* * 10/10
Difficulty of the pass is rated from 1-10 (10 being very difficult, only to be attempted by the fit and experienced). A subjective quality rating is indicated by the number of stars (1 being low, 5 being the highest). Factors such as scenic beauty and overall experience come into play here, which may differ from person to person.
Icidi Pass can be accessed by a full day’s walk-in (18 km) from the Mnweni Cultural Centre. The Icidi river valley branches off right from the Mnweni river valley about 2 km before Shepherd’s Cave.
The distance from Grasscutter’s Cave to the top of Icidi Pass is 4 km with an altitude gain of 1200m.
There is a faint path with many deviations which follows the left-hand (southern) bank of the river from the start of the Icidi river valley all the way up to Grasscutter's Cave. If you manage to lose the path (it’s very easy to do so), follow the boulder bed of the river, bush-whacking up the slopes to avoid the occasional waterfall. At the point where the path cuts in towards the river and disappears completely, you have to find your own way up the rest of the boulder bed until the upper grassy slopes. Just make sure you stick to the boulder bed until the boulders turn into scree and the steep grassy slopes up to the top of the pass can be reached. From here on, it’s just a never-ending, incredibly steep slog up to the top of the pass at 3100m.
Finding the pass from the top:
Just north of the Icidi Buttress, a large gully and then, a little higher up the slope, a smaller gully can be found. The smaller, northern-most gully is Icidi Pass. There is a small cairn marking the top.
Grasscutter’s cave, which sleeps 12 people, is ideally located for use as an overnight spot when ascending the pass. It is occasionally used by locals and is therefore quite dirty but is nevertheless, a good shelter. Icidi cave, a small hollow which can only just fit 2 people, is situated about 50m in altitude below the top on the left-hand (southern) side of the pass. There are many good camping spots on the escarpment itself.
The Icidi River has running water until just past the end of the path. From there on, the next water can be found in a river on the escarpment, about 200m from the top of Icidi Pass.
While it is a beautiful pass in respect to scenery, which cannot be disputed, it was very tough, and my legs are very torn up from the overgrowth.
My two cents, we descended the pass, which is also Ghaz suggestion for others looking to do the pass, as opposed to ascending the pass, we did start from Ifidi cave, but it took us most of the morning (all in fact) to descend to the Mnweni river junction, I can't recall what time we got to the junction, but it was close/around midday and we had got a 4.30am start, so for anyone looking to do icidi timing needs to be considered, I think that the ascent would generally need to be done in more than one day.
1) We had light packs, which obviously makes everything a lot easier
2) We had perfect weather, but it was a very hot day
3) The river was full, making rock hopping a bit more tricky, and meaning that the vegetation was in full force
4) Any suggestion of "simple" or "easy" is a reference relative to other difficult grass passes such as Pins, Mbundini or Ships Prow
5) All references are relative to descent of the pass
There is a faint trail near the top of the pass, but it dies fairly quickly. The pass tops out around 3100m, and is a steep grass gully till you hit the river around 2600m. Unlike almost every other grass pass, there is no river in this upper section, which gives you a delightful wide grass gully to zig-zag on - meaning you can make it as steep or gradual as you like. The ground was stable when we did it, which also helps.
The final 30m or so of vertical before hitting the river is where the pass starts getting "fun" (unpleasant might be a better word for it). The vegetation isn't thorny, but conceals holes in the ground and slippery rocks. Care is required to get down this without twisting an ankle.
In my opinion, the pass becomes the walk-out at the point where you hit the river. To make references clearer, any reference to the section above the river will be referred to as the "pass-proper".
