Sani Supertraverse

I have always considered Vergelegen to be very appropriately named. A region of the Drakensberg tucked between Lotheni and Sani Pass – with no campsite and a poor quality jeep track as the most common access, it is most certainly not the most inviting region of the Drakensberg.

I first visited Vergelegen in 2017 and returned in 2018. In 2019, on my third trip, I noted that hikes dating back to 2015 were in the same mountain register – which just goes to show how few people visit this area. These 3 hikes yielded 8 completed passes, by far my highest efficiency rate of any Drakensberg region.

I 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 Phinong Pass on that trip. Long story short: we tried to go down Ntshinshini Pass, and the Dragon decided to show us whose the boss.

With my January climb of Mbundini Abbey Spire that included Rwanqa Pass, and my February hike that included Namahadi Pass, I found myself three passes short of having completed every Geoseries marked basalt range Drakensberg Pass. These three passes happened to be on the southern end of the Vergelegen region, conveniently next to each other. Due to their proximity to Sani Pass, an approach from the south rather than Vergelegen made more sense. I had learned a few lessons from my attempt at this a few months earlier, and came better prepared this time around.

So when the opportunity came for a Southern Drakensberg hike, I messaged Dave van der Veen and soon found myself in a tent at Sani Backpackers.

My mother had offered to help with logistics. This meant we could get a lift to the end of the tar section of road – meaning we would be at least 2 hours ahead of my last attempt at this strategy.

We got out of the car, about 1km past the end of the tar. The tar ends at the start of the Giants Cup Trail, and the next 1km has been graded recently and was doable in my car.

It was sunrise as we got out of the car. I have watched the sun come up in the Drakensberg over 100 times, but it never ceases to be a spectacular sight.

We walked just short of 1km up the road when a construction vehicle offered us a lift to the lower border post. This meant that just before 8AM, we were already at the ideal starting location for our hike. And in perfect weather too!

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We began to slog up the steep slopes just north of the Sani Road. I had just finished a marathon a week earlier and was unsure how my legs would cope with this, but at the start, I was feeling fine.

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As we approached 2200m, about 300m vertically above the Sani Road – and incidentally more vertical than my entire marathon a week earlier – the terrain became friendlier.

It was becoming apparent that we were in for a very hot day. There was a bit of a breeze, but we were looking forward to heading to the top where the weather would be more bearable.

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As we crossed the trail down Phinong Pass, we began the traverse to Mqatsheni Pass – which included losing about 150m in altitude in total. Dave’s mentor, Dave G, had provided a GPS track for the unmarked south variation pass. But my objective was the main gully, which is a marked pass. We knew nothing about the route, having never even seen a photo of the route and having never found any information about other ascents of this route.

Getting to the bottom of the pass proved to be tricky. We had to traverse about 4km on grassy side-slopes. Despite the map showing a trail for this approach, as is far too common in the Drakensberg, the trail did not exist.

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We got a good look up the Phinong Pass gully route. There is a good trail to connect the approach we had used to access this valley to the escarpment – which both Dave and I had done before. I doubt the gully variation is used often. With the foot-killer traverse, we both agreed we would come down Phinong Pass on Sunday.

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We eventually got a good look at Mqatsheni Pass as we entered the valley. It looked exceptionally steep. There was an obvious point where one would have to switch from the main gully to a grassy side gully. I got a few photos with zoom to find the best line through the top section – something that is far easier to do from a distance.

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We got a good look up Dave G’s route, which is the south gully. There are actually 4 gullies that look doable – the south gully looks like the most technical, while the main (north) gully looks like the steepest.

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As we got higher, my legs were reminding me that they hadn’t been given a proper chance to recover since Vaal Marathon. The day was getting hot, and there wasn’t much wind. As usual when I hike with Dave – he also proved much faster than me. So he spent a lot of time waiting for me to catch up.

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We eventually hit a chockstone and waterfall in the main gully. We had just passed a grass side gully, which I had noted from lower down. So we made our way onto the north bank, which proved easy enough.

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The grassy bypass wasn’t as steep as anticipated, and included only one short steep gully with a bit of easy scrambling in it.

This section was spectacular, with massive cliffs towering above us.

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The side slope eventually lead into a traverse back into the main gully.

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We crossed the gully and made our way onto the south slope to access the finally grassy bank to the top. I was feeling the strain of a steep pass by this point. Fortunately we were doing well for time, and “only” had one pass left for the day.

