he had done one prior trip to pick up everything from Namahadi Ridge Peak through to Long Buttress (a day hike on which he bagged 23 khulus) and now he had picked up the rest on a 3 day mini traverse.
It is funny on a trip like this – you spend so much time walking up and down hills, but remaining in the exact same valley. We had been in the Kgotkwane valley for about 22 hours of the hike, and we had been in this valley (the Parents in Transit valley?) for almost 24 hours. If one doesn’t tag khulus but rather follows the rivers, these 2 valleys could easily be conquered in a day.
The climb up to Namahadi Ridge Peak is a big one. At 3257, my records indicate that it is the 41st highest khulu. Considering how low the saddle between Dad and Namahadi Ridge Peak is, you can expect a big slog to get up this one!
Somehow we got up reasonably fast – once again, as I had done for the last 2 days – I was carrying far too much water. Knowing that I would be far from the rivers all day, and rivers could be dry, this was a conscious move. At no point did I ever find myself at water and with more than 500ml of water left, and at no point did I run out of water – so I stand by my call to carry too much water. But this did come at a cost as I was really struggling to get going.
Namahadi Ridge Peak offers a great view, even the howling wind didn’t chase us off this one in a hurry.
From there we began the walk to a peak I have had my eyes on for years – the highest point in the Free State – Namahadi. The walk out to this summit is long, and you notably are climbing rather gently for a while. There is still quite a bit of snow around this peak, not something I was expecting.
After bagging the summit, we began to drop down. As soon as we found a spot out of the wind we had an early lunch break.
To this point we had not missed a single khulu. Next was Tongue – a low peak at the end of a long ridge which must have a great view. I knew it would cost 2 hours, and a cold front was close. I knew that we had to worry about getting back – the last few khulus can easily be picked up via the chain ladders, plus it gives me an excuse to try out some of the 8+ passes we identified along the way (before Namahadi Pass that is reach, that is).
We proceeded to bag Flat Top – an aptly named peak. Being the second highest Free State Khulu it does come with a bit of work, but the saddle between it and Namahadi is only about 3200m, so it isn’t the biggest slog we had all weekend.
Mist was starting to roll in, so we agreed that it would be best to just take the river valley behind Flat Top up to the saddle on the Mont-Aux-Sources ridge. No point in bagging khulus in the mist, and 16 khulus isn’t exactly a bad weekend out anyway.
The river valley was beautiful – classic Lesotho. The river was slowly trickling, but had enough flow to fill our bottles. We had some tea and lunch on the river – no real wind, a bit of mist/cloud and a warm day, you can’t ask for better.
From our lunch spot we made good time up the Mont-Aux-Sources ridge, topping out a bit too far to the left (true right). From there was basically made a straight line for the chain ladders. It was only my second time coming down the chain ladders, I had forgotten how high the lower one was, and how you can’t really get your feet properly into some of the rungs. I know the chain ladders don’t scare most people, but bearing in mind that I have a reasonably bad fear of heights – I did find them quite scary on this occasion.
We made the walk from the chain ladders to the car park in roughly 1 hour, with the Witsieshoek vehicle waiting for us at the top.
All in all it was a great weekend. Aside from the mist on Monday afternoon, weather couldn’t have been better.
Stats for the trip:
Total distance: 58km
Total altitude gained: 3631m
Total photos: 330