We saw starlings but they weren’t pied

30 Jul 2012 08:22 - 30 Jul 2012 11:24 #54716 by ghaznavid
The goal: Thaba Ngwangwe in a day – based on research this is a relatively easy hike, simply summit Thamathu Pass, climb to Ngwangwe Cave and find a break in the rock band and scramble to the top, return via Bushman’s Pass. With light day packs it should be easy – wishful thinking!

In order to maximise the use of daylight, we spent the night at Silverstreams Caravan Park in a log cabin. It’s funny how some people consider a place like this to be “roughing it”. Due to the fact that no one else had booked to be there this weekend, they upgraded us to a room with running water in order to avoid having to turn the ablution block hot water on. To our horror we found that the cabin they put us in only had a bath, no shower :(

5:50AM we had all finished our breakfast and drove off to the EKZN offices. We got our hiking permits the day before so that we could leave this early.

At 6AM we walked past the border post – the first light of the day was here, sunrise was 45 minutes away. We knew it was a long day and we must therefore take advantage of the daylight. The chilly air of the beautiful clear morning greeted us as we looked over the majestic peaks from Thaba Ngwangwe to Mzimude Peak.

As we ascended the Thamathu ridge the sunrise unfurled around us. The Dragon was awake, red rock faces and white snow in front of us – what a view!


Thaba Ngwangwe at sunrise from the Thamathu Ridge

We continue up the ridge, past the Mushroom on Tomato, we are slowly starting to warm up in the sunlight. There is not a cloud in the sky, the air is still, cold – but perfect hiking weather. Slowly the gloves, balaclavas and jackets come off.


The Mushroom on Thamathu/Tomato

We reach the plateau above the initial incline. We know that we are starting to fall behind time and must push on on this flat easy section. After averaging just over 4km/h for some time, we finally reach the next climb. On GT2012 we had missed a turnoff in this area and had to slog up a steep bank to avoid being on the wrong path, I looked around and saw a path above us on the hill, so I made sure we all aimed for the high path. As it turned out, the “high path” was not actually a path, so we traversed under the rock band until we met up with the path again. In hindsight the detour we took was actually easier than the path at that point.

Shortly thereafter we reach the second short plateau, Thamathu Cave and Pass are close, the rock band that holds the cave is in sight, we will soon see the cave. Time is still against us, our goal is to be at the top of the pass by 10AM and its almost 9AM with Thamathu Pass still ahead.

Ahead we see a path going off to the left and I recognise the area as being the place we missed the path on GT2012. We head off on the not overly steep path up the ridge. After a short while we finally see Thamathu Cave in the distance – we are close.

As we approach the cave a Lammagier is hovering above us, mere meters away. I try to get a photo as the majestic bird slowly flies above us, however I am too slow and only get part of its wing. There are also some Robbins and Starlings on the rocks nearby. We joke about the fact that the combination of a gun and some pastry could covert those starlings into “pied” starlings (after all, the peak we are climbing is “the mountain of the pied starling”).

We finally reach Thamthu Cave. In order to stay with the schedule we cannot stop here. We are already almost a full hour behind time. We begin the ascent of the pass. The pass isn’t specifically steep or difficult, most of the work is the long approach to the pass. This pass has been suggested to be the easiest pass in the berg, I still maintain that (provided you consider the approach as an important part of the pass), Langalibalele Pass is still much easier.

We round the corner after the steepest part of the pass and reach that spot with an amazing view of the feature full sandstone outcrop between us an Knuckles. The view of holes in the rock that go the entire way through the rock are quite something.

We continue along, Lesotho is close and we are almost at the top of the pass from an altitude point of view, it is now merely a case of traversing to the end of the pass. We view the area around Ngwangwe Cave through Richard’s monocular in order to find our break in the rock band, that looks pretty straightforward – famous last words!

We stop for lunch about 300m north of the top of the pass. We admire the view, some snow still on the sides of peaks in Lesotho and below the rock band near the top of the pass. A frozen waterfall completes the winter scene.

We head off to the slope up the peak, we know its steep and difficult, but it’s nowhere near as steep as a pass, so it should be easy, right?

Wrong! The grass is incredibly slippery, there are loose rocks everywhere, and it is much steeper than what we expected. Slowly the 3 of us get more and more spread out on the side of the mountain. I think to myself that as the leader I need to keep the group fairly close. As we reach the first rock band which stretches across the South African side, but can be easily avoided by going into Lesotho, I notice a brief break in the band – a way to get up.

I wait for Mike to reach the band, I help him up and we keep moving. We are now at about 2750m, still over 300m to go. The view down the side of the mountain is incredible, probably the best I have seen in the entire range. We keep going up, once again spreading further and further out.


