Memories are Made of This: 3-day hike to Vulture's Retreat, Monks Cowl Area

03 Nov 2016 15:20 - 05 Nov 2016 06:59 #70133 by andrew r
Doing a long day-hike together at Golden Gate earlier this year had triggered my sons’ (18 & 20) interest in doing more outdoor adventuring in the Berg, and since one of the consequences of #feesmustfall is that it will effectively chew up half of my older son’s Christmas vacation, we decided at short notice to use the time while the university was closed (in order to make the necessary preparations for remote learning) to head for the mountains together on his first escarpment hike. Matric responsibilities for the younger sibling meant that it was just going to be the two of us, which also meant that I already had most of the necessary equipment to keep the venture light & fun.

The Northern/Central berg was the obvious choice since Matthew is studying at UFS in Bloemfontein, and home for the rest of the family is just outside Mtubatuba, Zululand. The Northern Berg is also where I have gained most of my (limited) hiking experience, so I settled on a 4-day hike from Monks Cowl: day 1 from the campsite to Keith Bush Camp via the Sphinx, Blind Man’s Corner & Hlatikhulu Nek; day 2 up Gray’s Pass to Vulture’s Retreat & Mhlwazini Peak, sleeping in iNkosazana Cave; day 3 up Champagne Castle Peak, then down Gray’s Pass and on to Blind Man’s Corner campsite; Day 4 stash packs, up Sterkhorn & back to the Ezemvelo Wildlife campsites.

With that plan in mind and all of the necessary supplies & gear sorted, we set off on Tuesday from different sides of the country and met up at a self-catering cottage a few kilometres from the Monks Cowl gate that afternoon. Up early the next day and 6h00am saw us filling in the mountain register, but then I found I’d left my lightweight fleece top at the cottage so a quick dash back to fetch it meant it was 6h45 before we set off up the trail under low cloud & misty conditions.

Fuelled by youthful enthusiasm, Matthew set off at a cracking pace but fortunately the trail starts quite steeply and soon he settled back into a rhythm that I felt more comfortable with, and we climbed steadily past the Sphinx and up to Breakfast Stream where we stopped for breakfast (naturally) comprising bacon & egg rolls that we’d made earlier, washed down with sweet Berg water. We reached the contour path at Blind Man’s Corner just before 9h00 and the mist had thickened (or we had hiked up into it); as we hiked in & out of the valleys along the contour path towards Hlatikhulu Nek, the mist lifted a bit to reveal the green rolling hills of the Little Berg (but not the mighty peaks overhead). By the time we reached the river crossing on the Mhlwazini River floodplain just after 11h00 it was only the High Berg that was still shrouded in cloud, and we took a tea-break to cool off by the river, which was flowing nicely after the previous drizzly week. Soon we were off again on the deceptively tough trek up the valley bottom from the river crossing to Keith Bush Camp; It always seems like you are just about there when you start up the valley but the altitude gain is significant and the ring-barked pine trees seem to take an age before they come up alongside & are left behind.



Anyway, by 12h15 we were outspanned at KBC and tucking into lunch, followed by a relaxed afternoon setting up camp, watching the wildlife & cleaning up by the stream. I had bitten the bullet and packed a good but heavy (750g with protective case) pair of 10x42 binoculars which we put to good use identifying two grey rhebok on the opposite slopes and the five dagga smugglers making their way down Gray’s Pass. We didn’t ever see them (the smugglers) get to the bottom and it became evident why when we came down the pass ourselves a few days later: the smugglers no longer follow the traditional route down the crest of the final ridge, but instead have established a route which traverses left into the main gully, which allows them to descend the final portion of the pass out of sight of any residents at KBC.
We didn’t need the binos to ID the two klipspringers that were determined to stake their claim to KBC by standing prominently on rocks less than 30m from our tent. A privilege to share the space with them, but they did give us the jitters after we’d settled in for the night and one of them must have dislodged a rock it was standing on. Remember, we had not actually seen the smugglers heading off down the valley from Grays Pass…





A mild night ensued under the cloud blanket (although Matthew got cold in the early hours as his sleeping bag was sub-spec and he has almost no body fat) and the day dawned bright & clear, the dark shadows on the sheer cliffs above slowly being washed off by the pink sunlight. We were up, breakfasted, packed & ready to go by 7h10 and soon we were glad to have got off on a fairly early start as we were under the full assault of the hot morning sun. Steady hiking all morning with regular pauses and one longish stop ensured that we made good progress upwards.



