On 27 December 2009 – an article clerk who had wanted to try Drakensberg hiking for years finally got a chance to hike to the top of the Drakensberg. Mashai Pass was hard, and even scary in places – but despite not being fit enough, that younger version of the person known as Ghaznavid made it to the top of Rhino Peak and back home safely. The bug had bitten – there was no way back!
In 2012, I remember saying that I wanted to achieve three Drakensberg goals:
1) A grand traverse in both directions
2) 100 peaks above 3000m
3) 30 passes
At the time, I didn’t like passes. To put it very simply: they are hard! I have since learned that passes are the best aspect of the Drakensberg.
On 8 February 2014, I bagged my 30th pass – but by then, my goal was 50. On 13 November 2015, I bagged my 50th, but by then my goal was 100. Fun fact: both my 30th and 50th were at Bushman’s Nek.
2016 was my most successful year in this endeavour – with 22 passes that I had never done before, bringing my total to 75.
For a while, I plodded along, making slow progress through the list. I had seen so many standard Drakensberg grass gullies – and at some point they all start to look the same. Do I really need 100 of them? Some of them had been really dangerous – both Injisuthi Pass and North Middle Knuckles Pass very easily could have ended in a body recovery.
After making excuses for a so long, I finally decided to have a proper go at this. At least to cover every KZN High Berg Pass that is on the Geoseries Maps.
So in September 2019, with 17 marked passes to go – my final charge began. First Marco and I day hiked the two Hlathimba Passes at Lotheni. Two weeks later I teamed up with Ross to bag Amakehla and East Pitsaneng. Three weeks after that, I teamed up with Graeme to bag Masubasuba and West Pitsaneng. That meant I had all the marked passes at Didima, Monks Cowl, Giants Castle, Lotheni, Cobham and Bushman’s Nek, leaving me with 11 marked passes – 7 of which are at Veregelegen. This story starts 2 weeks later, with me having completed 99 different High Berg passes.
The plan for this hike had changed many times – but eventually Michael (not Hobbit), Johan and myself set off from Vergelegen. This office is so rarely visited that the staff was actually on their way to the shops when we drove in. We met them about 1km before the office, and had a brief chat with them. They opened up for us, we paid for our permits and filled in the register, and soon we were off. The Mountain register had us as the second team for the year, but there is clearly more than one register there, as my last hike there wasn’t in the register, and 6 pages back was 2015.
It was a hot morning, but a gusty wind ensured we didn’t get too hot. We were headed for Mkomazi Pass, which means hiking to Birds Nest Cave – the way both of my prior Vergelegen hikes had started. This being only my third time in the area.
The Mkomazi River was surprisingly low, but the sandstone cliffs towering above us were as impressive as usual.
We lost the trail just past the junction of the Mkomazi River, and ended up boulder hopping up a spectacular section of river that I had missed when I hiked above it in the past. Notably this was my first time doing this section in daylight, so I was happy I hadn’t ended up losing the trail here the last two times!
We had lunch at Birds Nest Cave. It was just as I remembered it – very long and not very well sheltered. The maps and my GPS track had the pass starting from here. In retrospect, I would have just taken the Mkomazi Split and avoided the slog up the hill – but anyway.
Birds Nest Cave as seen from above:
For a pass regarded as one of the easiest in the Drakensberg, I found this slog up the hill surprisingly hard. It was made considerably easier by the lack of long grass due to the fire that had covered this area a few months back. At the office, we had been told that this route is getting a lot of local traffic – so we expected a trail, but had no sign of one at this stage.
The slog up the hill was slow, and I could see my team mates were taking strain. No one had been up for sharing a tent – so here was Ghaznavid who usually hikes with a 26 litre pack slogging up a hill with a 75 litre pack that included an entire 2.5kg tent. I had last carried my half share of a tent to the top in March 2018, and had last carried my entire tent to the top in February 2015 (incidentally both were up Mashai Pass). I have to say – hiking with a heavy pack is nowhere near as fun as with a light pack!
Eventually we reached the top of the hill. I had phone signal, so I posted a whatsapp status while I waited for the others to catch up. There was a bit of a trai lon top of the ridge, but like all good Southern Berg trails, it came and went.
The top of the ridge was spectacular – with King Kong towering in front of us and the monsters that are Ngaqamadolo and Ntsupenyana off to the north.
