Northern Bushman's Nek Loop

23 Jul 2014 13:25 - 23 Jul 2014 13:26 #61373 by ghaznavid
Bushman’s Nek loop – Monty Python and the Southern Dragon

Andre’s Knob – a khulu that has been of great interest to me for a while now. This pointy pinnacle of rock seems to be a mystery to those who have heard of it, but remains widely unknown. The MCSA website has no routes described on it, I have never found any evidence of a summit cairn, I even recently asked Malcolm Pearce if he perhaps knew anything about its name – he had never even heard of it.

As always, I don’t like unknowns remaining unknown. So I planned a hike that would literally circumnavigate the great pinnacle of rock known as Andre’s Knob. I may have added further comments about the peak itself – but let’s leave it that before I am accused of making juvenile jokes. “Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?” “Not at all, it could have been carried”…

So a team made up of Simon (Fitness), Mike (Hobbit) and myself set off from Bushmans Nek late on a Friday afternoon. A nice warm winters day, with a goal of getting in a head-start to Ngwangwane Cave. The choice of the cave was simple – it is a poorly sheltered cave, but it has large walls built inside it. This means that you would get wet in the rain, but are sheltered from strong winds.

I had walked this route before, but it was late at night and mostly after dark. The number of good quality pools on the trail is really noteworthy. About 5km from the car park you reach a large pool with beautiful flat rocks to sit on next to it. It also has some large flat ground for pitching tents – it would be a great spot for one to take their children for a weekend. We sat here and had our first break of the weekend. And soon thereafter we were off again.

We briefly stopped at Slab Cave (our original choice of overnight spot, but too far from where we wanted to end the day). This cave is up a slope, but has a trail leading to it, the turnoff marked by a large cairn. This cave actually has 3 different names – Slab, Fishermans or Halfway Cave. It sleeps 4, has a large slab boulder across the entrance and a good roof. It would be a decent spot to sit out a storm in. When you get to the cave you have to scramble over a few boulders, but nothing serious.

We continued along. The ground had been burned, and there hadn’t been much rain. There was clearly a large fire nearby as the air was full of smoke – the sun was not even entirely visible. On the bright side, the overgrown stretch of the walk to Ngwangwane Cave was easy to pass through due to the recent fire.

As we reached the cave, the rivers were low and full of ash. We reached the cave before dark and soon had set up our sleeping bags behind the largest wall of the cave.

Soon I was wearing my new HI-TEC SOLITUDE PASS DOWN jacket, sent to me for testing as part of Hi-Tec’s 40 year celebrations. This jacket was a great comfort and would later prove to be a very nice pillow!

The wind was howling throughout the night, but was not felt too badly behind the large wall. Late during the night, the half-moon was shining straight into my eyes. I stood up and saw the great cliffs of Thaba Ngwangwe under moonlight – what a sight! After covering my eyes with my beanie, I went back to sleep.

By 7AM we were ready to leave the cave. The correct route up Saddle Nek Pass would require some backtracking, but we opted to try our luck with a high traverse line below the cliffs of Thaba Ngwangwe. We filled our bottles knowing we would not see water again till that evening, and set off.

I will try to post a photo a bit later to explain our route, but we traversed high from ridge to ridge, losing altitude to avoid rock bands as we crossed the slopes of one of my favourite mountains.

Eventually we were looking up Saddle Nek Pass. A few more dry riverbeds to cross and we were in the gully that climbs between Thaba Ngwangwe and Andre’s Knob. It is quite a dramatic pass, and standing on the top of it is quite a sight.

Due to the winds the night before, the smoke had been blown away and it was a beautiful clear day. There was smoke rising from the slopes of Polateng, so I imagine this is where the fire must have been.

It was windy up there, so we stopped for a brief break, but soon started up again. Contouring around to hit our second pass of the day.

Isicutula Pass is an interesting route – if you traverse up to the cliffs of Andre’s Knob, you can shorten the summit gully to around 50m in altitude. We collected some icicles from the shady cliffs – beautiful clear ice formations. And soon we were above the slopes of the pass.