During the longer stop we noticed a crow dive-bombing a bigger bird on the ground, and whipped out the binoculars to see that it was a large raptor on a kill, seemed to be a small antelope or large hare (about the size of a large Dassie but lighter in colour). The bird was almost certainly a Verreaux Eagle (although we had seen four Jackal Buzzards together a little further down Gray’s Pass that appeared to be two adults & two juveniles). After 10-15 minutes of harassment from the crow the eagle grabbed the carcass and flew off in a low swoop a short way down the valley & out of sight.

for the birders:
Warning: Spoiler! [ Click to expand ]


We carried on upwards, and at 10h30 we topped out of the pass and Matthew found himself on top of the Escarpment for the first time under his own steam (one trip up Sani Pass in a 4x4 hardly counts). We headed to iNkosazana Stream and spent some time cooling off, refuelling & recovering, and doing a bit of tidying up. There is a lot of Basutho foot traffic using Gray’s Pass to access KZN and it is clear that the stream crossing is a popular resting point judging by the litter: mahewu boxes, bread & rice packets, concentrated juice sweeteners, & empty plastic bottles. While retrieving some plastic from a clump of grass & rocks I was loudly hissed at but didn’t poke around to investigate, preferring to leave the hisser in peace. After this we headed off to Vulture’s Retreat where we had lunch and spent several hours vulture-watching and soaking in the vistas. Conditions were perfect with full sunshine & a breeze which allowed the vultures to soar, glide & swoop effortlessly around in the natural amphitheatre. Using the binoculars we could see literally hundreds more vultures perched in their nests on the cliff faces.

By 14h30 we were ready for some more exploring so we headed back and stashed our packs above a rocky outcrop, and as we did so a Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier) came winging down the valley. We headed up the escarpment peak opposite iNkosazana Cave, which I understand to be Mhlwazini (we ascended the slightly lower peak on the left as you face east). The views north, south & east are magnificent from here: in the north we could just make out Sentinel in the distance, then Eastern Buttress with Devils Tooth, then the Cathedral Range and the steep escarpment cliffs between Cathedral & Didima; Southwards I don’t know the peaks but we could see as far as Giants Castle where the escarpment kinks west and out of sight. There were numerous Cape Vultures cruising the up-draughts as well as some extremely swift Swifts or Martins frequently whistling past, as well as a guest appearance very close by of a mature Bearded Vulture, probably the same one we had seen earlier, close enough that we could clearly see its beard and red ring around its eye. We spent another hour here, and the intermittent cell signal allowed us to send a couple of photos & messages home.

Returning to our packs we made our way to iNkosazana Cave to assess how habitable it was, which turned out to be OK; that is, the front portion was fine but dusty from the ash of several shepherd’s fires, and the middle portion was damp but not actually wet, while the back was sodden with constant drips. We laid out the groundsheet we had with us that covered the front portion perfectly and were soon settled in, carrying out home-improvements like arranging rocks for side-tables and brewing tea/hot choc. By 18:30 we had been fed, watered & were horizontal in our sleeping bags waiting for it to get dark enough to see the stars. We heard a jackal call, and then I fell asleep before it was fully dark outside but woke a couple of times in the night and each time the night sky was a myriad of stars.



Next day dawned bright & clear again, and while Matthew ran off to take some early-morning photos, I packed up & got ready for breakfast. Due to dwindling gas supplies (when planning I had not worked out that heating water/food for two people uses twice as much gas as heating for one) we had decided that we would try and descend Gray’s and then push all the way through to the EKZNW Monks Cowl campsites that afternoon. But first we wanted to head up the Drakensberg’s third highest peak, so just after 7h15 we set off from the cave, filled our water bottles, stashed our packs and headed off southwards on a raid up Champagne Castle (3377m). Without packs we moved swiftly and we were soon admiring the views from the top and then ventured down the front side to look over the valley below Ships Prow. Well worth the extra time. We sat there for a bit, and then contoured around between Champagne Castle & Cathkin Peak back to our packs. A quick refill with icy cold water from the stream, and at 9h55 we headed down the pass.





It was a pretty uneventful trip down, but I did spend quite a bit of time thinking about the team who inadvertently headed off straight down the gully and had to turn around and claw their way back up when they found there was no other way out. The sun was blazing and slowly the light green patch of Keith Bush Camp got bigger and closer. On the lower reaches of the route we encountered a large troop of baboons but they kept a long way ahead of us and were no trouble. By 12h20 we were on the valley bottom and heading for the cool refreshing pools at the river crossing, where we spent a bit more than an hour lunching.



