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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tonymarshall's Avatar
tonymarshall replied to: #69236 21 Jul 2016 16:35
If you continue on the path past Twins Cave Annex, there is a second Annex Cave a little further on too.
Dave's Avatar
Dave replied to: #69225 20 Jul 2016 19:56
Thanks. I figured it might be that side, and I walked along the path for a bit, but evidently not far enough.
Smurfatefrog's Avatar
Smurfatefrog replied to: #69213 20 Jul 2016 07:36
This is the view from Twins Annex
Papa Dragon's Avatar
Papa Dragon replied to: #69210 20 Jul 2016 06:59
Great article and nice pics..

"But would someone please explain to me where on earth Twins Annex is? I walked all the way round Twins Peak until I came to a large cairn, after which the path seemed to descend a small buttress and then perhaps shortcut into Mlambonja. But I simply could not find the cave."

It's the other way Dave.
As you come over the col between Twins and the escarpment, where the path to Twins cave veers off to thright, there is a path to the left as well.
The Annexe is a couple of hundred metres along this path...
Dave's Avatar
Dave replied to: #69208 20 Jul 2016 00:28
On the Youth Day weekend my sister and I did the three-day loop up Cockade and down Mlambonja.

For all the frustration that’s been expressed about the bushy approach to Cockade, I have to say that we experienced little difficulty with this section - and my sister is not a fit hiker. We took Ghaznavid’s tip and started off by keeping to the watercourse, but we soon found a well-marked path heading up the riverbed on the right, which was easy to follow and required almost no bush-whacking at all. The vegetation is naturally thinner in winter, but this section certainly didn't seem as hard as it's been made out to be.

We followed this path up to the terrace section, which turned out to be harder going than the riverbed because of all the weedy shrubs; so it is probably easier (at least in winter) to simply stay in the riverbed and follow the path. One could stay on the terrace all the way up to the woody gully just before the waterfalls, but the lack of a path slows you down.

One has to second Ghaz’s rating of Cockade: the views are indescribably magnificent, as even photos cannot really convey:

There is a continuous path all the way up the right side (true left) of Cockade Pass until one moves into the bouldery gully:

Thereafter one comes to a rocky bowl, and it is not obvious to the first-timer that the pass continues up to the left. In fact, there is a narrow gully heading out of this bowl to the right, which may allow for a shortcut to the Elephant traverse. Being unfamiliar with the pass, we decided to just keep to the path:

It's a stunning pass, with amazing vistas. The only difficult aspect of Cockade, in my view, at least in winter, is the steepness.

We were lucky with the weather and hiked in t-shirts during the day. Standing outside at night was never unpleasant, though we were well-attired. But as we summited we were cut through by a bone-chilling wind. Patches of icy snow had been clinging to the south-facing mountain-sides for days, and they made the path pretty slippery in places.

Then on the way to Mlambonja Pass we came across a pile of large white sacks lying by the Kwakwatsi River - apparently unattended. As we rounded a knoll, however, we startled two smugglers enjoying the last rays of afternoon sun, and, after exchanging friendly waves, continued on our way. But then the smugglers promptly jumped up and loaded their donkeys and started following us, which wasn’t the most comfortable feeling (they probably just feared we might report their position). So we picked up the pace, and from the top of Mlambonja watched them cross the river and carry on along the contour path, probably towards Ntonjelana Pass (it was full moon or very near it) or perhaps to Easter Cave. I really feel for these guys: life up there must be hard enough as it is, and this is a hard way to make a living.

Sunrise from Twins Cave:

And a look back at the exquisitely beautiful Mlambonja Valley:


It's a very beautiful route, certainly the most beautiful route I've done in the Berg so far.

But would someone please explain to me where on earth Twins Annex is? I walked all the way round Twins Peak until I came to a large cairn, after which the path seemed to descend a small buttress and then perhaps shortcut into Mlambonja. But I simply could not find the cave.
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #67634 04 Apr 2016 21:04

Mattyk wrote: I would recommend steering clear of this pass just for the sole reason of how frustratingly thick that bush is (3kms took over 2 hrs).

I did this route the other way round last year (day hike up Cockade down Bell Traverse) - the trick with the lower section is to ignore the cairns. If the river is low, simply follow the water course.

