Mnweni Needles Pass

16 Aug 2017 13:46 #72002 by ghaznavid
Mnweni Needles Traverse: Threading the Needles

With Mike’s final exams just around the corner, we agreed to do one last hike before his big break from hiking. With a bit of discussion, we agreed on the Mnweni Needles. These pinnacles have largely evaded my notice for many years – probably due to the fact that neither is above 3000m, and thus they don’t make the Khulu List.

The Inner Needle has roughly 195m prominence, while the Outer has approximately 323m, meaning that both meet the UIAA definition of a mountain – a summit with at least 7% prominence on height over a designated height for that region – I guess one could argue that 3000m is the designated height for the Drakensberg, but for mountain recognition, I would say that anything above 2000m with sufficient prominence would make sense to count. Nonetheless, the Outer Needle has approximately 323m in prominence, which would qualify it as a mountain even if it was 4300m, so hard to argue it isn’t a mountain in the true sense of the word. It also happens to look a lot like a mountain.

The plan was simple – drive to Mnweni on Friday after work, hike in the dark up to the nek between the peaks, climb the harder summit (the Inner Needle) on Saturday, the other summit on Sunday, and walk out for an epic but awesome weekend. Extreme optimism aside, it was bound to be a good weekend.

So with some light traffic, we found ourselves at the Cultural Centre just before 4PM. We had to do some bag re-packing to try and get sufficient climbing gear in. The Inner Needle includes 3 big pitches in a row, all of which need a 50m abseil to get back down. This meant we had to carry 2 full trad ropes, and enough access chord for a lot of abseils, not to mention the extra pro and draws needed for protecting a 45m pitch. In summary, our packs were heavy. And to save weight, we decided to ditch the tent in favour of bivy bags.

Tony Marshall had advised us to approach the climb from the Mponjwane Pass side, but Neil and the RD both agreed that it was better from the Rockeries side – to paraphrase Warren Buffett, never bet against Tony Marshall at Mnweni!

We tried to arrange a lift up to the turnoff on the road, but seeing as the fee was R20 last time I got a lift, and is now R200, we decided a bit of walking along the road was in order. As we set out on the road, we realised how heavy our packs were. They must have been close to 20kg, although I am not sure how. Aside from the gas stove and a bit of extra warm winter clothing, I was as minimalist as I can possibly go – well, without taking out climbing gear.

So we plodded along the road for just over an hour, before hitting the turnoff towards Rockeries Pass, somewhere between sunset and last light. We were accompanied by a large group of kids who stopped asking for sweets about 100m in, but continued to follow us for about 2km. They left us when we turned off the road.

We stopped for a break by the second river crossing, and turned our headlamps off to enjoy some mountains bathed in moonlight. It was a beautiful warm clear evening.

We continued along, losing the trail every now and then, before eventually having to leave the trail to follow the river that flows from the saddle between the peaks. Our progress to this point had been slow, but overgrowth and boulder hopping were about to make it even slower.

We stopped for supper on the river, trying out the Chilli Mac Beef that Touch Foods Africa sent us to try out. It made for a nice supper, sufficient food for both of us – and far nicer than any other freeze dried meal I have had in the past.

We kept turning our headlamps off to admire the view, but our progress was slow. We followed the riverbed, avoiding most obstacles easily enough, but occasionally hitting a massive rock pool that required leaving the riverbed for a short distance. Some parts of the riverbed looked like they would collapse next time there is a flood, and on one occasion we actually had to walk under a massive boulder that had fallen across the river.

There are so many amazing rock pools along this stretch – if it had been a hot day, we might have even gone for a swim.

We eventually were forced out of the river by yet another massive rock pool, only to find a large flat area that looked suitable for our bivy. After a bit of looking around, we found a small cave with a rock wall and blankets in it and promptly decided that we shouldn’t stop here! In a “high trade” area like this, the thought that people could be nearby at full moon in the dark is not a nice one. The presence of a fresh cow leg in the river wasn’t helpful either (aside from the fact that we had been drinking this water).

About 500m further upstream, we found a small flattish spot with no signs of nearby trails and decided to bivy here. Rule number one of a bivy spot – it should not be right next to a river, especially not in winter and not on a night with no wind!

We both slept pretty well, but woke up to a very cold morning accompanied by no intention of getting out of our dew covered sleeping bags!

We eventually got out of our sleeping bags and decided to ditch the river in favour of the large grassy bank on true left. We slogged up this, and found a spot in the sun to leave our sleeping bags to dry and had some breakfast.

We were soon given a choice between hitting a bunch of cliffs or resuming our trudge up the river, so we were soon back in the river. The saddle wasn’t very far away, but we were not even at 2000m yet, and the vegetation wasn’t getting any better.

