With Mike’s final exams just around the corner, we agreed to do one last hike before his big break from hiking. With a bit of discussion, we agreed on the Mnweni Needles. These pinnacles have largely evaded my notice for many years – probably due to the fact that neither is above 3000m, and thus they don’t make the Khulu List.
The Inner Needle has roughly 195m prominence, while the Outer has approximately 323m, meaning that both meet the UIAA definition of a mountain – a summit with at least 7% prominence on height over a designated height for that region – I guess one could argue that 3000m is the designated height for the Drakensberg, but for mountain recognition, I would say that anything above 2000m with sufficient prominence would make sense to count. Nonetheless, the Outer Needle has approximately 323m in prominence, which would qualify it as a mountain even if it was 4300m, so hard to argue it isn’t a mountain in the true sense of the word. It also happens to look a lot like a mountain.
The plan was simple – drive to Mnweni on Friday after work, hike in the dark up to the nek between the peaks, climb the harder summit (the Inner Needle) on Saturday, the other summit on Sunday, and walk out for an epic but awesome weekend. Extreme optimism aside, it was bound to be a good weekend.
So with some light traffic, we found ourselves at the Cultural Centre just before 4PM. We had to do some bag re-packing to try and get sufficient climbing gear in. The Inner Needle includes 3 big pitches in a row, all of which need a 50m abseil to get back down. This meant we had to carry 2 full trad ropes, and enough access chord for a lot of abseils, not to mention the extra pro and draws needed for protecting a 45m pitch. In summary, our packs were heavy. And to save weight, we decided to ditch the tent in favour of bivy bags.
Tony Marshall had advised us to approach the climb from the Mponjwane Pass side, but Neil and the RD both agreed that it was better from the Rockeries side – to paraphrase Warren Buffett, never bet against Tony Marshall at Mnweni!
We tried to arrange a lift up to the turnoff on the road, but seeing as the fee was R20 last time I got a lift, and is now R200, we decided a bit of walking along the road was in order. As we set out on the road, we realised how heavy our packs were. They must have been close to 20kg, although I am not sure how. Aside from the gas stove and a bit of extra warm winter clothing, I was as minimalist as I can possibly go – well, without taking out climbing gear.
So we plodded along the road for just over an hour, before hitting the turnoff towards Rockeries Pass, somewhere between sunset and last light. We were accompanied by a large group of kids who stopped asking for sweets about 100m in, but continued to follow us for about 2km. They left us when we turned off the road.
We stopped for a break by the second river crossing, and turned our headlamps off to enjoy some mountains bathed in moonlight. It was a beautiful warm clear evening.
We continued along, losing the trail every now and then, before eventually having to leave the trail to follow the river that flows from the saddle between the peaks. Our progress to this point had been slow, but overgrowth and boulder hopping were about to make it even slower.
We stopped for supper on the river, trying out the Chilli Mac Beef that Touch Foods Africa sent us to try out. It made for a nice supper, sufficient food for both of us – and far nicer than any other freeze dried meal I have had in the past.
We kept turning our headlamps off to admire the view, but our progress was slow. We followed the riverbed, avoiding most obstacles easily enough, but occasionally hitting a massive rock pool that required leaving the riverbed for a short distance. Some parts of the riverbed looked like they would collapse next time there is a flood, and on one occasion we actually had to walk under a massive boulder that had fallen across the river.
There are so many amazing rock pools along this stretch – if it had been a hot day, we might have even gone for a swim.
We eventually were forced out of the river by yet another massive rock pool, only to find a large flat area that looked suitable for our bivy. After a bit of looking around, we found a small cave with a rock wall and blankets in it and promptly decided that we shouldn’t stop here! In a “high trade” area like this, the thought that people could be nearby at full moon in the dark is not a nice one. The presence of a fresh cow leg in the river wasn’t helpful either (aside from the fact that we had been drinking this water).
About 500m further upstream, we found a small flattish spot with no signs of nearby trails and decided to bivy here. Rule number one of a bivy spot – it should not be right next to a river, especially not in winter and not on a night with no wind!
We both slept pretty well, but woke up to a very cold morning accompanied by no intention of getting out of our dew covered sleeping bags!
We eventually got out of our sleeping bags and decided to ditch the river in favour of the large grassy bank on true left. We slogged up this, and found a spot in the sun to leave our sleeping bags to dry and had some breakfast.
We were soon given a choice between hitting a bunch of cliffs or resuming our trudge up the river, so we were soon back in the river. The saddle wasn’t very far away, but we were not even at 2000m yet, and the vegetation wasn’t getting any better.
We eventually hit the junction where the RD says you should leave the river for the ridge off Inner Needle, which we did. We knew we wouldn’t see water again for a while, so we each filled up with four litres before setting off.
This ridge started with a very steep and overgrown scramble up a loose near vertical grass bank (I think there are a few oxymorons in there, but somehow this bank was both loose and densely overgrown). We eventually got to something a bit less steep and far less vegetated. The views from this ridge were spectacular – easily some of the best I have ever seen. Mponjwane is very imposing from this angle, as the crow flies, the summit is close – but the summit is well over 1km above you. Looking at this, one wonders how a skyscraper could ever be impressive compared to a rock pinnacle.
We eventually reached 2200m, where we traverse back into the river – looking down it, I suspect keeping to the river would have been faster. It was already past midday and we both knew the climbs were off. For one thing, if it took us this long to get there, how long would it take to walk out?
We discussed dropping the packs, and heading up to the saddle, but decided that a saddle bivy would be better – and in retrospect we would have been bivying in the mist if we slept at 2200m, so this was a good call.
We slowly made our way to the saddle, reaching it just before 4PM. We had carried all this gear all this way, so Mike decided to have a go at the little pinnacle next to the saddle. He got a short way up before bailing and down-climbing it.
We had some soup before cooking our Mac and Cheese from Touch Foods Africa (thanks guys – really appreciate it) – which made for a good warm supper on a surprisingly warm winters evening.
There were fires in the valley below, but the view from my sleeping bag that night is easily the best view I have ever had from a sleeping bag.
Sunday morning included another round of “I don’t feel like getting up”. We only started walking just after 8, deciding to take Tony’s advice and use the Mponjwane Pass side to go down. This also technically gives us an ascent of Mnweni Needles Pass – seeing as a pass is described as a route over mountains, which this most certainly was.
The north side was considerably quicker, although our lack of pace may have had more to do with pack weight than overgrowth. There was mist around 2400m, but this cleared by midday.
We stopped for lunch just below where the route joins Mponjwane Pass, around 2000m. We found a nice rock pool, and had a quick swim before lunch.
We followed the river from here, only leaving when forced to, before eventually busting true right to find a well used trail. We followed this trail for far too long and ended up doing a massive double-back valley where we could have just dropped down to the Nceda/Mnweni River junction.
By sunset we were back on the Mnweni Pass trail and by last light we were on the road, opting to visit the Mnweni Pools, seeing as Mike had never seen them before.
We returned to the Cultural Centre at 6:30PM, giving us roughly a round trip time of 50 hours for the massive distance of 36km – I suspect snails would have done it faster if it wasn’t so dry.
Nonetheless, a very scenic route – a fit team could do it in a day with light packs. The overgrowth is slow, but with a really heavy pack, it makes progress practically impossible.
I highly recommend the route, even for non-climbers. The scrambling along the way is light, the vegetation is the only hindrance.
Ps. yes, Mike and I will be back to do the climbs, but probably over 4 days.