Twas Heritage Day, and the mountains fair
Did rise above like an owl
All smokey was the mountain air
And the Berg winds did howl
Ok, before I butcher Lewis Carol’s poem Jabberwocky any further, I’m going to leave my poor attempt at poetry there!
After a very long absence from the mountains, with leisure inter-provincial travel being legal again, and overnight hiking having reopened – it seemed fitting to celebrate South Africa’s great heritage by spending the Heritage Day long weekend in the mountains.
I had planned to do the Double Northern High Traverse – a long standing project of mine that keeps getting delayed – but Didima was still not open at the time. Instead a traverse of Mnweni Passes seemed like a plan.
The group ended up being Dave and myself.
The rather optimistic plan was to head up Black and Tan Pass, down Manxome Pass, up Mnweni Buttress Pass, down North Ntonjelana Pass, up Christmas Pass and down Twins Pass – in the space of 4 days. Well – optimistic for me, I am pretty sure Dave would have managed this.
So we camped at a very busy Mnweni for Wednesday night, so we could get an early start on Thursday morning.
The hike started with Dave finding a lot of markers left over from the recent Mnweni Marathon. We later bumped into other groups that had also been picking up markers left over from the race. Subsequent to a stir created on social media, KZNTR actually has since sent a team to clean this up.
We took the turnoff from the Mnweni River, heading for Rwanqa Pass. We were happy to have had an early start as the day was already getting very hot.
This valley leads to four different documented passes – the two Black and Tan Passes, as well as Rwanqa Pass and Frenchman’s Gully. I had done Rwanqa Pass in January, so I remembered this ground fairly well – although January feels like a decade ago.
Interestingly we saw a blanket covering some equipment in the riverbed. This seems rather odd.
The river was remarkably dry. September in the Drakensberg is usually dry, and Mnweni is one of the driest regions of the range – but it is abnormal to see so little water this far down.
At the bottom of Rwanqa Pass, we continued up the main river. The Black and Tan Passes – named after the impressive peak known as the Black and Tan Wall, which looms above this valley – are hidden around a corner and only become visible much higher up. It is strange walking up a valley like this – you know there are two passes hiding in there, but you can’t see any hint of their existence.
We had the might Mnweni Pinnacles rising above us, which was a rather impressive sight!
The gully did include the occasional scramble, but was fairly tame at first. We knew there would be three waterfalls we would be required to bypass to the left. The grass slope to avoid them wasn’t as stable as I had hoped – partly due to how dry the ground was, but it was also notably a rather exposed and steep side-slope. There is definite serious fall potential on this section.
We stopped for lunch above the second waterfall. There was still water in the river, but it would alternate between dry and a small flow – so we were keeping our bottles topped up as much as possible.
A combination of insufficient vertical training, a hot day and possibly the fact that I hadn’t been above 2000m in a while were all adding up. To be fair, if I had done this in January, I would have been fine – so I guess it is really just a fitness question. Nonetheless, I guess I can’t call myself super-unfit if I am doing a hard Mnweni Pass from car to summit in a day.
When you finally get a view up the gully, you realise that it is very badly overgrown. Our choices would be following the riverbed or following the left side to avoid vegetation. We opted for the left.
Dave decided he had had enough of going slowly, and disappeared into the distance. I wouldn’t see him again till the top of the pass a few hours later. This did bug me, and was something we discussed later – I was very conscious that I was scrambling on loose rock in a rarely used gully and was effectively hiking solo.
I took the line on the far left of the gully (true right) to avoid the overgrowth. Based on Tony’s writeup of this pass, I guess the riverbed would be better, but with the amount of vegetation in the middle, you end up committed to the line you start on.
The views from the pass were of very high quality – something no photo can truly capture (although plenty of people out there who can capture it better than I did).
Eventually, after a lot of scary scrambles with relatively serious exposure – and the fact that I wouldn’t know if something happened to Dave, and he wouldn’t know if something happened to me playing heavily on my mind – I hit the burned section. This is where the scrambling relents and the never-ending gully begins.
Mnweni has a tendency for long steep gullies at the tops of passes. The thing with this pass is that it starts around 2000m, and tops out above 3100m – so when you hit this grassy gully at 2800m, you still have a lot of vertical to go.
