Weekend Mission: Up Xeni and down Tlanyaku

06 Jan 2013 10:21 - 06 Jan 2013 16:48 #55807 by Stijn
As promised, here is the full report with some photos (all taken by Neal Markham).

I so enjoyed the style of our light and fast trip up Ifidi and down Fangs in May, that I was soon searching for another suitable "weekend" route. I soon settled on linking Xeni and Tlanyaku passes, mainly as those are the only remaining passes in the Cathedral Peak area which I hadn't explored yet. Emails were sent, the weekend of 24/25 November was chosen and the initial group of 10 keen hikers saw some significant attrition as the weekend approached...

And then there were 4!

Introducing, from left to right, Kevin, Devan, yours truly & Neal:

We packed light: sleeping bag, survival bag, clothing and snack foods including McDonals cheeseburgers for dinner, pre-packaged chicken-mayo for lunch and pronutro for breakfast. And a small flask of Talisker of course! No tents, stoves, pots, crockery or any of the other items that normally weigh one down. I would guess that our pack weights varied from about 7 to 10kg, including water.

We drove down on the Friday afternoon from Joburg, enjoyed one of Bingelela's famous meals and spent the night there in one of the self-catering cottages. Our goal for the first day: 22km via Xeni Pass to overnight in Roland's Cave, and hopefully get there before dark. Not wanting to get stuck in Xeni's narrow gully during a storm, we planned to set off at first light. The alarms got us up at 3am, we slipped a mountain rescue register form under the Didima Lodge reception door and set off at 4:40am from the Cathedral Peak Hotel. It was great to be back in the mountains, especially on that spectacular ridge climb up to the contour path, with the sunrise bathing all the peaks around us in a golden light. Some of us did a bit of jogging along the flatter sections, more for fun than overall speed, as we had to re-group every few km anyway.

We reached the contour path, took a left and had covered the 9km to the start of the boulder-hopping up the Xeni River in just over 2 hours. On our normal heavily-laden hikes, we would camp at the Cockade campsite, just off the contour path. It was confidence-inspiring to be passing this point at 7am, probably earlier than we would have started day 2 anyway. Our confidence soon took a knock, however, when a typical Berg eroded soil-and-rock river bank collapsed while Devan was descending it. He sustained a fairly deep cut just above his eyebrow in his fall but I doubt the rock he made contact with was any better off. Fortunately, he had no signs of concussion and we were able to disinfect and dress the wound pretty well. He asked us to take a photo of the cut to decide for himself whether stitches would be required and then insisted that he was fine to carry on ('tis but a scratch!).

From here onwards, our pace slowed considerably as we picked our way up the boulder-hopping and bundu-bashing, past the Cockade Pass turnoff and into the Xeni Pass gully proper. Shortly after the Cockade Pass turnoff, there was a sequence of 3 waterfalls blocking the main gully, each about 10m high. We experimented with different route options to get around these obstacles, but the safest option would be to turn the first waterfall using the exposed grassy ramp on the true left (right when facing upstream), the second by scrambling up mixed grass and rock on the true left and the third using a steep grassy gully and traverse on the true right. Since all of these scrambles (and many of the remaining scrambles higher up) require you to leave the gully for a short while, they are fairly exposed and we had to take care. Once at the top of the 3rd waterfall, the main fork in Xeni Pass is reached. I have heard of multiple parties successfully summitting via both forks, but the latest maps show the right fork to be the "correct" route and this is the route we followed. The right fork is simply a continuation of the main gully we had been in the whole time, while taking the left fork would involve following a tributary off this main gully.

The initial 200 vertical metres of this final gully is choked with regular large chockstones which we couldn't scramble and hence also had to get around using the steep sides of the gully, followed by a traverse back in each time. The first two large chockstones were avoided by staying on the true left grassy banks and the third involved a steep grassy gully and traverse on the true right. The next few were all climbable in the gully itself, but you would need to pass packs if they are heavier. The going got much more straightforward after this (fortunately, as the gully sides become vertical rock at this point) and the next few hundred vertical metres were simply very steep boulder hopping up the narrow gully. About 100 vertical metres from the top of the pass, we crawled through the wormhole, involving something similar to a spiral staircase of rocks which climbs up behind a huge chockstone - lots of fun! All that remained was some steep slog up more boulders and grass and we found ourselves on top at about 12:30. The 3km ascent of the pass had taken us 5 hours and is very slow-going with all the micro route-finding and experimenting with scrambles invloved. Xeni Pass is a real adventure and great fun if you have a head for heights!