I have done Cockade Pass 3 times, the first time we also struggled with the overgrowth - but the second and third time, we knew better and stayed in the river. I rate it as comfortably the most scenic pass in the Berg (well, out of the 59 I have done anyway) - definitely not a pass to miss out on.
Mattyk's Avatar
Mattyk replied to: #67633 04 Apr 2016 20:58
We did this pass about two weeks ago (march 2016), and the pass itself was quite beautiful at the top section where there is a lot of bouldering. We came down the pass as our exit after a long day of going up past cathedral peak, doing the bell traverse and up Mlambonja pass. All was good until we started to hit the thick bush at the bottom of the pass. I would recommend steering clear of this pass just for the sole reason of how frustratingly thick that bush is (3kms took over 2 hrs).
Riaang's Avatar
Riaang replied to: #63410 17 Apr 2015 09:39
I also found that, when very tired, (for me) it is easy to loose concentration and take the wrong turnoff or miss the intended one. GPS's were invented for people like me :laugh:
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #63407 17 Apr 2015 08:02
What was surprising to me was how easily we got onto the southern variation even though we didn't intend to, in spite of having done Cockade Pass before. Shows how misty conditions and several years of graying memory can mess you around.
tonymarshall's Avatar
tonymarshall replied to: #63406 17 Apr 2015 07:02
Again we seemed to be keeping to the right (true left) of the valley.



In places there is a trail, but it was quite difficult to follow and we kept losing it quite easily. It’s probably just as easy to head up through the vegetation anywhere than concentrate on following the trail.



Higher up the valley narrows and you are forced into the boulder bed, a view looking down the narrow gulley.



A view up the boulder bed section, just before the valley widened again and the upper grass slope section started.



It started raining when we reached the grass slope, and we took a rest stop to put on rain gear, before tackling the final section of the pass.



Visibility was quite poor in the rain and mist, and somewhere on the grass slope there is a split in the route, the usual route goes to the right, and a variation to the left. The two routes top out about 100 m apart on the summit, with the left variation about 20 m higher. We found ourselves on the left variation, without really having seen the split in the poor visibility, but knew it would take us to the summit.



Again the route narrowed, and it was quite eerie ascending the narrow grass slope between rock walls in the mist and rain.



Kelly had gone ahead, and standing with her pack off at the top of the pass, we were met with the welcome news that we were at the top of the pass as we emerged from the narrow rock passage, just as the weather cleared a bit too.



We had lunch at the top of the pass, after intrepid and I had summited Cockade, and a sudden deluge of rain and hail, and then headed off via the Elephant Cutback to Twins, where we would overnight at Twins Annex Cave.
tonymarshall's Avatar
tonymarshall replied to: #63405 17 Apr 2015 06:58
In mid March intrepid, ClimbyKel, Harry and tonymarshall did a 3 day weekend trip at Didima, ascending Cockade Pass and descending Mlambonja Pass.

The first afternoon was spent hiking up to the Cockade Campsite via the Neptune Pools path from Cathedral Peak Hotel, up the ridge between the Xeni and Mlambonja Rivers, a short way along the Contour Path to the Xeni River Crossing, and upstream to the Cockade Campsite. We had a few drops of rain along the Contour Path, but it stopped by the time we were ready to set up camp. The photo below shows the overgrown section of Contour Path in the Xeni valley on the left.



The next morning was clear, and we experienced the legendary sunrise on the escarpment from Cockade Campsite, which the photo below doesn’t adequately capture. The peak at the left of the photo with the pinnacle in front is Cockade, named after a decoration (feather) on a hat, which can be related to the pinnacle and the peak. The Plume is to the right of Cockade, Elephant is the peak at the centre of the photo, and Xeni Peak is the centre peak of the three at the right. The route of the pass goes up the valley, and to the left behind the foreground ridge and the Plume, topping out between Cockade and Elephant.



Soon after departing upstream, we encountered the dreaded Xeni Valley bush, and fought our way through this for several hundred metres.



The valley sides are quite steep, as can be seen in this view downstream, so you are forced to stay in the bottom near the river, alternating between boulder hopping in the river and forcing your way through the bush.



Here and there we found bits of trail, but generally just tried to follow the area of thinnest bush.



After a while we could get out on the right (true left) side of the stream, onto a terrace with low vegetation that was quite easy to walk through. This terrace can be seen in the photo below, looking back downstream.



Later we crossed to the left (true right) side of the Xeni stream, and stopped for a break at the Cockade – Xeni junction, where intrepid and I tried to dry our sweat soaked shirts a bit. Here we turned left to go up Cockade Pass, the gully to the left behind Harry, and the Xeni Pass route goes straight up the river on the right and to the right of Xeni Peak in the background of the photo below.



