Monks Cowl trip with kids - Apr 2015

10 May 2015 19:16 #63697 by Riaang
Last year we introduced our kids to hiking in the Drakensburg by staying at Mahai and going for day walks over the Easter weekend. They performed admirably and so this year we decided to stretch the distances a bit and also to introduce them to their first overnight experiences in caves.
When thinking about where to do the hike we had to consider total distances covered per day, possible escape routes if the weather turned bad, altitude climbed and ease of walking. While mom and dad are used to hiking in more rough terrain (i.e. mountain passes) they have no such experience and would be walking in normal tekkies and not hiking boots. This was also our first hike in our new boots and we reasoned that a more level hike would assist in an easier and more comfortable breaking in experience. We were wrong.
Besides sleeping over in caves, the other main difference this year was that the kids would have to carry a lot more gear than last year. Then they only needed to carry a little bag with their daily food and snacks, water, emergency blanket and rain jacket. Now they had to also carry sleeping bags, mattresses, cutlery and lots more snacks and food. That also meant backpacks, so we got them each a 50L daybag from Hi-Tec which worked very well.
Finally the big day arrived and leaving Midrand at just before 3am on Friday morning meant we arrived at just before 8am at Moncs Cowl.

Pretty clouds just after Harrysmith on the way towards Moncs Cowl

We signed the mountain register, paid our fees and got ready to start the hike.

Kids, Mom and friend

The mission for today was simple: Get to Zulu cave before sunset. We started at around 8:30am and posed for photos at the Sphinxs. Up to this point the kids were still quite chatty, but hereafter the constant incline meant that they were forced to use the available oxygen for breathing rather than talking. Except for the normal sentence every parent knows very well: “Hoe ver nog?” meaning how far do we still have to go. We’ve developed a dog calibration system to explain distances to them. We start at the tip of the tail, and then work our way upwards over the back of the dog to its nose. When we could see breakfast stream falling over the rocks they were very happy to hear we were now at the dogs collar (the tail end was at the campsite, the top at Breakfast stream the nose). Amazing how psychology works. The gradient was still the same and we still had about 150m vertically to go till the base of Verkyker hill but they suddenly became chirpy again.

Still all smiles at the Sphinxs

Once at breakfast stream we were all relieved to take off our backpacks and enjoy brunch.

Enjoying snacks at Breakfast stream

The kids had worked up quite an appetite as they didn’t get much of a chance to eat on the ascent, but now they could unpack their backpacks and pick out whatever they wanted to eat. Mom had packed each meal per day in a different bag, but who said they couldn’t have day 1’s lunch right now? Interesting to see their priorities, they both immediately went for the chocolates. I think their lower body mass and fat index means they rely more on food intake for immediate energy than adults. Especially my daughter who has virtually no body fat to speak of. I definitely underestimated her energy requirements, another day and we would have run out of food completely the way she was eating.
My new boots was proving to be quite a challenge as well. We are doing an EBC hike later this year and I imported a pair of La Sportiva Karakorums for this event. Proper snow boots with thick leather and sturdy construction. Problem is they weigh nearly 1,2kg’s each!! My hip flexors were eventually so tired from picking up my legs that I was forced to take much smaller up steps. This plus the added weight in my backpack from carrying the extra gear and food for the kids meant that I was also happy for the chance to get my heart rate back to normal. Well, enough of resting, we have a cave to find!
The weather forecast for the weekend didn’t look too great and at this point we couldn’t see anything of Cathkin peak or Sterkhorn, so we prayed for better weather – and got it the next day  (Note to self, next time, pray more specifically). Along the contour path my son picked up a little chameleon (apparently I nearly stepped onto it, but in my defence it was camouflaged very well and from 2m above I really didn’t see it). We all admired the little creature but Rynhardt was not impressed with his moms’ nature knowledge when she referred to it as an “akkedis”.

Rynhardt with the “akkedis ”

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10 May 2015 19:34 #63698 by Riaang
Having gone up Gray’s pass before I knew the route well and we all settled into a nice rhythm. In the thick mist I however missed the turnoff to the right off the contour path towards Zulu cave, and realized that we were turning away from where we needed to go when we got closer to the river.

This is what the turnoff to the right looks like if you ever need to use it

Well, there was only one thing left to do, and that was to bundu bash down to the river and follow it to the cave. This was easier said than done as we had a lady with us with seriously impaired eyesight and she had virtually no depth perception. Bundu bashing downhill and over streams turned out to be quite a challenge but we got her down safely to the river.

