Halfway between the more popular routes of Mlambonja Pass and Organ Pipes Pass lies the Xeni Cutback, a steep river valley with dramatic cliffs towering in all directions. There are two passes which climb up to the escarpment via this cutback. Xeni Pass, however, looks pretty mean and unlike Cockade Pass, probably deserves its "rock" affix. Cockade Pass is one of the most direct routes to the escarpment in the Cathedral Peak area and with its spectacular views and enclosure, one wonders why so few hikers see this secluded part of the Berg.


Rating:
* * * *  (6/10)
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.

Access:
The base of Cockade Pass can be reached from the Cathedral Peak Hotel by heading up the Mlambonja valley and climbing up the ridge which gets you to the contour path. The Xeni Cutback starts 2 km to the left along the contour path at the first major river crossing.

Details:
The distance from the contour path at the base of the Xeni Cutback to the Cockade Pass summit is 2.5 km with an altitude gain of 950m.

Route:
From the contour path, start boulder-hopping up the Xeni River and you should soon (within 200m) find a vague path which crisscrosses the river up the valley. There are some cairns marking the path but there are several sections where it can easily be missed. In this case, just continue up along the river. There are some dodgy little rock scrambles in the river bed but still not enough to call this a rock pass in my opinion. After about 1.5 km at 2500m, another steep river valley joins the Xeni river from the left. Turn left up this valley and a clear path can be found at a large cairn. To be sure you've taken the correct turnoff, the Plume should be on your left as you climb higher. The path stays on the right-hand (Western) banks of this river valley, climbing steeply up through a scree field and then a ridge before contouring towards the river at the point where the pass narrows to 10m wide. Head straight up the steep gully now, tending to your left until you get to a series of gullies in the final escarpment wall. The clear path heads up the gully on the right to top out next to the Cockade at 2950m.

Finding the pass from the escarpment: Cockade Pass descends from the saddle between The Cockade and the ridge coming down from The Elephant. It is quite narrow near the top but a small cairn and a path will indicate the correct gully.

Overnight Spots:
There is a small campsite (2 tents), where the vague path starts, about 150m up from the contour path in the boulder bed of the river. Otherwise there are loads of flat spaces on the escarpment after you top out.

Water:
In Summer, there is water in the river all the way up the pass until the point where the pass narrows to 10m wide. The next water can be found on the escarpment, about 500m from the top of Cockade Pass.

 

Forum Post:

You can find more info about Cockade Pass at this forum post:

http://www.vertical-endeavour.com/forum/11-drakensberg-passes/55753-cockade-pass.html

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supertramp's Avatar
supertramp replied to: #77056 23 Jul 2021 12:05

Thanks for sharing! That's crazy - its easy to forget that mountains are constantly changing.

Cockade remains overwhelmingly my favourite Drakensberg pass with no close contender for second place. I even have an A1 canvas print of the view hanging on my wall. I know it isn't everybody's favourite - but its scenery that speaks to me in a way no other spot I have ever visited does. I say that having done the pass 3 times, and been through the Elephant Gully many additional times - that cutback between Xeni and Cockade Peak never disappoints.

@Ghaz - You're welcome, the change is definitely mind blowing. Tseketseke were not affected nearly as much. 

My wife and I are with you all the way on Cockade pass being our favourite, It is not just the views itself, but the entire experience of being enclosed by the cliffs. Having said that, I must be specific in saying that it only goes for the ascend. Our  only descend was a different kettle of fish altogether 

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supertramp's Avatar
supertramp replied to: #77055 23 Jul 2021 11:45

whoa, that's a very decent pack weight! Can I ask what sleeping bag you were using and what it weighs?
 

Hi @ASL. I use the North Face Blue Kazoo @ 1.2kg. Have my sights on the Sea-to-Summit Spark 3 now (-8 degC @ 745g for the long version). A bit on the expensive side but this fastpacking bug has bitten hard 

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Joe Welman's Avatar
Joe Welman replied to: #77050 23 Jul 2021 01:05
I worked in conservation in the greater Kruger area for several years. The approach we took there I feel might be relevant. 
If any species was injured by a human element, for example an elephant with a snare around its leg, the veterinarian would be called in. If an animal was injured by a rival or any other type of natural way we would let nature take it course. The exception however was with animals that are endangered, especially those that are endangered because of human impact whether that is poaching, habitat encroachment or whatever. So if a wild dog, cheetah, rhino etc. got injured in a natural way we would intervene. 
In light of these cycads being poached, I would happily step in and replant one that got dislodged. 

Please take note that I was deliberately being vague when I said greater Kruger area

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Carl Gebhard's Avatar
Carl Gebhard replied to: #77049 21 Jul 2021 14:42
I would consider relocating it. If I knew what I was doing ie understanding its patterns  (which aspects it grows on, near rocks etc). It may even survive the landslide.

Is this "right"? That's a long discussion as one would need to define "right", with all the circumstantial variants. I reckon no harm can be done, if you know your apples.