Freedom of the skies - 2750m

Richard and I have a brief chat about the best route up past the next few rock bands, we agree the best bet is to lose the view and head into Lesotho. The plan pays off and we pass the next few rock bands with no issues.

As look up at Ngwangwe Cave I think it must be fairly close. I look at the altitude we are at on my GPS, still 160m in altitude gain, and the cave is only about 200m away, the ridge is steeper than it looks. We are now walking in patchy snow. The team is lagging behind a bit and time is running out. I think to myself how Popple Peak was the cause of so many “failed” hikes, and I think to myself, Thaban Ngwangwe will not become my “Popple 2.0”.


The view towards Small Thamathu and Knuckles from near Ngwangwe Cave

I finally reach Ngwanwe Cave, I look at the cave and notice the number of compartments/tunnels in the back wall – not too bad. The view down the slopes looks good, but the route we had planned up to the summit does not.


Ngwangwe Cave

I see a crack in a rock with an exposed approach nearby, with the time constraints that will be our best bet. I walk up to it and wait for Richard and Mike to catch up.

We all agree that this smooth rock should be handled by us helping Mike up, Richard helping me up and then me helping Richard up. Richard points out the time factor and immediately says that he doesn’t mind not summiting in order to save time and allow myself and Mike to summit – an act of a true team player. We are both sad that he will not be summiting with us, but we both appreciate the fact that he didn’t even hesitate in putting others ahead of himself.

Richard helps myself and Mike up the 3m rock and passes me my camera and GPS. Mike and I scramble through the B-grade south slope to the summit. The snow is slippery, and many rocks are loose, but with no major drama we reach the rather large summit plateau.

Before bagging the khulu we head to the north side and admire the view of the massive rock face on the south side of Andre’s Knob, my old saying of “if there is snow on one peak in the berg, it will be Walker’s Peak” holds true once more.

I look across at the great Isicutula Pass and realise that my call on day one of GT2012 in camping there and not aiming to cross the ridge into the Mzimude Valley in the state I was in was actually a good call. I forgot how big that ridge on the side of Isicutula Peak is.

We are pressed for time, we are more than an hour behind and will basically have to run down the side of the peak, so I get some photos of the view, get the “khulu bagged” photo with the cairn and we immediately start our descent.


Mike bags his 3rd khulu


View north from the summit

When we reach the 3m cracked rock which we jokingly called “Mike’s Miniature Coulier”, we realise that if Richard had not stayed behind, we would not have been able to come down here. He helps lower each of us gradually down and now, with the main objective being completed, the goal of completing the hike before dark becomes a major issue.

The time is 1:45PM and we are just past halfway, 13km to go still. To save time we ignore the idea of seeing that amazing view down the South African slope of the peak and head straight down the Lesotho side. We see numerous frozen waterfalls on the slopes, very scenic indeed.


Mike really wanted to "bag" a khulu, but his bag was in his pack which stayed with Richard near Ngwangwe Cave, so this is him bagging a cairn on the way back down

Progress is slow and we all take one or two minor falls on the slippery slope. As we pass the last rock band we begin to cross the slope and head for the top of Ngwangwane Pass. We reach the gully that we think is the pass, but my GPS says we must keep going. We eventually work out that we did have the correct gully, but we can’t find a path, we eventually decide to just drop down the slopes and aim for something. My GPS has a route marker on the pass, we aim for it.

After dropping halfway down the pass fairly quickly we realise that the path has been running by the river, with minor GPS assistance we reach the river just before Bushman’s Cave. We briefly stop at the cave, in a gentle breeze and a bit of drizzle you would be in trouble in this cave, its roof is high and the overhang is minimal.

We are now officially off the pass and the trail is much better defined than it was higher up. We follow the valley that is a typical Southern Berg valley, high walls, lots of pools and dramatic sandstone towers. I have said it many time before and I will say it again, the Southern Berg has the best Small Berg in the entire range.

The sun has now set on most of our surrounding areas and we think we still have 6km to go, little did we know it was more like 9km left.

As we kept going there was sufficient light as the official sunset time had not yet been reached, but it was close. We all knew that we would be finishing the hike in the dark.

The trail winds up and down through the valleys of the river, past many caves, below numerous vertical rock faces. Light is poor and I begin to realise that there will be no more photos today.

As it becomes darker I realise how significant it is that the hike was delayed by 1 week, last weekend would have been new moon, but now it is half moon, and the moon is high in the sky, so we will have some light.

