Knuckles loop at Bushman's Nek
The Knuckles of Bushman’s Nek has always been on my radar for a while, but not real a priority for me. After cleaning out a big section of Garden Castle I have started to look at actually getting a foothold in the Southern Drakensberg – a section of the Berg where I have done every khulu, much like the stretch of Berg between Langies and Judge Pass where I have done every pass. I find it’s easier to expand on a foothold than to establish one – perhaps its psychological, maybe its knowledge and confidence in an area.
So the goal in the short term goal in the larger scheme of things is to get the KZN khulus south of Rhino, as well as the Leqooas, Tsepeng, Thamathu (as in the high point on the Walkers ridge) and Morake – plus the 2 non-khulu Knuckles and Thomathu peak (the 2700+m peak on the border). Quite a big project to try and complete this year – but if goals aren’t difficult then they aren’t worthwhile.
At the same time I am always looking at doing new passes while working on an area. So – having done Thamathu Pass twice – I thought it may be an idea to try Lammagier Cave Pass as an approach. According to berg.co.za this pass is only exceeded in easiness by Bushmans Pass. So the goal was to leave work early on Friday, head up this pass, sleep in Lammagier Cave. From there head up North Knuckles Pass (the pass immediately north of the North Knuckle), do all 3 and head down South Knuckles Pass (the one south of the South Knuckle). From there we would head to Tarn Cave for the night and walk out on Sunday. Theoretical distance is something like 30km, so it should be an easy hike – famous last words…
Day 1 – flooded rivers
At 4PM, having signed the mountain register and paid for our permits - Smurf, Hobbit and myself left the Bushman’s Nek offices. We had been told to walk toward Silverstreams, cross the bridge and walk around the border fence in order to avoid the flooded rivers. I haven’t been to Bushman’s Nek many times, but I have been there in the middle of summer and the middle of winter – and I have to say that I have never seen such flooded rivers in the Berg before.
So after walking around the fence we soon reached the path. The noise from the river vaguely resembled a thunderstorm. We were relieved that we would follow the river valley up to the cave, meaning that quite a few tributaries would be passed before we had to cross the river. This was a nice thought at the time!
So we soon reached the spot where we needed to cross the river to head up the valley below Vast Cave. The river was still too full, so we went a bit further up to cross the 2 branches of the rivers separately. We were quite close to the start of Bushman’s Nek Pass – the first river crossing was a monster. After about 20 minutes we had crossed the river. Now time to backtrack to find a crossing of the other fork of the river. Easy enough on paper.
On reaching the second crossing we found it to be worse than the first. Anyone who has hiked with me will know that I don’t do well in flooded rivers. On eventually finding a crossing spot where the river was only about 3m wide and just over knee deep, I went across. While crossing, in a brief moment of distraction, both myself and Smurf let go of his trekking pole (which I had got a bit of support from in the strongest part of the river) – within seconds it was far down the river. Always sad when something like this happens. Smurf and I got all 3 packs across – but this was not safe for young Hobbit to do unassisted. So we took 2 precautions – I got Hobbit to tie a rope under his arms, Smurf stood in the middle of the river and gave him a hand. Fortunately all three of us got across safely. I guess, all things considered, it could have been a lot worse than a trekking pole going down a river. But still – always sad when functional gear becomes litter.
As we started walking up the gully we saw around 15 eland about 100m ahead of us. They were not in any rush to get out of our way. Always nice to see eland in their natural home.
The river in this valley was also very high – due to this we committed to the true right bank. Not that this bank looked better than the other, just a question of not wanting to cross another flooded river. When looking at the banks it looked like the river had actually been much higher than its current levels.
At around 6:30 we had made slow progress, as the crow flies we still had 5km to go to reach Lammagier Cave, Vast cave was about 1km away. Really there was only one option – Vast Cave. So we found the first viable river crossing – in a narrow gully you don’t expect to de-boot, but the river was very high. At least this wasn’t knee deep!