Once you hit the river, the game changes. What is unusual here is that the gully gets fairly narrow once you are off the pass-proper, so you are often forced out of the river into the overgrowth to avoid waterfalls and rock pools. In any other region of the Berg, you would normally start moving out of the gully fairly high and get onto a ridge/contour path. If this was the case here, this would be a fairly simple pass, in the same league as the likes of Giants or Judge Pass. But unfortunately this is not the case. I would speculate that it is possible to come up with a line that leaves the river fairly early, and if such a line was developed into a good trail, this pass would be awesome - the views are definitely worth it, and you would skip all the nasty stuff at the bottom. Unfortunately, we either didn't pick the best line, or alternatively there isn't a viable line to skip all of this. What makes matters worse is that we were only able to pick a trail near Jubilee Cave, which is around 1750m, meaning that we had to drop about as much altitude off trail in the riverbed as we did on the pass-proper.
Most of it is fairly standard boulder hopping down a riverbed, much like you find at the bottom of a number of less commonly visited passes. I am not sure what made this boulder hopping less pleasant than normal - I think it was the very hot day. You know a day is hot when I voluntarily actually go into the water, and it happened twice on this day, so it must have been a really hot day!
The river is also full of waterfalls and large rock pools. With the full river, these made for quite a sight
At one point, the valley narrows and you are forced out of the river, putting you into a fairly unpleasant overgrown patch. We re-entered the river by a side gully full of thorn bushes. Not fun!
On one of the sections where we were forced out of the river, we encountered a large number of cycads:
By the lower reaches, the grass slopes on the side were wide enough, and we left the river to follow the bank. About 1km before Jubilee Cave, we found a trail, which we followed to the junction with the Mnweni River, where we turned right to head up towards Mnweni Pass (well, we were heading to Rwanqa Pass at the time, but a certain individual whose VE name is derived from a Persian successor state was not in good shape, definitely not in good enough shape to hit one of the hardest passes in the area).
My thoughts on the pass:
From the upper reaches, you can see the Mnweni Needles, Cathedral Ridge and Champagne Ridge, making for quite an amazing view. Rock towers and cliffs tower above you as well, making for a really special spot.
I can't put my finger on why I was so badly trashed by this pass. It was definitely a hot day, perhaps I was tired from doing Ifidi the day before, maybe my lack of hiking in 2017 was starting to show, or perhaps I ate too much over Christmas - or maybe Icidi is just a difficult pass. I can't put my finger on anything that makes this pass particularly difficult. Unpleasant - sure, but not exceptionally difficult.
The fact is that I would never dream of heading down Ships Prow and up another pass on the same day, so perhaps I was just over-estimating my limits/current fitness.
As for the thought of it as the hardest grass pass in the Berg - I don't think it is. If we consider a pass in isolation, I would give this designation to Pins Pass. If we consider round-trip between the car park and the top, It would be a tough call between Pins, Ships Prow, Cathkin Mountain Pass and Mohlesi Pass (on a side note, CMP has no scrambling, although it is mostly not on grass - if Icidi's boulder hopping counts as a grass pass, then so does CMP's). Out of the hardest grass passes I have done, Icidi was definitely the least pleasant, but it wasn't the most unpleasant grass pass I have ever done - South Saddle takes the cake (and eats it too) on that one.
Would I do it again?
No - and I wouldn't recommend it anyone that isn't adamant on bagging every pass in the Berg. Definitely not a pass for beginners either. The pass simply dies on an unpleasant walk-in, much like Ships Prow/CMP. There is nothing wrong with the pass itself, it is just a case of having to survive the approach/walk-out, hopefully with your sense of humour intact.
I would also suggest going down it, rather than up it. It makes a nice loop with Ifidi Pass.
The number of caves on the route mean that you can go fairly light - I would not want to do this with a heavy pack. Cycad Cave was full of fleas, and we didn't stop at Jubilee or Grasscutters Cave - but the same might be true of them - so just be aware of that.
On the way out we took a lift to the end (over the new bridge) of the road up the Mnweni valley which was 5.8 km. We then used the path on the right (true left) side of the Mnweni River to the Icidi valley, which was a pleasant departure from the much used path on the left (true right) side. This right path was an efficient way to get to the Icidi valley, but if going further up the Mnweni valley, I would still recommend the path on the left.
