When I was asked to relocate for work purposes, I knew my era of being in the Drakensberg on roughly every second weekend would be coming to an end. The symmetry of the era starting and ending on the summit of Rhino exactly 10 years apart added a bit of poetry to it all. But nonetheless, I knew I would be closer to an international airport, so the concept of heading to mountain ranges I have never been to before would be a possibility. I had spent 384 days in the mountains in that decade, that is more than an entire year!
Arriving at my new place, only to find it had been fumigated on my arrival date, was an interesting start. Luckily my brother offered me his spare room for the night, and a day later I found myself back at an empty flat full of dead insects. While waiting for my furniture to arrive – luckily the moving company only broke some of it – I got a message from Andrew. He had a rare gap to head to the mountains, and wanted to know if I was up for joining him.
I rarely turn Andrew down on hiking plans. Many of the best days I have had in the mountains have been doing something really epic with him – and there was no way I was turning this one down. He wanted to day hike/climb the Mbundini Abbey Spire. It is an obscure peak at Mnweni, supposedly a very easy climb that is almost never done.
I actually wasn’t particularly interested in the peak – but more the prospect of doing Rwanqa and Madonna Pass. Rwanqa Pass being one of five Geoseries marked High Berg passes I hadn’t done in KZN.
So on 3 January, roughly 50 hours after arriving in Gauteng, I found myself in a car driving back to KZN. I knew I would be back, but my expectation wasn’t to be back in the Drakensberg 3 days after my last hike there!
So at 2:50AM on Saturday morning, Andrew and I began a walk up the Mnweni Road. There is something about starting a hike that early in the morning – I know we talked about something, but by lunch time that day I already had forgotten what it was. I guess one could say I was semi-conscious. Awake enough to not trip over every rock, but not awake enough to really think about what we were doing.
It was getting light by the time we crossed the Nceda River – joys of the early sunrises of midsummer – and we had some dramatic sunrise views from the high trail to the Mnweni River.
We took the turnoff for Rwanqa Pass, and mostly held the trail to the bottom of the pass. It was getting very hot already. My biggest issue with Mnweni is that the altitude of the Centre is so low that you end up hiking in the heat of the day. From this point of view, the super early start was great.
Rwanqa Pass starts with a steep bank. Not a pass that a beginner would enjoy, but nothing that either of us hadn’t done plenty of times before. In Andrew’s case, he had done this pass before and knew the line well. While it is great to be the leader on most hikes I do, there is something nice about having a more senior teammate and being able to just mindlessly plod along.
We eventually hit the notorious traverse into the main gully. With a number of side gullies to move around, it proved more effort than I had been anticipating. Rwanqa Pass is known for being one of the hardest non-rock passes in the range, so I wasn’t expecting an easy stroll – but overall this was the hardest part. Admittedly the pass was easier than I anticipated.
The views from the pass were very impressive. It was a lovely clear day – although some wind would have been nice as it was getting very hot.
By the time we got to the top gully, our march was starting to take its toll. I had to slow down and take occasional breaks near the top. I would make some statement about my fitness level, but I don’t know that I ever have been that much fitter than I was at this stage.
We saw the Rwanqa Caves across the gully, but didn’t bother heading out to them. They are of little use on escarpment hikes as they are a way down the pass, with Rat Hole Cave and Fangs Cave nearby.
There was a storm hanging around, which was worrying me a bit.
We reached the top of the pass – getting a celebratory selfie. After all, this was the last pass I needed on the Mnweni Challenge, which is all 10 Geoseries Marked Mnweni passes. It also meant I had completed all the Geoseries marked High Berg passes of the northern and central KZN Drakensberg – with 4 to go at Vergelegen to complete the entire KZN Drakensberg.
Andrew raced ahead to measure prominence on a peak near Rat Hole Cave. I was feeling the fact that we had just taken roughly 8 hours to get from the car to the top of Rwanqa Pass, and was walking fairly slowly.
As we passed Madonna Pass, we got a good view of the spire. It is the free-stander that proudly stands apart from the summit of Mbundini Abbey. It is visible on the left side of the gully in the following photo:
The slog up Mbundini Abbey was a lot of effort. I remember hitting lots of side gullies last time I climbed the escarpment summit, so I stayed lower and managed to miss them. Andrew had gone ahead to set up the abseil.
The peak stands possibly as close as 50m from the escarpment, but is separated from it by a chasm of about 30m in depth.
The view from the area was spectacular.
Andrew rigged the abseil while I gathered my nerve. It is no secret that I am not a fan of abseiling. The fact that we would later have to jumar back up this rope did not help my nerves! The bottom half of the abseil was overhanging, and abseiling on a single thread of 8.5mm rope with no backup is interesting at the best of times – there were a few times where I was close to losing control of the rope. In retrospect, I should have backed up my system with a prussik – but I usually don’t do this as it often gets in the way.
The climb was supposed to be grade E – but watching Andrew do rather acrobatic moves to get through the first section wasn’t helping. The route description did most of the climb in a single pitch, but after Andrew gave up trying to work out where the route went from the first ledge, he decided to belay me up to reduce rope drag.
The first move was tricky, I managed to figure it out without aiding it, but I am not certain that I did not load the rope mid-move a few times – so my without-aid claim is questionable (and would be rendered redundant on pitch 2 anyway).
