Xeni Pass - Mlambonka Pass trip write-up

18 May 2020 15:57 - 26 May 2020 11:03 #75831 by Riaang
Seeing that there’s been very little activity in the berg lately, and on VE, I’ve decided to stop being lazy and type up a trip report or two. Hopefully we can all soon start hiking again!

Towards the end of September 2019, we decided to take the kids on their annual berg hike. We normally go towards the end of April, but this date simply didn’t work for us last year. I try and take them to a new part of the berg every year, but this is starting to become increasingly difficult as they’ve been to most of the usual places in the berg. By usual I mean the often-visited areas with nice footpaths, easier terrain etc. Also, they’ve been hiking here since they were 6 and 7 years old respectively, and at 13 and 14 years old in 2019 the unexplored areas are becoming hard to find. I chatted to my wife about this problem and we decided to take them up a pass none of us have been to before.

This pass was Xeni South. We (the parents) have previously done Xeni North and Mlambonja Buttress South pass, so we had a good idea of what we were in for. The kids had no idea what lay ahead. If they did, they would have worked a bit harder on improving their fitness levels ?. We showed them photos of the other two passes to mentally prepare them for the hike, but you know how it is. Seeing a pass and actually hiking up it are two entirely different things altogether.

Day1: Thursday morning (earliesh)
We set off at around 5am on Wednesday morning 25 September 2019, later than our usual 3am start. The roads were surprisingly clear of traffic (even in a pre-Corona world), probably because it wasn’t weekend yet. When we got to Sterkfontein dam the sun was up and the water was an amazingly deep blue colour – I’ve never seen it like this before. Really pretty. As we were running slightly behind schedule we ate some snacks in the car, rather than stopping for breakfast. We arrived at Cathedral Peak hotel to find Aubrey waiting for us. All kitted up the team was ready to start hiking at 10H30. With such a late start I knew we were in for a hot day out in the sun. Fortunately our overnight spot wasn’t too far away -we had to get to Xeni cave before nightfall.
I’ve realised that many things in my life would have been somewhat easier if I simply stayed on the path. The problem is that the path is often boring and I like to explore, and so about 1,5km’s from the hotel I decided to take the left turn instead of the right hand turn we always follow when approaching the hotel (from the Xeni zig-zags). What can I say – yes, I led us astray. We turned up into the first valley instead of the second one. BUT, we saw a rather big herd of eland which we would otherwise have missed, and we eventually stumbled upon a really awesome pool barely 150m from the path that I would never otherwise have found.

By now it was getting really hot so we parked off at the rock pool for lunch. We’d been walking for a good 2 hours or more, but were still only 2,5km’s from the hotel. I’d hiked this path in this direction only once before, and that was at night, during summer, and then the river section up the valley was quite difficult to traverse due to the high water level of the river. Hopefully traversing it this time would be easier. And it was. With the water level in the river much lower, what was previously quite a challenge was a breeze this time around. Getting out of the riverbed during our previous foray into this valley involved a lot of effort. We arrived at the base of the ridge below the cave at around 22H30 and it was misty, so we couldn’t find the correct exit point where the ladder was positioned. I knew from descriptions where it was supposed to be (immediately next to the high cliff band), but due to the fog it was impossible to locate. This, coupled with the near impenetrable undergrowth in the river meant that we were pretty bushed by the time we arrived at the cave. This time, however, I knew where to look for the ladder and found it easily. Aubrey was struggling with a leg injury and had fallen behind, so I dropped Sanet and the kids off at the cave and went back to help my friend. Boy, the last little stretch up to the cave is steep! Up or down, it makes you work hard.
I was praying that Aubrey would not be too far behind, and my prayer was answered. I found him about 100m from the ladder. We trudged up the steep path to the cave and by 17H00 we were relaxing in Xeni cave. The waterfall was pumping, which was great news as I didn’t savour the prospect of walking back down to the river to fetch water. I tried positioning our bottles under the waterfall but the water was constantly moving around. The only way to get the bottles full was to stand under the waterfall and hold the bottles in my hands, but this was way too cold. Aubrey then came up with a brilliant plan. He positioned his poncho under the waterfall and packed 4 rocks on the corners to keep it in place. It only took about 2 minutes for the poncho to collect enough water to fill all our containers for the night. By now I had spent enough time cooling down and was shivering. It’s amazing – outside it was still fairly warm, but inside the cave, and being wet from head to toe, the temperatures were way cooler. I wiped off and put my warm clothes on. Much better.

It was time for dinner – my favourite meal of the day. All the hard work for the day is done, now you can sit back and relax. Xeni cave is awesome, the largest one I’ve been to in the berg. Lots of space to stretch out and a flat floor, which is always a bonus. Enough space to accommodate 5 gear explosions easily. I always start dinner with soup. This helps to hydrate the body and get your electrolyte levels and core temperature up. Next thing is the main meal. I can’t quite remember what we had, but with the kids along the probability of it being 2Minute noodles is above 95%. We do spice it up a bit though, by adding a pepper sauce, sundried tomatoes and either biltong or droee wors. This transforms the dish into something I might even consider having at home periodically. We typically wash the main meal down with a cup of Milo or Hot Chocolate. The kids couldn’t wait for their treat though. We started a tradition a few years back where every hiker had to bring a surprise desert along. What would it be this year? We’ve had marshmallows, chocolate, crème brule, a pineapple (I was glad I didn’t carry that one!), Christmas cake etc. For this one I brought some fudge along. The kids put a couple of blocks of “beskuitjiefudge’ on the table. Yes, there is a table in Xeni cave. Actually, there are two tables in Xeni cave. Aubrey took out his Mocca Pot and we had real moerkoffie – a first for me in the berg. I’m glad I didn’t have to carry that Moccapot,as I was already carrying most of the kid’s food as well.