Edit: I try to tread as lightly as possible at all times but find occasional intervention may be called for. Very rarely though. I suppose you need to be clear on the line between interaction/conservation and meddling. And, again, know what you're doing.
Smithers_23's Avatar
Smithers_23 replied to: #77048 20 Jul 2021 11:30
Thanks for the informative report Supertramp!

I have a question for the community regarding your first picture in the report showing the land slide / wash away - I noticed a decent sized Encephalartos ghellinkii (Drakensberg Cycad / Berg Ghellinki) laying on the ground, exposed, obviously affected by the land slide.

My question is, what is the right thing to do in this instance - do you leave the plant and let nature take its course? Or are we able to help conserve the plant and re-plant it in a nearby safe location?

The species is endemic to KwaZulu-Natal and occurs at a range of altitudes from 700m to 2400m. This species is classified as vulnerable and in need of conservation.

These plants are extremely valuable to collectors (particularly this species) and are often prone to poaching for nurseries or home enthusiasts.
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #77045 19 Jul 2021 23:05
@supertramp thank you for a very informative and helpful update on the state of Cockade Pass!
Beard's Avatar
Beard replied to: #77044 19 Jul 2021 13:54
Such cool before and after pics - nice !!!!
riaan300's Avatar
riaan300 replied to: #77043 15 Jul 2021 13:19
thank you for sharing
Awesome photos !!!
ASL's Avatar
ASL replied to: #77042 15 Jul 2021 10:23
whoa, that's a very decent pack weight! Can I ask what sleeping bag you were using and what it weighs?
Riaang's Avatar
Riaang replied to: #77041 14 Jul 2021 14:19

If only it looks the same up Ships Prow ;-) which I plan to do next.

Hahaha, I was thinking that very same thing! I still have nightmares from my previous trip down Ships last year. Hoping that you can bring back some good news 

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@Supertramp, I will definitely let you know what we find. That is, unless we are seduced again by lots of snow on Giants Castle ;-)

 

Riaang's Avatar
Riaang replied to: #77040 14 Jul 2021 14:17
It is certainly a spectacular pass Ghaz. Dramatic, rugged, beautiful, challenging - all in one package.

This area is also one of my favourite spots in the berg, although Xeni tops Cockade for me as it has 3 spectacular gullies to choose from at the top - and I battle to choose one as they are all awesome, although I might lean slightly towards Mlambonja south buttress :-)
supertramp's Avatar
supertramp replied to: #77038 13 Jul 2021 16:30
@wildingo - I use the Ultimate Direction Fast pack 30L - weighs in at 647g. Packed weight including clothing, food, sleeping bag, mattress, groundsheet and Windboiler - 5.5kg (excluding water) 
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #77037 13 Jul 2021 16:27
Thanks for sharing! That's crazy - its easy to forget that mountains are constantly changing.

Cockade remains overwhelmingly my favourite Drakensberg pass with no close contender for second place. I even have an A1 canvas print of the view hanging on my wall. I know it isn't everybody's favourite - but its scenery that speaks to me in a way no other spot I have ever visited does. I say that having done the pass 3 times, and been through the Elephant Gully many additional times - that cutback between Xeni and Cockade Peak never disappoints.
wildingo's Avatar
wildingo replied to: #77035 13 Jul 2021 16:17
@Supertramp.  What was the weight of your fast pack?  Thanks Chris
supertramp's Avatar
supertramp replied to: #77034 13 Jul 2021 13:32

If only it looks the same up Ships Prow ;-) which I plan to do next.

Hahaha, I was thinking that very same thing! I still have nightmares from my previous trip down Ships last year. Hoping that you can bring back some good news 

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Riaang's Avatar
Riaang replied to: #77033 13 Jul 2021 13:25
Wow, amazing to see how the terrain has changed!

If only it looks the same up Ships Prow ;-) which I plan to do next.
supertramp's Avatar
supertramp replied to: #77031 13 Jul 2021 12:25
(2/2)
 
From there onwards the remainder of the pass felt relatively normal and we were again amazed by the magnificence of this section.
 
 
We had lunch just before the dual summit gullies (we took the one to the right this time) and summitted just after 14:00. A bit later than we wanted but given the slow riverbed and initial apprehension, we were super stoked with our effort. We summitted a blustery Cleft Peak and reached Upper Ndumeni Cave just before dark. We really enjoy the freedom of the fastpacking and will in most likelihood make this our preferred way of hiking in the future (with tented hikes only over longer weekends and DGTs 

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Some more comparisons from our previous trip 2 years ago
 

Needless to say but the known Cockade camp spot is no more. We only managed to find one flattish spot for a tent or 2 much further up the riverbed

 

 
supertramp's Avatar
supertramp replied to: #77030 13 Jul 2021 12:16
(1/2)
We ascended Cockade pass the weekend of the 3rd of July as part of a fastpacking hike from Didima Camp to upper Ndumeni Cave . It took some deliberation on whether we should give it a go, given the uncertainty around the state of the pass (and riverbed) due to the heavy rains earlier in the year.As we never shy away from an adventure and with a favorable weather forecast, we decided it was all flags go. We left the carpark at 07:40 and found ourselves entering the Cockade riverbed from the contour path at 10:00. It only took one glance to immediately see that the riverbed we once knew had a complete make-over.  

