The Dragon’s fist

After a self-imposed 6 week ban on hiking, myself and Hobbit found ourselves at Bushman’s Nek camp. We decided to go for an easy return to the mountains, the Knuckles in a day, but with all 4 passes to make things interesting.

So at 5:30 we left the EKZN camp, and made our way over a full, but not flooded, series of river crossings.

We climbed Mushroom on Thamathu for fun – it was entertaining watching Hobbit try to find my easy way up.

Just before Thamathu Cave, Hobbit did some bouldering and I got some photos.

It felt like we were going very slowly, but 2 hours from the car to Thamathu Cave isn’t actually terrible, so we took our third break of this hot morning in the cave.

We passed Goats Cave on the way to the Knuckles, stopping for yet another break in the foul smelling cave, before hitting North Knuckle Pass. The weather was hot, but the breeze was great – we couldn’t ask for much better weather.

Just before the pass, a beautiful specimen of a spitting cobra made an appearance. It took long enough – but I have finally seen the four major Berg snakes in the wild, having seen my first Berg Adder when I was 7 near Tiger Falls, my first skaapsteker on Rhino Pass in 2013, my first puffadder in Feb last year at Vergelegen, and now a rinkhals at the northern end of the Knuckles Traverse.

After yet another break on the pass itself, we found ourselves on top of the North Knuckle (taking a break up there, of course) at 11AM. Not bad – 5h30 car park to summit. North Knuckle Pass is short and easy, entirely on grass. The peak is easiest to ascend on the south slope.

We made our way off the peak, walking past the gully marked “impassable” on berg.co.za and made our way to the top of the North Middle Pass.

The top of the pass was very wet and the scree was very loose. The first scramble was quite easy, although very wet, and some of the rocks were loose. The second scramble was similarly wet and loose. And then came the third scramble…

Standing at the top of it, it clearly could not be down-climbed. Aside from being very wet, there was no clear holds visible from above. Seen from below, it turned out that it was a large chock-stone forming an overhang, so it wouldn’t be climbed as part of the pass unless the pass is classified as “rock-technical”.

The true left side clearly didn’t go, Hobbit decided to scout it out, but quickly came to the same conclusion I did. The south side looked possible, but very sketchy. Hobbit decided to go and scout it out as well, and after telling me that it goes easily, I followed him out.

The first section of the traverse was hairy, with spots where a fall could end below the chock-stone. The route choices often were a selection between wet rock and loose grassy ledges. Fortunately there was no shortage of bushes to grab onto – and only half of them were covered in thorns…

By the time I reached where Hobbit was waiting, having passed a few spots where a death-fall was a real possibility, I realised Hobbit may have been under-exaggerating how easy the descent would be. In all fairness, he is much more comfortable with exposure than I am.

We took 2 hours to get through this obstacle. I had been hoping for a traverse back into the gully, but the first viable line was around 100m vertically below where we left the gully. It was easily the scariest grass slope I have ever done – in places the ground was very loose, the gradient was genuinely near vertical for almost the entire distance, with grass tufts and bushes to hold onto. Probably the first time I have voluntarily held onto a thorn bush – sometimes it boils down to it being your only option.

If we had carried a rope, there was a decent anchor above the drop, and we could have ab-ed down it, but looking at it from below, our route through this section was the only way that seems to go. I am guessing that a rock-fall, washout or something of the sort has rendered this pass impassable. I guess, we did get down this pass without any technical gear, so strictly speaking it is a pass – but unless you are dead-set on bagging every pass in the Berg, I would suggest that this pass is best left alone. It was easily the scariest pass I have done, and has so many genuine dangers – it is narrow and exposed to rockfalls, a flash flood would be difficult to dodge, and the bypass could easily end in a fall of consequence.

As we crossed the very loose scree field as the gully narrowed, it began to rain. We found a cave in the cliff band around 2650m, where we sat out the storm. We had run out of water a while ago, and the river was no better – ironic for it to be pouring with rain, the gully to have been wet, and yet we had nothing to drink.

We traversed past the south middle pass – which seems to be a simple grass gully – the rock pass had cost us too much time and ship had sailed on the rest of the traverse.

We dropped down to the Knuckles Traverse trail and found water in the gully below the south pass. We found a cave just below the fence on the Lesotho border – unlike the previous cave, this one had a good floor and could be used for an overnight spot. We sat out another bout of rain here.

The route to Tarn Cave Pass went off without a hitch. The tarns are looking nice and full at the moment, which is great to see.

We ran quite a bit of the route from Cedric’s Pool to the finish line, stopping for a quick swim near the end.

We reached the EKZN offices just after 7PM, 34km total distance. The day did not go according to plan, and could have ended very badly. Nonetheless it all boils down to experience gained.

On a funny side note – after swearing that we would not do another GT any time soon, we are now planning our next GT and our training regime for that.

 

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