On our return, we were picked up near the Mnweni River bridge where the path descends down the ridge to the road, and this lift was 4 km.
It is also possible to get a lift up the Ntonjelana valley for about 4 km.
The respective lifts cost R 20 and R 15 (per person), in our opinion good value on the way out from a time saving point of view, and on the return to avoid the slog with tired bodies along the road back to the MCC.
Thanks for posting the photos and the route description Tony.
That photo above has got to be the most beautiful valley in the world.
I found Icidi a nasty steep pass with so much bundu bashing that we got badly scratched. Luckily George (Geordie) had a track on his GPS which sometimes headed straight into thick, prickly bush, it was very unpleasant! I vowed never to do it again! (famous last words)
Ship's Prow on the other hand we went up from Monk's Cowl in one day which made it extremely tough due to hiking 15km before the actual pass started. Quite a bit of bundu bashing at the bottom of the pass but nothing compared to Icidi. The really tough part came in the actual pass, the last about 1,5km of steep uphill. There was a feint path and short grass so it could have been easy going, if it wasn't for exhaustion and altitude. I have never struggled so much with lack of breath to get up that last bit.
If I had to go down this pass to compare it with Icidi, then I would say Icidi is tougher. And if I had to go up Icidi to compare it with Ships, I would also say that Icidi is the tougher one, simply because of the nasty bundu bashing and the loose scree!
The cycads were the worst!
And no, I also haven't been able to find a path above Jubilee Cave before.
Above is a view down Icidi Pass, which shows the steepness of the slope and below a view up Icidi Pass, near the Icidi Pass Cave.
We reached the top of the pass just in time too see the sunset over Lesotho.
The view down Icidi Pass at the top of the pass.
We were elated to finally reach the top of Icidi Pass after a long, hot day, fltr Irene, Rob, Thora, Elinda and Tony, and give our weary bodies and sore feet a deserving rest.
After heading down towards the stream near the top of the pass, we pitched tents as darkness descended, and enjoyed a wonderful wind free evening and clear skies, to awake the next morning to a lovely clear day.
Icidi Pass was the hardest pass that all in our group had done (none of us has done Ship's Prow), although we hadn't taken the easiest route due to lack of detailed information on this pass, and no path once the bush was encountered.
We bashed through the easier bush on the left (true right) side of the stream, and then crossed the stream near the waterfall, onto the island to the right of the waterfall.
Now we encountered the really thick bush, with the shin slicing spikes Intrepid mentioned earlier in the thread.
We were now on the right (true left) slopes of the valley, and pushed on through bush and grass slopes, before descending steeply through some protea trees back into the river bed and boulder hopping when the slope became too steep.
Soon after this my camera went for a swim after jumping out of the pouch on my pack, and I am endebted to Elinda for supplying the previous three photos and all subsequent photos of this write up.
After a lunch stop at some pools, we encountered the second detour to the right to bypass two waterfalls, and climbed up an eroded, steep boulder slope into another patch of thick bush to the right of the waterfalls before contouring back into the boulder bed, which we followed for a short distance before climbing out to the left onto the prominent low ridge in the valley.
After crossing the Ifidi River, we headed up the ridge past Sethene School, following the path on the right (true left) side of the Mnweni.
We soon spotted the other two groups of hikers on the path on the other side of the Mnweni River, and guessed they were wondering how we had managed to get ahead of them. We followed the trail on the top of the ridge past some kraals and wattle plantations, and gradually descended into the Icidi Valley upstream of the confluence with the Mnweni.
The photo below (taken on a previous hike from the ridge across the Mnweni river) shows Icidi Pass on the left hand side of the shadow, and the Icidi Valley almost to it's confluence with the Mnweni.
