Cape Trip days 5 and 6: Tulbagh and Saronsberg

When I decided to attempt to climb all 24 mountains with at least 1000m topographic prominence in South Africa, the main objective was to come up with a way of ensuring I get to visit some obscure mountains that are rarely climbed. Some won’t be particularly interesting, but some will be real gems – this is the account of climbing one of the rarely climbed gems.

For years I have had a theory – a mountain with high prominence and low isolation (i.e. big and close to something bigger) will usually have the best views. When I first identified Roodezandberg – it had only just made the list with slightly more than 1000m prominence, but was very close to Groot Winterhoek Mountain. The key saddle of this peak is only 3km from the summit, meaning that it will look large and imposing from any angle – an attribute I really enjoy in a mountain!

Trying to find information on this mountain proved very tricky – in no small part because it is usually known as Saronsberg. As it turns out, Saronsberg is technically the lower summit on the ridge to the north, while Roodezandberg is the name of the main summit. Nonetheless, the massif is widely known as Saronsberg. To simplify things, I will refer to it as Saronsberg hereafter – and not just because it is much easier to spell!

For months before the trip, I tried to contact a number of different people in the area to find information on the peak – especially regarding access – and eventually Kim from one of the nearby farms put me in contact with Dirk. At the time, I didn’t know that Dirk’s family farm was where the hike started, Oude Compagnies.

I had planned to climb the peak on the Monday after Tafelberg, but the weather forecast did not look great – and true to form, it was pouring with rain on Monday morning. Luckily I had included three rest/backup/travel days in my plans, and thus would be in Tulbagh for two nights.

On Monday morning, I drove to Oude Compagnies Farm to have a look around and see if I could arrange access for the next morning. On arrival, I bumped into the farm manager and his assistant. I was informed about a hiking trail that leads to the saddle between Saronsberg and Bredasberg – a route up the exact line I wanted to take. I paid the R50 hiking fee for the following morning. I had talked to Dirk briefly on WhatsApp, but hadn’t received much information from him at this point – this was the first time I discovered that this was his family farm. Dirk contacted me later in the day to say he would join me on the hike to the saddle the next morning.

After that surprisingly productive route recce, I decided to visit the town of Tulbagh.

Often regarded as one of South Africa’s most beautiful towns, I have to say its well worth the visit. With the Groot Winterhoek Mountains (2078m) to the north, the Witzenberg (1534m) to the east, the Hex to the south and Saronsberg (curiously surveyed at 1499.9m) and the accompanying ridge to the west – it is difficult to avoid seeing mountains from this town. The town is at reasonably low altitude, below 300m, and the mountains close in on every side.

The road into Tulbagh. Taken on Monday afternoon after the skies had opened up. The large peak in the distance is Klein Winterhoek Mountain (1955m)

I bought some food from the local shops, including a fresh slice of pecan pie that would rank as one of the best deserts I’ve ever had, and headed back to the wine farm just outside town where I was staying.

I used the rainy weather to get my things ready for the hike. Tuesday was designated as my day to drive out to the southern end of the Cederberg ahead of my next peak on Wednesday – so I would be checking out of the place around 6AM to meet Dirk at Oude Compagnies at 6:30, and would then head straight from Saronsberg to Cederberg Oasis in the middle of nowhere.

My original plan had Saronsberg and Sneeuberg the opposite way around, with Sunday and Monday night spent at Mount Ceder – but Mount Ceder informed me that they would not provide access to the mountain if I was on my own, and I thus had to switch the peaks around, adding a lot of driving.

Once I had my things nicely organised, the weather was clearing, so I decided to head back into town and try out the restaurant at the local hotel. I had a really nice lamb curry there before taking a drive around the area to see the views. What a lovely town!

After supper, I took a bit of a walk around the farm to take in the views. I was staying at Lemberg Wine Estate – it is just out of town, and has great views of the surrounding mountains. I sat at the dam for a while enjoying the view. Photos don’t do any justice to Saronsberg – it is a very imposing mountain. Sitting at the dam and looking at it, I was both really looking forward to climbing it and was absolutely intimidated by the scale of this mountain I knew practically nothing about!

I was up early on Tuesday morning. My bag was already packed, I loaded up my car and left the wine farm to head back to Oude Compagnies. Dirk had agreed to join me for the section to the saddle, with his plan being to para-glide down from there. This meant I would not be on my own at the start, but as soon as the trail dies, I would be on my own.

I used to be very apprehensive about solo hiking. I have since realised two things: most of the “what if this happens” scenarios people use as a reason to avoid solo hiking almost never happen, and after 12 years of regular hiking I know when I’m in over my head and will thus turn around. That being said, I was still a bit intimidated by the prospect of hiking up a mountain I knew very little about on my own. On the plus side – I knew I would have phone signal the entire way, so if something did go wrong, I could at least call for help.

Bredasberg, 912m – the mountain immediately south of Saronsberg

We started walking just before sunrise. I have seen hundreds of mountain sunrises (not an exaggeration), and I can confirm that they never get old.

Dirk explained to me that the trail was built for enduro, meaning it is a very steep route. These days it is mostly used by Dirk to paraglide down every week or so. Guests at the farm also use it. It isn’t really advertised, though, so people rarely come from outside to hike it. To me, this is an absolute shame – although it is always nice to complete a full hike without seeing a single item of litter!

