Didima/Monks Traverse: Going on a Witch hunt

28 Sep 2015 21:32 #65218 by ghaznavid
Didima/Monks Traverse: Going on a Witch hunt

In life we all set ourselves goals. Some are easy, some are difficult, and others take a lot of time to achieve. One of my favourite quotes is this one by Denis Waitley: "The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don't define them, or ever seriously consider them as believable or achievable.”

While many of my Berg related goals have changed over the years, one of the ones that hasn’t budged even slightly is my goal of bagging 100 khulus. I don’t know how I came up with this number, and have never had a plan to stop at this number, but it is a goal that has always been there – well, since about 2010.

On 29 December 2009 at about 10:30AM I stood upon the summit of Rhino Peak, on 26 April 2012 I stood on the summit of Popple, on 23 May 2014 I stood on the summit of Giants Castel and on 11 July 2015 I stood on top of Andre’s Knob. Just some of the “high” points of my recent years of hiking.

So on Heritage Day, myself and Tony Marshall found ourselves waiting for a receipt for hiking permits at the Monks Cowl offices. We could feel it would be a hot day, and Berg rivers are notoriously dry in September. The car park was crowded with a large group heading to Zulu Cave, a SANDF group being run by DeonS and the occasional other hikers around the car park.

The walk up to the Sphynx was reasonably uneventful. It was very hot and my shirt was absolutely drenched before reaching Breakfast Stream. We took a break at the stream, it was reasonably crowded at the time.

As we pushed on to the contour path and beyond, the day grew hotter. At the first stream between Blind Mans Corner and Hlathikulu Nek, we filled up our bottles, not knowing how much more water we would see on this day. By this point we had passed the other groups going in our direction and largely had the mountains to ourselves.

When we reach the Mhlwazini River, we found it to be dry. Fortunately Tony knows this area well and we found water about 10m down the river. We stopped here for lunch, and DeonS’ team passed us once again.

I definitely wasn’t feeling my best, and was wondering if the old curse of Gray’s Pass was coming to haunt me once again. From the Mhlwazini River to KBC we took it very slow. We passed DeonS’ team again near the base of the pass. They had decided not to go up the pass, the expected crowd above the pass seemed to be clearing fast!

As we started up the pass I quickly realised that I wasn’t ok. By 2500m my pace had dropped off so drastically that Tony decided to take the balance of the tent off me. Around this time we also saw a team of 2 heading back down the pass. They had booked Nkosasana Cave, but decided to stash their packs on the pass and head up and back down in a day. Suddenly it looked likely that we would be alone at the top of the pass.

Perhaps it was a lack of fitness or perhaps I was just badly dehydrated, but I very slowly kept going, reaching the top of Gray’s Pass around 7PM. With the moonlight around, the lack of light wasn’t an issue – but the fact that this happened to me both times I have done Gray’s is concerning.

Friday morning arrived with the beeping on my cell phone. This would be a big day. Going into a hike with 95 khulus bagged, this should be a big day!

We start off with a pre-breakfast walk up Dragons Back. As we finish packing up our gear, we see 2 locals walking past. By 7:30 we begin to walk up the slopes of Maloreng – a khulu that has been the source of much discussion, mostly because of the lack of information about where exactly it is.

From the top of the pass we eyed out a possible rock pass that would top out in the dyke opposite the gully separating Maloreng from Nkosazana. It has a bit of a difficult scramble near the top, but I rate the pass will go.

We dropped down to the saddle and began the slog up Nkosazana. This was going to be our 1st 3300+m khulu of the trip. The first of many. It isn’t exceptionally steep, but I take it very slow and soon join Tony at the summit cairn. Not bad when it’s 9AM and you already have 3 khulus on this day!

From here we carefully identify the saddle between Nkosazana and Pampiring II – our quest to identify the topographical prominence of the khulus moves further forward.

We drop our packs and head up Pampiring II. This was a khulu I had added to the list. There are 2 summits, so we bagged both, but the further back summit is probably about 5m higher. Standing on the summit, our GPS devices both confirmed that the summit had more than 1km isolation, and on the way down we managed to confirm that it has prominence of more than 50m. This summit is a khulu by any definition, and thus I reach khulu number 99.

As we walk towards Pampiring, we decide to take a traverse around the base in order to check out Chris’ Reido Cave. While walking around, we see a very steep grass gully, and decide to use it to bag the khulu. We drop our packs and walk up. Tony is much stronger than I am, and yet again is waiting for me at the summit cairn. With a big smile on his face he shakes my hand and congratulates me on my 100th. He shared the summit with me for 7 of my first 10, seems fitting that he was with me for this milestone.