The weather was looking stable and we had plenty of time to cover the remaining 10km along the escarpment to Roland's Cave, so we took a leisurely lunch and ambled our way across. The views from the Elephant were spectacular as always... We even enjoyed a short nap at the top of Cockade pass. After rounding Cleft Peak, we greeted the customary dagga-train preparing to make their way down Organ Pipes Pass and reached the cave as it started raining after a long 12-hour day.

The plan for Sunday was to traverse further South, descend Tlanyaku Pass and return to the Cathedral Peak Hotel via the contour path, a distance of 34km. I made the mistake of mentioning that it would only be 9km back to the hotel via Camel Pass and suddenly I found myself struggling to convince anybody to join me for the original route plan. I was up at 3:30am and tried one last effort to recruit a partner but I take it I'm not that convincing at that time of the morning! So I changed my route to go down the Didima gorge instead and agreed to meet the others at the tar road at noon, where they would pick me up with the car after a more leisurely descent down Camel Pass. This would shave 4km off the route and leave me with 30km to cover for the day.

My main fear in going solo was the Basothos and especially their dogs in the valley behind Windsor Castle, but I needn't have worried as all the kraals were abandoned at that time of the year and I didn't see another soul all day. The weather was gorgeous and I was able to jog some of the escarpment paths on the way to Tlanyaku Pass. The view at the top of the pass was simply gob-smacking, with the sun rising over a cloud inversion and Eastman's Ridge appearing like an island rising out of the clouds. Alas, I did not have a camera with me but I stood there for 5 minutes, soaking it all up and burning the image into my memory instead. The descent of Tlanyaku was steep and eroded in places and I had to be careful not to slip while being distracted by the views of the Didima Falls, the escarpment buttresses and the little berg stretching out below. I reached the river at the bottom of the pass after 40 minutes of descent and was then able to pick up the pace nicely with some jogging here-and-there past the Phillip's Folly junction and along that spectacular path which contours above the Didima gorge. It was getting hot by now and I savoured every patch of indigenous forest and river crossing along the way. The last 10km along the river plains and past the ruins of the ranger's house turned into a bit of slog and I was a very happy man on reaching the tar road about 6h30m after setting out that morning and finishing an awesome weekend in the Berg!

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Last edit: 06 Jan 2013 16:48 by Stijn.
The following user(s) said Thank You: JonWells, Hermann, Bigsnake, ghaznavid, Smurfatefrog, tonymarshall, Sabine, Jimmy

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06 Jan 2013 13:35 #55810 by ghaznavid
Nice! I have to say I also really enjoy hiking further with less weight (something that was inspired by details of hikes posted by both you and Intrepid). Thlanyaku pass is so nice when its green and Didima Falls is great when visible (incidentally the 15th highest waterfall on earth - everybody just remembers Tugela Falls and forgets Didima Falls at 600m).

So since you don't have pics of Thlanyaky Pass, here's some for you - should looks roughly how it looked when you were there...

The top of the pass is off to the right of the gully around the side of the Sphynx

Didima Falls from near the top of the pass

Looking back north

The view into the cutback on the way down

Hope that helps :laugh:

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The following user(s) said Thank You: Stijn, Hermann, Bigsnake

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13 Jan 2013 21:45 #55851 by Serious tribe
@Stijn This lighter style alpine option is looking really interesting. We have done it by carrying normal packs and then camping at the base of the pass and taking day packs ups the pass and down again. This approach obviously works for summer, however i recon winter would be a different kettle of fish with all the extra gear one has to carry but still i think it would be possible to get the pack weight down a fair bit. I like the idea of pre-packed food that does not require cooking. On my trip with Chris we only had soup and noodles for supper and energy bars for b/f, so it is possible to pear the food down a bit. Likely you could take MD burgers for supper every night on a 4 day trip as they would stay fresh given that they are so full of preservatives and sugar anyway.

I just wish i could get a full frame 24-36mp interchangeable camera system similar to the fuji x series this would considerable drop my camera weight down and bring the whole weight of the pack down as well. Sony has a full frame 24mp called the RX1 but not with interchangeable lens. I am sure the next model with have the different lenses.

@ghaznavid thanx for the extra images.

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14 Jan 2013 06:18 #55854 by ghaznavid
I had a go at leaving my gas stove behind this weekend - the 0.5kg difference (the canister I have been using since before GT last year is almost finished, so it weighs practically nothing) was noticeable and the space saving also helped. Not that I had an overfull pack or anything.

Its been a while since I have hiked without a tent - the weight difference is rather large, but I would have preferred a tent to Fun Cave - just setting it up in the rain wouldn't have been fun...

Any way, let me avoid giving too much away about the upcoming hike report "the wet tortoises and the binoculars"...
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