The sun soon set and it became dark. We enjoyed the cool, fresh mountain air and the peace and quiet that is so typical to the berg. We chatted a bit and then we all crawled into our sleeping bags. Friday was going to be a tough day as we were planning on ascending the escarpment via Xeni South pass. This would probably be the kid’s toughest berg pass to date. Would they be ok? I was still contemplating which route to take to the bottom of the pass, when Klaas Vakie dumped a huge pile of sleeping sand on me. All resistance was futile and ….

Day2: Friday morning
What?! It can’t be morning yet. It feels as if I’d only closed my eyes for a few seconds before the alarm on my phone went off. I really need to change the tune as it is impossible to ignore. I don’t want to get out of my sleeping bag to silence the alarm, but by now the entire clan is complaining about the noise. Well, best I get up and put the water on the stove. There is no ways Sanet will get out of her bag until she has her morning fix ?. After coffee and rusks, the sun comes up and we start packing our bags. Aubrey has decided not to join us on the hike up the escarpment as his leg is still too painful to make the trek up Xeni South. He will stay another night at Xeni cave, then sleep over in Tseke hut whereafter we will meet up on our final day at Ribbon falls cave. We are all disappointed to leave him behind, but the reality is that if his leg doesn’t improve and we are stuck on Xeni pass, a fun hike could turn into a disastrous hike.

We exit the cave and walk on the footpath towards the escarpment. The path is still in the shade and it is fairly cold. Well, the climb up to the contour path will heat up our bodies in no time at all. This short stretch has to be some of the steepest hiking I’ve ever done in the berg. Some sections are so steep that I have to get down on my knees to climb up smooth rocks. To make matters worse, some of the sections are wet, which causes you to lose traction in the muddy clay of the footpath. I’m grateful we don’t have to do this in the rain, as that would be a risky affair. I push and pull, scream and shout, but eventually we are all safe and sound on the more gradual slope immediately below the contour path. By now the sun is up, it’s getting hot and we can see Xeni peak in the distance. From here it doesn’t look too far, and the kids reckon we’ll be standing on top of the escarpment before noon. Haha, they are in for a surprise! Theirestimation was based on their previous berg experiences. They’ve obviously never attempted that wonderful section of bush, scrub and riverine rocks between here and the split of Xeni and Cockade passes. Not to mention that the real fun starts after this point. But, I wasn’t going to snuff out their optimism. Xeni pass would do that.
After everyone got their breathing under control, we set off towards Xeni. We see a couple of Reedbuck in the distance. It never ceases to amaze me how effortlessly they can bound up a hill. It obviously helps not carrying a backpack. Now that the kids are a bit older,they have to carry more of their own gear. I can still vividly remember our first kids hike in the berg, with me slogging up Shada ridge with around 28kg’s on my back. This is roughly double my weight today, and I’m definitely not missing those extra 14kg’s. About 2 months before this hike started, I put the kids on a specific training program to sort of prepare them for Xeni. They participate in sports at school, but as most of you already know, hiking in the berg is quite unlike anything you will ever do at school. 400m sprints and table tennis is great for building a base level of fitness, BUT berg hiking demands a combination of fitness and strength training. So, needless to say, one-legged squats became a regular part of their routine ?.

The contour path winds in and out of the various spurs along the way. We are afforded interesting views of Pyramid and column. Eventually we get to the point where we have to get off the ridge and down into the riverbed section. I’ve never really liked this section. The path doesn’t see many visitors (I wonder why?) and is overgrown with vegetation. Some of this vegetation is openly hostile to our hiking party and does its best to tear our clothes to shreds. However, hiking pole in hand I’m not afraid to fight back. Judging from the noises behind me, the kids are having a harder time overcoming the assault from the Xeni vegetation.We all make it down into the rocky riverbed more or less intact. From here it will be uphill all the way. As I exit the riverbed I nearly step on a snake (no idea what it was, it was brown, long and fast) but we manage to end up on opposing sides of the footpath in about 0.000001th of a second.
We slowly make our way up the riverbed, opting to walk on whichever side banks are the easiest to traverse. Due to my size I prefer to stay out of overgrown riverbeds. I inform the kids that they are welcome to stay in the riverbed if they find it easier, but when they do they start to fall behind and subsequently fall in behind mom and dad. Yes kids, we DO know best. Up we go, and by now it is starting to get hot. We stumble upon the camping spots near the Cockade path junction. I log the coordinates as I want to sleep over here sometime in the future. I first saw these clearings after we descended Cockade pass, but the last time we went up here I missed them completely, wondering what on earth happened to them. However, with the coordinates now safely captured, they will never evade me again. We take our packs off and stop for a quick bite to eat. The kids are still chatty, which is a good sign. It’s when they go quiet that you know they are tired.

After 10 minutes we kit up again and head up the riverbed. Initially we stay on the left of the river, but then switch over to the right-hand side where the walking is easy. A fire had recently cleared the entire area and we could see that it had burnt most of the grass from this point upwards, and even high up the pass itself. There is not a tree in sight and the kids are starting to complain about the heat. I spot a tree about 600m ahead and tell them that we will stop there for another short break. When we arrive atthe tree I realise that we wouldn’t be able to pause here. It is growing about ¾ down the steep and rocky riverbank. To get to it is a bit dodgy, and the terrain is so rocky that there is very little usable space under its sparse canopy. I break this news to the fam and I can see this is NOT what they want to hear. But don’t worry kids, you see that rocky outcrop about 1,2km further ahead? Yes dad. We’ll park off there for lunch. But it’s so far! I’m tired! Can’t we just sit here?

