Cape Trip Day 3: Sneeuberg (Cederberg)

Driving into Clanwilliam, I first saw the legendary Krakadouw Peak that looms over the town. A writeup on the Cederberg had stated that it was one of the most worthwhile hikes in the region – and seeing it, I can believe that. I stopped in the town to buy a few items of food before heading out for Sanddrif Campsite.

I had brought a few fully charged powerbanks with me to ensure I could keep my phone fully charged – but my phone didn’t seem to like them and kept saying it had 32 hours left to full charge. I had tried the car charger I brought as well, with the same problem (I would later discover that this was just a software error). Being in an unfamiliar area with a phone on 3% battery is never fun. I turned the phone off to help it charge a bit faster, and decided I would just use it if I got lost.

Luckily I had printed the directions as well – I knew it was largely just “N7 till you see the Algeria Campsite turnoff, then follow that road till you hit the camp”, but I had no way to know if the directions were actually that simple. Sometimes an “obvious” step is left off the instruction – but I figured it would be signposted, I wasn’t going to the most obscure place around.

Driving past Clanwiliam Dam, it was great to see it overflowing – I had seen photos of it when it was empty some time ago.

I had received a number of warnings about the Cederberg roads, and the first 2km after leaving the N7 was really bad. Fortunately I had plenty of time, so I could just take it sub 20km/h and hope it got better, which it did.

The road starts with a small pass before dropping into the valley on the north end of the range. This initial section is really dramatic – with cliffs rising sharply on either side! I had often read that the Cederberg was up with the Drakensberg for the best mountain range in SA, yet all the photos I had seen made me strongly doubt this. Driving with this cliffs on either side, I was pleasantly surprised.

I passed the turnoff to Algeria Camp, with the road becoming tar ahead of Uitkyk Pass. I was excited to drive up a road pass and see a great view down the valley. The tar section was great, with the road rising to around 1000m in altitude before you find yourself on the escarpment.

Having been to the Drakensberg Escarpment over 100 times, I know the world on top is usually very different from the world below – but I had not been prepared for this. The valley below had been spectacular and dramatic – the land above was barren and dead. I could see mountains in the distance, but they were spread out and didn’t look particularly impressive.

So, to sum up my first impressions of the Cederberg: the northern range is genuinely really spectacular, but the more popular southern region is nowhere near as dramatic. I know this is an unpopular opinion, but these things are subjective – what I enjoy most about a mountain is a massive expanse of steep cliffy ground, and the area south of Uitkyk Pass isn’t that. Don’t get me wrong – it is beautiful – but not in the same league as the Drakensberg or the Hex. I reserve my judgement on the northern range at this stage – I need to explore it more before commenting.

I made my way to the Sanddrif Offices (marked as Cederberg Wine on Google Maps) and sorted out permits for Sneeuberg. Apparently, despite it being free week, we still had to pay for this. If you take the combined cost of camping and permits in the Cederberg for three people (since Sanddrif charges you for four people irrespective of how many are camping there), the permit fees are about the cost of doing an equivalent hike in the Drakensberg from an Ezemvelo campsite.

They allowed me to use my wifi and charge my phone while I was there. I was using my phone as my camera, so it was vital to get it up to at least 50% before the hike (incidentally the reason for no photos from Clanwilliam or Sanddrif). Once my phone was at 50%, I put it back on the powerbank and suddenly the time remaining was only 4 hours – and 2 hours later it was fully charged.

I eventually made my way to the campsite, and had a good chat with the people on the spot next to me. Interesting couple – the husband travels around to different areas and uses his Ham Radio at them. Apparently Tafelberg has some utility for this hobby – if I understand correctly, the cliffs act as some form of antennae that the long range signals can bounce off.

Later that evening, Rudi and Flip arrived – we would be teaming up for the hikes over the weekend. I had never met them before, but the nice thing about serious hikers is that we have a lot of common ground for discussion and thus generally get along very easily. I quickly found that I would get along well with them, which is always a good start!