The summit of this pass still isn’t really on the escarpment – to get the escarpment feeling you really need to first cross over the Walker’s ridge. After doing both Saddle Nek and Isicutula Pass – that isn’t easy! People often debate whether a N-S GT is harder than a S-N GT. Having never done a N-S, one could argue that I am not qualified to make this observation, but my opinion is that a S-N is inherently more difficult due to day 1 starting at 1800m, requiring an ascent of 2 different passes (usually Thamathu and Isicutula) and then still having to cross over the Walkers ridge. Day 1 the other way round just covers the Chain Ladders and some easy ridges on the way to Ifidi.

Before moving along, myself and Mike checked out the access ledge to Andre’s Knob. The side of this peak looks rather different to what I am used to. Unfortunately, however, this was not to be the day that I summit this khulu. The ledge abruptly ends with a very steep rocky gully. This gully may be possible without ropes, but is seriously exposed and steep. I would personally elect to abseil down it and later use the rope to regain the top (or abseil back down and re-ascend Isicutula Pass). Once through the gully it would seem that there are no more significant obstacles. But bear in mind that the head of this peak is rather substantial. It stands proud and, you know what, I’m not going to go through with that joke…

From there we summitted Isicutula Peak – a small, not particularly impressive khulu. From the summit we could see our return route – South Walker’s Pass. We noticed the labyrinth of cliffs we would have to negotiate and the lack of a clear route to connect with the rivers of Bushman’s Nek. We decided then that this pass would not be a fitting route for the next day.

We had planned to sleep in Mzimude Cave – being possibly the most sheltered escarpment cave in existence – this made Mzimude Pass a logical alternative.

Before heading to the cave, we needed to cross the Walker’s ridge and find water. None of us had run out yet, but we knew there wouldn’t be much water during the early part of the following day either. With great strain we crossed over the ridge only to see bone dry rivers in the large valley that was before us. We began to contour around, knowing that we had no choice but to hike downstream until we found water.

Around 2km from the watershed we found a stagnant pool that had frozen over. The ice was bout 5cm thick, but the icy water underneath was plentiful. We boiled the water and had soup/coffee on the river. We then filled our bottles and used chlorine pills to try and kill off the bacteria likely to exist based on the cow droppings near the water.

We then moved off to Mizumde Cave, which we found after briefly looking down a gully that had no pass in it.

Mzimude South Pass (north gully) incidentally has 3 caves. The annex cave is small and on the gully, the other 2 are reached by a scramble up to the true left. The first one is in a large recess, faces up the pass and looks directly at Walkers Peak. It is also quite deep and has a relatively low roof for its size. Due to this, I can’t imagine any weather that would really be felt in the cave. Even the gales blowing through the night wouldn’t be felt by us.

The third cave doesn’t look very sheltered or large. It is reached by following the cliff line further from the pass, through a small rock arch. I don’t see much reason to use it, unless your group is too large to fit into the main cave.

Of all the caves I have slept in, not even Roland’s Cave has felt so well sheltered as Mzimude Cave. This was my second time using it, and I would be surprised if it was the last time.

Due to the long walkout, we left the cave just after 6AM, dropping down the scramble and summit gully of the north variation of South Mzimude Pass by headlamp and moonlight.

The lower part of the north gully is a bit rocky, not as easy as the south gully that Simon and I had used in December last year. We then followed the south slopes of the pass, avoiding the gully itself to find ourselves below the lowest major cliff line of the pass.

We saw some Klipspingers run up the slopes – hard to imagine going at half that speed on such terrain.

We continued along, hoping to find a trail shown on the map as leading from near Walker’s Pass to the Giant’s Cup Trail. As it turned out – the trail existed, for all of 500m. We followed this ridge for a while, climbing back to over 2500m, looking for a suitable spot to drop down into Bushman’s Nek. Incidentally I had read that Intunja was the highest sandstone peak in the Berg, but here we were on sandstone summits over 2500m. Perhaps this ridge holds the title of highest peak in the Small Berg?

We eventually reached a spot where there were cliffs in front of us, the options were to drop down on the south side or continue traversing around on the north side. We could see the giant’s cup trail, but it was still far away. We could see cliff lines between us and it, so we opted to head down the slopes.

In the first 400m in GPS distance, we dropped 300m in altitude. The grass was steep and slippery, but slow progress prevented injury.

