When I was little, we used to have a box of tapes and accompanying books with the full text, I guess it would be called an audiobook today, although I don’t think the term was used at the time. The stories ranged from full fiction, such as Grogre the Ogre, to South African heroic history such as the story of Wolraad Woltemade. Amongst the South African legends, there was the story of Eliza Meiring, the Witch of Hex River.
The full story is relatively easy to find online, but the short version is that Eliza was a beautiful young lady who lived in the area near Worcester. If a man asked for her hand, she would insist on him picking a disa lily from the top of the nearby mountains to prove his love. As no one was willing to do this, she remained single. Then one day, Frans asked for her hand – and when she made her demand, he was so smitten that he climbed to the top of the local mountains. As he reached out to pick the flower, the rock broke and he fell to his death. Eliza was inconsolable and her family locked her in her room for fear of what she may do to herself. One night she broke out of her room, went to the top of the mountains and threw herself off. They say she haunts the valley to this day.
Obviously the story is a legend, there are a number of glaring factual inconsistencies in it. But I wonder what the origin is – much like many legends that have survived to this day – while most of the story is obviously untrue or exaggerated, there is often a bit of truth hiding in there. Perhaps Eliza and Frans were engaged, and he had gone into the mountains to do some hunting, and fell to his death. Nonetheless, a very sad story.
I first saw the Hex Mountains on my only previous visit to the Cape in 2003. I had immediately been interested in these spectacular mountains. And it only took me 17 years to actually get to them!
Finding information on the Hex Mountains is surprisingly difficult for mountains so close to Cape Town. Summit Post had a few articles on specific peaks, such as Buffelshoek, but not much else. Their writeup for Waaihoek mentioned access requiring permits from the UCT Mountain and Ski Club. I googled them, dropped an email to Jack – whose address is listed on the website – and left it at that.
A few days later I got an email from Torsten. I gave him a call and we agreed to schedule an attempt at the Waaihoek to Thomas Hut Traverse. As is apparent to anyone who reads my hike reports – traverse hiking is very appealing to me.
After a lot of admin in arranging Thomas Hut, I met with Torsten and Connor outside Fairy Glen Farm. We left my rental car at the end of the hike, and then drove back in Torsten’s car to Waaihoek.
Soon 10 of us were setting off up Waaihoek Pass. The route is traditionally done in 4 days, but we had combined days 1 and 2 to reduce it to 3 days.
The group started surprisingly fast. Its always hard to judge a group’s pacing strategy when you don’t know them. Being a group of young hikers, I knew it was entirely possible that I was simply the slowest member of the group, but I also knew we only had about 22km to cover on day 1, and if this pace was sustained, we would arrive within 5 hours plus however long our breaks were. I also knew that this would be the hardest part of the day, and thus was happy to fall behind a bit at first. I have overdone the start of a hike far too many times to make that mistake again. As Tony Marshall always says “5 minutes faster at the start is 15 minutes slower at the end”.
The group took their first regrouping break fairly early on. The rivers were in full flow, which is unusual for the Cape in November.
After the first break, I settled near the back of the group, having an interesting conversation with Lawrence.
As we got higher, the mangled rock strata that define the Cape Fold Mountains became far more apparent. The range has a look that is hard to describe. It is spectacular, but not pretty.
As we got higher, the route became more scrambly. Nothing too technical, but difficult enough that the casual hiker would probably not feel comfortable.
Upon reaching the top of the pass, I met up with the fastest members of the team. It had been windy lower down, but the top was surprisingly still.
We passed Pell’s Hut, the usual first night stop for this trip. It was still relatively early in the day, I am happy we didn’t attempt it over 4 days.
The trail soon came to an end, and we were now following cairns and a GPS track. The mist had cleared, and the line through the first section was fairly obvious. It is always hard to judge warnings about ranges one is unfamiliar with – does “navigation is difficult” mean the line isn’t obvious to an experienced hiker who doesn’t know exactly where to look, or is it a warning for a less experienced team? I have learned the hard way that one should never underestimate a mountain. I would rather say “that was easier than expected” at the end of a hike than having to relearn that all important lesson of not underestimating a mountain.
The views were spectacular. Looking across the valley at Sentinel and Buffelshoek, I could see the distance wasn’t too bad. The ground looked far easier than I had anticipated.
We soon found ourselves at the first major obstacle. The GPS track ominously called it “rough ground”. The entire summit ridge had been very rocky and loose, so this was an worrying warning!
