The Free State Drakensberg remains one of the least hiked regions of the range. I have always found this odd – the area is spectacular and reasonably accessible. Rising above the rather large town of Phuthaditjhaba, it is home to some properly hard passes.
So on a Friday afternoon, Ross and I found ourselves at a very misty Witsieshoek. We had planned to drop into the valley and head up Namahadi Pass, but considering the conditions, that would be a bad idea. Nothing like exploring new ground in the mist!
So we decided to head up the Chain Ladders (after getting taken up the road in the 4X4 used by the lodge – the road is barely passable right now). In retrospect, this was the correct call.
It was Ross’ first time doing the route, so it was a shame to miss the views of the mighty Sentinel. It did occasionally clear a bit, but for the most part, we couldn’t see anything.
With the lower right chain ladder – the one I always use – missing an anchor, I had to use the ladder I usually avoid. As usual, the ladders always feel a bit less pleasant when wet – but we both got up safely.
We proceeded over the Mont Aux Sources ridge in the mist and found a camping spot below the peak on a tributary of the Kubelu (the Kubelu joins the Kubedu some way downstream).
The escarpment was basically a marsh, but we did find a flat dry spot about 15m from the river.
Around 9PM it started raining. Sometime around midnight I noticed the inside of the tent seemed to be wet. In error, I had brought the wrong tent on this hike – the one that had been torn open by a wild animal searching for food many years before. I am not sure how much of the water that got in was from this hole and how much came through the bottom – but by 7AM, we were making plans to get a few litres of water out of the tent.
Luckily no drips were coming through the top, so our sleeping bags were dry. Our food, packs and various other items were wet, though.
At 10AM the rain finally abated. As it turns out, the tent was in a dam. It was pretty much the driest spot nearby, so we there wasn’t much in the way of better options.
The little stream we had camped next to had become a rather large river!
With the amount of time lost to the rain, and the fact that any pass would be very difficult in these wet conditions, we opted to take a relaxed day and head over to Tugela Falls. After all, how often do you get to see the second highest waterfall on earth after 13 hours of heavy rain?
Seeing as we were at Mont Aux Sources, we decided to bag the khulu quickly.
Since the Lesotho military had moved away, the shepherds had moved back into the area. They were as friendly as usual.
We proceeded to summit Crows Nest. I had last bagged this peak back in 2013, so a second time up there was overdue.
It was still drizzling a bit, so we had lunch in Crows Nest Cave. I had never been into the cave before, but I had seen it from below – so finding it proved easy enough.
We proceeded from here to the top of the falls. The falls were absolutely pumping! The water was being projected well past the lip of the falls due to the volume of water.
Funny enough, it was my first time at the top of the falls. There isn’t much point in visiting this spot – you can’t see much from here.
We continued around the escarpment edge, finding every spot where the falls could be properly seen.
We eventually found a spot where you can see 4 out of 5 of the drops – I was not aware that there was a spot on top where this was possible. I made a comment about how I would post this photo on my facebook page afterwards, and being a well known spot, it would probably end up getting some attention. Turns out I wasn’t wrong – but it got way more attention than I expected. At the time of writing, it has passed 206k views, 11k reactions, 1k comments and is almost at 1500 shares.
We sat at this spot and enjoyed the view for a long time. I have never seen the falls like this before, and odds are, I won’t see it like this again. Tugela Falls is a bit of an odd spot for me – I am a fan of waterfalls, and I know that people travel to this area just to see this. But even though I have done the chain ladders many times, I almost never visit the falls. It just generally isn’t on my radar. Unless it has been raining, they generally aren’t that impressive – and in winter it generally isn’t even visible.
We crossed a flooded Bilanjil River. I have noted for years that Bilanjil Falls must be one of the highest on earth, but it is practically invisible from most angles. We found a spot near it where we could hear it and see a bit of the lower section, but it goes into a narrow crack and is thus very hard to see. It could plausibly be anything from 300m to 1000m – and I am assuming no one has surveyed it, so no one actually knows.