From this ledge, what was in front of us and what was on the route description did not match. Andrew opted to climb the chimney (which matches the RD) and then traverse out to a good stance – from which we would later abseil.
Following him up, I discovered that this was yet another Drakensberg pitch graded E that was partly overhanging on bad rock. I am seriously starting to question whether grade E in the Drakensberg just means this kind of climbing – and there is not a 10-12 as most grade conversion charts would have you believe. Or alternatively, at the crags the grade represents the hardest single move – and in the Berg, the grade represents the average difficulty of the pitch. I was once told that you have to add 4 grades onto most Berg routes – this seems to be true.
I ended up aiding the overhanging move – taking my 2.4m sling, tying steps into it and attaching it to a bomber cam. This was still pretty hard, and I broke off some holds along the way – unfortunately they fell into the abyss below before I could put them back. They say “if you find a good hold in the ‘Berg, please put it back” – but in my experience, gravity tends to render this impossible.
The traverse at the top of the pitch proved to be fairly hairy too. Andrew placed an extra cam to protect it – which helped. It was a narrow footledge with a bulge of rock above it. So you had to lean back a bit to get around. If this is what a route graded 10 is, then every crag route I have ever attempted is wildly overgraded. Then again, it was first climbed in the 50’s, and has no recorded repeats, although some leftover tat near the top suggests it has had at least one repeat. It is possible that the RD is wrong, rockfalls have changed the route, we could have picked the wrong line etc.
The last pitch of the climb included a choice between a really good rock that both Andrew and I decided wasn’t stable enough to pull on, forcing us both to take a strange line on more solid rock. The top pitch was easy, but the reference to “scrambling” up it unroped seemed almost suicidal – I was very happy to be on a rope.
We reached the summit just 2PM. This means we had been going for over 11 hours by this point, and still had to get back to the escarpment and down the pass.
The views were amazing, but admittedly almost identical to what we could see from the top of the escarpment.
We both knew we were in for a late finish, so we didn’t stay on top for long.
Andrew’s rope wasn’t long enough to abseil down to the nek from the summit, and the anchors right on top weren’t ideal in any case. So I reversed pitch 3 on top rope, and then belayed Andrew down it. The top “scramble” is very exposed and the rock isn’t amazing.
We identified two really good anchors, but used Andrew’s selection in the end – after all, he is far more experienced at climbing than I am. My rock looked more solid (to me anyway), but would have given us a bit less distance in terms of reach and would be harder to pull the rope down from below.
Looking down the abseil from the top:
I was happy to reach the nek, but knew it wasn’t over yet. Andrew gave me a brief tutorial in how to use a jumar, and we made a plan on how I would get it back down to him.
I had to focus on what I was doing and just disregard any fear I might have. I didn’t want to do this, but there was no alternative. I didn’t bother discussing other options – I knew there weren’t any.
Andrew had warned me that the overhanging bit would be harder as you end up swinging a lot. I actually found it easier as the rock didn’t get in the way. Once I hit the lip of the rock, I made a call to ignore scratches on my hand and do everything required to keep moving. It took about 20 minutes to climb the 30m of rope – not very fast, but my speed improved as I got the hang of it.
On reaching the escarpment, I moved into a cave just above the climb. I was very relieved to be back on the escarpment – the ropework section was done for the day. On the opposite side of the coin, I knew we were far from done.
We had been very fortunate with weather, but it was just after 4PM when we reached the top of Madonna Pass. We met a group doing a traverse from the Chain Ladders to Rockeries Pass at the top of the pass. I observed that the view from their tent was rather epic – to which they agreed.
Madonna Pass proved to be far easier than I anticipated. We stayed on the ridge in the middle through the top section, and dropped into the left riverbank when the ridge became too steep.
The pass is directly below some fairly dramatic cliffs. Actually one of the best value for effort passes I have done at Mnweni.
Eventually it just becomes boulder hopping. Luckily for us, this is my strongest terrain. We wanted to reach the Mnweni river before dark – so I was going as fast as I could. We motored this section, eventually hitting the trail just before the Fangs/Mbundini Junction.
From here, our pace increased further – with some lost time when we ended up on the wrong trail.
The trail section proved longer than anticipated, and we reached the Mnweni River in failing light.
The walk back in the dark was fast, but slower than I had hoped. We periodically lost the trail, stepped into holes in the ground etc. We motored the flat and downhill sections, but I was slow on any uphill. In my defense, we had done more than 2km in altitude gain at this point, and my legs weren’t appreciating it. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I had only used one of my legs on the jumaring section, and had a bit of a cramp in one thigh. I opted to eat jelly beans every few minutes to try and keep a sugar rush going to power me to the end. This is a strategy I only use right near the end of a hike, as it tends to end badly if you do it too early.
We were both relieved to reach the road some time after 9:30PM. I must have looked like I had had too much to drink towards the end – my balance wasn’t great and I was struggling to stay in a straight line.
We arrived back at the Centre just before 10:30PM. I proceeded to shower and go straight to bed. Eating something could wait till the next day!
Overall we did 45km in the space of roughly 19h40. Definitely one of the most epic and memorable day trips I have ever done!