The next 3 hours can be summarised by the following patter:
1 – follow the river bed
2 – find a waterfall
3 – find a way around it by traversing an exposed ledge
4 – hit another waterfall

We eventually opted to try and use the ridges further away from the rivers. This turned out to be a good call as we began to find large waterfalls on the rivers. Unfortunately these rivers were still bone dry – well, occasional stagnant dirty pools aside.

One by one we picked off cliff lines, feet aching, water running out, not really stopping for breaks due to the consistent concern about finding the next gap in the cliffs.

The cliffs on this ridge seem to be something unique to Bushman’s Nek. I am familiar with large cliffs in places such as RNNP and Injisuthi, no cliffs in places like Giant’s Castle – but 3-5m cliffs every 30m or so in altitude is something I have never had to deal with before. However, new challenges are always good and we had plenty of time on our hands.

Eventually we reached the final 2 cliff lines – we were at around 1980m, the car park is just below 1800m. We decided to traverse, but when we hit a large river cutback requiring a good 1km loop to avoid it (and with waterfalls in it), I decided to just go and find a way. I managed to find one if we backtrack – very steep, very exposed, but it would get us to the trail below soon. We got half way down, Simon noted an easier alternative, we traversed to that – and what do you know – water was in sight. I ran ahead of the team to reach the river. And as irony goes – we hit the river on the exact same rock pool we had had our first break at early on the Friday!

Back at the car at 2:30, tired, but 41km of hiking on tough terrain had been accomplished.

Regarding Saddle Nek Pass – Smurf has already covered this very well, but I would say it is a very worthwhile pass. But if you plan to loop it with Isicutula Pass – remember that, even though both passes are easy on their own, together it makes a formidable challenge.

Regarding Walker’s Pass – I would have to tend towards saying that it would be a route that one should go up, rather than down. I have had a good look at the south and north variations – I hope I will return to do them someday, but as always, the southern Berg doesn’t have the Mickey Mouse passes we see in places such as Giant’s Castle.

On a side note – while updating my Berg statistics something occurred to me. I have done passes at regular intervals through a sizeable chunk of the KZN Berg. But there is one glaringly massive hole in the middle – from Giant’s Pass to North Mzimkhulu Pass there is a gap of 39 passes that I haven’t done. This is far larger than gap that had been 23 passes before I did Mnweni and Rockeries Pass last year. This can be attributed to me still having never been to Cobham, Vergelegen and Lotheni car parks. Appropriately I have had my eye on Mkomasi Pass for a while – it cuts this gap in half with 19 missing passes on either side of it.

Photos to follow soon.

Ps. The name is a tad arb – but is a reference to the dry conditions in which we hiked. While we may not have met the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, it was still an epic…
Last edit: 23 Jul 2014 13:26 by ghaznavid.
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23 Jul 2014 13:57 #61374 by Fitness
Replied by Fitness on topic Northern Bushman's Nek Loop


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23 Jul 2014 18:06 - 23 Jul 2014 18:26 #61378 by ghaznavid
The pools we took our first and last break at. Notice how deep they are in a very dry winter - middle of summer they should be very deep:


Slab Cave


A scree field on the slopes of the impressive rocky outcrops of the BN small Berg


Mike with Thaba Ngwangwe in the background


"The mountain of the pied starling"


Ngwangwane Cave


The basic route we took from the cave to join the Saddle Nek Pass route. We actually did this further down the ridge, but you can't see that part of the ridge in the photo


Ngwangwane Cave at a distance


Heading up Saddle Nek pass


The slope was relatively steep...


The view near the top of the pass


Traversing around the corner where you first see the pass


A very burnt looking Saddle Nek Pass


The view from the watershed


A bit of smoke in Lesotho


Thaba Ngwangwe from the slopes of Andre's Knob


Icicles on the cliffs of Andre's Knob


Walker's Pass south (cave) route


Andre's Knob from the side


Over the slopes of the Walker's ridge you are greeted by this valley


Mzimude Main Cave


Descending Mzimude South Pass North Gully


The warmth of the morning over a dry southern Drakensberg


The reason why I say the area south of Rhino Peak is the most beautiful/dramatic part of the Berg