And so, with heavy boots and even heavier backpacks they follow me up to the Plume. Hoe ver nog? So 950m. 20 secondslater: hoe ver nog? 940m. 5 minutes later: hoe ver nog? 910m. Hoekom bly dit so ver!? Julle stap so stadig! Ghee wizz, this is going to be a loooooong day. Hoe ver nog? 800m. En nou? 780m Karla. Ek’s moeg! We eventually make it to just below the Plume and drop our packs for a well-deserved break. We all gulp down litres of isotonic game to replace all the electrolytes we sweated out on the trek up and rest our sore back and neck muscles. Dipping our feet in the cold mountain stream felt so good! Eating a couple of Pro-Vita’s and cheesies makes Karla happy. When she exclaims: Njam! you know she is happy. Rynhardt closes his eyes– shame, he is carrying around 13kgs today, quite a heavy weight for a young teenager. But, he wanted to take the extra gear along, and now he has to carry it.

I don’t like to take long breaks as my muscles become stiff fairly quickly, so 17minutes later I give the order to pack up. I nearly have a mutiny on my hands. Even Sanet reckons we should rest a bit longer, and she is normally the one that gets going first. Uhm, Liefie, die son trek water! We can rest when we get to the escarpment, and remember, none of us have been up Xeni south before, so if we run into trouble we would have to descend to the split with Xeni north and go up that way, which would add a lot of time to our day. She agrees with my logic and we set off. Before us lays 3 Waterfalls we need to get over or around, and we’ll be on the really super steep approach section to the pass itself. The last time we went up here I slipped on a wet,downward sloping rock and very nearly fell off the side bank. It’s a 2m vertical drop onto solid rocks below, which has a high probability of breaking or at least cracking ribs etc. I warn everybody to take care on this section. The rock is dry, making for good traction. We all make it through safely.
Just before you arrive at the 3rd waterfall, there is a side gash in the rock you can take to climb out of the riverbed. The waterfall is high and wet, and without ropes there is no way we are going to attempt going up it. This gash itself is really steep and is covered with loose sand and rocks. On previous trips we could hold on securely to berg grass, but today this was all burned down. There was nothing to hold onto. I kicked steps into the soft sand and advised the kids to put their feet in my steps. The last 5m or so becomes near vertical and is really dodgy. When I got to this section, I stopped for a minute to try and figure out a good route up. Everything was covered in loose sand, and the couple of soccer ball sized boulders protruding from the wall was way too loose to use as anchors. Nope, I can’t see how the kids would get safely up and over this section. I turn around to go back down, and nearly knock Karla off balance with my pack. Shucks, how did she get up here so quickly? The rest of the team was immediately below her. Trying to get everyone down from here was now going to be more dangerous than just forging ahead and climbing through the last 4m to safety. Or was it?

Right near the top a few sparse bushes were holding on for dear life. By wedging my feet into the opposite wall and using the bushes as anchors, I could get myself up. I tell everyone to stay exactly where they are and take my pack up a bit higher, leaving it propped up against a large rock. I descend back down and guide each of the kids up. Right at the top you have to take a bit of a leap of faith. You have to step over a 1m gap to safety, or should I say relative safety. There are two problems to overcome. As you step over the void, your supporting foot can slip as you have to push off from a vertical piece of compressed sand, and you then have to put your foot on another really sketchy landing platform also composed of pebble covered compressed sand. The entire structure at the top could come crashing down at any minute. Karla’s eyes open wide when I tell her what I want her to do. She can’t even reach to the other side. I tell her to jump as I will catch her outstretched hand, and will pull her up to safety. Fortunately the section where I am waiting feels more secure and stable – I hope it is! She jumps, I grab her arm and pull her up to safety. Rynhardt follows exactly in her footsteps and he makes it over so easily that I begin to wander if I had over exaggerated the danger of the move and the terrain. When I look into Sanet’s eyes I know I didn’t. We’ve been through a couple of ‘interesting’ berg adventures before so she trusts me completely, but I can see she is scared today. She’s been up this exact same obstacle twice before and it didn’t faze her then, but without berg grass for support it becomes a really steep climb on very loose sand. If you fall here, there is a very high likelihood that you could injure yourself quite badly, and help is far away. I pull her up to safety and we all take a quick breather on slightly less vertical ground. Note to self (and to the reader): This side gash is becoming really dodgy, be prepared for the terrain if you want to attempt it without berg grass to hold onto.

