Cape Trip day 1: Sebrakop

The story of how an obscure mountain in the Piketberge named Sebrakop came to be a major hiking goal for me is a bit of a strange one. My tendency to over-analyse mountains is notable – but, in my defense, there are hundreds of thousands of mountains on the planet, and I likely won’t stand on the summit of even 1% of them. So I have to have a means of picking wisely.

I took up hiking in 2009, and mostly only hiked in the Drakensberg for the decade that followed. There were a number of reasons for this, and if I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t change my approach. At the end of the day, I had to learn how to climb mountains, as well as building up the necessary fitness. When I was relocated to Gauteng for work, I was now further from the mountains, but closer to an international airport.

My plans around the time of moving included heading to hike in Nepal, Malawi, Peru and various other countries. However, shortly after moving I found myself locked in my house as the world went into lockdown. Plans had to change, international travel was no longer feasible – and likely will continue not to be viable for a while still.

I had been meaning to visit the Cape Mountains for years, and when I realised I would not be able to use all my leave before it expired in 2020, I flew to Cape Town for an 8 day holiday on which I summited 8 different mountains.

While researching this trip, I began to review statistics of South African mountains by topographic prominence. The easiest explanation of topographic prominence (simply referred to as prominence hereafter) is the difference in altitude between the summit and the lowest contour ring within which that summit is the highest point. In essence, it is a scientific measure of base-to-top height.

Along with a group of friends, I had been assessing Drakensberg summit prominence for years, so when a member of the group doing this analysis stumbled upon an individual who had used satellite data to analyse every summit on earth with at least 30m prominence, I had to download the data and crunch some numbers on it.

In the Himalaya and Andes, a measure of 7% prominence relative to height is commonly used as a definition for a mountain. I have always liked this measure – although notably it doesn’t work well on lower summits which require minimal prominence to qualify. I thus use a definition of a mountain as a summit with at least 500m altitude, and at least 7% prominence relative to height, with a minimum prominence of 200m.

Running my mountain definition on the summits of South Africa, I identified that South Africa has approximately 2400 mountains. This is a fairly high number, so I would say my definition isn’t too strict by any means. Of those 2400 mountains, 24 have prominence in excess of 1000m. I was initially hesitant to try to complete this list – but I soon realised that it would mean I would have to travel to all the major mountain regions of South Africa and that it therefore would be a thorough means of exploring the mountains of South Africa.

The peaks are predominantly in the Western Cape, with 18 out of 24 being there. The Eastern Cape and Limpopo both have three, with none in the other six provinces. The Drakensberg does have two, but both are in Lesotho.

On my 2020 Cape Trip, I summitted Du Toits, Matroosberg and Table Mountain – at the time I hadn’t really committed to the list as I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to do. By the time I started planing my 2021 trip, though, I had decided I would aim to complete the list over the next few trips.

I chose September as it is when my work starts to quieten down after the madness that follows year end, and the fact that Western Cape weather is generally best at this time of year – the flowers are out, there is water in the rivers, but it isn’t too hot yet.

So in mid September I found myself on a flight to Cape Town. I ended up sitting next to the FD of Food Lovers Market, which lead to some fascinating conversations regarding the world of finance.

Upon arriving in Cape Town, I picked up my rental car (pictured below, although this photo is near Sneeukop much later in the trip), bought some hiking food – knowing I likely would be very limited in my shopping options for most of the trip – and set off for Piketberg. I have never been a huge fan of large cities, so heading out of Cape Town almost immediately after arriving suited me well.

I had never traveled north of Cape Town before, so I was on new ground very quickly. It was late afternoon, so I was in the dark long before reaching the town of Piketberg. The Piketberge are rarely written about, and I could find almost no photos of the mountains before this trip – so I was curious to see what these peaks looked like.

The small mountain range is largely separate from any other ranges in the area – so even though Sebrakop is only 1458m, it has 1299m prominence, making it the fourth most prominent mountain in South Africa.

I was up early the next morning to watch a spectacular sunrise over the Cederberg and surrounding mountains. The peaks behind the town rose rather ominously as well.

The biggest challenge with Sebrakop, and the reason I had it as a top priority for this trip was the fact that access was tricky. Historically one could seemingly hike up it from Scheppie Saus, but that campsite seems to have closed around the time of lockdown. Being a mountain range that is rarely hiked, finding access information was practically impossible.