Soon after departing from the junction, the mist and rain clouds moved in. The pass itself starts at the junction, and the first section is in similar vegetation to the terrace we were on earlier, but because of the steeper slope is a lot harder going as shown in this photo looking downstream.

karlito's Avatar
karlito replied to: #63256 31 Mar 2015 08:46
If you download the Xeni Pass track here on VE you will see it also has some slight variations on the part where they overlap.
Riaang's Avatar
Riaang replied to: #63255 31 Mar 2015 08:12
Hi supertramp,

Can you please mail it to me too, I'll pm you in a sec. Looking at the track on VE the pass has an interesting graph, with a couple of steep "steps" followed by flatter sections. Does your track follow the same trend? I'd be interested to see if your followed a different line up the pass.
supertramp's Avatar
supertramp replied to: #63248 30 Mar 2015 20:06
Hi Kevin

Yes, I do have the GPX file from my GPS (it may come in useful with the downloadable one on VE). Pop me a PM and I'll email it you.

Regards,
Kevinva's Avatar
Kevinva replied to: #63232 28 Mar 2015 20:48
Do you perhaps still have your gpx track data?
Kevinva's Avatar
Kevinva replied to: #63231 28 Mar 2015 20:07
Thanks!
supertramp's Avatar
supertramp replied to: #63221 27 Mar 2015 20:24
Hi Kevin

Please see link below to my website for a write-up I did on Cockade Pass. We went up the pass in November 2014

www.rawcuriosity.com/adventures/cathedral-peak-hike
Stijn's Avatar
Stijn replied to: #63220 27 Mar 2015 14:01
Hmmm... I have a feeling that river bush has intensified in recent years. :thumbsup:
tonymarshall's Avatar
tonymarshall replied to: #63217 27 Mar 2015 13:41
I quite agree with Dillon's assessment.

The last 200m or so of Contour Path before C6 does get very overgrown, and this is comparable to the overgrown section of the Mlambonja route around C4, you can stay on the path but are constantly dodging bushes and shrubs, fighting your way through dead tree branches etc.

The first section up the Xeni River to the Cockade campsite is quite open, but then a few hundred metres from the campsite upstream is the absolute hell described by Dillon, with the same shrubs and bushes but also some trees thrown in to frustrate you more. The valley/gully is also quite steep sided here, and you have no choice but to stay in the bush. We later managed to get out of the bushy valley onto the true left side, onto a sort of terrace with low bushes that were quite easy to step through, and that helped a lot up to the Cockade - Xeni junction.

The pass itself involves three distinct different terrains; the lowest is bushy with a bit of a trail and some boulder hopping, the mid section is boulder hopping where you are forced into the boulder bed of the narrow gully, and the upper section is mainly grass slopes with a hint of a trail and some minor rock slabs to walk on. The transition area from the boulder bed to the upper grass slope has the loose rocks/scree and steep bouldery/rocky slope.

It really isn't a very difficult pass, bear in mind Stijn rates the pass itself and not the walk in/out, although I agree that he is wired differently. The difficulty aspect of Cockade Pass is the looong walk in/out, and the bushy area in the Xeni valley.

I will post a write up with photos as soon as time permits.
ASL's Avatar
ASL replied to: #63216 27 Mar 2015 13:05
Thanks for that. Stijn's write up does make it sound like a doddle but he is built a little differently to the rest of the human race!
Dillon's Avatar
Dillon replied to: #63215 27 Mar 2015 12:23

Riaang wrote: How difficult is the route up from where the contour path splits off away from Mlambonja? The first section on the map seems fine (say the first 1,5km's or so), but thereafter small red dots indicating more tougher going.


We did this route pretty much exactly a year ago. The contour path between C5 and C6 was perfectly fine, grass was a bit long here and there, but you shouldn't stray off the path.
The section between C6 and the split between Xeni and Cockade Pass was absolute hell; completely overgrown with little to zero pathway. From that split to the top of Cockade was better, just very steep and taxing, with quite a few loose rocks.
Riaang's Avatar
Riaang replied to: #63214 27 Mar 2015 11:34
Hi Tonymarshall,

How difficult is the route up from where the contour path splits off away from Mlambonja? The first section on the map seems fine (say the first 1,5km's or so), but thereafter small red dots indicating more tougher going. Say if comparing to Mlambonja's first section through the dense vegetation?
tonymarshall's Avatar
tonymarshall replied to: #63207 26 Mar 2015 15:37
Hi Ian,

Our group intrepid, climbykel, Harry and me did Cockade Pass two weekends ago. I just haven't got round to doing a write up yet, but a few comments were made on the 'Rain cover in Twins Cave' thread.

A big ask (but not impossible) to do the pass from Didima/Cathedral Peak Hotel in one day and end at Easter Cave!
ASL's Avatar
ASL replied to: #63196 26 Mar 2015 13:44
Anyone gone up Cockade recently? I'm keen to do it in April and spend the first night in Easter Cave..

Any comments on your experiences would be appreciated!