Gone are the days of feeling obligated to immediately find the path on the true left (on the right going up). There are now hardly any signs of the trees / overgrowth that "plagued" the riverbed, replaced by freshly "bulldozed" rocks, tree stumps and sand 

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We however still needed to make a decision on whether to go up the riverbed or stick to the tried and tested path on the right. By looking at the extent of the erosion on the riverbed walls, we were concerned that our usual re-entry point back into the riverbed (close to the Cockade/Xeni junction) would be inaccessible , and not being a big fan of backtracking we opted to chance our luck up the riverbed. 
 
 
The going was quite easy but as was expected, there were plenty of loose rocks that slowed us down a bit. As we progressed up the riverbed we encountered a couple of scrambles (mostly next to waterfalls) but nothing serious. It may however be different in the rainy season when the rivers are flowing stronger.  
 
 
Below is a photo of our usual re-entry point (on the left) and we felt like our decision was justified
 
Peculiar clean riverbed section showing the force of the water
 
We reached the Cockade / Xeni junction at 11:50, again very noticeable difference to before
  
We were forced to stay in the riverbed for a while longer even after making the left turn. The side walls were heavily eroded and we could only get safely up to the path on the righthand bank a bit further up.
 
 
TheRealDave's Avatar
TheRealDave replied to: #76877 14 May 2021 21:31
I'm not sure about Cockade, but I came down Mlambonja recently and there was clear evidence of flooding, both higher up the pass where the grass slope narrows into the stream, and further down on the Neptune's Pool path after the Xeni junction, where a section of the path has been washed away. There might have been similar flooding down Cockade.
vaughan's Avatar
vaughan replied to: #76855 09 May 2021 19:56
Hi Geordie, did you get to do the Cockade pass? Also keen on doing it, but wanted to hear what the conditions are like?
Geordie's Avatar
Geordie replied to: #76782 22 Apr 2021 18:57
Anyone done Cockade, in the past few weeks??   I want to do it this weekend but I am not at my fittest and heard that a resent flash flood may have upset things????
 
AndrewH's Avatar
AndrewH replied to: #74936 25 Apr 2019 15:33
We came down the pass in the Wet on Saturday and it was super slippery on the wet rocks as well as the grass as we kept losing the path. All in all I think it took us 3h30 to do the 5km from the top of the pass to the contour path. 
Riaang's Avatar
Riaang replied to: #74930 25 Apr 2019 13:11
Nicolaas,

That whole area around Cockade is really super spectacular. Next time, try one of the Xeni legs or Mlambonja Buttress south pass. I'm sure you won't be disappointed with these options.

I've done Cockade down both in good weather and rainy weather, and in the rain it was very dodgy. Lots of loose rocks on this pass in general, but the wet made them very slippery. According to my wife, to date, one of her toughest down passes (in the wet).
TheRealDave's Avatar
TheRealDave replied to: #74922 24 Apr 2019 07:57
Thanks, Nicolaas - a good description of the path in the notorious lower valley, which I also found not so bushy and fairly easy to follow.
Nicolaas's Avatar
Nicolaas replied to: #74921 23 Apr 2019 22:08
I am also amazed at the views doing Cockade pass and Elephant gully. Went up the pass, in good weather, which made the hike enjoyable. From the campsite, after about 200 m the path exits the boulder bed to the right heading upward. The path is always faint, but from my experience there were quite a few small cairns which keep you on track if you lose the path. From what I remember, the path only crosses the river once in the subsequent lower section. About 50m, and then you go back to the right hand side. The path then stays on the right (a few terraces following each other, the path rarely deviates more than 30 m from the river) all the way to the final section where you get forced down to the river. The river bed is now much steeper, and you see a few waterfalls. You cross the river to the left, and after about 100m you turn left into Cockade. The path then continues on the right, before it starts crisscrossing the river as you enter the narrow river/boulder bed with towering walls around you. There seems to be two final gullies linking to the escarpment, in the last 100m of vertical. The right hand gully has a large cairn at the top and tops out slightly lower, although I went up the left gully. On the escarpment, they are about 20m apart.

The pass itself is properly steep, but the views make up for the toughness. I can see how in wet weather or mist it can cause suffering. I also think descending the pass will be tougher on the legs, and the path could be lost more easily. Minimal bush whacking when following the path on the right upward, and long pants help with the short shrubs on the terraces.

Ultimately when looping Cockade with Mlambonja, you really get great views of the Cathedral range and the Xeni cutback. The most scenic loop I have done.

A few photos:
Early start near the Cockade campsite

One of the terrases on the true left of the Xeni river

Final section leading up to the Cockade/Xeni split. You cross the river from right to left, roughly in the middle of the photo where the waterfall is visible.
After about 100m turn left into Cockade pass proper

The steepness of Cockade is not to be underestimated.

Final (left) gully, with light from the escarpment shining through

A magnificent view from the top