There are a few scrambles in the gully, but the relentless steepness is the biggest factor. I had not been coping well, which meant I was struggling to eat – and that always catches up to you. My pace was slow enough that a few well-paced snails could pass me, if there had been any snails around.
To my surprise, I found flowing water at 2800m. Probably melting ice. Nonetheless, it wasn’t stagnant, so I filled my bottles – knowing it would probably be the last water I would see for the day. I had hoped Dave also did this, but had last seem him a few hours earlier, and had no way to communicate with him. As it turns out, he hadn’t.
The never ending gully continued to never end. I was getting slower and slower. Climbing 20m in altitude and stopping. At this pace, I would top out around midnight. I knew the cycle I was in – I had been here before. This is exactly why I never go more than 6 weeks without hiking to the top of the Drakensberg – I try to avoid hitting this state.
There was only one thing to do. Sit for 15 minutes, put warm clothes on and force something high energy down. I managed two mint sweets – practically pure sugar. Almost instantly it felt as if the day became brighter. I put the sweets in my pocket, and started to make good pace – well, good relative to what I was doing.
I was relieved to find Dave waiting for me at the top of the pass. There was some ice near the top of the pass, which we could melt for water, but he wanted to rather head to a cave for the night. It was just before sunset when we hit the top. As unfit as I felt, that isn’t an easy pass, and it was a 24km day with over 2km altitude gain – so by no means trivial.
Maxnome Cave was the obvious choice, since it was higher up the pass than Pins Cave. With so much ice and snow at the top of Black and Tan Pass, we assumed we would find some ice or snow near the top of the pass.
What we didn’t account for was that finding the top of the passes in the dark wouldn’t be so easy. Due to what in hindsight is a pretty funny navigational error, we ended on the little ridge between Pins Pass and Black and Tan Pass.
The weather forecast was for perfect weather, and the light breeze meant we probably wouldn’t have dew. As I learned last time I bivvied close to this spot – wind and dew at the same time is actually possible (unlike what I had been taught at school), it is just rare.
We built a rock wall and cleared some vegetation, and settled in for the night in a really nice bivvy spot. This was Dave’s first bivvy.
It became very windy during the night, but the view of sunrise from my sleeping bag the next morning more than made up for this.
We agreed to take the day as a rest day. We would slowly make our way across to Nguza Cave. Day 1 had killed me, and a rest day was required if we were going to do the remaining passes. So we took a walk out as far as we could to get a view from right above the Pinnacles. As it turns out, the final bit of land before the Pins is technical, but the view was more than worth the effort.
We proceeded to walk around Pins Pass to get an even better view of the spot.
From there we decided to go and have a look at the top of Manxome Pass. We were so close anyway.
Upon reaching the top of the pass, we decided to skip the rest day and head down Manxome Pass. We would skip Mnweni Buttress Pass, though. The valley was smokey, but the views from the top were still great.
Manxome derives its name from the Lewis Carol poem Jabberwocky. The story goes that a member of the party that named the route was struggling with the pass. A well known painkiller on hard ground is poetry, so their team mate taught them the poem and the name stuck. “He took his vorpal sword in hand; Long time the manxome foe he sought“
As we got further and further down the pass, the smoke cleared more, relieving some amazing views of the Mnweni Cutback. I rarely rate a pass 5* for quality, but Manxome Pass is truly deserving of this rating.
The top of the pass is relatively steep grass, but is actually not too bad. As you get further down, the steepness increases.
There is a famous ledge on the pass, where teams traditionally stop for a break. We had to keep our break fairly brief, we were low on water having not refilled since the day before – but still worth the detour.
We continued down the gully till we hit the river. I was aware of the presence of large waterfalls at the bottom of the pass, but I knew we needed water, and the spot at the bottom looked great for a second breakfast stop.
I washed off in the river a bit, and we enjoyed some coffee with crackers and cheese.
To bypass the waterfalls, we slogged back up the grassy bank, and traversed around the corner, through a side gully, and then dropped back down to the Mnweni River. This was the steepest and hardest part of the pass. Overall the difficulty of Manxome Pass is that it is a sustained steep pass. Definitely a high quality route worth doing.