One of my concerns ahead of this hike was that this section looked very overgrown in satelite images. I had planned to hike up to this exact saddle and follow a fairly similar line to what I actually ended up doing.

The route contours around the slopes below the cliffs for a while before heading into the dense vegetation. The trail is very well kept, which I was happy to see – this would have been a nightmare if the trail wasn’t there! Don’t get me wrong – it wouldn’t have prevented me from attempting the peak, it just would probably have been rather unpleasant!

It was getting windy as we approached the saddle, so Dirk wouldn’t be able to fly down and thus turned around. He had given me the following route advice: after the saddle, stay on the ridge line. You will want to go left, don’t – you’ll get stuck below a cliff.

Upon reaching the saddle, the trail abruptly ends. To the south is Bredasberg, a summit with over 200m prominence. If I had done the hike on Monday, I likely would have gone for both, but seeing as I would still have a long drive ahead of me, I would only have time for the main attraction.

Naturally my intention was to hold the cliffline, but as you may have already guessed – I soon found myself well to the left of it. The climb up from the saddle is very steep, and my contouring clearly was more of a traverse than a contour!

I soon found myself on rocky ground. But it wasn’t bad, I enjoy this kind of ground, so I kept going.

I noted the cliffs above me, but I could see gaps, so I kept on going.

I remember someone once telling me that an ascent can be halted by a simple 4m cliff. I very clearly remembered this happening two days earlier on Tafelberg, so when I hit another cliff that I would definitely not try to climb – Dirk’s advice popped back into my mind. Time to get back to the ridgeline!

I was now looking down on Bredasberg. I could see the Gouda Wind Farm below me, and even Table Mountain was visible in the distance.

I really should have backtracked down below the rocky section – but I was so close to easy ground, so I tried to hold my altitude and traverse left. The closer I got to easy ground, the steeper and more difficult I found the ground I was on. But in situations like this, there is an important rule, as Douglas Adams put it: “Don’t Panic”.

Sit down, look around, post a whatsapp status so that there’s a last known position if you do stuff it up really badly (just kidding on the last point). There was one move where I had about a 10m drop below me and was pulling on a tree. The tree was solid, so I knew it was fine, but my feet were on slippery wet grass. I committed to the move, and stuck it without any issue. The tree must have been about 4cm in diameter where I was holding it, and it was clearly alive, so I knew it wasn’t going anywhere.

A few moves later, while descending some steep ground, just as I completed to a move, a different branch broke off! I was on stable ground and it wasn’t an issue – but it still isn’t ideal.

I soon found myself on much easier ground and simply walked around the cliff band. If I had just followed Dirk’s advice, that would have been much easier!

The initial section is followed by a long flat section at 1000m in altitude. This section obviously collects a lot of water as it was overgrown. The high concentration of thorns didn’t help – but after the rough ground I had been on, this was like running laps around an oval track!

The views from this section were great. Kleinpoortberg (1551m) was sticking its head out, with Klein and Groot Winterhoek behind it. I am yet to explore the Groot Winterhoek Mountains – but from what I’ve seen so far, it is the best contender to compete with the Hex for my favourite Cape mountain range.

The final slog to the summit is a 500m vertical in 1.5km horizontal. The ground is a mix of rock and grass. This is similar to what I’m used to from the Drakensberg, so I knew it was just a case of avoiding cliffs and overgrowth.

I took it slow – I know that moving slower but stopping less is faster than the alternative.

Table Mountain was even visible in the distance. The photo above of it isn’t great at all – but bear in mind that it is 136km away as the crow flies, and this was taken with digital zoom on a phone.

As I neared the top, I had once again wondered off to the left. I could see cliffs, but the looked easy enough, and if they weren’t there was an obvious gap to the west. I soon found a stream a bit around from there with a clear gap to the top.

I was impressed with how much water I could find so close to the summit – but I guess it had rained the day before. I filled up my bottle and continued the slog.

There are some mountain summits I could sit on for days. It had been windy at the saddle, but the wind had died completely by the time I was on top. I could see Sneeuberg in the Cederberg, I could see Table Mountain, and of course Sebrakop in the Piketberge too. I was 1.2km vertically above farmland that was less than 3km away horizontally. I sat down on top, took out some food and just stared at the view. This is unquestionably one of the best summit views I’ve ever had.

Sebrakop and De Toring – it gives you context of how large that rock spire actually is!

I must have sat there for an hour. I took numerous photos in every direction. It was a perfect day and I had the perfect location to view this perfect day.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. After making a meal of the ascent, I decided to take an easier line down – simply follow the ridgeline to the saddle. And, surprise-surprise, this was far easier and quicker than my way up!

I took a short break at the flat section on the way down, but otherwise got down fairly quickly.

Coming back into the farm I couldn’t help but appreciate how lucky I was to get to do this amazing peak on such a clear day.

I had a chat with the farm manager before I left, very interesting individual. I messaged Dirk to let him know I was down safely, and soon found myself saying goodbye to Tulbagh – well, not before buying some food from the local Spar, which has a really good bakery.

The hike was 15km round trip, with 1.4km elevation gain and loss. The difficulty is not trivial and this is not a peak to be attempted by inexperienced hikers. That being said, if you have the fitness and the experience – this hike is an absolute gem and is really worth the effort. Just pick your line better than I did!

If you would like to attempt this route – please contact the farm in advance to get permission. One of the reasons this route is so special is that there is in its natural state – if you attempt it, please keep it that way.

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