Amakehla and East Pitsaneng Pass

Cobham has never been my first choice of hiking region in the Drakensberg. The campsite is far from the mountains, making day hiking tricky, the majority of the passes are difficult to access due to limited trails and the Pitsaneng Valley on top is one of the least interesting sections of a Grand Traverse. Prior to this trip, I had only ever driven into Cobham once, although I had hiked through the area many times on the Giants Cup Trail.

My ongoing quest to complete all the KZN High Berg passes on the Geoseries maps continues. While I just need Rwanqa Pass to complete the Northern Berg, and Hiliton Pass to complete the Central Berg, my stats in the Southern Berg need a lot of work. Vergelegen includes 7 passes I haven’t completed yet, mostly due to the difficulty of accessing the region. The remaining 6 are between the Sani Road and Rhino, and for the most part require a very long approach to reach.

So when Ross suggested that we head to the mountains for a few days, I suggested a super-traverse of the passes around Cobham. The plan was simple – day 1 to Lakes Cave, day 2 up Amakehla down East Pitsaneng to Wilson’s Cave, day 3 up West Pitesaneng down Masubasuba to Pholela Cave and day 4 back home.

We arrived at Cobham to find that basically every cave in the area was already booked. So we switched the plan out slightly, with Siphongweni Cave.

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It was a hot and hazy day, not ideal for when a hike that started in the afternoon! Nonetheless, progress to Siphongweni Cave proved uneventful.

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The cave is under a massive boulder which has broken in half. The sleeping area is mostly flat and the cave is very well sheltered with a lot of room.

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We were up before sunrise on Saturday – it was going to be a long day, so we needed to get moving early.

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Whale-back ridge went along easily enough. We saw a few eland along the way, and took a brief detour past Lakes Cave.

The trail to Lakes Cave actually continues up Amakehla Pass. I had assumed it would be a standard Drakensberg pass, meaning that the trail dies before long. We opted to take the higher of the two trails, and the higher trail did die out, but the lower trail just above the river was still strong. We eventually gave up the quest of holding the higher line and dropped to the lower trail.

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The trail eventually turns right and starts the climb up the Amakehla Ridge. Being the Southern Berg, you are still surrounded by sandstone till about 2500m. The climb up the ridge was fairly steep in places, but by no means exceptionally steep.

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The trail eventually reaches the top of the ridge, affording some great views of the Hodgeson’s Peaks. The weather was very hazy.

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The trail traverses from this saddle to the main gully below the infamous false top between the Amakehla Amabili and the escarpment.

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This section of the route is very steep, but is over quickly. We took a break below the Amabili, with a spectacular view and large drop right near us.

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The trail traverses from here to a saddle. There are a few spots where you walk next to a massive drop, but they don’t feel particularly exposed as you are on a very solid trail. In snow, this section would be dangerous.

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Amakehla Pass is notorious for its false summit. I always took this as the saddle between the Amabili and the escarpment, but it turns out there is a second false summit. After getting through the second saddle, you drop a bit, traverse and then climb the final short gully to the top.

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The views along this section are great. If there wasn’t a trail, it would be a dangerous section – but the trail is solid and falling is very unlikely, provided you are careful.

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The top was a bit breezy, but not too serious. It is always great to see the Hodgesons Peaks from the top – their scale can’t be captured in a photo.

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We walked past Minaret Pass – a dangerous route that I completed in 2016, and would not recommend to others. The pass was looking like its usual eroded self.

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We stopped for lunch at a viewpoint overlooking Minaret. This peak has two recorded ascents, and looking at the rock, I am doubtful that it will get many future attempts.

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We started down East Pitsaneng Pass around 1PM. It is sometimes called North Pitsaneng Pass, but the top is at about the same latitude as the other pass, so east and west is more accurate. I had attempted this pass back in 2016, but we turned around as it was fairly dangerous in the snow.

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The top gully is a series of scrambles. I remember having difficulty finding the correct split of the gully last time. I seemed to recall dropping down the far gully, traversing into the closer gully and then out onto the ledge. But this looked far too exposed and slippery on this occasion. It was also notable that the entire area had recently been burned, meaning there were no grass tufts to pull on.

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We eventually went back up the gully and took the first ledge right near the top of the pass. This required an exposed traverse on a small ledge before using  a narrow scramble to get down to the ledge we had been aiming for.

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We continued along this ledge for a long time, roughly 500m. The ledge includes a few sketchy sections above a fall of consequence. We were right to bail on this in 2016, it was far too dangerous in snow.

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Admittedly at times I wondered about how Ross was finding this ledge. With grass tufts to hold onto, it would have been a lot easier – but with burned grass, it didn’t feel as secure as one might like.

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As has seemed to be the pattern on our previous hikes – Ross proved to be strong on difficult ground, and after a while we found ourselves walking down a ramp between cliffs to finally access the main ridge that the pass descends.

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To get through the final two cliff bands, there was a choice between a grassy gully that looks like it will hit a cliff lower down, or a scree-filled gully that clearly goes the entire way down. We opted for the scree.

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Once we were finally below the cliffs and on good ground, the lower half of the pass proved trivial. The top section of the pass is the most difficult pass I have ever done in terms of navigation.

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We descended the valley till just below the junction of two rivers, where we traversed right and headed over to Wilson’s Cave. The cave was massive, although the sleeping areas weren’t great.

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There is a very impressive rock formation opposite the cave called Menhir Rock. Sadly there was no accompanying wild boar.

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There was another cave just above Menhir Rock, which we checked out – but it proved to be wet and unusable, despite the river being very dry.

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On Sunday morning Ross wasn’t feeling too well. So we decided to skip the second set of passes, and rather walk out via the Giants Cup Trail.

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I had hiked from the Stones Passes to Mzimkhulwana Hut before, so I knew there was no trail as marked on the maps (or at least no obvious trail). We tried to stay as high as possible, aiming for the saddle near the Island (a random spot marked on the map). After crossing the saddle, we found a decent trail that lead around to the Mzimkhulwana River Valley, before promptly ceasing to be a trail.

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We followed a trail that came and went, slowly making our way down to the river. Progress felt slow, although it actually wasn’t too bad.

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Around 4km from the hut, the trail becomes fairly clear and we managed to follow it right back to the hut.

We hadn’t seen anyone since about 1km into the hike – not even shepherds on top, but the hut seemed to be full, with two different groups staying there.

After lunch at Mzimkhulwana Hut, we followed the Giants Cup Trail back to Cobham, which proved uneventful. The campsite was very full, its great to see the area doing well.

Overall we covered 45km in roughly 48 hours, with 2.3km in altitude gain and loss. And with that – I have 13 marked passes to go.

I had a good look at West Pitsaneng Pass from the East pass, it looks very steep, but entirely doable. I would not recommend the East Pass.

2 comments

  1. Verónica · · Reply

    You have wonderful pictures. Thank you for sharing your adventure. Cheers!

  2. […] the Northern Berg, it would probably be one of the most famous sights in the Drakensberg. So when I didn’t end up completing it a few weeks ago, I knew I would have to come back and try out this […]

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