We eventually found a spot where you can see the top of the falls.
Just past this spot, we found what would be our final view of the falls. We sat and enjoyed it one last time. By this point, we had decided to spend the night in Ifidi Cave, and we had some distance still to cover.
A shepherd with his puppy came to join us and enjoy the view.
We decided to bag Amphingati peak. It is a formidable hill, but worth the effort.
We dropped down to the top of the Amery Gully – a rock gully that looks fairly unpleasant. The route has been done, and is graded as a climbing route.
We dropped to the river, filled our bottles and took a short detour to look down the legendary Ifidi Pass – one of the hardest but most worthwhile passes in the Drakensberg.
Mist rolled in as we approached the cave, yet another great view Ross would be missing. We found the cave, although I wasn’t entirely certain that we would in these conditions. It can be tricky to find in clear weather! The mist was the thick wet type, so we pitched the tent in the cave.
The tent had mostly dried during the day, so this did work out well.
We woke up to a clear morning, so at least Ross would get the views of the Ifidi Valley and Ifidi Pinnacles on the walk out of the cave.
We followed the river towards Crows Nest – the valleys behind the Amphitheatre provide numerous options for hiking lines. The Kubedu was high, but not too bad (for clarity, the photo below is the Ifidi, not the Kubedu).
I was nervous about the rivers in the valley below Namahadi Pass, but decided to give it a go anyway.
Many moons ago, Namahadi Pass was a donkey trail. So it has seen its share of traffic over the years. Its use diminished since the installation of the chain ladders and the road up to Sentinel Car Park, but there is clear evidence that it is still widely used. Not as much litter as expected, but a lot of eroded sections.
There was mist in the valley, but it did briefly clear before we started down the pass.
The top section of the pass is made up of well constructed zig-zags with rock walls to prevent erosion. Clearly someone has taken a lot of time and trouble to build these up – and many years later, I am thankful for how good the condition of the pass is.
The pass itself is actually really enjoyable. Good trail most of the way, never steep and mostly not very eroded. By no means the most challenging pass around. The views we did see were great. Being in the Namahadi Cutback, one would expect this.
The problem with the pass, however, is that it bottoms out in the middle of nowhere. While it is fairly close to civilisation, it drops you behind Fika Patso Dam. One does not simply walk over a dam wall! If the dam was full, some of the trails we used would likely be under water – but I assume it hasn’t been full for many years. It is currently around 30%, presumably intentionally.
With the flooded rivers, we opted to cross higher rather than lower. Andrew had suggested hiking down to the dam, and the directly up to Witsieshoek – but the rivers were too high for this.
Ross spotted a point on the river where it was wide and looked to be fairly slow. We left the trail and bush whacked to this spot. Turned out to be a good call, and we both got across with only having to take our shoes off.
With the mighty Eland River behind us, we knew the next two river crossings would be easier. We made our way back to the trail, and slogged over the next ridge, before dropping down to the second river crossing.
The second crossing proved even easier.
The next ridge was bigger and more of a slog to get over. The views of Eland River Falls and the Sentinel made the pain worthwhile.
The third and final river crossing proved to be the easiest of the three.
And thus began the never ending hill. Rumour has it that we are still climbing this ridge to this day. However, rumour is clearly incorrect as I am currently sitting in front of my computer typing this story.
We found a good trail, but were about 1.5km short of the trail we wanted to be on. We didn’t know it at the time, but this added an extra 50m of hill. That sounds trivial, but was not at the time. When we reached the top and saw the valley between us and Witsieshoek, we realised we would still be hiking for a while.
Once we had crossed the valley and were actually climbing to Witsieshoek, there was an element of relief, we would be there soon.
What my distance remaining had failed to take into account, however, was that there was still 800m and some vertical between the junction and Witsieshok. However, we could both smell our burgers at the restuarant, and this proved to be a non-issue.
We ended on 48km done, 25km of which was on the final day. Overall an epic weekend. We didn’t do exactly what we set out to do, but it was a hike I won’t soon forget!