Vergelegen Passes: Hitchhikers Guide to the Drakensberg

My charge through the marked passes I had not yet done south of Giants Castle in the KZN High Berg had been going amazingly well. A cluster of 4 passes near Sani Pass was all that remained. My logic was simply – drive to the lower Sani border post, hike up Mqatsheni, down Ntshinshini, up Manguan and down Phinong back to the lower border post. Should be easy, right?

We planned to leave for the mountains at 4AM on Sunday, but at 9PM on Saturday I got a phone call that Michael’s car had broken down and we would need to go in my car. The problem here is that my car doesn’t have the ground clearance to cover this road.

On the drive in, the audiobook of So Long and Thanks for All the Fish had been playing in my car. It is the 4th book in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series – which might have been a bit prophetic for the hike we ended up having!

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So at 7AM, a full hour after when we had hoped to start walking, we found ourselves parked at Sani Backpackers waiting for their office to open. They were happy for us to park there, but the operator they usually use to get people up the pass wasn’t willing to drive us to the bottom border post at such short notice.

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We decided to walk and see if we could hitchhike. It is roughly 16km from the backpackers to the lower border post – so I knew walking the entire way wasn’t feasible. After walking about 3km we managed to hitch a ride to the end of the tarred section. A lot of the road has been tarred in the last few months – so this put us at the S-Bend below the start of the Giants Cup Trail. Progress, but we still had a long way to go.

After less than 1km, we managed to hitch a ride with a Basotho couple. We discussed the options of being dropped at the bottom or top – but I decided the top was a better idea as it was already late in the day, and hiking up Mqatsheni Pass from the lower border post would be too slow for how late in the day it was. It also meant that bailing down Sani wouldn’t be an option as our passports wouldn’t be stamped.

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The road was very wet and slippery, but this couple obviously drives this road often. Their power slides on mud were a bit scary at times, but the driver showed amazing control. They dropped us at the top and we paid them R350 for the lift. They were happy and we were happy – good business!

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We walked over a very windy Mqatsheni Ridge. It was already after 10AM – we had lost a lot of time, but at least we were on top now.

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We walked over to Ntshinshini Pass. We stopped for a short break at the top. There was a small cave visible at the top. We walked over to it to take a look and found what might be one of the best caves I have ever seen in the basalt.

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The mist was at the level of the escarpment, the pass tops out at 3100m. So a pass we knew nothing about and we had to do it in the mist.

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The top of the pass is very steep and fairly loose. We picked a line that hits the top of the main fissure and traversed into the fissure about 5m below the top of the feature. This saved a short climb on steep wet rock.

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The fissure itself is fine, lots of loose rock, but that is to be expected on a pass that rarely gets used.

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Soon we hit some scrambling, but we were both experienced enough to get down this without too much difficulty.

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Slide20.JPGThe first obstacle was a very steep waterfall (incidentally the only usable water we had on the entire hike). Michael twisted his ankle just above this. I couldn’t see a way down from the top, and I had time while Michael waited to see how his ankle was – so I took out the rope, set up an anchor on the large rock above it and abseiled about 5m to the ledge below. As it turns out, there was a fairly obvious line to take through this – it just wasn’t visible from above.

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Michael was feeling a bit better after about 10 minutes, so he followed me down on the rope. When he got down, the rope wouldn’t come, so I went back up, took it apart and climbed back down. Actually not bad when you know where to go. I had been careful in how we did this section: rule #1 in the mountains is to never go somewhere if you aren’t sure you can backtrack if necessary.

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The gully became a bit gentler for a while before hitting yet another waterfall. I saw the line from the top immediately – conditions were getting wetter and wetter. Steep slippery ground is never fun. Well, I guess it is type 2 fun.

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A short distance below this obstacle we fit a large boulder in the middle of the gully. On the left was an abyss and on the right was a steep slope down to another abyss. It started raining at this point. I used the boulder as an anchor and got Michael to belay me down the steep wet rock to the precipice. All I could see below me was an overhanging cliff.