We began to drop down to the Mkomazi River, although we only lost about 30m in altitude as we traversed in, it was the normal foot killer side slope that makes for slow painful progress – especially with a heavy pack.
If I ever do this pass again – I will follow the river from the junction. There seems to be a trail in the valley, and the line over the ridge seems to be unnecessary extra work – although the view was good.
The Evranda Rock Arch:
Once we were on the river, there was a good trail. We found a good spot to camp at 2300m, right near the river and about 100m from the trail. The ground wasn’t quite flat enough, but we got 3 tents in. We had originally hoped to be on top that night, but it had been clear from midday that that wasn’t going to happen. And when I realised the other two tents weren’t 4 season tents, I was happy that we wouldn’t be camping on top.
We set off for Mkomazi Pass on Saturday morning. There were a few horses grazing near us, they seem to have come down from Lesotho in the search for greener pastures.
There is a good trail most of the way – it comes and goes, but is generally easy to pick up again. The pass starts off quite steep, but then starts switching back and becomes a very gentle gradient. We were slow through the first section, but became a lot faster higher up.
With a light pack, this pass would be very fast. The biggest constraint to doing it fast is the fact that it is a slog to get up the river valley – steep enough to be slow, but not so steep that you get up quickly.
Near the top, the pass traverses into the gully, and is a bit loose. A lizard jumped out and hissed at me, which almost lead to me falling over a ledge – but otherwise the summit gully was uneventful.
Nhlangeni Peak – one of the three peaks I refer to as the Vergelegen Monsters – was waiting for us at the top. Michael had pushed to be up first, dropped his pack and walked a bit of the way back down. Seeing as it was my 100th pass – I ran the last 50m and did a funny jump by the summit cairn. That is about as emotional as I will get about something like this – it was great to get there, but it is a point along the road, not the end of the road.
I did get a summit selfie. I often get mocked for how many selfies I take – but I think a milestone in a decade long project is sufficient reason to justify one.
We sat by the river. Michael decided that Nhlangeni was too close to ignore, so he did a quick trip up it while Johan and I sat at the river. It took him 48 minutes round trip – which is fast when you consider how big the peak is. I don’t call it a monster without sufficient reason!
Notice Michaek on the summit – you can seehis hat sticking out:
Thabana Ntlenyana looks so close from the top of the pass – although it is a staggering 600m higher, which is about as much altitude as we had put on to get from our camp to the top of the pass. I guess it isn’t the highest point in Southern Africa without reason.
We walked through the Mohlesi Valley. I hadn’t done this route since my last “slow” grand traverse, meaning I was last here on 30 December 2015. But I remembered this valley well, so we made our way around Ngaqamadolo – the king of the Vergelegen Monsters – and up the valley behind the Mlahangubo Ridge.
King Kong – a rarely climbed rock climbing peak.
We took lunch on the river before starting up the Mlahangubo Ridge. The water was stagnant, so we had to boil it before using it.
We found a good trail to get up the Mlahangubo Ridge. On the way up, it began to rain, and then hail with a strong wind. Luckily, for once, the wind was at our back, and did a good job of pushing us up the hill. The hail mixed in meant our legs were getting stung, but our packs protected most of our bodies.
Luckily the storm was short lived, and we were soon at the saddle on the ridge. It was sunny in the next valley.
We followed a very good trail that traversed towards Mlahangubo Pass. It died below Mlahangubo Peak, but had given us a much easier line than if we had no trail.
It was nice to be back in the Hlathimba Valley. It was my third time in this valley for the year, but my first time this far east on the southern end of the valley.
We reached the top of the pass and went a bit of the way down to get out of the wind. The pass looked very easy from above – which is what I expected.
The map refers to “Mlahangubo Passes” – so I was on the lookout for variation gullies. After all – if I want all the marked passes in the area, a variation gully might count as one of them. To my surprise – I saw two possible options. I decided to check them out from below and decide whether or not I needed to take a quick trip back to the top. After all – it isn’t easy getting to this area, so you want to maximise your value when you are there.
The pass initially had a good trail, including a small scramble. But this trail soon died, and we found ourselves zig-zagging down the slope.
The views from the pass were good, although by no means the best ever. Both Mkomazi Pass and Mlahangubo Pass would be very useful if they weren’t so far to walk in, and at the most obscure area of the Drakensberg. If they were at Giants Castle or Didima, they would be used all the time – but alas, they aren’t.
