Verkyker/Mzimkhulu loop: Looking ahead

Earlier today I was reading something I wrote in 2012. In the comment I had said that I wanted to do every pass at Giants Castle and Garden Castle. Over the years of trying to cover as much ground as possible, I have learned that you can never do “every” pass in an area – simply because you can never be certain that there are no possible pass routes that you have missed, or someone else has managed to do.

I have had a few notable clusters of hiking that have made up the bulk of my Drakensberg distance covered – periods where I just kept doing big trips. The two most notable ones of these included the period around my first speed Grand Traverse and the period around the Double Grand Traverse.

If the period from 24 September 2015 to 5 January 2017 is considered, a 470 day period covering both of these clusters, I covered 2367km in the Drakensberg in that period. 99 of those 470 days (21%) were spent in the Drakensberg, with an average daily distance of 24km. Four different Grand Traverses fall into that period.

The reality is that I am unlikely to repeat stats like that in the Drakensberg ever again. If I have the time (and funding), I would prefer to complete a similar exercise on a different mountain range. At this stage, the Andes would be my first choice.

This is the story of what I have realised has been another one of these periods of a lot of Drakensberg hiking – although not in the league of the Grand Traverses era.

In August this year I remember having a conversation with TonyM and AndrewP (the day before climbing Cathkin) in which I stated that I am past my interest in completing all the Drakensberg passes. Then in early September, Marco and myself day hiked the Hlathimba Passes and I remembered something important: Drakensberg passes are awesome!

And so began my charge to complete all the marked* High Berg passes of the KZN Drakensberg. At the start of September, 2019 had included a super impressive tally of 2 passes that I hadn’t done before. If I left it at that, it would be the least new passes I had done in a year since 2011.

*To clarify – a “marked pass” is a pass that is named on the Geoseries Drakensberg maps.

In the four hikes that followed, I managed to complete 10 passes I hadn’t done before, 9 of which were marked passes. My target of 17 had been reduced to 8. But I began to realise something – I am running out of time if I am going to complete this before the end of the year.

The weather forecast looked bad, none of the people I usually hike with were available – and I am not generally a fan of solo hiking. But I decided Saturday was as good a day as any.

So after work on Friday I jumped in my car to drive to Garden Castle. The weather forecast was looking worse than before, but I decided to keep going. On the drive there, just after Boston the road was closed due to a truck accident. I wondered if this was a sign that this wasn’t supposed to be. It eventually cleared up, I got some food at Underberg Spar, and soon found myself alone in Swiman Hut.

Lying in bed, listening to the rain outside, I thought – even if I bail on this, I still get to spend some time in the mountains – and that is never time lost.

At 4AM when my alarm clock went off, my enthusiasm was in need of a boost – but I am not new to this game. I know the drill, get out of bed and get started. You always feel better after you start.

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So I drove the 1km to the offices and filled in the mountain register. It was 4:35 when I set off. I put my headlamp away – it was already light enough without it. The grass was covered in dew, so my feet were wet within 10 minutes. I was also feeling a bit nauseous, so I wasn’t eating or drinking enough. I knew I was going to bail soon, so I decided to just see how much further I could get first. No point in coming all this way to bail before Pillar Cave.

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As I approached the cave, the cloud briefly cleared and confirmed what I suspected – the weather forecast was wrong and it was going to be a typical sunny day on top, but a misty day in the valleys.

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The river was very low, so I filled my bottle and started up Mashai Pass.

Around 2400m I posted a Whatsapp status. I like to post a few statuses on solo hikes – that way if something goes wrong, there is a last known location, well, assuming anyone who sees it manages to get the message to the rescue team.

About 2500m I found myself above the clouds. It was the typical reveal – when the light is getting brighter, and suddenly you look up and there is a mountain towering above you. I have experienced this many times before, but it is still a very special feeling.

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Above the clouds, my shoes and lower half of my pants began to dry. I have hiked in wet clothing often enough that it doesn’t bug me so much (unless it is windy) – but it is still nice to feel your clothes drying off.

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I had been slower than planned, and Mashai Pass is not the fastest pass on the planet – but I plodded along. I reached the top just before 8AM.

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It was a bit windy on top, but not bad. I decided to take a small detour to check out Pigeonhole Cave along the way. This cave is at the top of Rhino Pass.

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The cave wasn’t exactly where my GPS co-ordinate had it, but I did find it. It doesn’t look like a great cave, but I guess its nearest competitor is Mashai Shelter – which is worse.

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I made my way over the Verkyker Ridge, not exactly the biggest ridge ever – and it proved quick to cross as expected.

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From the top of the pass, I dropped a bit before traversing to Verkyker Pass. South Mzimkhulu Pass is supposed to be the easier of the two, and thus the logical one to descend – but I knew that the route would start up the North Mzimkhulu Pass trail, and that would be an easier line to pick.

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The top of Verkyker Pass is actually quite dramatic, with big cliffs on either side. Not as dramatic as, say, Bollard or Mzimude Pass – actually probably less dramatic than most of the passes in the area – but still very dramatic.

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I started down the pass. There is a good trail at the top, which dies quickly – as is normal in the Drakensberg.

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The top of the pass is fairly gradual and easy, before the gully constricts and forces you into a boulder field.

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The boulder field is fairly tame by Berg standards, but a few of the rocks moved as I passed over them, reminding me that I was on my own and that no one was there to help if I did something stupid. So I recomposed myself and got through this section.