We slogged up the steep bank, and eventually found a good trail. As you get closer to the cave the trail gets stronger. In failing light we finally reached the cave. 7:30 PM – 8km later. We didn’t want to take a long look around, so we chose the spot near the entrance on the right. Always odd when you are in such a large cave and yet the sleeping area is barely big enough for 3 people.
Day 2 – Knuckles in the face
Up at 5AM, and ready to leave just after 5:30 – we had distance to make up, but we decided that some exploration of the cave was in order. Certain people rate it the largest cave in the Berg, Smurf and I agreed that it was about the size Sleeping Beauty Cave – Cannibal Cave may also be larger in ground surface area. The roof is quite low in places, and if you want to sleep a large group you need to go right to the back of the cave. Where we slept the ground was not flat at all, I woke up around 1m further down the slope from where I was the night before.
The cave is in a narrow gully and has a huge roof – so if you sleep where we did, I doubt a massive storm would even touch you. If you sleep in the larger area near the back, I don’t think you’d feel a breeze if there was a tornado outside! There are 2 waterfalls off the front of the cave, and there is a stream right outside the cave. There is also a stream and 2 small pools inside the cave.
At 6AM we set off for Lammagier Cave. We contoured around the 2000m mark, until eventually meeting the stream where it splits off between the north gully with the cave in it, and the south gully that probably could be used as a more direct route to the Knuckles.
On following the river our progress slowed further. The cliffs with Thamathu Cave in them where high above us to the north, the rock features seen from Thamathu Pass were directly in front of us.
Eventually we were directly below the ridge in which Lammagier Cave is found. After slogging up a very steep bank, and negotiating some tricky almost vertical grass slopes, we could finally see the cliff line with the cave in it.
500m later we were walking into the cave which some rate the widest in the Berg. Once again I don’t think it’s even close to the width of Cannibal Cave, but I am not about to start carrying a tape measure!
The cave has 2 lower levels that could be used for emergency shelters, but the main sleeping level has a relatively low roof and is around 100m long. Unfortunately it runs at about a 5 degree slope – so it doesn’t look very comfortable.
So at 9:30AM - 3h30 into day 2 – we had only reached our end point for day 1. We were all quite tired after the tough and long slog from Vast Cave to Lammagier Cave. It was steep, overgrown in places, navigation was difficult and the route to date had taken a lot out of all of us. We had also made a point of not stopping before we had completed the route for the first day.
We left the cave at 10AM – a full 3 hours after when we would have departed if we had reached this cave the day before. Tired hikers with blisters and a 3 hour delay in effective starting time – things were not looking good for us.
From here the route up to Goats Cave is quite simple – you just follow the low point in the middle of the gully above Lammagier Cave until you reach the path immediately below Goat’s Cave. When this pass is rated as being very easy, I suspect it is reference to the route from between Lammagier and Goats Cave – the section from the first river crossing to Lammagier Cave was by no means easy, or even that scenic. I guess you can decide how you want to define a pass – and topping out at 2600m between small basalt cliffs, this is technically a high Berg pass. Perhaps if you approach Lammagier Cave from Goats Cave and return via the same route you could call this pass easy – but how does this differ from dropping a bit down Mzimude Pass to reach Mzimude Cave. By extension, perhaps Ifidi Pass is actually the easiest pass in the Berg – if you only need to drop down to the cave and go back up (and no – I have not done Ifidi Pass or been to Ifidi Cave – just making a point).
I rate this pass a 4/10* - or to put it a bit more clearly, don’t bother, it’s really not worth the effort. Take Thamathu Pass instead. Perhaps the avid pass baggers may enjoy this route, but probably more from a point of view of comprehensively exploring an area. The best part of the pass is the absolute top – but this is more accessible by simply taking Thamathu Pass and turning left on reaching the top of the pass.
It was getting really hot, it was around midday and we had only just reached the escarpment. We sat below some large boulders and had a break. We could clearly see Sehlaba Thebe lodge and the cliffs that Tarn Cave is found in (not that we were entirely sure which one was the cave). We also had an unusual side on view of the Knuckles.