As we keep going the moonlight slowly takes over from the light of the sun, we start casting shadows on the ground. We all put our headlamps on our heads, but won’t turn them on if we don’t need to.

The trail had been very overgrown up to now, and we are happy that in this minimal light this is no longer the case. We are also fortunate in the fact that there are so few river crossings on this route.

Once again we are hiking under moonlight, we knew this might happen. The moonlight hiking was largely uneventful.

With about 2km to go we see a headlamp approaching us. 2 EKZN rangers saw that we were not back yet and had come to look for us, we told them that we had reached the top of Thaba Ngwangwe, and they are amazed at the fact that an 11 year old was able to make that distance in a day. It’s ironic, I think Mike found the hike easier than Richard and I did!

The rangers walk behind us for the remainder of the trip, we soon reach the border post and start to realise how cold it is. Not a cloud in the sky, tonight will be a cold one! Even though we didn’t need the rangers to help us finish the hike, we are happy that they were there, we know that if we had been in any sort of danger, we would have been found and would have been alright.

We reach Silverstreams, some nice hot soup, a big plate of pasta and a nice hot bath await. By 9:30PM there is no light nor sound coming from cabin 20!

The next morning when we woke up, the pipes were frozen, Richard’s car was covered in ice and it was just generally very cold. A good thing we made it back and didn’t have to find emergency shelter, I don’t think we would have had an enjoyable night.

Mike and I had a brief 2 hour 8km hike in the morning, hoping to reach Vast Cave, but our goal was a bit overambitious and we had to turn back early in order to be out of the cabin by 1PM.

The final stats for the epic day hike were as follows:
Total distance: 28km
Total altitude gain: 1.35km
Total time on the trail: 13 hours
Average speed excluding breaks: 3.2km/h
Total time spent walking: 8h45

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Last edit: 30 Jul 2012 11:24 by ghaznavid.
The following user(s) said Thank You: intrepid, plouw, kliktrak, brio

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30 Jul 2012 09:44 - 30 Jul 2012 09:52 #54720 by kliktrak
Epic to say the least...

Some pics I took :

Ghaznavid approaching “Mike’s Miniature Coulier” crack (top right of pic)




Ghaznavid at the top of “Mike’s Miniature Coulier” crack - I considered the risk of solo-ing it and would of meant pitching towards the sheer drop on the left where the better holds were - possible but not worth the risk, especially with the icy conditions.




While waiting I built the best "snow man" i could...




Moonrise as dusk falls






Half-n-Half - frozen water in a bottle left lying sideways in the car overnight,

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Last edit: 30 Jul 2012 09:52 by kliktrak.
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30 Jul 2012 09:54 #54721 by Fitness
@Ghaz, great write up as usual, almost felt like I was part of the hike it was so descriptive. Well done to all 3 of you, awesome.

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30 Jul 2012 09:54 - 30 Jul 2012 09:56 #54722 by ghaznavid

kliktrak wrote: While waiting I built the best "snow man" i could...


:laugh: Nice!

I'm happy you got a pic of Mike's Miniature Coulier, I realised when I got home that I only got 1 pic looking down, none where you can actually see the route.
Last edit: 30 Jul 2012 09:56 by ghaznavid.

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30 Jul 2012 10:35 #54724 by Smurfatefrog
Nice write up Ghaz. So what's the next epic day hike, the days are getting longer now...

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30 Jul 2012 10:43 #54726 by ghaznavid

Smurfatefrog wrote: So what's the next epic day hike, the days are getting longer now...


Not sure yet, it will be hard to top a 27km day hike - although if I do my highest peaks in each province in 6 days record attempt later this year, I will have to do Namahadi as a day hike (32km)...

After winter I will be looking at slightly less epic overnight hikes - the biggest of which being a 6 day traverse of Garden Castle and Cobham including a Giant's Cup trail hike back to the start and 17 peaks along the way (including Mashai, Tsepeng, Walker, Wilson and both Hodgeson's)...

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01 Aug 2012 17:19 #54753 by ghaznavid
Ok, a labeled diagram of the view from Thaba Ngwangwe looking north - may be of interest or useful in hike planning to someone out there...

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02 Aug 2012 20:22 #54780 by intrepid
Nice going guys, well done. Will put it on my own to-do list.

Take nothing but litter, leave nothing but a cleaner Drakensberg.

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17 Aug 2012 10:45 - 17 Aug 2012 10:47 #55015 by ghaznavid
If anyone is interested, here is the route we used from Ngwangwe Cave to the summit:


#for some reason the image is being stretched

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Last edit: 17 Aug 2012 10:47 by ghaznavid.
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