Mlambonja Pass/Elephant Gully/Cockade Pass

08 Dec 2014 21:02 #62437 by ghaznavid
Mist-taken Elephant

Statistically Didima is a happy hunting ground for me – having only done more passes or khulus at Garden Castle and Giant’s Castle. It has also consistently held a spot high on my preference list for many years now. One of my favourite passes is Organ Pipes and one of my favourite khulus is Tseketseke, most certainly a place that has held great appeal for me!

So a team of 5 of us – Carl (Viking), Merv (Smurf), Jacques, Clive and myself found ourselves at Cathedral Peak hotel car park with overnight packs and plans that looked relatively easy on paper.

The goal was simple – up One Tree Hill, contour path to Mlambonja Pass, camp near the Elephant and head down Cockade Pass. I wanted to bag 3 khulus – Mlambonja Buttress, Leopard and Elephant. I also wanted to take the Elephant gully.

Anyway – so we left the car park, below some low clouds. The grass was wet, and it didn’t take long before I was smiling at the acquisition of La Sportiva Tibets. But alas, even great shoes eventually succumb to dew.

About 3km into the hike I realised that we had missed the turnoff to One Tree Hill, but with the low clouds, there wasn’t going to be much of a view, so a shorter walk-in is probably better any way.

The zig-zags up the Neptune Pools hill are rather excessive. This can be wonderful on the feet (and for reducing erosion), but at times the wide cut backs make it feel like you aren’t actually getting any closer to the target.

We reached the contour path in thick mist. Shortly thereafter we were having a break at the base of the pass. This is where the hike started to become interesting…

As Stijn’s blog post about Mlambonja Pass suggests – it is tricky to actually find the start of the pass. We soon found ourselves bundu-bashing through thick vegetation trying to find a trail. We went up, down, backwards and forwards until we eventually gave up on trying to find a trail. Once we gave up on this, we very quickly found the trail. There is no apparent starting point for this trail, you just suddenly go from dense vegetation to being on a good clear trail. From here we didn’t lose the trail again.

The trail initially gains altitude quite slowly. It then becomes quite steep for a brief period of time before dropping steeply down to the river. In thick mist it can be tricky to judge exactly what the trail does, but I imagine there would have been quite an impressive view from this pass – especially higher up.

The trail crosses the river every few metres before reaching a grass bank that must be the summit gully. It then hits a junction where going straight would take you to Twins Cave, or turning sharply left takes you to the top.

This pass was largely uneventful, aside from the initial part in thick overgrowth. Stijn’s rating of 6/10 is definitely one I agree on. The pass is rarely steep, but it is very long and draining. Most people would struggle to get up this pass quickly, but I would say the majority of hikers would manage to get up if they paced it properly.

On reaching the escarpment we heard thunder and decided not to hang around on the watershed. As we got into Lesotho, the mist to the south of us had cleared. We saw a campsite right on the river above the pass.

We gradually descended the ridge towards the river, walking south to avoid losing too much altitude. As we moved along, the mist above us cleared. It would have been nice to head up Mlambonja Buttress, but with lightning about, this wasn’t the time.

We found a good spot on the river and pitched our tents. We did this just in time for a bit of rain to fall. About an hour later it began to rain properly, with a bit of soft hail mixed in. This storm didn’t last very long. Mist came over again as it got dark.

Bright and early on Sunday morning we were up. The night had been quite, no wind, rain or indications of locals to speak of.

Before we set off for the day, Clive and I shot up the Mlambonja Buttress. It was one hang of a view, definitely worth the effort.

The escarpment valley we camped in is one that I had only ever been in once before – GT2012. There are quite a few khulus that have been the subject of discussion in recent times. I had been of the opinion that the elusive Leopard is the large flat top peak above Xeni Pass. This would make the large lump of rock above us the Elephant. As it turns out, what I thought was the Elephant was actually Leopard. Standing in the col between Leopard and what I thought at the time was Elephant, the view was quite something.

We all scrambled up a peak marked by our GPSs as 3109m – but once again, this can’t be the Elephant – the Elephant Gully is missing and the next valley looks wrong. There was a large free standing peak right behind this summit – I suddenly clicked, that must be Xeni Peak (a very exposed D-grade rock climbing peak).

We continued along. “Oh, that must be the Elephant” – just before reaching the top I got a view south that had been hidden by this summit and suddenly everything made sense. When the Tseke/Cleft valley came into view, my orientation clicked back into place. Once again we had climbed a peak that was not Elephant, but had come with a great view.

From this unnamed peak we began our trip toward the Elephant gully. The clear weather had held well, but we could see the mist down around 2000m slowly rising up the cliffs below.

After standing on the high point between the Elephant Gully and Elephant Peak, we began our descent down the Elephant gully. I can see why people often don’t use this route – while it is incredibly scenic and definitely worth doing at least once, it isn’t much easier than the Mahout ridge, and you have to climb most of the way up Mahout either way.