Lunch was had by all and then it was time to climb the next hill. While looking at the map before the trip I saw a possible route that we could take for day 2 on the return leg, which looked (on paper) easier and shorter than the normal route to the cave. The idea was to climb the hill above Zulu cave and then walk towards Gatberg. On the way this route then runs into the contour path. This was now basically the route we were going to follow for day 1. The others weren’t very enthusiastic about this option, but when I told them that the alternative was some more bundu bashing down the river for 2km’s till we link up with the path again they changed their view quickly.
Getting onto the heavily eroded route turned out to be a real mission at first. The riverbank on this side was overgrown with some real nasty stinging plants. We only had to do about 100m through this stuff but it felt much further. As I was walking in front I had to make a path for the others to follow, which meant I got stung a lot. I used my hiking pole to try and push the plants to the side and then step on them to flatten them. This helped quite a bit, but every once in a while I could hear my daughter shout when she walked into the stingy bits. She doesn’t like walking with a hiking stick but agreed that for this application it works very well.

It’s a fairly steep slog up the foothills of Gatberg but we all eventually got to the top.

Karla wanted to know why Gatberg was called Gatberg? Sanet pointed it out to her with a walking stick

Here we had to turn off the path (I use the word “path” very loosely, as it was in many places very waterlogged and served as a sort of drainage channel down the mountainside) and walk on the grassy top for a while. When we started going down the other side both my kids let out a shout of dismay when they saw what was before them. Rolling hills. Which meant we had to go back down all the way to the river down below, and then climb back up all the way to the top of the next hill, wherein lies Zulu cave. By now I could hear lots of murmuring, but as I had seen earlier in the day the best thing to get people to stop complaining is to walk faster. The look I got from my normally loving wife wasn’t too encouraging so I decided to start walking before she could start talking. The kids were amazing, you just stick a sweet in their mouths and they are happy and ready to carry one (I really hope my wife doesn’t read this story). The next river crossing was a bit tricky as the water was fairly deep and flowing fast, but I got the kids over without too much hassle. Walking up the hill on the other side I could then direct wife and friend to a more suitable crossing. Once all were safely on the right side of the hill we made our final assault on the final hill for the day. Sanet was by now concerned that I was leading us all astray as the cave was nowhere in sight, but the GPS was pointing us in the right direction and I could show her on the map that we were fairly close. All we had to do was walk over this final hill and find a suitable place to descend on the other side to the cave. Looking at the cliffs to the other side I was a bit concerned as they had steep vertical rock faces that we wouldn’t be able to descend. As we got closer to the cave I could see the footpath down below and we descended to the footpath. I led them to the cave and while they started unpacking their gear I walked back to find and carry wifo’s backpack. Needless to say I scored big points and was in her good books again.
Zulu cave is huge! Very nice with a waterfall on the one side, just a bit dusty though.

We had visitors for the evening being an American lady from the Consulate and her guide. As most parents can tell you the first day of a new adventure is always the worst as the kids need to adapt to the new routine. This was no exception and a fair amount of shouting occurred. “Don’t step on my sleeping bag with your muddy shoes!” “Daddy, Rynhardt has taken my food/drink/toy/whatever”. “Where is this, where is that…” Eventually the kids figured out how this cave thing works and by 19H30 we were all in bed.

My alarm went off at 6am the next morning but I chose to ignore it. I was already long awake, there is just no way I can sleep for that long on a thin self-inflating mattress. I got some water from the waterfall and made the fam a nice cuppa. Another big points scoring exercise with SWAMBO . The fact that I presented it in bed (well, in sleeping bag) added bonus points  . Today was a fairly long day as we had to trek past Cathkin and Champagne Castle via Shada ridge to Wonder valley cave. My GPS recorded the total distance as being just under 19km’s. Sanets phone recorded her taking about 35000 steps on this day. Walking out the cave we were greeted with absolutely brilliant weather. The sun was shining brightly and a light breeze was blowing. Today we would follow the proper route back up to the contour path, seeing that we had walked day 2’s route on day 1.

As you walk out the cave you gradually drop down to the river. We had time to take lots of pics here, and were greeted with the barking of baboons on the way. We crossed the stream at a really beautiful spot with a very scenic waterfall in the background.

Pretty waterfall at river crossing

I managed to get across without getting my boots wet, but the others decided to take off their boots and walk over barefoot. Rynhardt had clearly learned the art of getting across rivers unfazed by the water, so he just walked through and got his feet wet. Didn’t bother him a bit. Didn’t even get one blister. His mother wasn’t so lucky though, her new boots were now starting to talk back a bit, and they weren’t saying nice things. I always tape up with duck tape when I wear new shoes (their smooth finish allows the sock to glide easier over the tape hence less friction which leads to zero blisters) and, as before, it worked well this time.
The sun caught us just as we started the climb up the spur to the contour path.

Phew, nice breather – this little hill is steep!!!

