Northern Berg Photo Trip August 2012

15 Oct 2012 01:25 - 15 Oct 2012 02:10 #55433 by Serious tribe
Escarpment photo trip: Sentinel Car Park to Mweni Pinnacles and back. – August 2012

Chris and I had been talking about doing a trip together when I next visited our fair land, and happily after a bit of juggling, we were able to get our diaries to work together. The plan was to do a trip that was primarily photography focused and the daily distances and overnight stops coincided with areas of photographic potential.

Chris picked me up from the Harrismith Spur after I had first delivered my hire car to the Budget offices, they were also kind enough to drop me off at the Spur. We got a take away and headed off to Phuthaditjhaba at the rather late time of seven pm.

Just outside of Phutj in almost pitch darkness we came across a bakkie with a group of gesticulating and shouting occupants telling us to stop. However we decided that given the late hour, and the ‘potential risk’ of mischief, we were definitely not going to stop and carried on up to Sentinel car park. About five minutes later, we came across the reason for their state of agitation. There in front of us, blocking almost the entire road was a fully loaded horse and trailer that had jack-knifed. Just past it, also partially blocking the road was an army Unimog. Now we were in a bit of a quandary. We certainly did not want to cancel our trip, so with a bit of direction from me and some tentative driving from Chris we managed to just squeeze his pint sized Hyundai between bush and trailer, rocks and Unimog. OK, obstacle neatly negotiated, and so onto the car park! What had happened was the horse had broken down and the Unimog had mistakenly thought that it could tow the whole kit and caboodle up the road and had burnt out its clutch. Yes they are powerful, but not that powerful!

By the time we started hiking, after having sorted out gear, paying and signing in, it was near to nine. Later than I had hoped given the thirteen km walk we had planned that night to iFidi Cave. With a new moon making the blackness of night even darker, we were glad we were running on a GPS track and that Chris is a good driver of such devices. At about two in the morning with the temperature having dropped to about -10 we climbed the last section of the valley leading to iFidi Pass. We should have filled up at a stream we had crossed earlier, but had to backtrack a couple of hundred metres to fill up. Ironically as we got closer to the cave we came across abundant water in the streambed courtesy of the huge amount of snow-melt from the recent heavy fall a week before.

We slowly climbed up the rock bands in which Verander Cave was situated, and after a brief search found it. We decided that to get images of the iFidi Pinnacles the official iFidi Cave would have to be given a miss. A good idea as it was now three in the morning and getting to the iFidi Cave would add at least another hour to the trip. As it was, digging out the snow in the cave and organizing the rest of the gear we only climbed into our bags at about four am and I tried vainly to get some shut eye. Not that it really mattered, as I would have to be up at six anyway to get some photography done. As the first fingers of light touched the upper escarpment I slowly climbed out of the sleeping bag. I was late. Not having any sleep the night before and still not fighting fit after a five-week flu, I was totally trashed and watched in subdued apathy as low cloud boiled up the gully and slowly covered the peaks I was intending to shoot. I should have been up earlier to take advantage of the interesting light, but was too tired to get out of the bag. Eventually I hauled myself out and walked to the edge, the clouds ebbed and flowed funneled between the islands of rock. The angle was all-wrong, too much rock weighed down the one side of the composition. I needed to be further to the left and the clouds kept obscuring the scene. I got off one shot and knew I would have to crop it quite severely to make it work. In the end cropping it square gave it a better balance.

Walking through the mist I successfully got back to the overhang and found Chris still passed out and snoring softly into his bag. Two coffees later he was looking a bit perkier and we sat and discussed the previous nights exertions. Neither of us had walked that far into the morning before and both felt the worse for it. At least the following days walk to Fangs Cave was only 10 km and we could look forward to a good nights sleep.

As we walked south toward Fangs, we passed buttress and peak, contouring and trying to keep our hard won height as much as possible. The clouds and mist that had bedeviled my early morning shoot continued to pass over us, at times obscuring the landscape completely. Not long after this images was taken, Chris climbed a Khulu that he had previously not had the time to do on other trips. He managed to notch up a few on this trip. Not being into that sort of thing, I decided to husband my strength for the rest of the hike so as to have some enthusiasm and energy for my photography.

We dropped down into the valley south of iCidi Butress and had a well-deserved rest and lunch before starting the climb up Stimela Ridge. My food on this trip for breakfasts and lunches was my normal basic menu, it was with the suppers that I was trying to lower the weight. Chris and I had discussed options for food and cooking and decided to go with just noodles and thick soups for suppers. Something which my cordon bleu sensibilities rebelled at, but realized that it would be a good weight saver. Anyhow, grin and bear it! In the end it was not that bad, but I could not wait for a steak when I got back to Harrismith.