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I got through the cloud layer soon enough and made my way onto the true left (north) bank of the river.

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The Mzimkhulu Valley is one of the most spectacular Small Berg valleys I have ever encountered (hard call between it and the valley below Sleeping Beauty Cave) – even though I would not be descending far into it, it was still great to look down into it again. I had last been in this area in 2013.

I made a point of dropping down into the sandstone range. It would have been easier to have approached this route from the Mzimkhulu River – shorted and a lot less vertical. But that requires getting permission from the farmer whose land you have to cross. Approaching the Mzimkhulu River via the Small Berg ridge traverse is long and slow – and would have been miserable in this weather. But despite picking a harder line, I needed to ensure that I descended far enough to be able to count both passes as done.

In 2013 when I was last here, we had crossed the Small Berg ridges to Fun Cave, and then ascended North Mzimkhulu Pass via the trail. So logically I just needed to ensure I hit the trail before the split in the passes – and I would be fine. I ended up hitting the trail at 2350m, which was far lower than planned. Oh well, free hill training!

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I followed the trail till the split in the three gullies, and then followed the river up the middle split till I could move into the south split.

There is not much dividing the middle and south gully – you could probably switch between them every fifty vertical metres or so.

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The south gully is known to be easy, but it tops out significantly higher than the north gully, and is shorter. Needless to say, it was harder than expected. In my defense, it was my 3rd pass of the day – so Langalibalele Pass probably would have felt difficult at this stage.

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The gradient was pretty uniform, and there was a good grass slope – so navigation was easy. The gradient is surprisingly close to 2m horizontal to 1m vertical – much steeper than I anticipated.

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It looks so easy in my photos – but it was a slog!

The gully doesn’t narrow or widen. When the mist moved enough for me to see blue sky at the top of the pass, I was very happy. By now I was feeling it – I was stopping roughly every 50m in altitude gain, my heart rate was high and I was about to run out of water. Shockingly the Mzimkhulu River – one of SA’s largest rivers – was dry even as far down as 2350m.

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I knew it would be windy on top, so I stopped for one last break before topping out. Or perhaps my excuse was the wind!

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South Mzkimkhulu Pass was a fairly nice route – similar league to the likes of eNtubeni Pass at Lotheni. Fairly steep, no trail, descent views. If I had to do one of the passes again – Verkyker would be by far the better of the two.

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I took the compulsory summit shot to note that I had completed every marked KZN High Berg pass south of Sani, and had thus had also completed Garden Castle’s marked passes. Whether or not it is a good thing that my summit shot included my Movember handlebar mustache is debatable! The fact that spell check wanted to change “mustache” to “mistake” when I was typing this is rather ironic!

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My secondary objective was complete. However, my primary objective (getting home safely) wasn’t complete. Luckily for me, there just happens to be one of my favourite passes just around the corner from here – bring on Mashai Pass (again).

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The Verkyker Ridge had been easier earlier in the day, but I was now on the lower side of the ridge and was tired. The ridge turned out to be a slog of note! There were plenty of animals around the area, but not a shepherd in sight. It occurred to me that it was just past midday, I had covered about 15km already in the day, and was yet to see another person.

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By now I had run out of water, my mouth was dry and the Verkyker Ridge had morphed from a little hill into some monster of a mountain.

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I eventually found myself over the top and dropping on the other side. This sentence was much easier to write than it was to complete at the time!

I saw a bit of water in a side stream, so I headed off to it. There was a bit of flow. I had to decide between a pool with 2 living frogs, or one with a dead frog. I decided to look around a bit more, and eventually found a pool that had a very slight trickle in and out – just enough to convince me that it wasn’t stagnant. Based on the taste of the water, it probably was stagnant – but I had had nothing to drink in over an hour, and dehydration was a more imminent threat than contaminated water.

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I could see a few people on horses in the valley, and I walked past a shepherd behind Rhino Peak – the first person I interacted with for the day. I waved and he waved back, we didn’t get closer than 100m apart.

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I passed a group of 9 people coming down Mashai Pass. It was my first time talking to someone for the day – so the slurred incoherent speech that came out of my mouth was worrying. I think I was more dehydrated than I realised. It didn’t help that I had also had almost nothing to eat.

I moved past their group quickly enough, and raced down the easy lower half of the pass to the river crossing. I mixed a liquid meal into some water and filled my other bottle with water. I drank about half a bottle before moving on.

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The walk out was not very eventful – I managed to drink half a bottle of liquid food, which helped a lot.

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I arrived back at the office just before they closed, signed out and had a shower at the camp. I had a lot to eat and drink at the car – and was actually feeling fine by this point.

I drove home that evening – how often can you do 3 different passes in a day and sleep in your own bed that night!

With this – my current streak is up to 218km in 63 days with 12 different passes I had never done before. 2019 has now equaled 2015 for second place for the most different passes completed in a year (not counting passes I had already done prior to that year). It is still possible that I could pass the 22 I did in 2016, but I doubt that will happen. But with 12 passes in 63 days, and 50 days left in 2019, who knows?

Final distance: 26km
Total altitude gain and loss: 2032m
Total time: 11h15

2 comments

  1. The handle bars rock. You should keep them. Looks good.

  2. […] aside from Eugene) also had wet pants from the knee down. It is funny – I did Mashai Pass in almost identical conditions 7 weeks earlier. On that occasion, I had made the obvious call of shorts. I probably just […]

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