Knuckles day hike: Punching the Bird

14 Nov 2015 17:18 #65782 by ghaznavid
Knuckles day hike: Punching the Bird

Another 3AM start – these are starting to become second nature now. There are low clouds above us, and the grass is wet. I brace myself for wet feet, and not long after passing the border post my feet are already wet. We soon find ourselves on the 4 parallel trails that mark the Bushman’s Nek Pass/Tarn Cave Pass trail.

This trail is relatively boring in daylight, so hiking in the dark is really not an issue. The river crossings are low, the incline is very gentle, really not much to say about this!

Before Cedric’s Pool I realise we are on the wrong trail – we are headed towards Bushman’s Nek Pass. We cut across some short grass, and soon find ourselves back on track. With some very early daylight we can vaguely make out the waterfall flowing into the pool. We continue slowly, the mist getting ever closer.

By the stream at the base of Tarn Cave Pass, we had somehow gone from being below the clouds to being above them – yet we hadn’t walked through the mist. We filled up our bottles, expecting to find no more water for a long time.

We hit the small crux near the bottom of the pass just as the sun hit it. My shoes felt like dams, except unlike the dams in this drought, my shoes felt like they were at over 50% capacity.

With some slow walking we were soon looking into Sehlabathebe National Park, sitting on a large rock enjoying some sun light and letting our shoes dry off.

It was turning into a beautiful clear day, the Knuckles ahead looking as spectacular as ever.

We stayed relatively high on the south slope that forms the international boundary, hoping to drop into South Knuckles Pass above the scree field. We hit the pass near a small wet cave. The river was already dry by this point.

We soon found ourselves standing in the saddle between the south Knuckle and the unnamed Lesotho peak next to it. The view into Lesotho was incredible! So was the wind – we could barely even stand in it. We had a break out of the wind before proceeding to bag the highest Knuckle (the south one).

From the south Knuckle, we proceeded to the Middle and North Knuckle. All 3 are within 600m of each other, and each has prominence of around 100m. The Northern one doesn’t qualify for Khulu status as it is below 3000m, but the other 2 are definitely deserving of this.

To get from the Middle Knuckle to the north Knuckle requires some careful navigation through cliff bands, but isn’t anything too hectic.

At 9:30AM we were already on top of the North Knuckle. I had once questioned whether or not the Knuckles could be done as a day hike, and had concluded that it was difficult, perhaps possible with an early start. And here we were – if that was all we hoped to do this day, we could be back at Silverstreams by 1PM without much difficulty. But alas that was not the plan, not by a long way!

From the North Knuckle we traversed through many cliff bands before eventually finding the North Knuckles Pass. The pass was short and relatively quick, with us finding the Knuckles Traverse trail around 500m before the on the SA/Lesotho border. We had successfully bagged all 3 Knuckles, doing the pass south of the Southern Knuckle and north of the Northern Knuckle – not a bad start to a day!

While down in the valley between the Knuckles and Thaba Ngwangwe, we were out of the wind, and the heat of the day was becoming noticeable. There was a lot of livestock in the valley, and a friendly Mosotho came to say hello and show off one of his new born goats – he didn’t even ask for sweets.

The river between the peaks was flowing, but we decided not to use the water due to the number of animals in the area.

As we began to slog up the monster that is Thaba Ngwangwe, the wind was back. I must have looked like a drunkard as I used the wind to push me up the mountain. It is always annoying when the wind is so strong that you have to lean against it to keep your balance, then it suddenly drops and you find yourself on the ground with a sore shoulder!

With incredibly slow pace, and admittedly having thoughts on bailing, we eventually found ourselves at Ngwangwe Cave. We looked at the off-width I used last time, but there was no way I could down climb it, and I probably can’t even up-climb it! Last time we only got up with a hand from Richard/Kliktrak.

We walked around the base of the cliff looking for an easier route up. Andrew found a relatively easy route, but it required an exposed smear across a slab, so I told him to go up without me – after all, I had done most of the work, so I had achieved most of the training benefit, and had bagged the khulu before.

After about 20 minutes, Andrew was back from the top. About 50m further around, we found an easier way through the cliffs, and soon were standing on top of the Mountain of the Pied Starling.

From here we traversed around the base of the cliffs. We found some small caves along the way, nothing useful, but interesting nonetheless. As we rounded the western corner, we were greeted with an exceptional view towards Morake and Isicutula Pass.

We continued to traverse around the cliffs. It looks like Thaba Ngwangwe can be climbed by a short gap on the north slopes, but it is definitely easier from the south.

There is a large cave that is clearly visible from Isicutula Pass, we checked it out. I am not going to tell you why so that I don’t ruin it for you – but go and have a look at it sometime, you won’t be disappointed! Let’s go with the name “Unnamed Cave”.

From here we continued to that unnamed summit between Thaba Ngwangwe and Andre’s Knob. It afforded some great views, although it did lack a summit cairn. No doubt someone has stood on its summit before – especially seeing as shepherds had built a rock wall in the nearby cave – but still, I would imagine that only a handful of people had ever bothered to summit this non-khulu.

We realised the gully between this summit and Thaba Ngwangwe was grassy. We debated using it instead of Saddle Nek Pass, and after about 10 minutes of discussion, and concern about difficulty exiting the gully, I remembered that I had traversed quite high through this to reach Saddle Nek Pass in July last year – so it must go.

This pass tops out much higher than Saddle Nek, and is much narrower. There is no real difficulty to speak of, and the views are easily more impressive than Saddle Nek. Around 2500m we joined the river that flows down Saddle Nek. At first we thought this pass probably would have had some use in the past – but really, the only time you can see that the top goes is from the absolute top, it tops out too high to make sense for use with Isicutula Pass, it provides access to a large cave that I have never heard anyone talk about, and on the wrong side of Thaba Ngwangwe – so to be entirely honest, I see no reason why anyone would actually want to use it! Nonetheless, it goes, it is entirely distinct from Saddle Nek Pass and is thus clearly a separate pass. We discussed the name of the pass – it is on the wrong side of Saddle Nek to be called “Andre’s Pass” or “Knob Pass”, so we have gone with Ngwangwe Pass. I am aware that there is already an Ngwangwane Pass on the other side of the peak, but seeing as I doubt this pass will see anything more than a single repeat in the next decade, the name doesn’t really matter. Perhaps “Unnamed Pass” would be more appropriate, but I’m sticking with Ngwangwe Pass.

From the base of the pass we simply followed the river till we hit the trail below Bushman’s Cave. We saw 2 eland and were back at Silverstreams at 7PM – not much more to write on this one!

Distance: 41km
Altitude: 2800m up and down (Andrew did an extra 100m with bagging Ngwangwe twice)
Time: 16 hours
Rating: probably the best day hike I have ever done, not because of the summits but because of the added bonuses we found along the way – especially the cave.
Photos taken: 245

Next hike: GT :woohoo:
The following user(s) said Thank You: kliktrak, LouisvV

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14 Nov 2015 17:35 #65783 by ghaznavid

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14 Nov 2015 17:46 #65785 by ghaznavid

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14 Nov 2015 17:47 #65786 by ghaznavid

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