We hit the Mnweni Pass trail via an old side trail in the river – joining the main trail around 2200m. Mnweni Pass looked like a train station, with massive numbers on the pass.
With so many people on the pass, I told Dave he was welcome to run up and I would meet him at the top. It was interesting chatting to the crowds on the way up. Some of them observed that I was “racing” up, context is funny – I felt like I was barely moving!
The f-word of endurance sports (fatigue) was taking its toll. The top of the pass was dry, so we walked about 1km before finding good flowing water on the Senqu. I wasn’t in great shape, and after a cup of tea and some biscuits, we started the slog to Nguza Cave.
Our original plan of Ledgers Cave for the night is comical in retrospect – of course it was never going to be available. So we didn’t bother heading to it, or Mponjwane Cave for that matter. I knew there would be two Nguza Caves, and odds are neither would be taken.
The weather threatened, but it didn’t rain at all. It was very windy, but the cave is well enough sheltered that this wasn’t an issue. The unflat floor of the cave didn’t help, though.
We got up on Saturday morning, having decided that the wind was getting worse, and my fatigue meant we probably wouldn’t get back up another pass. So we decided to go an tick off an objective I failed at back in 2016. Well – failed might be the wrong word. I decided it was too dangerous and thus skipped it.
North Saddle Peak is debated as either “an easy scramble” or a rock climbing peak. Back in 2016 I had tried it, but bailed about halfway up the hard part of the scramble as I was sure I couldn’t downclimb it safely. For this reason, I had a 20m static rope and a bit of climbing gear – I knew there was no gear on the route, so leading the pitch was never an option, but if Dave was happy to free solo it, he could at least give me a top rope. We could also abseil back down if necessary.
Dave got up it fairly easily, trailing a top rope up. Turns out it is 15m, and the exposure was worse than I remembered – not a chance I was doing that without a rope.
I proceeded to climb it while Dave belayed me up.
We walked around the summit a bit, but it was very windy – so we didn’t stay on top for long.
The view is great, but that climb isn’t to be underestimated.
We found a good anchor spot above the climb. I didn’t want to trust the rope as I wasn’t 100% sure it would hold, so I rigged a munter-hitch abseil and used it to assist with my balance (and as a backup if I fell). I would never have managed the downclimb without a rope.
Dave initially started with the same configuration I had used, and then went back up, undid it, and decided to free-solo the downclimb.
With the climb safely behind us, and one of my big to-do list items ticked off, we made our way to the top of North Ntonjelana Pass.
We knew we were leaving the top and heading back to the centre. Getting out of the wind seemed like a good idea, and my fatigue wasn’t going anywhere. No reason to stay on top longer than required.
I knew the view from the pass would be good, and it didn’t disappoint.
We stopped for lunch in a little side gully out of the wind.
Ntonjelana Pass is the easiest pass at Mnweni, so I had anticipated a relatively easy pass. I also knew we would hit the main pass trail at 2600m. As it turns out, the summit gully is very steep!
The gully eventually narrows, and includes a lot of scrambling.
I had been concerned that the traverse would not be obvious and might require some planning. As it turns out, there is a grass ledge exactly where the gully becomes a waterfall, and it leads straight to the point where the pass down the main ridge is closest to the north gully. It may as well have a large turnoff sign – it is very obvious when going down.
We stopped for a break on the river before starting the traverse. We knew water below the pass would be questionable, so this was a logical spot to fill up for the rest of the hike.
The traverse wasn’t as hard as I feared, although it did have its moments.
Once we hit the main trail – the combination of dry eroded ground and wind would prove rather unpleasant! We hit the trail just as another group was on that section.
We made good progress down from here, stopping for a short break at the very-eroded bottom of the pass.
If someone asked me how to get from the bottom of Ntonjelana Pass to the Centre, I would not be able to describe the route. It was my third time doing it, probably the third different line I have taken as well. I just followed the idea of staying close to the river and walking downstream till we hit the road.
We got back to the Centre around 4PM. We had come back a day early, but still a great hike. 3 hard passes that neither of us had done before, as well as a khulu neither of us had done. Overall, a great way to spend a long weekend!