Rudi got the braai going – and we soon had a rather substantial meal. We got to bed later than I had planned, but we all agreed we wanted to be on the trail before sunrise.

We started from the Maltese Cross car park. It was just before sunrise as we got out of the car, and we watched the sunrise from just past 1km in.

I have seen many mountain sunrises over the years – they never get old. My saying (partially stolen from Big Bang Theory) on the matter is “sunrises are like pizzas, even the bad ones are pretty good”.

The route starts with fairly aggressive elevation gain. The trail is easy to follow.

Flip (left) and Rudi (right)

The rock formations up this valley are actually really interesting. While my opinion remains that the Cederberg is not in the same league as the Drakensberg or the Hex – I was starting to warm up to the range. While I doubt I will have any major projects focused on the Cederberg, it most certainly won’t be my last visit to it (well, hopefully not).

As we got to the top of the valley, the ground eased off, and we would finally start to see the famous rock formations found below Sneeuberg.

We soon identified what is probably the most famous rock feature of the Cederberg – the Maltese Cross. It is a roughly 25m high pillar of rock that looks nothing like a Maltese Cross, but looks really cool nonetheless. It was actually bigger than I expected.

The Maltese Cross with Sneeukop behind it
Flip and Rudi standing at the base of the Maltese Cross for scale
I kind of had to include this photo – no comment on the shape of the shadow

After taking a break at the landmark, we set off for the main attraction – Sneeuberg. At 2027m, it is the highest summit in the Cederberg. It also has roughly 1100m prominence, it is roughly 12th on the list of the most prominent mountains in South Africa.

With the early start, we had the trail to ourselves – which is always great.

Tafelberg across the valley

Finding the turnoff for the peak required looking out carefully, but it was marked with a cairn, and the trail was surprisingly good. Being used to Drakensberg routes where a vague indent in the grass is considered a clear trail – I hadn’t really expected such a good trail. Then again, I guess this is one of the most popular hikes in the range – so it is probably a bit like being surprised there is a good trail up the Chain Ladders!

The gully wasn’t as steep as I had anticipated. There was some very minor rocky sections, but it was generally very easy ground.

As we neared the top, the wind grew stronger.

The trail dies at the saddle. I knew we needed to stay on the right (east) side of the ridge, but we wanted to be out of the wind, so we ascended on the left side. In hindsight, I don’t know why the route goes up the right before the main cliffband – the cairn marked route to the base of the cliffs (which we used on the way down) is far harder than the line we took up.

We stopped for a break behind some rocks – importantly out of the wind – and enjoyed the view out over the Cape Mountains. We could see forever!

The views were great – we could even see Table Mountain in the distance!

I was surprised to find some snow left near the top. Seems fitting for the Snow Mountain!

When we got to the base of the cliffs, we switched back to the east side of the peak, and found a place to drop our packs. I had brought up a light rope and some gear – which I took out before we continued up. I wasn’t expecting to need it – but I knew how lucky we were to have such a clear day and to be so close to the summit before midday, so we had plenty of time. I wasn’t going to miss the summit (or worse – have an injury in the group) due to leaving some gear behind.

We had all read up on this top section, as well as watching youtube videos on it. We knew there would be cairns right to the top, and we knew the route would include some interesting and exposed scrambling.

After some easy scrambling (barely even scrambling, mostly just walking up steep ground), you hit a chimney. You have to climb to the back of this, squeeze up it and then crawl through a tunnel at the back.

This gets followed by a very exposed ledge – although you can fit two feet next to each other, so falling isn’t a major risk.

Note how Rudi’s hair is flying in the wind

The route is fairly easy for a bit from there, till it takes you up a gap between two rocks for the crux sequence. A 2m high slab with a solid foothold in the middle has to be climbed to get up this. There is more than 2m on either side of you when you do this, so even if you slip and fall really badly, odds of actually going over the edge is very low.

Flip coming up the crux

There are a few more chimneys and another tunnel to squeeze through.