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Michael suggested that he could lower me, but I knew that was a bad idea – I knew I probably couldn’t climb back up – especially in the wet – and we would both have to descend on a single strand of rope, meaning my 20m rope would be left behind – giving us no way of descending further if we hit another obstacle. Getting stuck in a narrow riverbed between cliffs in the rain was exactly what I had in mind!

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I considered traversing right onto the grass, but the exit move in wet conditions was too dangerous – especially if I had to reverse it. I left my pack with Michael and went about 50m up the gully before finding a safe exit on the other side. I went back down and fetched my pack and Michael.

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We traversed fairly far out of the gully. The ledge was good in most places, but I was aware that slipping on this wet ground could be fatal. Eventually the ledge we were on came to an end. I dropped down to the lower ledge and walked that till it came to an end as well.

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The mist cleared just enough that I could see the opposite slope – a good thing I hadn’t done the dangerous exit move, I couldn’t see any viable lines on the other side. I could see the bottom of the last cliff band directly below me. In dry conditions I might have gone closer to the edge, but it was far too wet and slippery to do that on this occasion. What I could see was very steep grass followed by almost certainly a cliff and then another short ledge before yet another cliff.

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The following photo is the clearest picture I could get of the opposing bank. It was clear enough for me to see, but not clear enough for a helpful photo:Slide34.JPG

Sadly I don’t have any helpful photos of this – I had hiked past this pass in 2015 on a GT, but I didn’t take any photos from the south looking at the north slope. Looking at the only slightly helpful photo I have, I think the ledge I was on was correct – but you would have to find a gap in both lower cliff bands to get up to it. On the bright side – when I go back for it and try it from below, I know if I can hit the north grass slope at 2850m, I can safely get to the top from there. But, to be honest – based on the information at hand, I am not convinced that this gully actually goes. It is a marked pass, but it is possible the wrong gully was marked on the maps. After all – it wasn’t marked as a rock pass, and the nearby double gully sometimes known as the Twin Peaks Passes look fairly simple and aren’t marked on the maps. I don’t think the south slope is viable.

I have cleaned up my GPS track from this section – the back and forward was me exploring, I have removed the GPS drift. Based on the information at hand, the spot I looked at seems to have been the most likely way through.
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Michael suggested that we could overnight on the flattish spot on the ledge and hopefully have clearer weather in the morning – but I knew that would be uncomfortable. If the mountains have taught me one thing, it is to learn when you have been defeated. It is always important to avoid a minor loss becoming a more serious loss – and I didn’t want this to end with major injury or worse.

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We started back up the gully. We were at the cave at the top of the pass just after 4PM. We didn’t have time to head down Manguan Pass and thus had to call it a day. We had filled our bottles at the one waterfall on the pass, so we decided to overnight in the cave.

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Ntshinshini Cave has a very narrow entrance, and opens into a fairly large room with a down sloping floor. At the back, there is a large flat room. The roof is so high that you can easily stand up at the back, this despite having to crawl to get to the back. The following photo was taken about 2m into the cave – so this was not standing at the entrance.

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We did some renovations – moving rocks and dirt around, then flattening them with a large rock. Well, more Michael than me. In my defence – I had done a lot of Ntshinshini Pass multiple times by going ahead and looking for the best line, so all is fair.

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We set up the inner of the tent at the back of the cave. The cave was bone dry, but the tent meant our gear would remain clean – and we had brought it all this way anyway.

It was misty outside, but the cave is very well sheltered, and thus was warm. Curiously I had internet at the entrance to the cave, but nowhere else near the cave.

We woke up just before 5AM on Monday, I was up and ready in time to watch the sunrise from the ledge outside the cave – what a beautiful spot!

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The mist was swirling in the valley below, enough for me to get a bit of a view of where we had been. Once again, I had no clue where to go. All I could see was exceptionally steep ground with cliffs.

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We walked past the south gully, which didn’t look any better. The spur coming off Ntshinshini Peak (which is the south slope of the pass) looks far too steep and cliffy to have a viable route down.