For the first time on the hike, it was a bit like being on my home terrain – a rocky gully to descend with loose rock. Admittedly not the type of rock I am used to, and the grass was nowhere near as grippy as Drakensberg grass, but the technique of descending a gully like this remains the same.
This gully was followed by an interesting rocky traverse and a short ascent gully.
There was a scramble the looked fairly difficult from below, but turned out to be easy. Most of the team took the harder line directly up from the scramble, while I found an easier route to the left.
What followed was a second descent gully. This one proved longer than the first, but was easier than the previous one.
From here, the route followed close to the top of the ridge. A few of us hiked to the saddle at the top of one of the kloofs to find an amazing view of the ridge we would be hiking on the following day.
Ground had become very rough, and we had lost a lot of time on the gullies. It was getting dark, and with the remaining distance still being about 2km to Perry Refuge, finishing in the dark was inevitable.
With about 1km to go, we had our headlamps on. I am not sure how the rest of the group found this, but I have done so much hiking on rough ground in the dark that it was a non-issue for me. Let me rephrase that – I would have preferred to finish before dark, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
Perry Refuge was smaller than we expected, so only 5 of us could sleep inside. The rest pitched tents on the uneven ground near the hut. In the light of the morning, we discovered a large flat area for camping nearby, but this is the downside of a late finish.
For some reason, when I got up at 6AM, most of the group didn’t seem to be up, despite the sun being up. If I had known how long they would take, I would have gone and climbed Buffelshoek first thing in the morning. Just after 9, myself and 3 others decided to head up Sentinel, the peak right next to Perry Refuge. The mist probably had a lot to do with group apathy – we were heading into the most technical section of the hike, and poor visibility was going to be a problem.
Buffelshoek is a local high-point, and one of only 22 summits in South Africa with at least 1km in topographical prominence. Sentinel Peak, which is only a short distance away from Buffelshoek, has sufficient prominence to qualify as a mountain summit as well. It is unusual to have two mountain summits so close, meaning the views are exceptional!
With some careful navigation and a lot of scrambling, we managed to find our way to the top. After some debate, we agreed the highest point was back from the edge, although we did both summits just in case.
Sadly the views to the south were still covered by mist, but the views towards Ceres were great.
As we were preparing to descend, Torsten phoned me to inform me that they had only covered a short distance since Perry Refuge. The mist was bad, and they would wait for us at this spot. We had previously agreed to meet at the planned lunch spot, halfway between Perry Refuge and Thomas Hut.
We hadn’t been worrying about time, we expected we would catch up to the others fairly quickly, but now that they were waiting for us, we had to hurry. But alas, it was not to be. When we were almost back at Perry Refuge, we saw the others making their way back. They had decided it was unsafe to proceed, and we would be returning the way we came. Naturally I wasn’t happy with this decision at the time, but seeing as it was unfamiliar ground for all of us and visibility was poor, it was probably the correct call.
Making our way back the way we had come from was interesting. The three gullies had been mostly downhill the day before, which meant they would be a lot more effort on the way back.
The hike back to Pell’s Hut proved uneventful. The views were great, and the mist cleared nicely.
We spent the night at Hoare Hutt (and no, that is not a typo). The hut is surprisingly well stocked with supplies, which meant I was able to have a nice hot meal despite not carrying any cooking equipment or pasta. Admittedly that does feel like cheating, though.
I got up early in the morning with the goal of climbing Waaihoek Peak. My enthusiasm for this was not shared by anyone else – probably because they had all climbed it many times before.
The view from the summit was great, although the lighting wasn’t ideal for photos.
I tried to get a group shot, but two members had already left – so I managed an almost-group-shot before we made our way down.
Most of the team raced ahead, while Torsten, Connor and myself enjoyed a slow scenic walk down to the car. The views on the way down were spectacular, so it was nice to go slowly and study the different formations on the way down.
While we didn’t achieve everything we set out to do, it was a spectacular hike with a great group of people. Naturally I have unfinished business in the Hex Mountains – but I rate a full traverse from Mostertshoek Twins to Matroosberg is in order, so that was always going to be the case. Some additional recce hiking will be required first, as well as an ascent of Buffelshoek from Thomas Hut to complete this loop. I most certainly intend on returning to the Hex Mountains.
Thanks to Torsten for arranging and leading the hike, and to Erica from MCSA Worcester Section for arranging access on the Thomas Hut side.