The ascent is surprisingly steep in places, and twice I had to bring the convoy to a halt: first time was when a nice long snake sailed across the path in front of me (no idea which one it was, it had longish white stripes along the length of its body and was about 80cm’s long – it disappeared into a hole before I could take a photo) and the second time was when nature called and Karla had to answer that call. Before you could say “Poef” we were back on the contour path to Blind Man’s corner and making good time.
The mist came in again and obscured most of the mountain, so we just focussed on the path and carried on walking.

Stunning views before the mist obscured it all for a while

Mist obscuring the view of the mountain

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10 May 2015 19:51 #63699 by Riaang

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10 May 2015 19:54 #63700 by Riaang

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10 May 2015 20:01 #63701 by Riaang
This time I saw a nice grasshopper (didn’t step on it either), never seen one with these colours before.

Pretty in blue and orange

We stopped for a break at BM Corner and the kids stuffed their mouths with sweets again. How their intestines managed to cope with all that amount of sugar and fat I have no idea.

Another stop for snacks and a quick rest

I know that ridges are notoriously dry even in summer, so with this in mind I stopped at the last point I thought where we could get water (there was in fact one point about 1km further on but it was just a small trickle) and filled up everyones water bottles. This was a good move as the rest of the ridge had no water, except for the tarn just after the turnoff to Cowl valley and Ships Prow. I’m not sure if it’s safe to drink the water from a tarn, if anyone knows the facts please enlighten me.

On Shada ridge we got to see large sections of the escarpment and I could point out the different distinctive peaks to the kids. At this point they were like a horse smelling water and just wanted to get to the cave, pronto. I let Rynhardt walk in front for sections but he lost the vague path a number of times. He was looking straight down rather than ahead, but since he is short I’m not sure looking ahead would have helped much. Even I battled to find the track on sections, clearly the parks board is not doing much maintenance on this section of the trail. However, looking at the map you could pick up the general direction of where we had to go, so path or no path we continued forward in a Southerly direction till we got to the turnoff to Wondervalley Cave.

Stunning views from Shada ridge

Becoming a bit overcast again but still very pretty

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10 May 2015 20:08 #63702 by Riaang
Along the way the kids picked up “diamonds” and were asking me all sorts of questions about crystals, pricing per carat, clarity, sizing, would I please sell it on their behalf, how much did I think grandpa would pay them for the stones etc? I don’t think they were too impressed when I told them they were just simple stone crystals but agreed that we could perform the pressure test on them when we got off the mountain. In the meantime I could see them dreaming about buying mountains of chocolates, scramblers, fast cars (for dad ;-) ) etc.
Storm clouds were coming in from the East and a fresh wind was blowing in our direction. The breeze was refreshing but we were not in the mood to get rained upon, so I picked up speed to beat the rain. It never arrived as the wind changed direction and blew them away from us.
The last stretch to the cave is pretty steep and my battered feet was taking strain by now. The new boots are still very hard and the standard insoles are so thin I don’t know why they even bothered to include them. We were all very happy to see the cave and to put our packs down for the day.

Home sweet home for night 2
We had basically exhausted most of our water supplies, but fortunately there was a nice drip in the cave and I could collect about 1L of water every 30 minutes or so. In winter it will be a real slog down to the stream far below the cave. The kids knew the routine well by now and seamlessly settled in for the late afternoon drill. We made dinner, washed up (wet wipes), got our bedding organised and went to bed early. The moon was up and in the full moon you could clearly see the various ridges and distinctive features of Moncs Cowl and Cathkin peak. In the distance a lion roared and everyone sat up straight in their sleeping bags……. Err, nope, wrong dream, it was dogs barking in the valley below. I wondered where on earth they were from? Possibly poachers?

Moonlight in Wondervalley cave

I woke up at 2am to see the first bit of sunlight coming from the North. Wrong direction, wrong time, shucks, it was the bright moonlight that woke me up. Same thing happened to me at 4am but the rest of the fam was sleeping like rocks. I decided it was time to get up and make coffee just before dawn, it’s always so pretty when the first sunrays hit the mountaintops. The kids don’t share this sentiment yet, but when I unwrapped a Lunchbar I got them out of bed quickly. I’m sure they can pick up the sound of a sweet being unwrapped a mile away. This morning we got going a bit earlier and by 7am we started walking.

Sunlight at last

The previous night we debated whether to retrace our steps of the previous day and go down Kearlands pass, or to continue down Wondervalley and hike out of the conservation area and back round to the tar road and then to Moncs Cowl. On paper the second option sounded shorter, and we were all a bit concerned with the downhill sections and Sam’s ability to go down easily and without hurting herself. The total descent of the second option was much less than retracing our steps so we decided to go down Wondervalley. They say hindsight is the perfect science, and had we known what lay ahead of us we would probably have taken the other route. But, ignorance is bliss so we set off happy and cheerful, the kids talking up a storm.