We started walking again, taking the easy trail from goats cave toward Knuckles Traverse Pass. From this spot you look straight at Thaba Ngwangwe, Andre’s Knob and Morake. The view is quite something – definitely more impressive than the view one sees when turning right at the top of Thamathu Pass.
Clouds were gathering and we knew that doing all 3 Knuckles was out of the question due to lack of time. I had hoped to do the south one as a major priority, but we agreed that we would do Knuckles Traverse Pass and make a call from there.
Knuckles Traverse Pass is interesting – it starts above 2500m, on the border and above basalt cliffs. It ends on the border, amongst sandstone and travels entirely through South Africa. Therefore, in my mind it constitutes a proper high Berg pass.
To appreciate how large the northern Knuckle is you need to actually try to walk around it! As you are directly under the cliffs you realise how imposing these peaks are. I rate this pass very highly as a result. The trail is very strong for a while, and then disappears completely. This pattern is repeated throughout the pass.
There are 4 Knuckles passes – 2 between the Knuckles, 1 to the north and one to the south. Initially you look straight up the north pass, then the 2 middle passes, right at the end you see the south pass.
As we reached the river flowing down the pass between the north and middle Knuckle we could see a massive thunderstorm coming our way. There was a large cave in front of us and we knew there could be hail, so we headed to the cave to sit out the storm. We were due a break anyway.
The cave had no flat ground and was very wet, so we sat in the corner – the only dry spot – and after about 10 minutes the storm hit. There was a bit of hail, but not much. The rain was substantial and continued for a while. Expecting a second round we waiting for a bit longer. After a while I looked around the corner and could see the storm had moved away. So we continued along.
As we approached the south pass the mist had begun to settle on the tops of the Knuckles and seemed to be moving in lower down. We agreed that we needed to head for Tarn Cave and get as close as possible before the mist properly moves in. Not long after reaching the Sehlaba Thebe fence, the mist had moved in and we were left to find our way through unfamiliar territory with practically no visibility. I rate Knuckles Traverse Pass as a 3/10**** - I highly recommend this route, the views from it are really incredible.
We knew that there should be a path near the border fence, so we followed the fence, but no path was apparent. In the mist we continued along, walking over hills and through valleys that we would normally avoid.
After rather slow progress we had to leave the fence as the GPS devices where pointing sharply to the left – we must be near the cave. Once again the map’s promise of a clear trail was questionable. Eventually my GPS said we had 15m to go – we were 14m too high and standing right above a large overhang, but with no clear way of getting down to it. We had planned to meet up with Viking5 and his team in Tarn Cave, so we stood above the cliffs and shouted till we got his attention. He then told us how to get there and met us at the top of the access gully. We reached the cave just before 5PM with sub 100m visibility.
It’s always great to meet new people in the mountains. Also always interesting to hear the origins of people’s VE names. The cave was by far the best of the 4 we had seen on this particular day and had plenty of room for the 7 of us.
Day 3 – Tarn Cave Pass
After a good night sleep – which included a visit by a rat that ate some of the guys food – we woke up to the incredible view from Tarn Cave. I rate this one of the best views I have ever seen from a cave – even ahead of Roland’s Cave (I am awaiting a stream of nuclear weapons after that comment ).
Myself and Hobbit set out to have a look around the area above the cave, got some photos of the area and then headed back to the cave to head off back to the car park. We could tell it would be a hot day and didn’t want to leave too late.
After saying goodbye to Viking5 and co we set off to find Tarn Cave Pass. Seeing as there wasn’t a hint of basalt nearby, this is definitely not a high Berg pass. It took us a while to find the top of the pass – once again the map indicated a path between the cave and the pass, but no such path existed.
The pass has a good trail the entire way, but towards the middle there is a 2m rock wall you have to climb down. It’s an odd line as the spots on either side, around 100m away, seemed to have grassy gaps that could have been used. We got the rope out and lowered the packs down. Hobbit down-climbed the entire route, while Smurf and I both got to the easy ledge, sat on it and jumped down. It looks easy to climb, but wet shoes due to the dew did not help my confidence on this bit. I don’t think you could climb up or down this with a pack on (well, not easily anyway) and therefore this technically makes this difficulty 1/10 small Berg pass a rock pass
The mist was hovering around 2000m, but was gradually disappearing. The river water looked like something out of a washing machine and the rivers were very full.
