December 2021 Cape Trip day 1 part 2: Murch Point

The line between a really good day and a really bad day can be remarkably thin. As I descended off Compassberg, knowing it wasn’t even 11AM yet, and knowing the drive to get back to this region again tomorrow would be long- and would mean I miss out on what I want to do around Graaff Reinet – I knew I needed to move Murch Point a day earlier. The summit of Murch Point is only about 7km as-the-crow-flies from Compassberg, so it definitely felt like a wise move.

I messaged Lynette – my contact who would be providing access to Murch Point – and confirmed that she was happy for me to come and climb the peak that afternoon. Murch Point is the highest point in the Northern Cape province, and thus one of the summits of the Nine Peaks Challenge. At 2156m, with 257m prominence, it is a legitimate mountain – albeit one that only has relevance due to an imaginary line drawn on a map.

Murch Point is named after the late Cliff Murch. He is best known for creating the Khulu List, the first attempt to generate a thorough list of every peak above 3000m in South Africa. I believe he also identified the original list of every provincial high point in SA, although I stand to correction on this one.

Note: this data is from satellite surveys and not topographical maps, hence the lower altitudes and prominence on both Compassberg and Murch Point.

I’m generally not a fan of chasing lists such as the Nine Peaks as they are purely based on a political boundary. If humans didn’t exist, Thabana Ntlenyana would still be the highest point in Southern Africa, and would still be an ultra prominence mountain. Murch Point, however, derives its relevance purely from an arbitrary line. My enthusiasm to complete this list is best summed up by the fact that I am yet to do the highest point in North West, which is not even a two hour drive from where I live. Nonetheless, I had traveled to the region, and thus it made sense to climb it while I was there.

The “short” drive turned out to be a very long drive. Unfortunately access from the Compassberg side wasn’t possible and thus I had to drive for over two hours to reach the farm. The drive itself was fairly eventful – I almost got caught in mud, and on a number of occasions was uncertain that my car would manage to clear certain obstacles. I had to keep reminding myself of what Tony Marshall always tells me “the most important component of an off road vehicle is between the seat and the steering wheel”.

I eventually arrived at the farm, where I met Lynette and family. It was almost 2PM, but having barely eaten, when she offered me lunch and some coffee, I couldn’t refuse. I really appreciated her hospitality – as a random solo hiker coming to the farm to quickly hike up an arbitrary peak, it was really nice to be welcomed so warmly!

She asked her son and her nephew to ride ahead of me on their motorbikes to show me the way to the start of the hike. She also provided me with a radio to communicate in the event of an emergency. Aside from the summit, there would be no phone signal on the way.

About 3km into the 10km drive, I pulled over, my car couldn’t manage this rough ground. I decided I would walk from there. I thanked the boys and started walking. 30 minutes, and 3km of walking later I heard a farm bakkie pulling up behind me. The boys had returned to drive me to the start of the hike. By this point, I had done the maths and was well aware I would finish the hike after dark. Them driving me the next 4km meant I was now in with a shot of finishing in daylight, albeit a slim chance. The last 4km was very rough, definitely 4X4 territory.

The region in which the peak is found is oddly beautiful. I was expecting dry land – but with a lot of recent rain, the Karoo had come to life.

Lynette had told me to follow the road, which is undrivable past the usual parking spot, until the road and the fence got very close, and then to cross the fence and head for the cliffs.

I had also drawn a GPS track off Kobus’ diagram of the route, which incidentally matched Lynette’s instruction. It was also visually the logical turnoff point. Its always nice to have multiple sources agreeing on the route – this is rarely the case in the mountains.

The upside of being in the Karoo is that vegetation is not a major issue when off trail. That being said, a steep slope is still a steep slope – and in my defense, I had already climbed Compassberg that day!

I decided to make life difficult for myself (well, more accurately, I opted for the more fun looking line) and skipped the obvious gap in the cliffs, opting instead for the scramble on the right.

The valley kind of reminds me of the one between Long Wall and Mount Durnford at Giants Castle – and was a lot more interesting than I had expected.

There was also more water in the rivers than I had anticipated – in a region that usually only gets winter rain; in mid December, one doesn’t expect to see any water.