As we dropped down the gully we saw what must be the highest cliff I have ever seen – the frontal cliffs of Cockade must be 600-800m. The cliff is covered in pinnacles and is really spectacular. The Elephant also has an incredibly dramatic front. The cliffs in the Elephant gully makes for some incredible scenery.

After taking a lot of photos in the gully, we proceeded back to the escarpment. We got a group shot at the top of the gully and then proceeded to the top of Cockade Pass. Upon reaching the top of the pass I realised that I was missing my trekking poles. I went back to the top of the Elephant gully and found the poles. Soon we were heading down Cockade Pass. The summit of the pass was very scenic, but after dropping about 100m we fit the mist.

The top of the pass is very steep, but grassy. It is really pleasant. Once you reach the confluence of the 2 summit gullies, however, things become a bit different. This section of the pass is rather rocky, mostly stable, but due to the mist that was almost drizzle, it was rather slippery.

The gully is rather narrow and it is often just a question of finding the best line through each section. In clear weather this would be easier than in thick mist. Wet rock and poor visibility don’t make life easy on this pass!

Eventually the pass hits a waterfall that is at least 8m high. You are forced to go true left with some scrambling to get down, but nothing too bad. I rate that this section and some of the accompanying scrambling does warrant the “rock pass” status (but definitely not “Rock” or “ROCK”).

The going through the rocky section is slow, it takes plenty of concentration to find the best line, and I think our team did very well considering the conditions. The occasional cairn along the way does help, but it is really a question of just taking your time and concentrating on each foot placement.

Soon a cairn leads you out of the gully onto the north grass slope. We were on this slope for a while, and this ledge was great. But unfortunately it did come to an end quite quickly.

Soon you are forced back into the gully at a sharp corner in the river. This is near the Xeni-Cockade split. From here things become much more tricky. The gully opens out again, but the route isn’t entirely clear. There is a series of steep cascades/waterfalls, and cairns marking routes in various contradictory directions. We opted to take the true left grass bank and stay as close to the river as possible. In retrospect I would have probably held this pattern for even longer than we did.

After a fair distance on this ledge (and clearly visible cairns on the riverbed below) we eventually found a good spot to re-enter the river bed. At times we found a trail, sometimes there were cairns. But for the most part we spent our time trying to pick the line of least resistance. Sometimes we would go for more than 100m on good grassy terrain, avoiding most of the vegetation. Other times we would spend our time boulder hopping or making our way through thick bush. Progress was slow.

After a very long session without a break (4h45) we finally hit the contour path. We were all soaked. It wasn’t really a cold day, but we had been in the mist for the majority of the time since we left the escarpment.

I would say Cockade Pass’ upper reach is top notch. The middle rocky section would be fine in clear weather and probably preferable to head up it rather than down. From the Xeni split to the contour path was not pleasant and probably explains why the pass isn’t very commonly done. I would imagine the entire pass is incredibly scenic, the part we did in clear weather definitely was.

I agree with Stijn’s 6/10 difficulty as per his blog – but I do think the rock status is necessary due to the scrambling. Perhaps if I did this pass in clear dry weather I would not agree that it is not a rock pass, but for now that is my opinion. The reason for the difficulty of this pass is, in part, navigation through the chokepoints and a degree of scrambling. But the real killer aspect of this pass is the walk in from the contour path to the Xeni split, and to a lesser extent, the section from there to the waterfall (probably around 2700m). If the stretch from the base of the pass to the contour path was excluded, this pass would probably be a 4/10.

In total, our 4h45 from the top to the contour path was accounted for as roughly 2h30 to get to the Xeni split (roughly 2350m), and almost as long was spent from there to the contour path.

My thoughts on this pass – rather go up it than down it. And try to do it in clear weather. If the views are as I expect them to be, it would be a highly worthwhile pass.

We followed the contour path north from there, steeply climbing the nearby hill on the way out. The clouds began to clear, revealing the Pyramid and the Column. We also had a view of Cockade and Elephant rising high above us.

We took a short break on the contour path before pushing through to the car park. We encountered a Cape Vulture on the contour path. It waited till we were about 10m away before it finally took off.

The remainder of the day was largely uneventful, we reached the car park at 6PM.

Total distance: 39.5km
Total ascent: 2422m
Wildlife seen: 1 Slug Eater, 1 Berg Adder, 3 klipspringers and quite a few vultures

Photos to follow soon.
The following user(s) said Thank You: Stijn, kliktrak, Smurfatefrog, Viking, AdrianT, Drakensbergie, Johnny_Queste

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09 Dec 2014 19:16 #62443 by ghaznavid

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09 Dec 2014 19:17 #62444 by ghaznavid

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09 Dec 2014 19:19 #62445 by ghaznavid

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09 Dec 2014 19:21 #62446 by ghaznavid

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The following user(s) said Thank You: elinda, JonWells, Smurfatefrog, tonymarshall, pfoj, HFc, Viking, Drakensbergie

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