Having never been up Xeni South pass before I wasn’t 100% sure of the route to follow. I knew how to get to the bottom of the Xeni cliff face as I’ve done this before, so we could follow the known route and then just traverse out to the left into Xeni south. However, I like to explore new terrain and so decide to rather see if I could find the bottom of the pass itself. With no berg grass to pull on for support, getting up these steep side walls made for hard work. We slipped and stumbled frequently. The risk of rolling down to the riverbed below was a bit too real for comfort, so I told the fam to make very sure of every footstep. Slow and steady was the correct way to get through this section. With everything burned down, nothing looked familiar. I went up one really steep section that I couldn’t remember doing before. Before starting out on this section, I instructed the fam to wait for me below as I wasn’t sure of my route selection. When I got to the top I peered over the wall and looked down into a massive amphitheatre of sorts. It was stunningly beautiful, but with all the loose ground under my feet I wasn’t sure if the ground would support my weight for long so I hurried down immediately. I would have loved to have taken a picture of this view, but not knowing what was below my feet I wasn’t going to take any chances. Plus, the terrain was so steep that I was on all fours at this point, I couldn’t even reach for my camera. I told the fam that this was DEFINITELY not the way to go, and so we unfortunately had to downclimb a section to get back to the correct route. If you thought the climb up was hard, you should try descending on such steep and loose terrain. Boy, this was hard work! Not to mention dangerous. I was a bit concerned for the kids’ sake, because people tend to become careless as they become fatigued. We could not afford to be careless on these loose and steep side slopes. When I finally reached the safety of a level spot, I guided the fam down one by one over the final stretch of the steep section. It may not look steep on the photo, but I can assure you that it was.

We dropped our packs and stopped for a snack and a drink. With crawling around in the ashes we were becoming dirtier by the second. There was a small pool of water at our resting spot, and I managed to wash most of the soot off my hands. Refreshed and rehydrated we were now ready to start our assault on Xeni south. This flat rock platform is basically the split between going up Xeni South or North. The worst was over and now, from reports I had read, it was a simple matter of rock hopping to the top of the escarpment. We hoisted our packs and entered Xeni south. I just love hiking up a new pass. I find I tend to pay much more attention to my surroundings on my first ascent. This pass was looking interesting. Lots of rocks with steep side walls. The rocks were easy to get over, so the wife and kids shouldn’t struggle too much. I prefer rock passes to walking on trails. I find trails tire me out more, as I tend to get into a groove and then the suffering is unending. With rock passes, every step is different. You have to keep your concentration levels up as you need to plan your next step. Will I go left, right or over this next boulder in my way. You might decide on a specific route, but midway through the maize you might have to rework your original plan. This constant route finding, different foot placements and stride lengths tends to make the minutes fly by. I left our lunch spot at around 2450m and was nearing the 2600m ASL mark. As I looked behind me I saw that only Karla was keeping up. Looking ahead I saw something that could turn out to be a problem. I don’t recall reading about any showstoppers in the trip reports I had read, but you know how it is with mountains. Pass conditions could change at any time. A new rockfall could easily block up a pass. It looked like a large rock was right in our way, and from my current spot it seemed to be fairly large. By now Karla had caught up with me. I shouted down to the other two to take their time on the ascent, as I wanted to check out the boulder problem at around 2850m ASL. If it was insurmountable we would have to descend all the way to this level, where we would need to climb out of the gully and traverse over to Xeni North.

Karla was proving to be hard to shake off. I’m sure somewhere in our family tree there exists a super fit gene, but it had definitely skipped me. Karla hadn’t trained much for this trip and even with 9kg on her back she was keeping up with me, and I thought I was pushing hard. She was chatting way too much (I was struggling to breathe!!!). My excuse for not answering her barrage of questions was that I had to concentrate on finding the optimum route through the rocks. When we approached the big boulder, I breathed a sigh of relief. It sure was large, but previous hikers had packed rocks on its right-hand side, forming a rock ladder of sorts. It was a simple matter of scrambling up it. When I got to the top I dropped my pack, took a pic of Karla and searched the pass lower down for any sign of the other two. They were nowhere to be seen. I waited for about 5 minutes but nobody appeared. I was getting concerned as they were not responding to my wistles and shouts. I told Karla to stay put and hiked down the pass, stopping every now and then to listen for their voices. There – I heard something. It was a rock rolling down the pass. They were now close enough to hear me clearly, and they confirmed they were fine. They were going slow – as I had instructed. Sanet was walking with Rynhardt, who was starting to take a bit of strain. He was covered in sweat and the soot was forming cammo patterns on his face. I took his pack and carried it up to the big rock. We stopped for a quick break and ate a snack. Mmmhh, crisps never tasted so good before. My body was clearly craving salt and energy. We were nearly at the top, one final push and we could all take a well-deserved break at the river on the escarpment. I was looking forward to washing off all the soot I had collected on the trek today. This had to be the dirtiest I’ve ever been in the berg.