From here the highway is history – our next summit is the Witch.

Villager: We have found a witch, may we burn her?
Bedevere: But how do you know she is a witch?
Villager: She looks like one!

Bedevere: What makes you think she is a witch?
Villager: Well, She turned me into a newt!!
Bedevere: a newt?
Villager: I got better...


There seems to be 2 peaks that may be the Witch – and unfortunately both weigh more than a duck :lol:

But Monty Python references aside, for reference purposes, let’s call the approx. 3160m one the “Upper Witch” and the 3061m one the “Lower Witch”. As we approached the Upper Witch, we both agreed that the shape is rather pointy and could be seen as a witches hat. We scramble up it easily enough, noting the more than 1km isolation, and about 30m prominence. By the Murch definition of a khulu, this is most certainly one.

From here we proceeded to the Lower Witch – the one which Intrepid posted an RD of how to get up. The Lower Witch doesn’t even have 20m prominence and has less than 1km isolation. So on the “historical significance” inclusion, perhaps it is a khulu. But to my mind it really isn’t a khulu. Getting ready to pull some climbing gear out of my pack (about 1kg shared between myself and Tony – made up of 3 slings, 20m of 8mm rope, a belay device and a locking biner), when Tony tells me that he has found a trail. We follow the trail around to the escarpment edge side of the cliff, and take a very easy walk to the top. This has to have been one of the biggest anti-climaxes ever!

We had a look at Intrepid’s E route up the peak – it is higher than it looks in the photo!

From the summit of the Lower Witch, we had our lunch on a surprisingly dry tributary of the Didima River. Yet another hot day, but a productive morning.

We spent a lot of time debating the route, and had considered doing Didima Dome and Didima Buttress, but once again, my energy levels aren’t very high and we switch plans to slogging up to the Yodelers and spending the night in Didima Cave (technically this decision was a series of small decisions, but anyway).We hauled our packs to 3300m in the Saddle between the 3338m and 3323m Yodelers Peaks. From here we bagged the 3323m peak, our GPS measured prominence came out around 4m – thus showing a major flaw in the khulu definition. Because the saddle is 3319m, it has a contour ring, and because it has 1km isolation – it is a khulu.

Nonetheless we moved on and bagged the 2 peaks of 3338m. Tony’s GPS agreed with this height on both, my GPS decided that one was 3334m and the other was 3341m – rather odd when our devices were both identical on the 3323m peak!

From here we dropped back down to Didima Cave, and Tony shot down to the river to collect water for us.

Saturday morning promised yet another boiling hot day. We began the day with yet another pre-start climb. There is a little summit near Didima Cave – unfortunately it lacks 1000m isolation and has only about 30m prominence. Oh well, no harm done.

From the cave we traversed around the Didima River Valley, staying around 3200m before climbing the saddle near Yodelers Ridge Peak. We both had already bagged this khulu, but decided to bag it again – and not just because the trail goes right past it!

From here we motored along the highway, stopping for a good break where the trail turns towards Grays Pass via Nkosazana ridge. Along the ridge between Nkosazana and Ships Prow, we climbed the little summit in the middle – once again concluding that this one isn’t a khulu.

We traversed to the river from here, and stopped for lunch there. A local came to visit us, and quickly moved on after we got some photos with him and gave him some sweets.

We had planned on stashing our packs at our lunch spot – seeing as we planned to camp here – but now our plans were out the window. Instead we climbed over Ships Prow with our packs, left them and bagged Botlolong. We could see as far as Corner and Judge to the south, and Tooth to the north (although it was rather hazy and photos aren’t very clear).

From this summit we went up to the summit of Ships Prow, and from there onto Champagne Castle (wow – that took a lot less effort to write than it did to climb!)

We stopped for lunch on the summit. Our afternoon session would be long, but without a pack it would be easier.

We stashed our packs just over the top of the ridge, in a patch of long grass. My bright orange splash cover did a great job of working as cammo. We could only see my pack from about 1km away :lol:

Armed with a raincoat, some food, a water bottle, GPS, camera, cell phone and car keys – we are off towards Cowl View. Based on the name, we expect a good view – and we are not disappointed.

We continue down towards the Mhlwazini Gully (Champagne Eastern Gully? Not sure of the name of this gully, but I am pretty sure there is some history of climbing it in winter). The gully looks like torture, no plans of trying out that scree pit!

We also check out a really shoddy cave below Cowl View – perhaps in an emergency it would be helpful, but not much more than a rain shelter.

