December 2021 Cape Trip day 5: Blesberg

I woke up to a beautiful morning in the Kammanassie Mountains. Looking back up the mountain I had climbed the day before, I could clearly see that my route choice had been the right one. Sometimes a quick look at a mountain from below can answer a lot of questions – which is why the day before had been so challenging. I had climbed the mountain with practically no information, and not even the usual visual clues. Nonetheless, Mannetjiesberg was behind me, 10 out of 24 summitted!

I set off back towards Uniondale. I had considered options such as driving to George, seeing as I had all day – but there was really no point. The drive to De Rust was really scenic with the Kammanassie Mountains on the left and the Swaartberg to the right.

I stopped for petrol in De Rust, as well as buying a one litre container of olives, some local olive oil, some jam and some ostrich biltong. Lovely little town!

Leaving De Rust, I was on my way to one of South Africa’s most iconic road passes – Meiringspoort on the N12 highway. The road is entirely tarred, but is frequently closed due to floods and rock falls. Mountain Passes SA rates it as one of the top 10 most scenic road passes in the country.

I have to admit that it was really spectacular. It famously has a waterfall on it, but the car park was packed as I drove past, so I decided to leave it for next time – which would be in 2 days time. Naturally a mountain pass that isn’t accessible by road will always have more potential for scenic beauty than a road pass, but this is definitely one of the best I’ve ever been through. I will even go as far as to say that it’s more beautiful than Sani Pass in the Drakensberg.

As far as statistical significance goes – the pass is also the key saddle for the peak I was setting out to climb: Blesberg. The Swaartberg range is usually split into the Groot Swartberg and the (ironically higher) Klein Swaartberg.

I like to split it further with the section east of Meiringspoort being classified as the East Swaartberg. Each of these three regions has a peak on my 1km prominence list – the east range having Blesberg, the middle range having Tierberg and the west range having Seweweekspoort. Unfortunately I had been denied access to Tierberg, which is on Cape Nature land, as they were maintaining trials and had therefore closed the trails in the area, but I hoped to get the other two.

Blesberg has a radar station on its summit, which is visible from a very long distance. Even from De Rust one can clearly make out the summit. I would be climbing it from the Karoo side as access was easier to arrange.

I had managed to arrange access from a place called El Yolo. It is an adjoining farm in the Eastern Cape, while the provincial border is the border of Cape Nature land. I had bought my permits and sorted out access – but there was a catch: while there was a road all the way from El Yolo right to the summit, this road crossed a neighbouring farm, and that farmer never allows access to hikers. So I would have to follow an overgrown ridge till I crossed the provincial boundary to the Western Cape before I could use this access road.

The road into El Yolo was very rough. I saw a few kudu on the way in, although they ran away as the bottom of my car made a very loud impact with a bump in the road. I contoured the bumps as carefully as I could, ensuring that I gave myself as much ground clearance as I possibly could – but my poor old Corolla failed to clear four different bumps in the road. Luckily none of them did any damage to the bottom of the car, and I was soon at the lodge.

It is a lovely place. I was actually really fortunate to be able to book at such short notice. Helene – owner and manager – told me that they are usually fully booked in December, but fears of inter-provincial travel being closed again meant that no one was booking. The day I left would be the start of a 6 week period where they didn’t have a single spare room!

The downside of hiking in the Karoo in summer is the heat. I knew I would find no water and it would be a hot day, so I was up before sunrise to start the hike. The plan was simple – walk on the road till the dam, get on top of the ridge, follow the ridge till I hit the road, then follow the road to the summit.

The sun wasn’t up yet and I was already sweating – not a good start!

The dam is at the end of Hagaskloof, which was a surprisingly beautiful little kloof.

There was a trail around the dam, but I soon found myself on rough overgrown ground. It was steep with loose rock – not exactly the type of terrain where one makes quick progress.

Navigating up this ridge was a combination of trying to find the least exposed line, but also trying to avoid the thicker vegetation. As I got higher, the vegetation eased off – but I was not looking forward to coming back down this later.

By the time I was on top of the ridge, it was getting very hot. I was happy I started so early – realistically I couldn’t have started much earlier as overgrowth in the dark is rarely fun.