Michael’s ankle was struggling, so he decided he couldn’t do another pass for the day. So we walked over to Phinong Pass – my plan was simply to walk down the pass as quickly as possible and then back up.

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I started down the narrow gully at the top of the pass. It was very slippery and wet. On reaching the bottom I felt like an idiot, there was a clear path that skipped this gully about 100m west of this!

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The pass traverses below the escarpment cliff band. The trail was surprisingly hard to follow, every time it crossed a scree field, I lost it again. It was also very wet and slippery.

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The trail traverses around a corner before it starts dropping again. I knew I didn’t have much time, and it was misty, so there wasn’t much of a view anyway. So instead of taking photos, I concentrated on moving fast (and not falling).

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Based on the position, I can only assume this pass has an amazing view. I guess I will have to go back and do it again to find out. At 2500m, the GPS track I had took a sharp turn to the right to drop down to the Sani Border Post. It was funny – I was a 2.5km walk from the border post, yet I was going to have to walk back up the pass! I could see there was no trail down to the border post, and it wasn’t feasible to traverse at this altitude. If we stuck with our original plan, we probably would have headed up Phinong Pass instead of Mqatsheni Pass for this exact reason.

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I followed the very clear trail until it dropped to 2440m. I was still in the mist and the trail was fairly flat. My GPS told me I had to cover another 3km to drop to 2200m, so I decided this was as far down the pass as I could justify going.

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I had taken just under an hour to get from the top to here, but I knew heading back up would be slower.

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Following the trail back up proved much easier. I only lost the trail twice.

Near the top, the trail goes past a fairly large cave that I had missed on the way up. I had been on a higher ledge at the time. From the cave, the trail traverses past the gully I had come down and zigzags up the steep slope back to the top.

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I guess it is debatable whether or not it counts as doing Phinong Pass – I followed a trail in mist and drizzle, saw basically nothing and turned around at an arbitrary point on the ridge below it. The layout of the valley means that the only viable place to do this pass from is the lower border post. We had discussed me going down Phinong and Michael going down Sani and us meeting at the border post – but I didn’t like this idea as we would struggle to communicate with each other if something went wrong. I also needed to get my passport stamped to show I had left Lesotho.

I took 2h15 to cover the pass. The pass is surprisingly long, with most altitude being gained in short stretches and a lot of traversing included.

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We walked across to Sani Top, arriving around 11:30. Michael wanted to walk down the pass and get a lift from the lower border post. A number of tour groups were in the area, but none had space in their vehicles – so we just hoped to hitchhike a ride from the lower border post.

How to write up walking down Sani Pass – blah blah blah, unflat ground, surprisingly steep for a road, blah blah blah, boring in the mist. It is the second time I have walked Sani – it isn’t at the bottom of the list of passes I want to do again, but I’m not sure it cracks my top 100 either!

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The Sani 4X4 Taxi had passed us fairly high up the pass. To our surprise, it was still at the lower border post when we arrived. It looked like the police had been searching it. We quickly got our passports stamped and asked the driver if he had space for 2 more. If we had taken a few minutes longer, we would have missed the taxi.

So for R50 each, the two of us squashed into the back of the taxi with our packs on our laps. The drive on the rough road was, well, rough. The roof was low, so we hit our heads a lot. Watching everyone’s heads bounce in unison was rather interesting!

The taxi dropped us back at Sani Backpackers to wrap up what was unquestionably the weirdest hike I have ever done!

I won’t call the hike a failure – I have learned some valuable information on Ntshinshini Pass, a route I knew nothing about until this trip. I often say that if you always hit your goals on the first try, they were probably too easy. After 5 hikes in 63 days that yielded 12 passes I hadn’t done yet, I was starting to wonder if this goal was in fact too easy!

One comment

  1. […] had attempted the four remaining marked Vergelegen passes, with access from the Sani Road, shortly after my third trip to Vergelegen, but only managed to do […]

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