Boy, the final ascent was steep! I was starting to feel the effect of carrying Rynhardts backpack back up to the large rock. Fortunately I’ve learnt one very important truth in the berg. Just keep going, placing one foot in front of the other, and sooner or later you will get to the top. Eventually the suffering will end. The other thing I’ve learnt is that the fitter you are, the less you suffer in the berg ?. Rynhardt still had to learn this lesson. One by one the others topped out. By now Rynhardt was so tired that he was barely able to put on foot in front of the other. I was torn between running down and grabbing his backpack again, or letting him make it to the top under his own effort. Seeing that he was so close to victory I decided to let him finish under his own steam and at his own pace. We patiently waited for him to top out, awarding him with a hearty applause. Hardly have I ever seen somebody so happy to finally be on the escarpment! We walked the 300m or so down to the river and found a nice open spot near a large pool where we could relax and clean up.
By now it was 16H00, and as we only had to do another 3km’s or so for the day, with most of it being downhill to Twins cave, we could afford to spend some time at this rock pool. It’s amazing how quickly you can cool down on the escarpment, especially if the wind picks up when you are attempting to wash off all the soot you collected during the day. We cleaned up quickly and put on our warm jackets. Fully hydrated and semi clean for the first time since we set foot in Xeni south, we were all eager to get to Twins cave. The kids have never been to Twins before and were wondering aloud how it compared to Xeni cave. It was nice to see the excitement with which they approached a new cave. In no time we were at the bottom of the last climb for the day. This little ridge always makes me suffer, and today was no exception. It’s probably because you have to go over it at the end of a long day in the mountains.
Eventuallywe reached the kern at the top of the escarpment and I showed the kids the path to Twins. They both complained about how far down the path the cave was. I reminded them that they chose this cave as our overnight spot. They had two choices: Either Twins cave (from where we have to climb up to the escarpment again tomorrow morning) or Easter cave for our overnight spot. Easter cave has less up and downs, but was still a bit further down the valley. Anyway, about 30 minutes later we were all glad to have successfully completed day 2. I had lost both of my camp shoes – I think I left them at the rock pool where we stopped to clean up an hour or so ago. Seeing that we are going to Ndumeni dome tomorrow, we will walk past this spot so I will collect them - if they are still there. Now we could make camp, rest, eat and sleep. We finished the last of our surprise pudding – Tinkies - and the kids fell asleep about 10 minutes after brushing their teeth. Sanet soon followed their example and as usual I was left on my own to stare at the stars. I really need to find people who can stay up later to keep me company.

Day3: Saturday morning
Today was our fun day on this hike. It was not too far, and not too tough. We could afford to sleep in a bit, so my alarm went off at 6:30am. I let the alarm ring for about a minute to make sure everybody was awake, but nobody even so much as twitched a muscle. Wow, yesterday was clearly tougher on the kids than I thought. Sanet mumbled something about coffee in bed. Seeing that my sleeping bag was warm and cosy, I decided to give the fam another 30minutes rest. Just after 7am I got out of the sleeping bag and put on the water for coffee. The noise of the gas stove boiling and plastic wrappers rustling got the kids attention. It’s amazing how the sound of a plastic wrapper can cure a child’s deafness in a matter of seconds ?. The smell of fresh coffee and the sight of an opened packet of rusks was too much of a temptation to resist, so everybody descended on the bait like a pack of hungry lions. We finished breakfast, packed up camp and just before 8am we exited Twins cave. Boy, the first 40 meters was tough, as usual. Those of you that have done this climb out to the footpath will know what I am talking about. It is steep and over loose boulders, and most of my blood was still in my stomach attending to digestion while my legs were screaming for oxygen.
I smiled when I looked behind me. Clearly I was not the only one suffering today. We got on the path and started up towards the escarpment. At one point there appears to be a split in the path, where you can simply go straight up, or turn left and take the more gradual trail up to the top. I normally shoot up straight but seeing that today was our easy day and the kids were already mumbling and grumbling, we went left. Longer, but not as steep. In no time we were standing on the escarpment. By now we were thoroughly warmed up and the sun was baking down on us. There was a fresh breeze blowing so we kept our light fleece jackets on for a little while longer. By the time we reached the river everybody was sweating and we therefore stopped toremove our warm outer layer. Now to go find my Crocks. I turned into the side gully to the right and started looking at the terrain. After about 300m I thought to myself that none of the pools of water looked like I remembered them from yesterday afternoon. Rynhardt mentioned that we turned up one valley too early, we should be in the next valley immediately to the south of this one. Gmph, what does he know, he’s never even been to this part of the escarpment. I’ve walked here plenty of times and have both the map and gps, so I can’t possibly be wrong. We will therefore continue up this valley. The terrain just didn’t have the familiarity it should have had, and the pool where we stopped should have appeared by now. Rynhardt, for probably the 5th time, mentioned that we are in the wrong valley. He was willing to bet an entire month’s pocket money that I was wrong and he was right. I will only take a bet if I have a high confidence level of being right, and as I was at least 90% sure that we were where we should have been, I took the bet. The thing that continued to bother me though was that I couldn’t see the base of Xeni peak, and I knew we walked right past it yesterday.

We got to a spot where the ridge to the left was substantially lower and we could see what appeared to be Leopard peak. Just to be 100% sure I took out the gps (only now!!!) and looked at the breadcrumb trail from yesterday. Shucks, the yellow line quit clearly shows that we did not walk down this valley yesterday, we should be in the next valley south. Rynhardt gave me a “I told you so” look, and then told me :”I told you so, dad”. I really should follow my own advise. I always tell everyone that if you are unsure of your route, stop, take out your gps or map and confirm your position before you proceed. Now my pride was dented and I had to pay Rynhardt more pocket money.Karla was sour faced as she had also betted against Rynhardt, thinking her dad was right. Our rock pool must be a good 300m lower down the valley, so I told everyone to continue walking up the valley while I drop my pack and search for the shoes. I should be able to catch them within a few minutes. The Crocks were still propped up against the rock where I left them to dry out. I was happy to be reunited with my camp shoes once again. By the time I got to my pack the rest of the fam were mere dots on the ridge. Wow, they were moving much quicker than I had anticipated. It was going to take a bit of effort to catch up with them. Fortunately for me, Sanet decided to wait for me on the shoulder of Mahout, so we could all get to the top together. The easy footpath took us there in no time, seeing that the terrain was nearly level. We then climbed up and when we got right to the top we all stopped for a break and an early brunch. I’ve always loved the view south from this spot. I first saw a picture of the entire valley below me right here on VE, and ever since seeing that picture I have always wanted to get to the spot form where it was taken. I’ve visited Mahout many times since, and it never fails to deliver.