Grasscutters Cave is situated at the base of the large rock band on the left of the photo where the gully coming down from Stimela Ridge (top left of photo) forms a waterfall at the rock band. Jubilee Cave is the white spot on the photo at the right end of the rock band above the lower rock band containing Grasscutters Cave.
We overnighted in Grasscutters Cave, grateful that the gps had made finding it under the waterfall behind the trees quite easy, even though it's almost next to the path it's not very obvious if you don't know where to look!
Next morning we continued on the path up through the rock band and visited Jubilee Cave, a very obvious, large overhang also with a waterfall, and with a path leading to it from the main path.
The cave would take 6 people though some will be on flatter sections than others. Its a long shallow overhang and faces into the pass on a major rock outcrop. In mid summer there is an intermittent source of water coming down some rocks on the other side of the pass from the cave (left hand when descending).
I find the descent of the pass from Mbundini Cave pretty easy - its just over steep grassy slopes. But like Icidi, there is no path that I can find. Others have found it more difficult than its neighbour, Fangs.
Part of the reason for leaving early from Jubilee was that we had to find Mbundini Cave as we had no tents. We'd never been to Mbundini Cave before and had no GPS. We got there just as the mist closed in!
We did this round-trip (up Icidi down Mbundini) in 3 days a while back. It makes a nice circuit. First night was in Jubilee, second in Mbundini cave (so no tents). We've walked out from Mbundini Cave in one day several times before without any hassle. The hard part of the circuit was from Jubilee to the base of Icidi pass. As Intrepid notes, there is a lot of bush. We made the mistake of trying to stay on the true right hand bank (south bank) going in to the pass. This doesn't work for two reasons a) bundu b) rivers joining from that side. Best to get into the river and make progress, noting that you have to get out of the river at least twice. From the top of Icidi pass its still a fair way to Mbundini Cave (up to the top of one ridge, down a long ridge and then up another to Mbundini).
Its not so much the Basothos in this case, as it is the locals (the amaNgwane). As with most caves in the Mweni, it is shepherds, hunters and dagga farmers that use them.
why would the locals use either cave? it's not like they are on the way to anywhere?
My observation is that, while Icidi is not a regular dagga smuggling route, it does get used on occasion for raids. I've seen a horse there which had not been dead too long (it had fallen off one of the steep scrambles out of the river bed). Also, I started picking up some clothes along the route, only to eventually stumble onto a whole suitcase full of clothes which had been abandoned - at this point I gave up! It seemed some Basothos had raided the valleys and had dropped their loot on being pursued up the pass. I've also encountered Basotho on the escarpment, in icy winter conditions, heading for the pass. I guess it serves as an access to the Mweni from the Khubedu valley. Its quite possible that the people using Icidi are buddies with the guys that steal from the hikers at the Amphitheatre.
Interesting that they chose Icidi pass. I would guess because no one in hot pursuit would expect them to go that way? On the other hand if cows can't walk up Mbundini or Mnweni Pass, which are probably the least rocky in the catchment, then thieves are left with carrying meat up in any case. Icidi would be the first valley with a pass in it when coming from the Mnweni Valley.
Soon after Jubilee Cave the track seems to vanish. Then there are 2 important cairns along the river bed which mark where one should scramble out of the bed and walk through the bush instead. The waterfalls can be avoided, but one has to plow through horrible, shin-slicing bush instead - the worst I've encountered in the Berg so far!
if anybody ever finds a semblance of a path on Icidi, please let me know!
Grasscutters is on a flattish area, more or less on level with the river. From there its a brief climb and onward contour (approx 400m) to Jubilee, which marks the junction of a beautiful little side valley. I would describe both caves as big, though the main sleeping areas of Jubilee is only on one side, and could possibly be described as small. There is a small annexe cave some 30m away.
I've been trying to work out which cave we stayed in before going up Icidi. It was relatively small, with another cave next door perhaps 5-10m away. Which one would that have been? Where is the other relative to this?