After reaching the col near the top of Stimela, we contoured down a bit and paused for a while on a small outcrop near the top of Mbundini Pass. It was amazing to just sit there for a while, pause the conversation and be able to hear your heart-beat in your ears and just take in all that amazing space in front of you. The mist had cleared and beautiful lazy cirrus clouds were floating overhead, it was time to get down to Madonna and her Worshippers for a bit of late afternoon photography before heading to Fangs Cave for our second night.

August photography can be difficult. In addition to the haze from the burning season, the wind is particularly strong and gusty, this trip was proving to be a case in point. I had only packed a very light carbon fiber tripod to keep down the weight, and while it is a good stable platform, it needs to be secured. You can achieve this by attaching a bungy cord to the hook on the bottom of the central column, make a loop and place your big booted foot through it and push down. This creates and almost immovable support and helps to prevent camera shake and thus less than perfect images. You still need good light though! After a few shots, including the hiker in the red jacket image, de rigueur really, it was time to beetle off to our cave.

After dropping down Fangs Cave and then having to climb up a side gully, I was thankful to finally see the cave appear behind a rock. Thirty-six hours of no sleep and big packs tends to take its toll. After a ‘delicious’ dinner of noodles and soup, lights were out by seven and I woke at five thirty the next morning refreshed and ready for some photography. Sadly though, the sun was obscured behind some heavy clouds and the images I was looking for did not materialize. The clouds and mist though did provide me with at least one good image when it moved up the pass and started to curl around the rock fangs.

While we had planned to only stay one night at Fangs Cave, we decided that another night and morning would be needed in the hope of getting the images that I wanted. This was actually fine as the thought of having to pack and unpack was not one we were looking forward to.

A little later in the morning, we climbed out the gully and headed towards the Mweni Pinnacles. I had only seen them once on my first trip to the Mweni, and the view at the time had been fleeting. I was also keen to find Ian’s Kitchen, an area that John Hone had camped at a number of times and just sit there for a while and think about the man that had given me much encouragement to up my game. I did not find the exact spot, but moved further along the ridge to one that I liked. Just being in the same area however, was a treat, and I could imagine John first seeing the spot and contemplating how he was going to shoot it.

A crag lizard sunning itself.

Chris being watched by the man behind the snow curl

Overlooking Black and Tan Wall

Mweni Pinnacles

The following morning the clouds that had hampered the previous days shoot were gone, and the view of the side-lit rock pinnacles in Fangs Pass was perfect. A similar image taken by Plouw had inspired me to come to this place and I was happy I had. Facing out toward the east and looking down the pass I also got a good view of the Horns backlit by the morning sun and forming alternating bands of blue grey tones. The blues in this image were enhanced by converting the raw file using tungsten lighting.

For the last shoot day we hiked out of Fangs and to the nearby Madonna and her Worshippers (M&HW), Rat Hole Cave had been decided as our last sleep over. It sounded a little small and I was interested to see the cave. On finding it, I soon saw why it is called Rat Hole Cave, no prizes here. A very small cylindrical wormhole drilled into the rock! It did not look like it had enough room to swing a cat, not my cup of tea! To add to this, the entire back of the cave, and forward cooking area were filled with fresh baboon droppings. I managed to convince Chris about putting up his tent if I could find a flat area that was protected from the wind. Fortunately just near the top of the ‘pass’, in the lee of a rock island, I found just the spot. Flat, protected and near water, what more could you want. Chris owns a Hilleberg, a very large lightweight tent. Only the outer needs to be erected for a very good shelter and I was keen to see it in use. I also felt like being able to see the entire Milky Way that night, so no claustrophobic cave for me!

While I scoped out the views over Madonna and her Worshippers looking for good compositions, Chris took off to the top of Mbundini Abbey to look at potential climbing routes. The actual worshipers are a good kilometer from the top of the ‘pass’ so my idea of getting up close to them would have to wait for another trip. I had hoped to do some afternoon photography, however, once again things were not looking good. A huge bush fire down in the Mweni valley was causing columns of smoke to billow upwards obscuring the horns and surrounding peaks. I decided to continue shooting some of the smaller flowers near the river, laze around, relax and soak up some sun. In the end I did shoot a twilight image which I though came out quite nicely showing the smoke in the valley.