When crossing over to the Tseke Valley from Twins cave side, you have two choices. It’s either up and over via Mahout, or you drop down into Elephant and then have to climb out near the top of Cockade. The height differential is roughly the same, hence I prefer the higher route over Mahout as it has (for me) the better view. I’ve once done Elephant going north, and the sharp rise at the end was covered in knee deep snow, with a gale force wind blowing from the front. That was not fun, and was the last time I took this route. We gradually made our way down the zig-zags and then walked over to the top of Cockade. The kids were quite impressed with the steep top gully of Cockade, and very glad that they didn’t have to climb up it. We crossed the valley, hoping to fill our water containers with water just south of the Tseke pass head. We normally stop here to refill. The stream was bone dry. This means that we will only be able to collect water after crossing over Cleft Peak. We didn’t fill up with water at the stream on the escarpment above Twins Cave as we were going to top up at the pool where I forgot my Crocks. However, with going up the wrong valley we missed this spot, and our H2O supplies were running low. We had two choices. Either ascend the ridge on the left and go over the high point on Cleft Peak (my preferred route as the views are amazing from here), or stay in the valley and cross over on the Lesotho side. No pretty views, but an easier descent and closer to possible water deeper into Lesotho. I discussed the situation with Sanet and we decided to play it safe for the kids’ sake. We would take the easier route, and I was praying that we wouldn’t have to trek miles into Lesotho to find water. This entire area was looking drier than what I have seen it in many years.

Having done this route before, I knew about the false top that awaited weary hikers. I warned the kids not to go too fast as the top that they were aiming for was not the real high point. Shame, you should have seen the look of despair on their faces when they crossed the false top and saw what still lay ahead. At least they were happier when I told them that after this climb, there was only one more climb for the day. However, when I matter of factly mentioned that it was way steeper than the current climb, I could see that they were NOT impressed with the information provided. I thought I heard Sanet mention that I had inherited my dad’s mild sadistic streak, but I was already too far ahead to be sure ?. When we got to the top of Cleft Peak’s SW side, everybody was very happy to drop packs and stretch out weary legs. As always, Cleft Peak gives you your money’s worth. The views over Lesotho and Ndumeni dome was, as always, stunning. We had lunch and the kids finished their water. I conserved my water on the climb so I had about 500ml left for the 3 of us. Sanet had about 250ml left which she would have to use sparingly on the climb down. Fortunately we would be able to walk in the shade for sections of the route. We crossed numerous dry streams. I’ve previously collected water here from a rather large waterfall, but it was also bone dry. I was beginning to get worried. The water situation was looking worse than I had anticipated. I was starting to regret not filling up at the rock pool where I had left my Crocks. Well, only one thing to do and that is descend and search for water lower down. About half way down we could see that some of the rocks in the rivers between Cleft and Ndumeni dome was glistering in the afternoon sun, so they were wet. The only question was, were there pools of water or was it only wet rocks. I was praying for decent pools as I was really not looking forward to having to walk miles into Lesotho for water. As we got lower down I counted at least two pools that could work for us. We saw a lot of animals in the valley, congregating next to these two pools. Having drunk water from similar pools before, also during a period of water shortage, I was not looking forward to seeing lots of saliva strands floating in the water. We therefore passed these pools and started to hike up the side of Ndumeni dome, next to the stream running down the mountainside, looking for cleaner water.

Eureka! We found a decent sized pool, only about a meter wide and 30cm deep at its deepest point, and there were very few animal tracks around it (it had a bit of a steep rock wall and the drop-off was nearly 60cm high). There were only 2 very small pools above it that contained any water, so I returned to my pack, took out my bladder and bottles and filled it up. The fam joined me and we all topped up our water containers. We still couldn’t drink the water as we had to wait at least 30 minutes for the Salveo water purification drops to take effect. At least we knew that we were sorted, and so we slowly started up the hill towards Rolands cave.
In my view, Rolands cave has to be one of the best escarpment caves in the Northern berg. Sanet shares my view, BUT she isn’t too fond of the approach to the cave. None of the kids have been to Rolands before, and I wanted to take them there. The two upper Ndumeni caves were other options, and although I’ve slept over in both I think Rolands offers far better accommodations. The kids were starting to take strain on the final climb for the day, so I dropped the pace a bit. You don’t want to do the walk into Rolands if you are exhausted, as it requires a bit of concentration, especially the section 5m from the cave entrance where you have to climb around and down a rather large section of rock. We stopped at the top and regrouped. After eating an energy bar each, I asked the kids who wanted to visit Rolands cave. Karla was game, but Rynhardt flatly refused when he saw the first part of the approach to the cave. He just sat down in the middle of the path, head in hands, and no amount of encouragement could encourage him to move one inch forward. Even an offer to double his pocket money wasn’t an attractive enough offer to get him to bite.