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We stopped for lunch on the buttress between Mqatsheni and Ntshintshini Pass. In real terms, Ntshintshini Pass was the main priority for both of us – although I have to admit that Mqatsheni Pass was far harder than I had anticipated. I had expected a difficulty 4 pass, and it was more like a 7.

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We both had a good look at Ntshintshini Pass. We had both tried this pass before, and both had failed to find a line. Standing at the top and looking at it, we were both starting to question if the route is marked in the wrong place on the map or if anyone had ever actually done this route. Even though it is shown on the maps, we couldn’t find any record of it being done before, or any clues as to how we would get up.

Nonetheless, Ntshintshini Pass was Sunday’s problem. We traversed to Manguan Pass – a pass which follows a grassy sideslope rather than a gully, one of very few passes like this in the Drakensberg.

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On the way across, we visited the cave that I had found a few months earlier at the top of Ntshintshini Pass. We followed the ledge a bit further and found a second cave.

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It was strange to stand at the top of Ntshintshini Pass again. I was hoping to be back at this spot in less than 24 hours – but looking down, I was not convinced that there was a viable route up this gully.

We found the top of Manguan Pass marked with a large cairn. If you didn’t know where the pass was, it would be easy to assume the cairn was arbitrary.

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The top of the pass doesn’t look like a pass. To be honest, the entire pass doesn’t look like a pass.

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There was a good trail through the top section.

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The trail died above the first cliff band. We knew there was a key gap in the cliff band, but seeing as the only information I had on this route was 2 photos, someones very brief account written years after the fact and a GPS track – I wasn’t surprised when the first cliff band proved to be both higher and harder than anticipated.

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I picked a poor line through the cliff band and ended up stuck in a bit of a hairy spot. We didn’t have much daylight left, and Dave wanted to get to the cave early – so this delay was not ideal.

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We hit two more cliff bands, but managed to pick better lines. They were still exposed, but not nearly as difficult.

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As we hit the lower range below Manguan Pass, we began to traverse south. We knew Kuala Cave was south of Ntshintshini Pass, so we had hoped to get a good look up the gully. Unfortunately the angle was wrong for this.

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We reached the cave in failing light, but not so late that we needed headlamps.

It was full moon and the waterfall over the lip of the cave was flooded. With a lot of light and noise, neither of us slept well. It didn’t help that we were both having memories of being stuck above a waterfall in bad weather on Ntshintshini Pass. It is funny – I don’t know anyone else who has even tried this pass. Yet both of us, years apart, had attempted it and had very similar experiences.

At 4:45, 15 minutes before the alarm went off, we agreed to stop pretending to sleep and just get going.

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We left the cave just after first light.

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We got to enjoy another good sunrise as we approached the dreaded Ntshintshini Pass.

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I knew the entirety of Ntshintshini Pass would boil down to 20m – if we could get from the bottom of the waterfall to the top of it, we had this. If not, we would be retreating. We had a 20m rope and some basic climbing gear as a backup. To say I was nervous would be an understatement!

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We got a good view of Manguan Pass from below. It is one of those routes that doesn’t look like a route from below. I can’t imagine it has had many uses in the past.

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I have often looked at the average gradient on a route I am about to do and thought about how steep it will be. But there is something unnerving about being 700m vertically below the top of a pass, and less than 2km horizontally away. What is worse is that this average gradient kept increasing.

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The grass slope was steep – and I knew we needed to avoid getting too high too early. I had looked at the cliff bands above us the day before – I knew there was no way to link the grass slopes above us at this stage with the rest of the route.

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We eventually neared the split between the north (marked) gully and the south gully. I rate there is a good chance the south gully will go – you just have to get very high very early and traverse in near the top. The main obstacle would be in the same cliff band as the north gully.

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As the 2700m cliff band got closer – I knew this could play out in a number of ways. I didn’t want to have to back off again – retreating back down this bank would not be great. But I would also rather fail 100 times than push when it is unsafe and have the trip end in serious injury or worse. The mountain isn’t going anywhere, I can always come back.

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The terrain was tough, but sometimes I have to remind myself that I actually do know what I am doing. Perfect weather, the grass tufts were green and stable. Odds of getting a better chance are very low.

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As the cliff on the ridge between the gullies came into view – I knew exactly what I was looking at. I had seen this briefly when the mist cleared on my last try. The cliff immediately above us was the cliff I had stood on top of on my last try. The crux of our hike was upon us.

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Dave tried a few lines on the cliff, but they were all far too sketchy to be safe. The obvious line up a recess included 2m of smooth gently overhanging rock at the top, the easy looking traverse lines were on bad rock. I eventually told Dave to come back down – with proper climbing gear they may have been viable – but if proper climbing gear is required, then it isn’t a pass.