As I neared the cliffs – I realised my obvious mistake. This rock quality would be really bad. But I wasn’t about to traverse on ankle-killer side slopes, so I stuck with it. The scrambles were really easy, and I was able to pick steps that wouldn’t break.

Once above the cliffs, the terrain eased and I was able to make much better time as the summit neared.

The summit cairn has fallen over at some point, but the high point matched my GPS co-ordinate and Kobus’, so I knew I was in the right place. The view was actually a lot better than I anticipated – especially when looking towards Compassberg. I had low expectations for this peak, but I was pleasantly surprised.

I took the easier line down, going between the cliffs – although I have to admit that I think my ascent line was probably easier. The line I descended included a lot of loose rock and was steeper.

I knew I had a long drive once I was back at my car, including a very bad road and four different puddles that extended across the road which I might get stuck in. If I got stuck somewhere before the farmhouse I could radio for help – but I knew once I had dropped the radio off, if I got stuck, I’d be waiting for the next vehicle, which could take hours. I had water in the car – so I wasn’t going to die or anything – but I was hungry and had no food left, so it would be an unpleasant wait. With this in mind, I walked as fast as I could once I reached the road.

On reaching the spot where the Murch Point hike usually starts, I knew I still had 10km of road to walk. Simple: if I can do 6km/h for 1h40, I would reach my car at sunset. That means I could reach the farm house at last light and only the puddles would be in the dark.

I was surprised I was able to push so hard – after all I had done 25km with 1.5km elevation gain and loss by the time I was on the section that people usually drive. Somehow I actually managed to exceed my target and got to my car about 15 minutes before sunset. I used the radio to say I was safely back at my car, although I’m not sure if anyone heard.

I managed to get back to the farmhouse around sunset, driving very carefully to get back there. I was asked to leave the radio on the table (the family was at a braai at the time), but the dogs didn’t seem to be overly keen on letting me into the house – so I put it in a packet and put it on top of the bakkie parked outside. I dropped Lynette a message saying I had done this, which would have only sent when I was close to being back in Middleburg due to the lack of signal in the area. She would have wifi when she got home.

The drive from the farmhouse started off reasonably well, with the odd section I had to drive very slowly and carefully in fading light. Then I reached the first of the puddles – I took the far left line, which kept one tyre on mostly dry ground, no issue. Second puddle, same strategy, same result. Third puddle – almost there. When I saw the final puddle, which had been the worst on the way in, I stopped and reversed to prepare myself for it and to ensure I’d hit it with enough momentum and just the right amount of speed. I almost got stuck in this one on the way in – I knew I had to be careful.

I got my car into second gear, got my speed sufficiently low and planned to hit it with consistent speed. As soon as I hit it, my car lost a lot of speed – I realised I was in trouble. The car slowly ground to a halt, and just as it was about to stop dead, my front left tyre got just enough traction for me to get out. I may have shouted in celebration – I knew the worst was behind me.

Next problem: I had not realised how far the drive would be, and slow driving is far less fuel efficient. I had last refueled in Kroonstad the day before, expecting that the 300km remaining range my car quoted that morning would be more than enough for the day. But as I looked at my remaining range, which was already below 80km when I hit the R398, the dirt road between Richmond and Middleburg, I knew I would be arriving back in Middleburg very close to being out of fuel – being about 60km away, but driving in sub-optimal conditions. I had actually realised this issue on the drive into the farm for Murch Point, which was also a secondary factor in stopping where I did.

As I drove into Middleburg, with my remaining range around 20km, I was very relieved that I wouldn’t have to find out if 0km left actually means 0km left. I assume not, but I don’t really want to find out.

Overall it was an amazing day – 36km with 1.6km elevation gain and loss, and two different mountains summitted. But I took my car on ground well beyond what it was built for, almost got stuck in mud and on deep rutted ground, almost ran out of fuel, almost ended up hiking on unfamiliar ground in the dark. While the result was great, it very easily could have turned into a disastrous day. Nonetheless, what could have happened is irrelevant, what actually happened is what counts.

Sitting back in my room in Middleburg I couldn’t help but smile – this trip was off to a perfect start!

A special thanks to Lynette for your assistance with the food, route information, the lift to the start, the radio and making sure I was safely back – I really appreciate it!

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