I told Karla that we needed to get going as I could feel my muscles becoming stiff from sitting still. She agreed and we started down the path. She’d done gymnastics for years, and the beam was her best instrument, so I knew her balance was good. It was the mental aspect of the approach that I was concerned about. Falling off a beam was one thing, falling off here would mean certain death. Just before we got to the section where the going got tough, I told Karla to take a good look around. Look down and see what there is to see, and then block it out of your head as you SOLEY focus on your next couple of footsteps and handholds. She was walking directly behind me, putting her feet in exactly the same spots where I had put mine, and gripping the rock exactly where I had gripped it a few seconds before. I told her that if she felt frightened that she should immediately stop and tell me. The only section where she was a bit afraid was the crux section. After finishing the downclimb I turned around, climbed back up and gave her my hand as support. She refused my help, rather deciding to do it entirely on her own. I showed her where to place her hand and feet, and in no time at all she was standing in the cave. She was super stoked at having completed this route, and was jumping up and down in the cave.
Since mom and son wasn’t joining us, I told her we needed to get out of the cave. What!!! Now?! No!!! This cave is awesome, why can’t we sleep here? I know, I agree, and no, we can’t leave them to sleep outside (although I was feeling like we could, but If I ever wanted another kiss from Sanet then that would not be a good move). I walked out but Karla didn’t follow. What now!? I walked back to the cave where she told me she was too afraid to exit. Oh boy, what now?! I calmed her down, told her that she came in easily and that the exit would be even easier. As before, I would be right beside her and would guide her every step of the way. We got over the crux section easily enough, but she struggled a bit on the easier sections. This is what happens when fear gets into your head. I went super slow and kept talking to her, telling her that she was doing fine and that we were through the most difficult section. I asked her to tell me what her next move will be, and hereby focussed her attention on her next move, rather than the drop-off on her right.

We were safely through it and back on safe ground. She was still being a bit overly cautious (which I can fully understand), but that was fine. When she saw our packs lying next to the path, she finally started to relax. She had done it! All the pent-up adrenalin and emotions had to be released, and she started jumping and shouting. The first time I exited the cave I was just quietly relieved to still be alive, but I guess Karla’s more extrovert personality had to express the relieve she felt on standing on solid ground again. Mom was very relieved to see the two of us still being alive and well.
We all climbed higher up, above Rolands cave and walked to the southern-most of the two Upper Ndumeni caves. We then walked past it, all the way to where you have a nice view over the entire valley to the south of Ndumeni dome, facing Didima dome. I wanted us to have dinner here, as the views are great. Not that the views on Cleft Peak is bad, but we will have the rest of the afternoon and early morning to appreciate them. As we approached the dinner spot, it looked like the terrain suddenly drops away below your feet. I informed the kids that we were going to let our feet hang off a vertical drop-off hundreds of meters high, and both of them stopped dead in their tracks 5m from this spot. Just kidding! They didn’t think it was funny. The sun was setting and a chilly wind was blowing. I was battling to keep the flame going on my Jetboil Sumo stove, so I moved a bit lower down to get out of the wind, which worked. The soup was a welcome relief against the sudden drop in temperature. We also put on our windproof outer shell jackets to keep the wind off our wet skin. It was becoming windier and colder by the minute, so after dinner we decided to have hot chocolate in the cave.

We packed up and started to walk back along the ridgeline. We passed the first small cave that can only fit two people (of my size) and as it was nearly dark I told Sanet we needed to hurry up a bit. I walked right past it. Thinking back, it was at the exact moment Sanet pointed something out to me in the rock formation and I was distracted. Fact is, we all missed it, even though we were all looking for it. Now where in the world is that cave? Having slept in it before I knew it couldn’t be this far west along the rock band, as I was approaching the end of it. We had to go back. The wind was blowing hard enough to make it difficult to keep your balance in the broken terrain, but I increased my pace as I had to find the cave before it was completely dark. I found it right where it was before ?. The entrance was a bit more obscured than what I could remember, but because I had walked a bit lower down than usual, and it was nearly dark, I had failed to see the entrance. I was relieved to finally have found the cave – I was seeing visions of having to enter Rolands cave in the dark a minute before! Seeing that this cave is too small for me to manoeuvre in, I sent the shorties inside to make the place liveable, while I first cleaned myself (wipes and water) and then started the stove again for that cup of hot chocolate. By now it was completely dark, and the moon had not yet risen in the sky. There was a lot of Basotho activity and shouting in the valley below, and on Cleft peak itself. I didn’t want to give our position away so we all used the red lights on our headlamps. The moon came up and the rest of the family once again deserted me, leaving me alone to fight against Klaas Vakie. I lost the fight– again!

Day 4: Sunday morning
The sun was up early today, or so it seemed. For the first time on this trip, we were in a cave facing more or less east and without obstructions to block the sunlight. Having gone to bed so early the night before, my body was sore from lying on a thin sleeping pad for too long. The sun was nice and hot, the cold wind from last night long forgotten. Our mission for today was simple: get off the escarpment and meet up with Aubrey in Ribbon falls cave. I was wondering how his leg was holding up. He had to hop over from Xeni cave to Tseke hut yesterday, which meant getting up to the top of the ridge via the very steep path. Today he had to trek from the hut to Ribbon falls cave. The routes were on the contour path, which would be easier on his leg. We had breakfast, packed up and exited the cave. Every time I’ve slept here, I walked towards the section of mountain immediately above Rolands, and then made my way down to Organ pipes pass via the valley between Ndumeni dome and the escarpment. This time, I decided to descend via the ridgeline. It looked like it was possible when I studied it from the top of Cleft Peak yesterday, but there was only one way to find out if it goes, and that was to do it. Taking one last look inside the cave (looks like nothing was left behind) we set off in a Northernly direction. The ridgeline was actually very easy to do, although we had to sort of weave around sections a bit. In future I might just take this route up, as it is more gradual than the valley approach. The only steep section is the last bit down to the valley floor. We say hi to 4 donkeys. The one donkey has a small foal – cute says Karla. And I have to agree, it is quite cute. I take a photo of the four of us in front of the large cairn at the top of Organ pipes pass before we start the descent down the pass.
It’s steep and the day is starting to heat up. We make it down to Windy gap and the kids think it’s quite fun sliding down the steep sloping rock at the top. It’s way easier when it is dry. I warn them that the last dodgy section of the day is coming up. Karla freaks out, and Rynhardt teases her mercilessly. I remind him that he was too afraid to go into Rolands cave, which shuts him up quickly. If you haven’t been up Organ Pipes pass before, this dodgy section can seem quite daunting. Especially if the rock is wet. There is this 4m long section of sloping rock you have to traverse. You can climb around it, but it’s a bit more work. I’ve done it once in the wet before, when I thought that the risk of crossing that wet sloping rock was not worth taking.

