Camel/Organ Pipes day hike

There are seven Drakensberg passes that I have rated five stars in terms of quality – four of which are at Didima. So when I am asked what my favourite Drakensberg region is, I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone when I respond Didima.

With work sending me to Pietermaritzburg for a week, I decided to head to the mountains for the weekend. With the Didima campsite still closed, I opted to stay at the chalets this time.

I arrived at Didima in a massive storm – which is never an ideal start. I got everything ready for the next morning, it would be an early start.

The weather forecast hadn’t looked good, and when my alarm clock went off, it was dark and gloomy outside – not ideal conditions for a solo hike. So I decided to go back to bed and wait an hour or so.

It was cloudy, but the rain had stopped. I knew my odds of getting to the top in these conditions were low, but worst case scenario I could do some hill training.

The route to Tryme Hill starts on concrete. The turnoff is overgrown right now, and only after I’d walked about 100m in Rainbow Gorge’s direction did I realise I had missed it. I turned back and took the correct route.

After not doing much proper vertical recently, Tryme Hill was a nice reminder of what the word “steep” means. The grass was wet, so naturally I was wet as well. The trail was also rather slippery.

Even though I was cold and wet, and the mountains were reminding me that I am not as fit as I would like to be, it was still great to be back in my natural environment. I have hiked the Drakensberg more than any other mountain range, but I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.

The cloud was around 2000m, so my walk along the ridge to the contour path was just below the cloud.

The upside of all the recent rain was that the traditionally dry Didima region was covered in waterfalls. At the time of writing this, KZN has just been devastated by the floods of the last week – this hike occurred roughly two months ago, so I am not sure what the conditions look like now.

I soon reached the contour path. The path up the lower section of the pass is nowhere near as clear as it used to be. It is still reasonably easy to follow, but not as much as usual.

Much to my surprise, as I got a bit higher up Camel Pass, I found myself above the clouds! The views from this ridge are always spectacular – I would rate Camel Pass as second only to Cockade Pass in terms of overall quality.

On the way up, I reached a saddle where one of my favourite Drakensberg photos was taken. I had the photo printed on canvas last year, and the company that did the print had asked if past customers would like to produce an advert for them, which they would pay for if they use it. I filmed a short video commenting that this view would look great on my wall – which was later edited to transition into the picture on my wall. They did actually use my advert – which was pretty cool.

Some of the easier scrambles on the pass were surprisingly wet. Solo hiking is always a bit intimidating, and being on a scramble when its wet makes me nervous at the best of times, so I was very careful on these.

I often forget that Camel Pass is a bit exposed in places. If there wasn’t a trail, it would probably be considerably less safe. But the views it affords are well worth the effort.

I was soon above The Camel, meaning the pass was about to enter its steeper final section.

I soon found myself at the notorious slab that one has to cross. Both times I had done the pass before, conditions had been dry. This time there were two very wet patches. This made the traverse considerably harder. The photo below makes it look much easier than it actually was.

I took a few tries and kept retreating. In a team I would be less worried, but there is a fair drop if you come off here – and there was someone who fell here a few years ago and broke a leg. Being in a narrow gully with no phone signal and a broken leg on my own in wet conditions could be fatal – so I wasn’t taking any chances. I tried with my shoes on, and I tried with my shoes off.

Eventually I decided to play it safe and bail. I sat for 10 minutes eating some lunch and enjoying the view. Then, before I turned back, I decided to have one last go. This time I found a really nice hold hidden around the one corner, and was able to get across. I had done it. The photo below gives a better idea of why this proved so tricky.

The stream that comes down from Castle Buttress has been dry every time I have passed it before. It was flowing on this occasion. I scrambled up a bit to get above the litter, and filled my bottle.

Leaving the river, there’s a small rock one usually walks over. This would be trivial when dry, but was very wet on this occasion. I opted to take the grass above it as it was more grippy. One of those spots that’s trivial in dry conditions and could be very serious in wet conditions.

From here the route ascends steeply to Windy Gap. Every time I approach Windy Gap I am reminded of the unfortunate loss of a very experienced hiker at this exact spot in 2008. I always try to be cautious in the mountains, but even more so when I am at a spot where I know someone has died.

The scramble on Windy Gap proved easy enough. I have done it a number of times, so I know the trick by now. The view as you emerge from the gap is always incredible.

The final gully proved a bit harder than I remember – although I am not as fit as I was when I last did this pass, so that doesn’t help.

I soon found myself on top. I decided to have lunch at the summit cairn. I couldn’t see anyone else. The feeling of being completely alone on top of the Drakensberg escarpment is always a strange one, albeit one I am much more used to now than I was a few years ago.

While eating my lunch, I heard thunder in the distance, and I knew the forecast was for rain to have already started, so I decided to start heading down. I had considered climbing Cleft or Ndumeni Dome going into the hike, but never actually expected to do it. And definitely not with an incoming storm!

I began to descend Organ Pipes Pass. Technically Camel Pass is also called Organ Pipes Pass, so to clarify, I mean the Thuthumi Ridge route. The passes have about 300m horizontal and 100m vertical in common, so I consider them two different passes. The trails actually don’t merge till just before the summit cairn.

It would be my fourth time using this pass, but it was the first time I have found flowing water on the pass itself. I filled up my bottles before proceeding. The wet ground did make a few spots that are usually trivial a lot more slippery than usual. But, as always, I took these slowly and carefully.

A lot of my descent was in the mist, although fortunately the rain was holding off for now.

The Thuthumi Ridge Route is always spectacular, although I didn’t have great visibility on this occasion.

As I descended from the old fire lookout, I passed a group of people heading for Rolands Cave. It was already almost 2PM and they were just starting up the pass. I wasn’t sure if they’d make it up in time, especially with heavy packs. I wonder how the rest of their hike went.

My minor side-project of doing the entire contour path has had a gaping hole between Tryme Hill and Mikes Pass Hill, so I turned left when I hit the contour path to tick off this section. It alternated between a road and severe overgrowth. Because of all the recent rain, it was very slippery.

The clouds did briefly clear, affording me a great view of the mountains above.

As I neared the turnoff for Tryme Hill, I saw a solitary eland. It decided to run in the direction I was going. It would continue to do so till I actually dropped off the ridge. I always enjoy seeing eland, and when I saw the rest of the herd a bit later, it was a great sight!

With that section of contour path now done, I have done the entire contour path from its start to the Didima River. I need the section from the Didima River to the turnoff for Ntunja, the section from Ships Prow to Marble Baths, and Oribi Ridge to Lotheni Camp. Once I have those three sections, I will have hiked the entire contour path.

As I walked along the ridge, I could see that it was pouring with rain all around me. I was lucky to be out of the rain for now, but I knew this wouldn’t last long. I tried to walk as fast as I could to avoid getting caught in the rain.

My tactic worked well, and just as I began to descend off the ridge did I get caught in the rain. I was in this rain for the last hour or so of the hike, meaning I arrived back at Didima absolutely drenched – but at least it was only right at the end. I finished just before 6PM, the route took me 11h32 to complete.

I often question my list of the best Drakensberg passes, and every time I do a route like this I am reminded why I rate these as the best Drakensberg passes. Camel Pass and Organ Pipes Pass are definitely well deserving of their five start quality ratings. The privilege of getting to do both in a day is one I greatly appreciate. Conditions weren’t perfect, and I’m not as fit as I’d like to be, but what an amazing day out!

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