Hike Report - Ifidi to Rockeries Summer 2012/13

03 Jan 2013 09:47 - 03 Jan 2013 09:50 #55797 by Toasty102
Hi guys.

Before I get into the trip report, I’d like to thank all the contributors to the Drakensberg forums – the information provided was invaluable.

When planning for this 6-day trip (between Christmas and NY 2013) with a few friends, my idea was to try take in as much of the Mnweni region as possible and spend as much time as possible on the escarpment. Our second goal was to sleep in caves every night.

Our team consisted of 4 people, 2 guys and 2 girls of reasonable fitness and experience and I thought that a big loop from the Mnweni Cultural Centre, up Ifidi Pass and down Ntonjelana Pass was ambitious, but possible, in the allotted time. We had a secondary goal of staying in caves each night. This is how it all panned out:

Day 1: Started around 1pm from the Mnweni Cultural Centre (which is at the point on the map where the road runs out). The area has changed markedly since the map was printed and the road actually continues for a few km’s past the cultural centre, which means that the first few km’s of the approach to Ifidi and Icidi is on a hard road. The rural settlements also extend far up the valley and we only passed the last house after about 3 hours of walking. Route finding was relatively straightforward and included a number of river crossings (the river was quite high so we had to remove shoes most of the time). We did not make it to our intended destination of Cycad cave and camped in a nice grassy area about 2km before the cave.

Day 2: We started early (7am) as we knew that Ifidi pass was long and by all accounts quite difficult. The first half of the day was spent boulder-hopping in the river bed. Usually this would be pleasant enough but the high river made it a little trickier than usual and the going was quite slow. We were forced to remove shoes to cross tributaries at least 5 times but the terrain was not that challenging. By lunch time, we were about half way up and the team was in good spirits. Little did we know that what lay ahead would come close to breaking us. As Stijn described in his pass description, the boulders became larger and larger and route finding became extremely difficult. The “steep grassy slope” was in fact an overgrown nightmare which required some serious scrambling up near vertical banks holding onto the vegetation for support. After about 200m, the terrain softens a bit and the vegetation thins out as you near 2500m. This relatively short section (probably 500m in length with 100m of altitude gain) took us over an hour to get through and the light was starting to fade. We took the right hand gully to head up the last 400m onto the escarpment. With the river flowing rapidly, we had to tread rather carefully and the going was extremely slow. There were 4 sections where we had to pass the packs up (a rope would have been handy for this task as hoisting a 30kg pack above your head is not easy!) and help each other with foot holds and general stability on the wet and slippery rocks. In one of the last ‘chimneys’, we had the unpleasantness of a waterfall cascading down onto us soaking us to the bone! We finally topped out at 7:15pm after more than 12 hours in the pass and didn’t have the strength to find any of the caves in the area. Fortunately, there is great camping on top of the pass itself and there was plenty of water nearby.

Note: I’m not sure if this adequately describes the difficulties we experienced. I think the pass would’ve been easier if it was drier but the rains of the previous few weeks and the lack of a path through the vegetation on the slopes around 2300m made progress very difficult. In all seriousness, I would only recommend this pass to the very adventurous and slightly masochistic.

Day 3: We spent the next morning recovering from the previous day’s ordeal and enjoyed some high-altitude yoga to loosen the stiff muscles. Then it was on towards the Mnweni cutback. We planned to spend the night in either Fangs Cave or Mbundini Cave, but realised that both these caves were about 100m below the escarpment and better accessed while coming up the respective passes. We pushed on and found a nice spot to camp just below Rat Hole Cave. This was an easy short day of about 12km and helped us adjust to the altitude and forget about the previous day. We explored the area around Rat Hole Cave (which was 40m east of where the GPS co-ordinates suggested it was) and admired the fantastic views down the valley.

Day 4: The goal for the day was to get to Ledgers Cave to spend the night as our cave-tent ratio was not looking so good at this point. The day was spent skirting the cutback and was by far the best from a view perspective. The walking was easy as we mostly contoured between 3000m and 3100m. We were surprised by the number of sheep and cows we encountered (along with the watchful shepherds and their dogs). Usually the presence of animals makes the water dangerous to drink, but we didn’t really have a choice and thankfully suffered no ill effects. We reached the source of the Orange River just after lunch and had a great swim in the relatively warm pools (and a back massage under the waterfall). We carried on the last km to Ledgers cave (which was 140m north of where the GPS co-ordinates suggested it was – this wasn’t a problem as large cairns marked the way). Ledger’s Cave was about 20m down a fairly steep gully and across the cliff face so is not for people who fear exposure. It has amazing views, but we found that it was very draughty and with what appeared to be bad weather closing in, we took the good advice on this website and decided to walk the extra 2 km to Mponjwane cave.