We eventually hit the junction where the RD says you should leave the river for the ridge off Inner Needle, which we did. We knew we wouldn’t see water again for a while, so we each filled up with four litres before setting off.

This ridge started with a very steep and overgrown scramble up a loose near vertical grass bank (I think there are a few oxymorons in there, but somehow this bank was both loose and densely overgrown). We eventually got to something a bit less steep and far less vegetated. The views from this ridge were spectacular – easily some of the best I have ever seen. Mponjwane is very imposing from this angle, as the crow flies, the summit is close – but the summit is well over 1km above you. Looking at this, one wonders how a skyscraper could ever be impressive compared to a rock pinnacle.

We eventually reached 2200m, where we traverse back into the river – looking down it, I suspect keeping to the river would have been faster. It was already past midday and we both knew the climbs were off. For one thing, if it took us this long to get there, how long would it take to walk out?

We discussed dropping the packs, and heading up to the saddle, but decided that a saddle bivy would be better – and in retrospect we would have been bivying in the mist if we slept at 2200m, so this was a good call.

We slowly made our way to the saddle, reaching it just before 4PM. We had carried all this gear all this way, so Mike decided to have a go at the little pinnacle next to the saddle. He got a short way up before bailing and down-climbing it.

We had some soup before cooking our Mac and Cheese from Touch Foods Africa (thanks guys – really appreciate it) – which made for a good warm supper on a surprisingly warm winters evening.

There were fires in the valley below, but the view from my sleeping bag that night is easily the best view I have ever had from a sleeping bag.

Sunday morning included another round of “I don’t feel like getting up”. We only started walking just after 8, deciding to take Tony’s advice and use the Mponjwane Pass side to go down. This also technically gives us an ascent of Mnweni Needles Pass – seeing as a pass is described as a route over mountains, which this most certainly was.

The north side was considerably quicker, although our lack of pace may have had more to do with pack weight than overgrowth. There was mist around 2400m, but this cleared by midday.

We stopped for lunch just below where the route joins Mponjwane Pass, around 2000m. We found a nice rock pool, and had a quick swim before lunch.

We followed the river from here, only leaving when forced to, before eventually busting true right to find a well used trail. We followed this trail for far too long and ended up doing a massive double-back valley where we could have just dropped down to the Nceda/Mnweni River junction.

By sunset we were back on the Mnweni Pass trail and by last light we were on the road, opting to visit the Mnweni Pools, seeing as Mike had never seen them before.

We returned to the Cultural Centre at 6:30PM, giving us roughly a round trip time of 50 hours for the massive distance of 36km – I suspect snails would have done it faster if it wasn’t so dry.

Nonetheless, a very scenic route – a fit team could do it in a day with light packs. The overgrowth is slow, but with a really heavy pack, it makes progress practically impossible.

I highly recommend the route, even for non-climbers. The scrambling along the way is light, the vegetation is the only hindrance.

Ps. yes, Mike and I will be back to do the climbs, but probably over 4 days.

Photos to follow soon
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17 Aug 2017 08:16 #72003 by ghaznavid
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17 Aug 2017 08:17 #72004 by ghaznavid
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17 Aug 2017 08:19 #72005 by ghaznavid
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21 Feb 2021 09:30 #76535 by tonymarshall
Replied by tonymarshall on topic Mnweni Needles Pass
On the first weekend of February Christinejvr and tonymarshall did Mnweni Needles Pass, the route that passes between the two Mnweni Needles, as a three day hike from Friday to Sunday.

On Friday we walked in from Mnweni Cultural Centre along the road up the Ntonjelane River, turning off the road at the bridge and following a series of paths on the right of the river. From the road we could see that there had been a lot of water down the river after the rains, but it was quite a shock to get to the river crossing and see the changes. All the trees and bush in the river area have been washed away, and it is just a vast area of boulders with the river course now changed from before. We had lunch at the crossing, and a large group going up Rockeries Pass came past us. After finding a place to cross the river and finding the path on the other side, we continued upstream a short way before crossing back and going up the sidestream that would take us up between the Needles. We could follow a path on the right of the river a short way, and then got into the river and headed upstream which was quite slow with the river being full. Later we got out onto the right (true left) side bank, and continued with a few scrambles and in quite a lot of bush, sometimes high above the river.

A view back downstream showing the rugged nature of the terrain, and bush in the river.

Later we were back on the vague path for a while, and then had to drop down to the river and cross to the other side, to get to the cave we had planned to overnight in.

Once across the river, there was very long grass to go through, and it was quite a relief to get to the cave quite high above the river, with water right at the cave from all the rain, although the constant noise of the waterfall was quite irritating. Despite some rain in the night and the noise of the waterfall, we had a comfortable night there. The cave is also visible in the background of ghaznavid's third photo, with Mike (Hobbit) in the foreground, in ghaznavid's write up.