A very exposed corner you have to go around. A fall here would be bad, although it is unlikely as it is on very easy stable ground.

As is typical fashion for me – I struggled at the last obstacle: a single move scramble off an awkward ledge. I eventually decided to do what Andrew P calls my “beached whale” technique – and simply put my chest on top, and wriggled up onto the ledge. Not a glamorous move at all, and not an efficient way of climbing – but it works (sometimes). And luckily no one got a photo of it – so there is no evidence of how ridiculous I probably looked!

The summit itself is long and very exposed. There is a trig beacon at the highest point, which requires walking right to the far end. This wasn’t actually bad and didn’t feel dangerous – seeing as you could always have two feet flat on the ground. But a strong wind did make this a bit of an intimidating position.

We got some summit shots and enjoyed the view for a few minutes, before quickly starting to head back down. While I enjoy a good summit – there was no shelter from this wind up there, and we had a decent break below the cliffs where we had been enjoying the view out of the wind.

As always – I reminded everyone that the summit is only halfway and that 70% of accidents happen on descent. This is something I’m sure they were both well aware of, but I like to remind myself that we are very far from being out of danger.

The scramble down started fairly badly with Rudi’s down jacket getting caught on a rock and tearing, and a few minutes later my raincoat doing the same. I’ve been using this jacket for over three years now – it has been up Mount Kinabalu and various other epics, yet it has not experienced a really bad thunderstorm yet, so I can’t really comment on how good it actually is!

I made a meal of descending the crux – deciding I had my gear so I may as well use it. It is only 2m high, and thus not necessary as you can simply jump down. I put my rope around a rock at the top and used my belay device to effectively abseil it. As soon as I loaded the rope, the rope moved to be caught under the rock and I went from the top to almost being back on the ground (on a static rope). I probably made this section significantly more dangerous and, very predictably, got my rope stuck. I had been aware that the rope could shift, so I wasn’t likely to be swung of the edge of a cliff, as well as loading it gradually and with my feet facing down rather than against the cliff – but if I had simply jumped down like the others did, I would have landed properly – if the rope shifted much more, I would have just converted a controlled jump into an uncontrolled short fall. After a long time of trying to get the rope back out, Rudi climbed back up, go it out, and jumped back down. Long story short: I used safety gear to make it more dangerous and slower.

We got a bit off route on the last bit of the descent and had to backtrack – but managed to get down safely. We made coffee where we had left our packs and stopped for a long break out of the wind.

From here the descent would be trivial – just a case of not doing anything stupid such as stepping on a snake or twisting an ankle.

We got down the gully fairly quickly, and stopped for a short break at a stream just before we rejoined the Contour Path.

Walking back past the Maltese Cross – I have to admit that it was more impressive than I expected. I wouldn’t travel to the region just to hike to it, but I was happy that we got to hike past it.

We weren’t in a rush, so we stopped for another break below the Maltese Cross before heading back to the car.

A balancing rock – not sure if there is some form of glue holding it in place

We took the descent nice and slowly – there was no need to rush.

We made it back to the car before 4, and then headed out to Driehoek to sort out our permits for Sunday – when we planned to climb Tafelberg. On this occasions we were told the permits were free, leaving us confused why Sanddrif had insisted that the Cape Nature Free Week didn’t apply to the Cederberg.

We made it back to the camp well before dark, had another braai and got to sleep at a good time – ready for the epic second peak of our Cederberg trip.

Overall the route was 18km with 1.2km elevation gain and loss. Being mostly on a good trail, it is easy to move relatively fast. We found water throughout the route as well. Overall nowhere near as difficult as I was expecting.

Overall impressions: The top section was actually really fun and made it a much more interesting day out. I’m happy I did this route, but I doubt I will be doing it again any time soon – notably the range is full of routes I haven’t done yet, so there is a lot to do before I would start repeating routes in any case. But if you have to pick between Sneeuberg or Tafelberg, do Tafelberg.

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