Nhlangeni/KaNtuba Pass: So far away

08 Feb 2016 22:28 #66955 by ghaznavid
Nhlangeni/KaNtuba Pass: So far away

Vergelegen has always been a bit of a mystery to me. On my first GT, we took the “Vergelegen Bypass” line – a route where you go inland from Sani, climb Thabana Ntlenyana, follow the Mohlesi River and head over Mlahangubo quite far inland. So when I did my second GT, I made a point of following the escarpment edge from Mohlesi to KaNtuba, and on my latest GT, we followed the escarpment edge for almost the entirety of the Vergelegen region – only going inland from Ngaqamadolo to Nhlangeni.

So – having bagged all the non-technical khulus at Vergelegen, I had still not so much as driven on the road past the Vergelegen turn off. With this in mind, I decided – in 2016 I would hike at Vergelegen.

Seeing as the reason I had never been to Vergelegen is the status of the road as “4X4 only” – this story will start in Himeville. Late on Friday afternoon, myself and AndrewR found ourselves on the dirt road that leads to Nottingham Road. The road is rough in places, but nothing that requires anything more than slow driving. After driving down a big hill, a sign is seen for the Vergelegen turn off.

The road is pretty standard for a dirt road, but with the heavy rain for the last few days had seen heavy rains in the area, so before we even reached the gate for the reserve, we had to drive through two rivers that were flowing over the bridges. Once we reached the reserve gate, the road got considerably worse. There was a lot of mud, and another overflowing bridge near the car park. Overall, there is nothing you need a high clearance vehicle – your Ferrari won’t get there, but a standard suspension car without all-wheel-drive should be fine. Just don’t go there when there has been a lot of rain, and I’m not entirely sure how 2 cars would pass each other on the road.

After paying our fees and handing in our pre-completed hiking register, we set off for Birds Nest Cave at 5:30PM. We had agreed to leave the tent at home and share some gear in the interests of going light. This was helpful as our pace was very good. The trail was almost a river in places, and every little stream crossing had become a mission due to the amount of rain in the last week.

3km in, you hit a side-river crossing. It was about knee deep on this occasion, but nothing to major without shoes on. The trail includes a lot of up and down, and you start very low – but somehow our pace remained above 4km/h.

The second river crossing – 6km in – was a concern. The river was above knee deep, and too fast to see the bottom. With a lot of lost time and effort, we safely made it across. It was now roughly 7:15, getting dark and we were only halfway to the cave. We had known we would arrive in the dark, so we were prepared for this. Always seems logical to hike in a reserve you have never been to before, without a tent, knowing your will get to your cave in the dark.

We lost the trail a few times, but always managed to find it again. By 8:30PM, my GPS was saying we were close to the cave. As it has done so many times before, the GPS lead us to a spot where we were standing on top of a cave roof, and having to figure the way down to it. Fortunately it was quite easy on this occasion.

Birds Nest Cave is quite a long narrow cave. The talk of having to sleep parallel to the cave walls isn’t necessary though – the overhang was quite substantial where we slept.

Saturday morning – up bright and early to the sight of high but thick cloud. We went back up to the trail we had been on the day before, and continued to follow it up the valley. The walk to the base of Nhlangeni Pass took longer than expected. The trail dies about 2km before the Mohlesi/Nhlangeni junction (the base of the pass).

The mist did clear up in patches, affording us some great views of King Kong and Nhlangeni Pass.

I did the top 150m of Mohlesi Pass as part of my most recent GT, and looked down the pass from the top – looking up the pass from below, I have to say that there is a striking resemblance of the gully to that of Corner Pass – however, it looks like the gully can be skipped by keeping to the true right slope. David Bristow’s description of it as a technical route seems like a bit of an exaggeration – I am not even convinced that it is a rock pass. Now to plan a hike up it to confirm my suspicions…

The walk in to the pass turned out to be 19km – so definitely one of the longer pass walkins in the Berg. Initially you follow the riverbed, which includes some rock hopping (probably easier when the river isn’t flooded). Eventually the river goes off to the side, and from about 2600m you climb a steep grassy ridge up the middle.

Near the top, my GPS was indicating that we were too far north. I had stood above this pass a few times, so I wasn’t particularly worried (i.e. the top is quite wide) – but when a bit of mist cleared briefly, I realised that we were about to hit a cliff. My memory of the south slopes of Mohlesi suggested that we could navigate around each cliff – but that isn’t something I wanted to attempt in the mist.

After traversing 150m to our left, we found ourselves emerging above the mist at the top of the pass. Greeted by a view of Thabana Ntlenyana, it felt great to be on top once more! We reached the top around 2PM – 7 hours to get there from the cave.

We immediately set off for Sehonghong Cave – a small cave just south of the top of the pass. Apparently this recent rainfall has been very good, because our cave looked more like a pond.

Not being one to accept my situation, I immediately looked at digging a drain to dry the cave out – but unfortunately there were massive boulders lodged in the ground making this impossible. Instead I dug a drainage pit inside the cave, and used my pot to empty it. Andrew helped move gravel into the cave, and after about 1h30 of work, we had a dry floor to sleep on.

The drainage hole had been filling up quite quickly, so we decided that we should leave the cave for an hour or so, and then come back to see where the ground water settled.

We went down to the Sehonghong River for supper. It was breezy, but otherwise perfect weather for a relaxed meal.

About 1h30 after leaving the cave, we returned only to find a considerably smaller pond where the massive one had been. We agreed it wasn’t practical to put in another 2 hours of draining the cave without any guarantee it would work – but we both agreed that if we dropped down to Nhlangeni Cave, we would probably go down Nhlangeni Pass instead of KaNtuba Pass. So instead we opted to hunt for another undocumented cave.

