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