On the way down, I got a good look at the other gullies – all of them included massive cliffs with no obvious bypass. So I rate the “passes” reference is just a typo.
We traversed out of the gully at about 2550m. We were aiming to camp below North Ngaqamadolo Pass, and I figured the trail on the map probably doesn’t exist – so cutting across higher would cut distance.
We were very happy to find water in a side gully – the first running water since we left camp that morning.
The traverse was a foot killer – but provided some spectacular views of Mlahangubo Peak. It also gave me multiple views of where a variation pass could be, and there wasn’t anything that I could see.
We eventually saw a trail in the valley, and decided to drop to it, but never actually ended up on it.
As we rounded the Mlahangubo Ridge and got a view towards North Ngaqamadolo Pass – I noticed a side gully next to it. Clearly a separate pass, but it looked very doable. I got a photo and zoomed in – I could see no obstacles.
We camped in a spectacular spot below North Ngaqamadolo Pass, right near the river. It was a much flatter spot for me than the one I had the night before, although my team mates tended to differ!
Johan wasn’t keen to go pass bagging, so Michael and I gave him camp guard duties – and at 5AM, the two of us were off up North Ngaqamadolo Pass. We took the necessary emergency gear, which all went into a pack I carried, and we set off.
Around 2500m on the north slope, there was a small 4 sleeper cave. No obvious signs of use, but it looks sheltered enough. Low roof – but entirely adequate.
The pass started out fairly steep, and got steeper.
We stayed on the north slope till around 2650m, when the gully became easier. The pass gets quite steep – but is never really particularly hard.
With some basic navigational planning, you can actually pick a really pleasant line up this pass. While it won’t break into my top-10, it most certainly is worth doing, if you are in the area.
Once you are through the rocky section, it gradually gets gentler until your reach the top.
We got to the top at 6:40, meaning we were well on track for our goal of 3 hours round trip.
We walked a short distance over the top, aiming for where I expected to find the unmarked pass. It proved easy to find, and looked very doable from the top. It was strange to be back in this valley – only my fifth time ever in it, and my second time in two days.
I opted for the name Ntsupenyana Pass. The logic being that Ngaqamadolo Far North Pass would be confusing, and Mlahangubo South Pass makes no sense as they neither top out nor bottom out in the same valley. The Ngaqamadolo passes are closer to Ntsupenyana than Ngaqamadolo, but seeing as Ntsupenyana is right by these passes, Ntsupenyana Pass seemed appropriate.
There is nothing tricky about this pass, just a standard Drakensberg grass gully – some thorns in places, loose rock in others. Nothing to write home about, but entirely separate from North Ngaqamadolo Pass, so definitely a different pass.
There was some aluminium wreckage and a hessian sack in the gully – so probably not a first use of the gully, but an unmarked pass nonetheless.
Once below 2550m, we traversed out onto the grass and made a line straight for the tents. We reached them at 7:58. How often do you get to bag two passes before 8AM?
For the record, here is a topo of the passes:
After packing up camp, we set off down the river. The plan was to find the trail and traverse out via the ridge. But it was such a hot day, that we decided to stay close to water.
Progress down the river was slow, but we found many amazing rock pools and cascades that made it all worth the effort. Not to mention the lack of a viable alternative! We occasionally found fragments of trails and even a cairn, but these always died quickly. The downside of hiking in a rarely visited area is that you can’t really expect to have good trails.
About 6km (as the crow flies) from the office, we found a good trail that continued right through to the junction with the trail from Mlahangubo Pass. I would say the distance melted away from here, but more accurately, it was such a hot day that we were more likely to melt.
At the junction of the Lesser and Greater Mlahangubo Rivers, we stopped for a break. We all washed our feet in the river, which was surprisingly warm.
The last 3km to the office proved uneventful, but eventually we were back at the car around 3PM.
In total we did 45km, roughly 2.5km in altitude gain and loss and took roughly 55 hours to do it.
With that, my gaps in KZN marked passes have been reduced to four – which can plausibly be covered in four hikes:
1) Rwanqa Pass at Mnweni
2) Hilton Pass at Injisuthi
3) Manguan, Ntshinshini, Mqatsheni and Phinong Pass at Vergelegen
4) South Mzimkhulu and Verkyker Pass at Garden Castle