Once I had gained the ridge, the terrain eased off a lot. It was still steep, but nowhere near as steep as the start.

I soon reached a fence. I knew this was the edge of the farm, which means I was going from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. I have hiked between the Free State and KZN many times, as well as on the Eastern/Northern Cape border – so it was nice to add the Eastern/Western Cape border to the mix.

Soon I found a large drop in front of me. I could see the road in the distance, and decided it would be better to drop down and take the most direct line to the road rather than trying to hold the ridge for longer. But I also decided I would take the more direct line on the way back down, meaning I would leave the road earlier.

The folds in the rock strata were really beautiful. To my surprise, there was actually water in the stream. I had drunk more than I had planned, so I was happy to fill up here. I was aware that I would not pass this spot on the way down, so I ensured every bottle I had was full by the time I left this.

I soon found myself on a surprisingly good dirt road. This road is used to access the radar station. It was in such good shape that I rate my Corolla could probably have driven most of it!

I believe this was a first for me – usually the approach and walk out are the easy part. This hike was the opposite. Once I was on the road, I was able to average between 5 and 6km/h.

Eventually the road walked past the summit, and I knew what that meant – here comes the final onslaught. It was a really hot day already, despite still being reasonably early. The top section is concrete due to the steep gradient.

As I gained the summit ridge, I was rewarded with a great view towards the Kammanassie Mountains. I could even see the light reflected off the mirrors on the summit beacon of Mannetjiesberg.

The hike up from the De Rust side looks fairly straightforward, and is one I wouldn’t mind doing some day. The difficulty with these peaks is often gaining access more than the hiking itself. I chose the Karoo side as I had managed to get access from that side. I am not willing to trespass to climb a mountain.

Once I was at the final switchback, I scrambled up the slope to the trig beacon. I avoided getting too close to the radar station. I don’t know how safe it is to be close to one of these, so I decided to stay on the cautious side. Aside from radiation, there may also be alarms or other issues – so I didn’t want to take any chances.

After getting my summit shot – I got a cliff between myself and the radar station, and sat down to enjoy some food in the shade of a rock. I sent some messages to tell people I was safe. Emma was on Kili by now, I wondered how she was doing.

The views from the summit are really great! The hike had been considerably further than anticipated, though.

I got down the road section very quickly. I was sweaty and covered in dust – to be expected when hiking in the Karoo.

I left the road higher than where I joined it, as I had planed on the way up. My route finding on the way down was much better than it had been on the way up, which is often the case – especially with the route knowledge gained on the way up.

The views into Hagaskloof were really good. There are two waterfalls in the kloof, I got a great view of the top one – although far too small to capture in a photo from that distance. There is a beautiful double fold in the rock above the lower falls. I don’t know how common this is in fold mountains, but its the best one I’ve ever seen.

The final descent from the top of the ridge down to the dam was always going to be the crux of the route. I picked my line as well as I could, but it still proved very tricky to find a good line.

In the photo above, note how close I am to the dam, but how far below me it is. It was not a trivial descent!

Descending steep ground on loose rock with vegetation is never easy. Nonetheless, fortunately I know how to handle these kinds of things, and I eventually found myself on easier ground, followed by the road, followed by reaching my room.

I was back in the early afternoon, just before 1PM. While I had not avoided the hottest time of the day, I had at least capitalised on the cooler morning weather. The hike was 27km according to my GPS, with approximately 1.2km elevation gain and loss, and my total time (including breaks) was just over 7 hours – so my pace had been surprisingly fast – especially considering the fact that I had not rushed the hike at all.

After having a shower and putting on clean clothes, I went to inform Helene that I had returned safely. She invited me to join her family for a braai that evening, which was really nice. I was also taken to the lower Hagaskloof Falls, which were more impressive than I had anticipated. It’s hard to capture a kloof in a photo – its about being surrounded by cliffs more than what the cliffs look like in isolation.

The rock strata around Hagaskloof was really impressive, and was definitely a highlight of the region.

Overall this was a very different experience to what I’m used to. The difference in scenery on the opposing sides of the mountain was really something. Blesberg was definitely well worth the effort, and I really enjoyed my stay at El Yolo!

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