Today, it was dry. Easy peasy. I showed Karla – look, no hands, that’s how easy it is. She wasn’t convinced. Seems like the exit out of Rolands had rattled her more than I suspected. I dropped my pack and picked hers up. After carrying her pack over I returned and helped her over. She crossed it without missing a beat. I informed the troops that there were basically only 2 more sections to complete, before we can relax at the cave. We first have to descend the Camel, and then get down the flat section on the lower berg above the cave. When we got down to the top hump of the Camel we stopped for a quick break, and I advised the kids to be on the lookout for Tseke hut which would appear in the river on their left. Down and down we went, and once we reached the lower sections of the Camel the hut became visible. I showed them the path Aubrey had to follow form the hut, around the base of the Camel and then down to Ribbon falls cave. I looked at my watch and told the kids that if Aubrey slept late we could possibly beat him to the cave. The race was on and we increased the pace. We left the cave at 7:15am and it was now 11h30. We were doing excellent time ?. All this racing makesone hungry, so we had a short break to eat an energy bar and drink some water. I decided to show the kids how to run down a mountain with a backpack on your back. They thought it was fun and we got going. When we got to the top of the stream above Ribbon falls cave it was just before noon. Wow, we were flying! We got to the turnoff to the cave and started the last uphill section for the day. I dropped my pack at 12H14, a minute under 5 hours since we started off from Ndumeni dome. By now it was hot, and with all this running we had worked up a sweat. We found Aubrey lying on a rock in the shade. He had, to the kids disappointment, beaten us by about 25 minutes. Oh well, you win some and you lose some. We were all happy to see that Aubrey was doing fine and his leg was much better.

After eating lunch and drinking lots of water, the guys set off for the waterfall. The water was freezingly cold but very refreshing. It was nice to be properly clean for the first time in days, and we could finally get the soot out of our gear. For the rest of the day we tried to evade the sun, which was shining directly into the cave. It was a lazy day and we were enjoying just kuiering in the cave. The sun eventually set and we had our last dinner in the berg. At least tonight I had company and Aubrey and myself solved many of the world’s problems this evening. I watched the starts move till my eyelids become too droopy to stay open any longer. After I paused longer than normal after a sentence, Aubrey realised I was starting to clutch out and said good night. I replied with a “good night” myself, but I’m not sure if I actually said the words out aloud.

Day5: Monday morning
Today is the end of our short break in the berg with the kids. I never like the last day in the berg. I always feel a bit sad as I know that later this same day I will be back in the civilised world. Lots of cars on the road, lots of bright lights and noise. So, in trying to stretch our berg experience to the max we only exited the cave at 8am. It takes us nearly 3 hours to walk the 5km’s back to the hotel. On the way we stop over at Doreen falls for a long break. I’ve only been here once before – normally we are in such a rush to get down the mountain that we never stop here., especially in winter. Why the rush? Well, normally the kids stay over with family or friends, and we try to collect them before it is dark. It’s a good 4h30min drive back to Gauteng at least, and factoring in drive time, stopping for lunch, cleaning up etc, it takes a good 5 hours minimum from arriving back in camp to stopping the car at home. It was nice to go slow for a change. We arrived back at the hotel, had a cold shower and drove through to Harrismith for lunch and to fuel up.

We arrived home before dark, had a calorie rich dinner, enjoyed hot showers and climbed into soft beds. Nice, but why am I already longing to be back in the Berg?

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Last edit: 26 May 2020 11:03 by Riaang.
The following user(s) said Thank You: Serious tribe, diverian, elinda, Stijn, tonymarshall, Sabine, ASL, Richard Hunt, HikerParsons

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26 May 2020 16:35 #75836 by ASL
Hahaha.. don't let all the verbage and pretty pics fool you! This was a carefully designed sufferfest designed to check for slackers in his family!

Seems like they hard to kill though... 
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28 May 2020 11:20 #75839 by GetaPix
Great read. Enjoyed this - Partly for the conversational style engaging the reader right in to the experience you had with your family, but mostly as I can relate to this. Thanks for sharing and penning it down. In my book theres no greater sense of achievement than helping and seeing your own children conquer, overcome challenges and being a part of that. There is also no greater curse that cements the Ghost of aging in our own limbs than when our children challenges us and push us to our own physical ability.. ;)
Enjoy the Berg and cherish these moments with the family.

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04 Jun 2020 16:16 #75840 by Serious tribe
Enjoyed that.  Well done to the kids.

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13 Jun 2020 18:03 #75846 by mike_crom
Sounds like a lovely trip Riaan. It also reminds me of when Mel and I spent the night with you guys in upper Ndumeni cave.

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15 Jun 2020 10:27 #75847 by Riaang
Jip, it was the exact same cave Mike :-)

Next time we need to sleep over in Rolands, it's definitely more spacious. Can't wait to go hiking again.
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