We continue up Mhlwazini Peak – this is a good one. High above the surrounds, and looking straight down at KBC.

We head back around the escarpment edge side of Cowl View (above the main cliff line) and make our way over the river that flows between Cowl View and Champagne to find ourselves in the Mhlwazini river valley. We proceed to cross the valley and climb the summit that is the nearest point to Monks Cowl on the escarpment. This peak isn’t a khulu, but it is one of the best viewpoints I have ever seen. My GPS tells me that we were roughly 230m from the summit cairn on Monks Cowl! For those of you who appreciate the view of nearby rock – put this one on your to-do list.

From here we continued around to Champagne Castle Buttress. We first climbed the rocky summit via an easy scramble, and then the pointy summit behind it. Both had a very similar view, with Giants Castle visible in the distance. We concluded that the rocky top is the khulu.

It was getting late when we succeeded in slogging back up Champagne to our packs. I had challenged Tony to find them without the use of his GPS, and he managed to end up only 100m off the mark. When I told him how far away it was, he turned around and spotted them almost immediately. The hiding spot was actually more concealed than we thought!

From here we hit the Nkosazana River and camped just below where we had lunch earlier in the day. Finishing this day at 5:40 meant that this was our earliest finish for the weekend to this point!

Sunday morning we were up at 5 again, and by 6:30 we were off. At 7:10 we stood at 3293m, looking down one of the Berg’s most feared passes. We chatted a bit about how one without a GPS in thick mist could get these passes confused – so here’s the easy way to tell: if you head up the river from Grays and don’t pop over the ridge, then you are above Cathkin Mountain Pass.

Ships Prow Pass really came and went very quickly for me. The pass isn’t actually that steep, it has a very good trail right through to 2300m. IMHO the end of the pass is the spot where you drop down to the riverbed – to this point there is nothing of concern on the pass. The trail is solid and easy to follow, the route easily avoids most of the scree, there is no exposure. The only factor is that you drop 1000m in about 2km and then follow this up with more than 2km of the approach before the contour path. There is a trail through the bush (without which it would be hard to break through the vegetation), but you could probably also just follow the riverbed. I rate the trail bought us at least 1 hour.

We stopped for a long break on the river, even having some tea before we moved on. The trail drops a lot before you reach the contour path, which is marked by a lot of cairns in the riverbed.

Tony will probably do a detailed writeup on the pass, so I won’t put the details of the pass here. All I have to say on the pass is this – if you go up it, give yourself a lot of time as it is a very long pass. Coming down it is easy, but the walkout is very far.

The walkout from Ships Prow is deadly. You start by climbing through thick vegetation before crossing a river. Then you climb even more hill only to drop down to Cowl Fork. You then climb again and eventually you see BMC. It is a monster of a walkout! To anyone who thinks that this pass should be done from the car park to the top in a day, you may want to think twice beforehand! It was a 22km day that took us over 9 hours to complete. We took just under 4 hours to get from the top of the pass to the contour path, and 17km in 5 hours from there isn’t exactly the slowest pace in history. I would not try to walk up this pass in a day – the walkin would be a proper full day on its own.

On the contour path we had to cross fire breaks that were being burned. While this didn’t really interfere with our walkout, it did kill our photos. We could barely see Monks Cowl from Cowl Fork due to the smoke!

Anyway, the stats for the hike:
Total distance: 82km
Total altitude gain and loss: 4345m
Total summits climbed: 20
Number of summits that were khulus: 16
Number of khulus above 3300m: 11
Number of photos I took: 470
The following user(s) said Thank You: elinda, DeonS, kliktrak, tonymarshall, marggraffd

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28 Sep 2015 22:21 #65219 by ghaznavid
Just to add some thoughts and stats not necessarily specific to this hike.

While 100 khulus has been one of my biggest goals for the last 5 years, there are still more than 50 non-technical khulus that I haven't done. Lesotho still has over 100 probably worthwhile 3200+m summits I am yet to have done, and there are at least 70 passes I haven't done (and easily 30+ undocumented routes that are well worth the effort). "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill.

So, seeing as I keep a lot of overly detailed stats, here's some top 3's:

Most distance I have hiked with individuals in the Berg:
1) Hobbit 677km
2) Andrew P 361km
3) Tony Marshall 359km

People I have shared the most summits with:
1) Andrew P 61
2) Michael R 45
3) Tony Marshall 24

My total days in the Berg is 160 over 76 hikes. That includes 107 khulus, 4 kgolos (2 are on both lists), 46 different High Berg passes and 2460km of hiking.