In May 2014 I had seen this cave from the opposite ridge above the river, and had thought then that someday it would be interesting to go and look at it and even sleep in it. I do not know of any other hikers who know about the cave, and when we got back to MCC on the Sunday we told Leonard about it, and he told us that he was aware of the cave and had been to it, and that it didn't have a name. We considered that the cave overlooks the Mahlabatsi River, the stream going up between the Mnweni Needles, and decided to refer to it as Mahlabatsi Cave. This seems quite appropriate, since mahlabatsi means pains, and we certainly felt a lot of pain getting to the cave and going up between the Needles the next day. Locals use the cave, and there was a pot neatly packed away on a rock shelf in the cave, and a heap of chopped firewood outside the cave.

The next day we went upstream from the cave, angling down towards the stream in the long grass which was now wet, and then going through another patch of bush to get to the stream. It took a while to find a spot to cross the stream, and then we went up through more bush onto the ridge on the left (true right) of the stream coming down from between the Needles. The photo below shows the view from just outside Mahlabatsi Cave, with the ridge we followed at the centre of the photo, the Inner Mnweni Needle at the left background, the nek at the top of Mnweni Needles Pass, and the Outer Mnweni Needle at the right background.

The ridge was much less bushy than the valley area lower down and had a faint trail on it, so it was somewhat easier going, although steep in places.

The views all around were spectacular (as seen in ghaznavid's photos in his write up), and the photo below shows the Rockeries and Mponjwane from a seldom seen angle.

A view near the top of the ridge, before the cliffs blocked the way and we traversed right towards the main Mahlabatsi River gully going up to the top of Mnweni Needles Pass.

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21 Feb 2021 09:36 #76536 by tonymarshall
Replied by tonymarshall on topic Mnweni Needles Pass
A view back down the ridge, with the Catherdral Range in the background.

Once we got below the cliffs, we traversed right towards the stream, moving through some more bush on a very steep sideslope, which was very slow going. Cathedral Peak and the Bell are in the background of the photo below at the left, and Saddle North Peak at the right.

We had a morning break at a steep sidestream crossing, in the foreground of the photo below, before going up a steep slope, and then again traversing through bush towards the stream. The amount of water and waterfalls all over was amazing.

The slope to the top at the nek between the Needles was steep, with some patches of bush, some patches of rocks but mainly grass. I was running out of steam on this section, and Christine went ahead, being stronger than me. We went through the saddle at the left of the rock spire in the photo below, although the saddle to the right also goes.

A view back down the way we had come up, the Mahlabatsi valley, a sidestream of the Ntonjelane River.

We were at the top at about 11h15, and paused briefly to take some summit photos at the top, before heading down the other side towards the Nceda River (a tributary of the Mnweni River with it's source to the west of Mponjwane), which was covered with mist, but it soon cleared.

A view ahead as we headed down the other side towards the Nceda River.

Again lots of bush to get through, water everywhere and some steep descents of waterfalls.

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21 Feb 2021 09:44 #76537 by tonymarshall
Replied by tonymarshall on topic Mnweni Needles Pass
We kept to the left of the valley, to the side of the worst bush on our descent, and had to cross several recent rock falls.

Lower down we determined that since the river curved to the right further downstream, we would get onto the right side grassy slope of the stream, and go on the easier terrain of the ridge, and try to join the river path again further downstream. So in the photo below, we descended a bit lower on the left and we had lunch about two thirds of the way down the steep bit at another sidestream crossing, before continuing to the bottom of the steep bit where the stream flattened out and crossing onto the grass slope on the right. This is where we could cross the river and get onto the grass slope on the right. It was a steep ascent for a short while before we could contour along the ridge.

Contouring on the grass slope was much easier than the terrain we have had if we had followed the stream.

Some views back up Mnweni Needles Pass from the Nceda/Mnweni river side, with the Outer Mnweni Needle on the left and Inner Mnweni Needle on the right.

The weather was clear with good views of everything, and I enjoyed the view up Mponjwane Pass which I had done in 2016. After going along the grass slopes and coming back to the river much lower downstream, we found a good path, and followed it. It was contouring above the river as we headed downstream, and we figured out that it would go at a higher level than the usual path to the Mnweni road, and would also avoid crossing the full rivers lower down. A storm was also threatening, so we decided to look for a tent spot, and soon found a large flat grassy area high above the Nceda River and about 2 km upstream of the confluence with the Mnweni River. Our tents were up just before it started raining, not very hard rain, but it continued until about midnight.

On Sunday we followed various paths (there are many) and kept a higher position around the hills and valleys, but still with several full streams to cross.

After continuing on various paths, just taking whichever path seemed to be going in the right direction, and coming out at the Mnweni road as we thought, we were back at MCC at about 10h30.

Mnweni Needles Pass was an enjoyable but tough hike.

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