We soon reached the base of Bushman’s Nek Pass and thereafter the river crossing we had been dreading. I walked quite far upstream to find a crossing, but nothing was better than where we crossed on Friday. The only problem was that the river was up quite a bit since Friday, courtesy of the storm the previous day.
With great difficulty we crossed this river and were relieved to not have to worry about any other major crossings. The path often lead through marshes and in places felt more like a stream than a pass. But we got back to the carpark with no real issues. It took around 3h30 to do the 10km walk out. Not a bad time I would think, especially with time lost on the river crossing and no real need for urgency. It was quite hot when we got back, so I am happy we didn’t leave any later.
Total distance: approx. 36km
Total photos: 443 + Smurf’s photos
And surprisingly no peaks climbed on this “easy” hike…
Ps. photos to follow soon
Notice how full the river is:
Left is the river crosing on 31 Dec 2012 (there had been a massive hail storm the night before), right is the same spot on Friday. Notice the rock in the middle of the river! Right photo by Smurf.
The herd of eland we saw - sadly the light wasn't good enough to get a clear photo
This is the river that flows down the valley below Vast Cave - even it was serverely flooded
Interesting rock features at the back of Vast Cave. They are very brittle, so don't pull on them.
Due to the massive rock that was once the roof of Vast Cave, you can barely see the entrance of the cave from the back:
Looking down the valley from Vast Cave
The entrance to Vast Cave
Leaving Vast Cave
Knuckles from near Vast Cave
Looking up the valley in which Lammagier Cave is found:
Thamathu Pass from Lammagier Cave Pass
Lammagier Cave - the sleeping area is in that narrow slit.
The main sleeping area of Lammagier Cave
The cliffs above Lammagier Cave
Typical southern Berg rock features found above Lammagier Cave
Just enough basalt for high Berg pass status
Thamathu Peak, Goats Cave is marked in red
Sehlaba Thebe lodge
Looking north toward Thaba Ngwangwe
The Knuckles - no camera can capture these peaks in a manner that fairly shows what they actually look like from this pass
Storm brewing over Bushman's Nek Pass
Mist begins to take the summits of the knuckles
The storm approaches!
North Knuckles Peak - apparently known by as "baSotho" by the locals
The middle Knuckle is regarded as a khulu at 3028m
An interesting rock formation below the south Knuckle. The ridge in the distance is the border between SA and Lesotho
The south knuckle as mist begins to descend
Something I am not used to - the proper High Berg escarpment, and the cliffs belong to Lesotho, not SA
The mist came down quite quickly once we had finished the pass. This was the last proper view we had on Saturday.
The inside of Tarn Cave
Knuckles from Tarn Cave
Hobbit above a tarn near Tarn Cave
View near the top of Tarn Cave Pass
The crux on Tarn Cave Pass
Plenty of water, but it didn't look very clean...
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Richard Hunt wrote: Hi Ghaznavid, myself and Elinda were camping just below that ridge (Ringhals Ridge) you mentioned before Tarn Cave....the mist was thick and we heard you chaps passing above us!!
Small world! Viking mentioned that he bumped into you guys along the way up from the car park.
Richard Hunt wrote: Who was the noisy one who was talking so much?
I will neither confirm nor deny that I ever stop talking
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Richard, I thought it might have been you based on the fact that when I spoke to Elinda (not that I knew it was her at the time) in the car park she mentioned the name Richard at some point. Then I saw your big camera and remembered all the great pics you've posted on VE and said to myself: "self, maybe that is Richard Hunt from VE"
Well good to kinda meet you as well!
“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!”
At the end of this hike I have the following stats:
- Khulus bagged: 30
- High Berg passes bagged: 30
- Berg Caves visited: 30
Odd for an avid khulu bagger, relatively serious pass bagger but distinctly not a cave bagger...
@Fitness: indeed, would have been nice to have had you in the team. We need to head out and do something epic some time soon