I eventually emailed a local horse farm. I received a response from Jacqui telling me that she didn’t have access to it, but that a trail runner who lived in the area, named Joseph, had been looking at heading up the peak. She put us in contact, and soon I had plans to hike up this peak with him.

Early in the morning, I found myself in Joseph’s vehicle, along with his wife, Lisa, and their two young sons, driving up a road pass to a protea farm south of Sebrakop. Joseph had explored around Scheppie Saus, but found the old hiking trails to be overgrown and thus not viable. He had fortunately managed to arrange permission to access the peak from the protea farm, including the all-important gate keys, meaning we wouldn’t have to start from Scheppie.

Starting from the protea farm meant we were starting fairly high up the peak. Considering I knew I would be attempting nine big mountains in twelve days, I know that taking it easy on day one was wise. His wife and kids would enjoy a day in the sun around where we started hiking, while we would hike up the mountain.

The route started with an old 4×4 track. It had also recently been burned, so overgrowth wasn’t bad. However, about 1.5km in, this track came to an end.

One upside to climbing a very obscure mountain is that you have to come up with your own lines. This adds to the adventure, although also makes progress slower and harder. We made a few poor route decisions on the way up, on one occasion being above a cliff and having to backtrack to get down and over a stream. But eventually we found ourselves looking at the main summit.

There was a passable gully on the left, although it would be further and looked overgrown. The alternative line would be to follow the right skyline. We opted for the latter.

Our first proper sight of the main summit.
Our line through the first cliff band was to aim for the tree visible on the right. This proved fairly straightforward.
The rocky section where we had hit the cliff.

As we made our way past the first cliff band, the ground became more rocky. We scrambled up boulders, and the ground became more and more sketchy till we hit a cliff band that we couldn’t scramble through.

(this is from after backtracking, not the spot where we got stuck)

We were forced to backtrack a bit, and soon found a way to simply walk through the large maze of rock. The formations were really interesting – and the scale of them can’t be captured in a photo.

Our altitude increased surprisingly fast, and we soon found that we were exiting the rocky ground and just had a grassy slope above us. The summit was close!

Yes, that blue is the Atlantic Ocean

We were happy to reach the summit. Joseph had brought a gas stove up with him, and made us both coffee. We explored the summit a bit and took some photos before starting our descent.

It was an amazingly clear day – various summits in the Cederberg were clearly visible, the Atlantic was visible to the west and even Table Mountain was visible 136km to the south! I didn’t bother trying to get a photo of the Cape Town Table Mountain as it was far too small to capture – but we could see the Bokkeveld-Tafelberg and Cederberg-Tafelberg very clearly as well.

With the knowledge of where we went wrong on the way up, we picked a better line for the way down. We did briefly hit some bad overgrowth that we had missed on the way up, but otherwise the descent went very smoothly.

In the end, the hike was 15km with 980m elevation gain and loss.

I was generally impressed with the Piketberge – there are plenty of cliffs around, and the range rises well above its surroundings. Being on a peak that is so rarely hiked is always special. I doubt I will visit the range again, but I am happy that I got to experience this gem of a region. Overall, my trip was off to a great start!

3 comments

  1. A good effort. Interesting summit criteria. So 24 is the target? Your criteria does though rule out some major summits. If I read you right – only two in the Drakensberg. How did you like the exposed scramble on Cederberg Sneeukop?

    1. Hi Steve. I will naturally summit other peaks along the way – having done 8 on the list so far, I have been up 7 others that aren’t on the list along the way – such as Devils Peak, Elephant Mountain and Waaihoek. And not every hiking trip I do relates to completing this list – I have done 5 Drakensberg hikes so far this year, and tons of Gauteng hikes as well.

      Correct – only 2 are in the Drakensberg, but both are in Lesotho (i.e. none of the 24 are in the Drakensberg) and one of the Drakensberg ones I have already done 5 times (Thabana Ntlenyana) – so it is just the one near Kwa Duma that I need to go and do. I have done over 100 Drakensberg passes and over 170 Drakensberg summits – so the fact that the Drakensberg doesn’t fit this criteria is actually fine for my purposes.

      My writeup for Cederberg Sneeuberg will follow soon 🙂

  2. Very interested read thank you. I’ve had a few paragliding flights above Piketberg – very beautiful area. Sorry to hear you moved to Jhb. I lived there for 13 years – never again. Not even 300 k a month will tempt me back. I hope you get out soon as there is no life there. I’m looking forward to reading about more of your adventures.

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