Note the smoke from the bushfire

The following morning was cold with a strong wind blowing in from over Lesotho. Smoke from the previous days bush fire hung like soft gauze in the valley, enhancing the orange-yellow cast of the suns rays, but being vague enough not to subdue it. Hunching over the camera to protect it from the buffeting of the wind, with the bungy cord pulling the tripod to the earth, I managed to get some dramatic but contrasty images of Madonna and her Worshippers. The sky off to the left of the image was about ten stops brighter than the cliffs in front of me, and in trying to prevent the skies from burning out, I was forced to render the cliffs almost black. Although our eye can cope with this dynamic range, a camera sensor can not. A good raw convertor, software and some photoshoping was needed to pull out images that I am happy to present to viewers.

Shooting until the last morning at M&HW meant we had a long haul of at least twenty plus kilometres to do to get back to our car. Again, Chris’s familiarity with the route, and gps tracks meant that we could do what he termed the ‘Khubedu Shunt’ in the most energy and time efficient manner. We actually ended up doing a slight variation of the route, which was even faster, and this was also added to his large database of waypoints. Once we had dropped into the Khubedu Valley proper, we could see how much the recent snowmelt had contributed to watering the entre area. A lot of the low-lying land was boggy and water-logged, Sloggart Ice Rat’s burrows included. It took a lot of careful placement of poles and feet on higher tussock grasses to navigate ourselves through these marshy areas.

Sloggart City

On one occasion, Chris launched off a small island of tussock grass and landed on a seemingly raised and solid grassy section. This liquefied almost immediately and the poor lad ended up shin deep in black gooey mud. He managed to extricate himself and with much muttering he plopped off to the river to clean himself off, fortunately he as good waterproof boots and long trousers so not a drop of mud passed his sock threshold.

We jumped across the Bilanjil River and climbed the last ridge of the trip. As most do I am sure, we stopped, and looked over the vast panorama in front of us. From the line of the Bilanjil our eyes scanned across to the Eastern Butress, Mount Amery poking up from behind a far off ridgeline, and then on into the distance from whence we had come. I turned my back and wondered when I would be walking these paths again.

The last section down the cutbacks was uneventful apart from the jarring reminder of habitation and small-minded people. On four different rocks along the trail some 'imbecile' had spray painted his name in bright red paint. Ag shame! Chris has added this to the wall of shame, and hopefully he can be brought to justice.

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Last edit: 15 Oct 2012 02:10 by Serious tribe.
The following user(s) said Thank You: elinda, Stijn, Hermann, plouw, Bigsnake, Jax, ghaznavid, brio, Boerkie, tonymarshall, Sabine, HFc, Captain, Spykid

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15 Oct 2012 05:45 #55434 by Stijn
Karl, spectacular photos as always... the kind that make me want to head into the mountains right now! And thanks for the detailed report with some insight into your photographic method. Always interesting to get some perspective on the thought and effort that goes into getting these shots. :thumbsup:

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15 Oct 2012 06:25 - 15 Oct 2012 08:09 #55435 by plouw
Wow Stijn said, spectacular photos as always.
Glad you got the shot!
that one taken further up from fangs cave is just as impressive!
Last edit: 15 Oct 2012 08:09 by plouw.

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15 Oct 2012 06:48 #55436 by Serious tribe
Thanks guys. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and those that have gone before, and hopefully I can add a few new ideas

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15 Oct 2012 07:17 #55437 by Sabine
Spectacular Photography! Thanks for sharing

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15 Oct 2012 08:07 #55438 by SeriousTribe2

Especially Image 5 and the silhouette shot. Awesome. Some of your best yet. Wish to hell I had been there.

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15 Oct 2012 10:14 #55442 by tiska
Thanks for the trip report and great photographs ST.

A few questions:

what lenses did you take with you? The meta data shows 28mm?
Did you use the software that merges -1, 0 and +1 exposure photos?
Can you say more about tungsten lighting?

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15 Oct 2012 10:15 #55443 by tiska
and one more....
where/how do you carry the 5D? Its quite a heavy piece of gear and I haven't managed to settle on a plan for mine yet. A camera bag tends to swing around a lot, especially going up steep section when you're leaning forward.

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15 Oct 2012 13:15 #55444 by elinda
Thanks for sharing your beautiful photographs with us Karl - very inspirational and makes me just want to be right there!

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15 Oct 2012 17:02 #55446 by ghaznavid
Nice writeup and pics!

I see you guys got to Sentinel car park quite late? Any idea what time the gate closes - on my 9 summits attempt later this year I suspect we will arrive there fairly late and I hope to leave there the next evening after having done Namahadi. That should cut out the driving to Harrismith the next morning and hopefully allow us to overnight with better accommodation. This would trigger a chain reaction that gets us off KwaDuma during the late afternoon rather than early at night...

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