As we exit the pass, we are greeted with this view


Thaba Ngwangwe


Walking along the ridge that comes off Walker's Peak


High rocky outcrops at BN


Climbing the ridge that may lead to the highest point in the Small Berg


Dropping down from 2532m via a steep grassy bank


The line that took us from 2532m to about 2100m. Most of this was dropped very quickly


The basic line we took (yellow being behind the mountain):

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Last edit: 23 Jul 2014 18:26 by ghaznavid.
The following user(s) said Thank You: Stijn, JonWells, Selous, tonymarshall, pfoj, HFc, Fitness

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23 Jul 2014 18:48 #61379 by Smurfatefrog
Nice one guys!

Do you have a track of the route? Specifically the walk out

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23 Jul 2014 19:00 #61380 by ghaznavid
I'm not sure if Fitness has kept the track to the 2532m point, I did record from when his battery died to the end, but my GPS is the cheapest Garmin, so I can't connect it to a computer. Hoping to get something better soon...

There might well be a better walkout than what we used - Mzimude Cave is as far from Bushman's Nek as it is from Garden Castle, but I would tend to recommend doing the pass from GC. Alternatively you could walk out by the Hidden Valley and Giant's Cup trail - about 6km further, but mostly on good trails.

Mzimude Pass is highly recommended - one of the best passes I have ever done.
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23 Jul 2014 19:46 #61381 by Fitness
Replied by Fitness on topic Northern Bushman's Nek Loop
@Smurf I have the track until my garmin died at 8.75km, i will attach a pic of the track tomorrow once I'm at work

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24 Jul 2014 06:38 - 24 Jul 2014 07:27 #61382 by Stijn
Replied by Stijn on topic Northern Bushman's Nek Loop
Thanks for the report Ghaz.

Just checking - is Ngwangwane Cave also called Bushman's Cave? The one at the bottom of Bushman's Pass?

And while I haven’t done Walker's Pass South, I have contoured below it at about 2400m, on our way to Mzimude Pass. It looked like a classic pass route, going straight up a river valley, with possibly a waterfall or two to get around on the way.

Edit: Just had a look on GE and I see that the exit of Walker's Pass is the tricky bit, as you show in your photo above.
Last edit: 24 Jul 2014 07:27 by Stijn.

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24 Jul 2014 07:44 #61383 by tonymarshall
Nice trip, a pity you didn't get to summit Andre's Knob.

When I read your write up yesterday, I also wondered (like Stijn) why you aren't using the more commonly used name for the cave of Bushman's Cave.

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24 Jul 2014 08:15 #61384 by Viking
Replied by Viking on topic Northern Bushman's Nek Loop
Nice report.

About the return route. If I'm thinking about the right ridge, if you had stayed on that ridge, there is a path leading down to the Painters cave valley and out to the GC trail which might have been easier.

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!”

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24 Jul 2014 08:42 #61385 by ghaznavid

Stijn wrote: Just checking - is Ngwangwane Cave also called Bushman's Cave? The one at the bottom of Bushman's Pass?


Indeed it is. I usually call it Bushman's Cave, but the reference to Bushman's Pass vs Bushman's Nek Pass (especially with such close proximity) makes Ngwangwane a more practical name, seeing as it goes under either name. I guess it could easily get confused with Ngwangwe Cave...

Stijn wrote: And while I haven’t done Walker's Pass South, I have contoured below it at about 2400m, on our way to Mzimude Pass. It looked like a classic pass route, going straight up a river valley, with possibly a waterfall or two to get around on the way.

Edit: Just had a look on GE and I see that the exit of Walker's Pass is the tricky bit, as you show in your photo above.


The photo was the south cave variation which is more tricky. The north variation hits a 20m high waterfall, but this is easy to bypass by a side gully. Its on my to-do list - but not for this year. I'd like to do both variations, but the south/cave line looks very tricky!

Viking wrote: About the return route. If I'm thinking about the right ridge, if you had stayed on that ridge, there is a path leading down to the Painters cave valley and out to the GC trail which might have been easier.


We wanted to find that trail, but never did. The ridge forks near where we turned off, we stuck to the south fork (which is the one that the map shows the trail on). A shame you weren't in the team though, hopefully next time ;)

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