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I eventually eyed out a sketchy traverse that came into the main gully immediately below the waterfall. We had both stood on top of this waterfall before – but what we had both not seen from above was that there was a sketchy exposed line to skip it to the left (well, right from above).

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Dave did my traverse line easily enough. The photo above makes it look fairly easy – but it had about 2m of really sketchy ground just around the corner, and a fall would have been 15m onto rock. We lowered the packs down with the rope, and after eyeing it out properly, I set up a top rope so Dave could belay me. I am about 40% sure the anchor would have held a fall, but sometimes that bit of extra support if you do slip is enough to stop you from actually falling – if you regain your balance quickly enough.

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The photo above shows the corner and gives some idea of the exposure. As I say – it looks much easier above. The photo below gives a better idea of the problem!

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Once I was through this, I knew there was no way I was retreating off the pass! I wasn’t doing that again.

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I went to the bottom of the waterfall – mostly because I had stood at the top and was curious if my assessment of it as absolutely not an option to climb was correct. I did agree with this assessment.

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We took the sketchy line up to the left, which was actually far easier than the traverse into the gully. Slopes like this are so common in the Drakensberg, so this was relatively trivial. Funny enough, this time the photo makes it look far worse than it actually is.

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The move to get back into the gully above the waterfall was another dodgy exposed move – but 3m exposure is a lot less serious, and we got across relatively easily.

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Standing at the top of the waterfall – we knew we had this now. We just needed to be careful and safely get to the top. We had both stood at this spot before, we knew what the rest of the route was like.

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I have to admit that Ntshintshini Pass is one of the most spectacular routes I have done. But similarly to Hilton Pass (although not as extreme in terms of danger or views), it is not a route I would like to do again.

The top of the gully is steep, but doable. I saw Dave taking the side slope, so I decided to take the same line – so we would be able to get to each other if something happened to one of us. He saw that I was taking the gully, so he took the gully. So, in summary, we both did the line that the other would have preferred.

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As we neared the top, the Ntshintshini Spire came into view. I first saw this pinnacle on new years day 2016 while doing a Grand Traverse. To the best of my knowledge, it is still due a first ascent – but it does look very hard, with no obvious line of weakness.

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I took a selfie near the top of the pass – how often do you get to complete every Geoseries marked High Berg pass?

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Dave was waiting for me at the top of the pass. We shook hands – this had been a big one for both of us. But, as always, the top is only halfway there. Well, I guess 75% of the way there, since this was pass 3 out of 4.

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We were behind schedule, and even though Dave was still strong, I was struggling. In my defense, we had clocked up around 3000m in total altitude gain in the preceding 28 hours.

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We made good time to the top of Phinong Pass. This would be the easiest of the four passes, and the only one we had both done before. We had planned to come down one of the Mqatsheni unmarked gullies – but opted not to due to time and the fact that neither of us were up for more steep grass side-slope traverses after having spent most of the weekend on those.

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Both of our GPS devices decided to fail earlier in the day. This was particularly annoying seeing as my GPS was new, this was its first trip. Nonetheless, I had done this pass a few months prior and remembered which gully to take.

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We made good time down the pass. Last time I had done it, it had been misty, so the clear weather was great.

We managed to follow the trail most of the way – this was the only pass we did on this hike that included a trail the entire way.

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We eventually reached the split and had to leave the trail to head for the Sani border post. We left it a bit early, which cut distance but added a bit of a nasty side-slope – I guess we couldn’t complete our hike without a bit more torture! By now we both had very sore feet, so a bit more pain wasn’t going to kill us.

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We pushed down the slopes as fast as possible. We knew we could have to walk 8km on the road before my mother could come and fetch us. And the later we reached the road, the less likely we were to get a lift from someone else – thus forcing us to walk that full 8km.

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The final descent was steep, but doable. We managed to do it by memory, with technology letting us down. Then again – if we did get our line wrong, we only really needed to go downhill till we hit the river and then up to the road. A road is fairly difficult to miss.

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We reached the Sani Road just before 3PM. A few vehicles drove past without stopping. After about 2km of walking we managed to flag down a bakkie. They allowed us to jump in the back, and after a very bumpy ride, we found ourselves back at Sani Backpackers.

We did roughly 52km in total (obviously excluding driving), over roughly a 31 hour period.

We set out with a hard goal, it turned out to be harder than expected – but we managed to finish it. Overall, it was one of the most enjoyable Drakensberg trips I have done!

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