Within an hour or two of settling in, we were treated to a magnificent electric storm. This was all good and well until we realised that the time between the lightning and thunder was now split seconds instead of seconds as the storm was literally on top of us. Thank goodness we were sheltered in a cave! Another bonus was the drips we found around the corner (Rockeries Pass side) which were more than sufficient to keep our bottles filled, although the extra rain did cause a few extra drips in the cave itself which required some strategic alignment of sleeping mats before heading off to bed. The other couple we shared the caves with didn’t have this problem as they had arrived first and pitched their tent inside the cave!

Day 5: We intended to spend a relaxed day heading down Rockeries Pass to either Scaly or Sunshine cave (to up the cave-tent ratio) and started strong down the pass. This pass is very eroded and was not very pleasing on the eye. We passed a couple of locals with about 10 dogs who said they were going up to hunt jackals – I’m not sure if this is code for something less legit, but we gave them the benefit of the doubt and carried on. All they asked for was some food, which we couldn’t help them with. The lower part of the pass is less eroded and we made such good progress that we walked right past both the caves! Instead of back-tracking, we set off to find the other cave on the map (imaginatively labelled “Cave”) which appeared to be at 1820m, but in fact is much higher up on the ridge. There is a path going up the ridge (on the right if descending) just after a large tributary comes in from the left but you need to bushwhack through the long grass a bit to get to it. The cave is decent enough although the only water is from the waterfall around the corner and we decided to head further down the valley to find a campsite to spend New Year’s Eve. We then saw the ‘jackal-hunters’ coming down and a number of other people wandering around and decided against camping this close to the settlements and decided to walk the last 9km to the cultural centre. Some more good fortune followed and we hitched a ride in a taxi for the last 5 km. New Year’s Eve was spent in a rondavel at the cultural centre (R170 pp) with a few quarts procured from the shebeen down the road. The manager, Agrippa, is fantastic and we highly recommend hikers use their facilities.

In summary, the route was ambitious, but doable. We adapted to the unexpected conditions and different energy levels and we had a wonderful and highly memorable time. I think it’s always important to consider ‘escape routes’ and the Mnweni area provided us with plenty of opportunities to change our itinerary and go with the flow, although our cave-tent ratio of 1-4 was a bit disappointing!

Happy hiking,
Tomi (with Zig, Samara and Steven)
Last edit: 03 Jan 2013 09:50 by Toasty102. Reason: additional information
The following user(s) said Thank You: Stijn, ghaznavid, Smurfatefrog, Sabine

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03 Jan 2013 15:54 #55801 by Fitness
Great write up, what an amazing way to spend NYE,
I know the feeling about being absolutely drained after a hard pass.
Sounds like your group had a great time.

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04 Jan 2013 19:21 #55802 by ghaznavid
Nice! I am yet to reach a point where I feel Ifidi Pass is doable - but the view from Ifidi peak was well worth it when I stood on top of it on the GT last year, some nice khulus in that area.

This pass is very eroded and was not very pleasing on the eye.

I'm surprised to hear this, I thought Rockeries was supposed to be one of the most scenic of passes.

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10 Jan 2013 07:55 #55832 by Toasty102
The scenery is fantastic going up with the Rockeries in the background and the waterfalls all over the place, but the trail is very eroded with multiple donkey paths snaking this way and that. This detracts a bit from the experience.

just my 2c...

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10 Jan 2013 08:09 #55835 by ghaznavid
Fair enough. I'll add my 2c worth when I have actually done Rockeries Pass. From the escarpment it looks really good...

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10 Jan 2013 10:49 #55836 by spook
Nice write-up!

One way to get the cave-tent ratio up is to leave the tents behind. This does add an additional edge of adventure, focuses the mind and reduces the weight of the packs. Bivvy bags area good option in case you are really caught out and also work for more persistent cave drips.

We did a similar jaunt some years back and overnighted in rat-hole while a storm raged outside. The cave acted a bit like a megaphone which made for quite a night. Also sleeping head to foot down the cave required the least claustrophobic to go deepest and invoked the FILO* principle with obvious implications for synchronising toilet breaks.

It is truly a magnificent area.

* First In Last Out

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