If you look at my stats by year, one could easily split them up on either side of my registration on VE.

Total kms done:
- Before VE: 185km
- After registering on VE: 2275km

Total khulus:
- Before VE: 1
- After registering on VE: 106

So a big thanks to everyone who has joined me in the mountains and helped me reach the 100 khulu mark, I am looking forward to getting in more hiking with all of you in the future. And an extra big :thumbsup: to Intrepid for putting together the most detailed and accurate source of info about the Drakensberg that is available at present. This website has been the best hiking club I have joined, putting me in contact with a lot of really awesome people.

A final though on this topic - I doubt that many people have bagged 100+ khulus, but I would imagine that I am the only person on the list that is yet to bag Mont-Aux-Sources :lol:

And seeing as my current VE picture is Túrin Turambar slaying Glaurung with Gurthang - here's one more random quote from Tolkien's book Children of Hurin:
"For victory is victory, however small, nor is its worth only from what follows from it."
The following user(s) said Thank You: intrepid

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29 Sep 2015 15:09 #65226 by Dillon
Thanks for the cool write up! Hope to see some pics added to this thread soon?

Didima/Monks Traverse: Going on a Witch hunt
To anyone who thinks that this pass should be done from the car park to the top in a day, you may want to think twice beforehand!


Challenge accepted! :woohoo:

I'm busy planning a route that will include Ship's Prow, a number of khulus and hopefully Apes Pass too, the tricky bit is squeezing it all into 2 days maximum.

How much of a mission is it to find the path going up the pass (as opposed to boulder hopping in the stream) from the contour path?

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29 Sep 2015 15:27 #65227 by ghaznavid

Thanks for the cool write up! Hope to see some pics added to this thread soon?

Thanks, I will hopefully get to that today or tomorrow - work is just rather hectic right now.

Challenge accepted! :woohoo:

I'm busy planning a route that will include Ship's Prow, a number of khulus and hopefully Apes Pass too, the tricky bit is squeezing it all into 2 days maximum.

How much of a mission is it to find the path going up the pass (as opposed to boulder hopping in the stream) from the contour path?


Good luck :thumbsup:

I rate we had the right idea - we followed the path till about 1.5km short of the contour path, thereafter just following the river. The trail through the overgrowth is great and much faster than boulder hopping. It gets progressively harder to follow the further down the pass you get. The time we spent in the riverbed wasn't an issue though, so I wouldn't stress. We managed to pick a line through the larger rocks (i.e. the stable rocks) and managed to avoid the vegetated areas. Tony marked all the key spots along the way, most notably the spot when you leave the riverbed and hit the trail that leads up the grassy slopes of the pass.

Personally I don't see why this pass gets such a bad wrap, I actually really enjoyed it. It has great views, is never too steep, the trail is great, no real scree to speak of, and (provided you hold the trail) the overgrown bits are short and really not bad.

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29 Sep 2015 19:53 #65235 by ghaznavid

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29 Sep 2015 19:56 #65236 by ghaznavid

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29 Sep 2015 20:02 #65237 by ghaznavid

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29 Sep 2015 20:04 #65238 by ghaznavid

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The following user(s) said Thank You: tonymarshall, Silverthorne, marggraffd

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30 Sep 2015 01:42 #65242 by intrepid

From here we proceeded to the Lower Witch – the one which Intrepid posted an RD of how to get up. The Lower Witch doesn’t even have 20m prominence and has less than 1km isolation. So on the “historical significance” inclusion, perhaps it is a khulu. But to my mind it really isn’t a khulu. Getting ready to pull some climbing gear out of my pack (about 1kg shared between myself and Tony – made up of 3 slings, 20m of 8mm rope, a belay device and a locking biner), when Tony tells me that he has found a trail. We follow the trail around to the escarpment edge side of the cliff, and take a very easy walk to the top. This has to have been one of the biggest anti-climaxes ever!

We had a look at Intrepid’s E route up the peak – it is higher than it looks in the photo!


Anti-climax :laugh: I wish I could say that I had done that on purpose just to rag you guys! Goes to the show the subjectivity of just one individuals observations. I was very hasty at the time, since I did it alone while a friend waited at Didima Cave, and this wasn't the only summit I wanted to check out. The clouds were also swirling up from below, creating some obscurity, but I think mostly I was just in too much of a hurry to look properly. Good to know there are easier ways to get up it.

Take nothing but litter, leave nothing but a cleaner Drakensberg.

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30 Sep 2015 08:36 #65243 by Viking
Nice one fellas.

That last pic is a winner for the fire comp IMHO.

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!”

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