Then it was back to the pleasant meandering in & out the valleys along the contour path, this time with the soaring peaks above all in full view and the afternoon light turning the well-watered hills of the Little Berg a rich verdant green. When we reached Blind Man’s Corner we had a quick look at the campsite and agreed that it was unlikely we’d head up Sterkhorn on this trip, so we headed on down to EKZNW Monks Cowl, this time via Keartlands Pass. Despite the fact that we were pretty tired after a full day’s hiking, and the fact that this route seems to be a bit longer than the Sphinx route, I really liked the narrow well maintained pathway, the way it zig-zags down the valley wall and the fact that it seems so remote & unused, off the usual hotel tourist route.





We got back to sign the mountain register at 17h30, tired and a little sore in the legs & shoulders but really grateful for the time we’d shared in the mountains together and the memories that will last forever. After we showered & were lounging on the grass debating whether to camp in our tent or head for a solid roof somewhere in Winterton, the clouds began rolling in, heavy with rain & thunder so we phoned home and got mom/wife to book us into a self-catering chalet for two nights. Glad we did too because that night erupted in a series of electrical storms up & down the Berg.

Next day we tossed up whether to go to the Cannibal’s Cave parkrun but settled on a big breakfast and then went back to EKZNW Monks Cowl for a day hike on the loop up to Nandi Falls where we had lunch, returning via Hlatikhulu Forest, 9km round trip and a really fun hike and a great way to end off four very special days in the mountains.

postscript: sorry for the hazy photos. I inspected the lens on my phone camera when we got home and found it to be quite dirty & scratched. A bit of polishing with toothpaste & a makeup bud has made a huge difference (thanks google).

make a difference. today.

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Last edit: 05 Nov 2016 06:59 by andrew r. Reason: fixed fonts

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03 Nov 2016 21:02 #70139 by Papa Dragon
Hi Andrew
Thanks for an interesting write-up and pics, seems you had a good hike..
It's always great to get our kids into the Berg..
Just one thing, your last day day hike should have been Sterkhorn, not Nandi Falls :laugh:
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03 Nov 2016 21:52 #70140 by ghaznavid
Thanks for the writeup - seems like you guys had a great trip!

Had a good chuckle at your limited experience comment - you are most certainly not a newbie hiker!

Vultures Retreat and Mhlwazini have incredible views. I will always remember looking straight down at KBC from Mhlwazini and seeing red tents at the camp - I looked at my GPS and realised that KBC wasn't even 1km away horizontally, but was over 1km away vertically!

For Nkosasana Cave, we also used that sleeping spot a few weeks ago. When we used the cave in winter this year, we were forced to use that area because of how wet the back was - so I am going to speculate that you can rarely use the other sleeping areas outside of a dry winter. Admittedly my sample size is 2, I'm sure others on the site will know better. Not a cave I have had great experiences with, especially the most recent one.

We also hear jackals calling throughout the night a few weeks back.
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04 Nov 2016 07:03 #70142 by Smurfatefrog

ghaznavid wrote: For Nkosasana Cave, we also used that sleeping spot a few weeks ago. When we used the cave in winter this year, we were forced to use that area because of how wet the back was - so I am going to speculate that you can rarely use the other sleeping areas outside of a dry winter. Admittedly my sample size is 2, I'm sure others on the site will know better. Not a cave I have had great experiences with, especially the most recent one.

Last year December we used all 3 sections of the cave, shows how dry it was back then! But yeah I think its normally a 2 sleeper
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04 Nov 2016 13:22 #70150 by AdrianT

andrew r wrote: It was a pretty uneventful trip down, but I did spend quite a bit of time thinking about the team who inadvertently headed off straight down the gully and had to turn around and claw their way back up when they found there was no other way out.


Yip that would be me Adrian Tregoning and Sean Robertson. But we aren't the only ones to have made that error. Terrible place at night :) Terrifying in fact - standing on a bed of marbles.

Fantastic write up, thank you very much for the effort and for the pictures. Vultures Retreat is such a special place. As an ex-paraglider it is the place you'd want to launch off if you're skilled at cliff launches, because watching those incredible birds for even a short moment is worth more than 10 years worth of DSTV - which is still why I have never owned a tv.

Looking forward to the next post with your sons! Even #feesmustfall has a silver lining. We have to keep positive in this awesome, but trying, country of ours :)
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04 Nov 2016 14:26 #70151 by elinda
I loved your write up Andrew R - thanks so much - really well written. Its great that you could spend time with your son in the mountains, always a special place to be!
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11 Nov 2016 17:22 #70193 by andrew r
Here are some of Matthew's photos that really capture what it's like to be in the mountains:
Keith Bush Camp under clouds


Dusk at KBC under the watchful Monk


Dawn light on the Escarpment cliffs


Happy duo at the top of Grays Pass


On the summit of Mhlwazini


Dawn Light from the top of the Escarpment


Spring Dawn at 3000m


Contour path afternoon vistas


Afternoon light on Keartlands Pass

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