Stunning views into Wondervalley below
How Karla can manage to unwrap and eat a sweet, carry on with a conversation, point out a pretty tree and walk down a steep rocky and grass covered section all simultaneously is still a mystery to me. She is clearly a very gifted multitasker.

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10 May 2015 20:20 #63703 by Riaang

Karla eating….again!
We soon got down the mountainside and carried on walking till we got to a stream. This was where the wheels came off. The map shows we had to cross the stream and then just after crossing turn left and walk down the stream to the river below. However, the path disappeared after about 20 meters. We were now outside of the conservation area and there were lots of cattle feeding around us, with lots and lots of cattle paths leading everywhere to nowhere. We wasted quite a bit of time trying to find the right path, and as soon as we would find one and start walking down it, it simply disappeared. This carried on for more than an hour and I was starting to get really frustrated. On the map our intended route was shown as a solid red line indicating a proper trail, but we simply couldn’t find it. The only option was to find the easiest and shortest route down the last stretch of hills down to the river. I inspected a couple of sections only to find most points to end in a vertical section of rock too high to descend. The ladies were getting anxious as they had to descend some really steep and rocky sections. I eventually found a reasonably safe spot with only a 2m vertical drop-off where we could get down, but the ladies were not interested in going down here at all.

Doesn’t look like much from below, but getting a visually impaired person down here safely was quite a challenge!

At this moment a group that passed us earlier the morning came back down a path and saw us, waving at us. Rynhardt was closest to them and raced up to meet them, they kindly waited for us and we all climbed back up to their position and walked safely down with them to the houses down below. They owned a property about 1km away and invited us along for eats and drinks.
Since it was Sam’s birthday we gladly accepted and hiked up the road to their house. The kids got a ride on the back of the bakkie, as did our backpacks. They entertained us with coffee, cookies, sarmies, and after resting for a bit they gave us directions on how to get back to Moncs Cowl campsite. We set off on the dirt road and made good progress, till I realised that we must have missed a turnoff somewhere as the road we were on had no tyre imprints on it. We backtracked, found the correct road and continued hiking down the jeep track. Rynhardt spotted a small green snake in the road. It looked like it was dead as it didn’t move when I gently poked it with my hiking stick. Turns out it was a Natal green snake.

Last couple of kilometres through private land to the tar road

Since this was private property we were walking on we encountered a couple of sections with electric fencing. We skirted around it to the North by bundu bashing through the veld closer to the mountain and crossing a final stream we eventually got to the tar road. The kids prayed for a lift and after walking about 200m a tractor towing a wagon appeared from behind. There was enough space for the kids and Sam so they hopped on. The tractor was going to Moncs Cowl campsite and was transporting a couple of other visitors from the campsite for a slow scenic drive around the area. Sanet and I was sorely tempted to also jump on the wagon but with just 2,4km’s to go we were determined to finish the circular route, so we slogged on till the end.
We got back to camp at around 3:30pm and took off our backpacks, kicked off our shoes and just sat down in the shade on the soft grass. Nice. I signed out the mountain register and we started pitching camp. I’ve done too many late night drives back from the Berg and had decided to rather camp over in Moncs Cowl campsite on the Sunday and drive back home the next day. After pitching camp the fire was lit and I sat down in front of the tent with Rynhardt and just stared at the mountains.

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10 May 2015 20:21 #63704 by Riaang

I think he likes mountains….
Lessons learned on hiking with kids:
• Kids like sweets. Lots of sweets. Lots, lots, LOTS of sweets
• They don’t particularly like bundu bashing, so where possible keep it to a minimum
• They do tire out eventually (once the lots of sweets are finished), watch out for this moment and reduce your pace dad
• A new routine is a disruption in their lives and they will take a day or two to adjust to the new environment
• Stop and show them the little things, the views, point out the different peaks to them, make it special for them and let them share your enthusiasm for the Berg
• Don’t underestimate their abilities, they are tougher than you might think 

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11 May 2015 13:20 #63708 by john mark 1
Good writup Riaang. You had me chuckling quite a bit with your kids reactions :silly:

I've always wandered what that path that crosses wander valley and then goes out of the reserve and back to the tar entrance road to Monk's Cowl is like.

Btw, after you left wander valley cave and had descended the first bit till you got to a stream where there is supposed to be a turnoff to the left that goes down to cross the river, did that path (the original path, not the turnoff to the left) seem to continue? I've been tempted to use it to make the wander valley cave day trip (from Injisuthi) into a circular trip, but never gotten around to it. We just retraced our steps last time.

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11 May 2015 13:32 #63709 by Riaang
Hi John Mark,

We didn't follow the original path running parralel to the mountain for very long as we were looking for the turnoff to the left. However, very soon after crossing the stream there were lots of cattle paths so I'm not even sure we were on the original path by that stage. I would therefore say no, I don't think the original path carries on as the path on the map goes left in any case.
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