We walked around the SA side of Sehonghong II, and over the top of Sehonghong without so much as a moderately promising cave. On our way down Sehonghong, we found a little cubby hole without any real roof, but with walls on 3 sides and a flat sleeping area. After some more “Extreme Home Makeover: Caveman Edition” – we had a relatively flat floor and a tarp secured to the surrounding rock. It wouldn’t be great if it rained, but it would keep the dew off, and the cliffs would be good shelter from the wind.

By the time we were in our sleeping bags, it was already 7:30PM. We agreed that an early start was in order – mostly because we didn’t expect to sleep well, but also because of the long drive back home, and the fact that the walkout would be long.

The wind during the night was cold, but a -7C bag with the cowl nice and tight proved more than adequate. I did wake up a few times during the night, but slept very well considering the fact that every time I opened my eyes I was seeing stars!

We packed up very quickly on Sunday morning, and found ourselves staying our sleeping bags for an extra 10 minutes before setting off. At 4:50 we were off – it was still dark, but first light was on its way.

We summited KaNtuba Buttress as the sun came up. The view from this peak is always special, but sunrise just adds to it. The morning was very clear – we could see the Knuckles, Tsepeng, Redi and even Giants Castle in the distance. Not a bad view at all!

From here we traversed around to KaNtuba Pass – GPS marking the saddle along the way. As it turns out, KaNtuba Buttress has about 51m prominence, not that handheld GPS devices are very accurate for measuring this.

To the best of my knowledge, KaNtuba Pass is the highest pass top in the Berg (and by extension – the highest in Southern Africa). Topping out at roughly 3300m, it beats the Ships Prow gullies by a few meters – and personally I am struggling to find many passes that even top out as high as Nhlangeni Pass’ 3244m (off hand, just Ships Prow, Cathkin Mountain and KaNtuba).

The top of the pass is reasonably steep grass. We were forced to the true right in the interests of avoiding scree. From here we found a trail that lasted a short distance, terminating just above Intrepid’s KaNtuba Fin.

From here we found ourselves traversing further and further right, staying around 50m above the river at all times. I had Dave G’s GPS track loaded, but in clear weather it wasn’t needed – although whenever I looked at it, we were exactly on it – so this pass route must be a really obvious one if we could follow it so precisely without even trying!

It is strange when you feel like you are most of the way down a pass, but you are still at 2900m! On Ships Prow you can see you have a long way to go still, but KaNtuba Pass has a base around 2550m – probably one of the highest pass bases in the Berg (Walkers Ridge is 2630m, but I don’t know of any others that are that high). At the base of the pass, you look straight up 2 gullies that look rather simple. Seeing as Manguang Pass is around the corner from here, I am assuming these are the Dykes Pass gullies. I had looked down them on New Year’s Eve 2015 and thought they looked pretty good – now to make a plan to bag them…

We took a break on the river at the base of the pass. It was a good long break, but seeing as we got down the pass in under 2 hours, we felt we had earned it.

Around the base of the pass, we began to traverse out to the left. We held our altitude for a while, and soon found a faint trail that gradually descended till it hit the top of the ridge off KaNtuba Buttress around 2500m. This spot included great views from Redi right through to the slopes north of Sani Pass.

We followed the top of the ridge, dropping down towards Birds Nest Cave about 2km before the Sulphur Springs – this would cut off a lot of distance compared to the trail shown on the map that may or may not actually exist.

The grass slopes were steep, but not nearly as steep as those one may use in other parts of the Southern Berg. Cliffs didn’t prove to be much of a problem, although it did take a long time to get down to the trail. Along the way we saw a jackal and 3 greysbok [I’m not great at identifying wildlife, but something of that size with a white bushy tail].

We stopped for another reasonably long break when we hit the Nhlangeni Pass approach trail, we were 450m from Birds Nest Cave, and hoped to be at the car by 2PM – so we knew it would be a push to finish this route that quickly, but we would still try.

We looked down at Birds Nest Cave as we walked past, and found both river crossings much easier on the walk out than they had been 2 days earlier. The walkout was mostly uneventful – we did find a nice shortcut that ditches about 500m of the road section of the route. At 1:50 we walked into the car park. A good weekend indeed!

Stats:
Distance: 51km
Gross altitude gain: 2430m
Photos taken: 255

Ratings of passes:

Nhlangeni Pass gets a 6/10 difficulty rating IMO – it is steep in places, and lacks a trail, but the real difficulty is the 19km walkin. I would recommend taking day 1 to Bridge Cave and starting the pass fresh. From the Mohlesi split, it is 1km vertical, and the lowest point on the walkin is roughly 1400 – in addition to a large amount of up and down on the walkin – that adds up to a pretty difficult package. The pass itself is pleasant, although I can’t really comment on the views due to having done most of it in the mist.

KaNtuba Pass gets a 5/10 difficulty rating – it is sustained at a very nice gradient. The grass is firm and very wide, facilitating your choice of line over big chunks of it. The walkin is shorter than Nhlangeni Pass (ironically enough – seeing as most of the walkin is common), the altitude gain is also more spread out. I imagine it would be a nasty pass to go up, simply because you would be pretty tired after walking in, and would still have to ascend the pass – but it would be better broken up than Nhlangeni Pass. I am not aware of any convenient caves at the base, but there were spots to pitch tents on the true left of the river at the base of the pass.

Photos to follow soon.
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09 Feb 2016 11:26 #66966 by ghaznavid

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09 Feb 2016 11:29 #66967 by ghaznavid

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09 Feb 2016 11:33 #66968 by ghaznavid

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09 Feb 2016 11:39 #66969 by ghaznavid

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09 Feb 2016 11:41 #66970 by ghaznavid

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09 Feb 2016 11:49 #66971 by Biomech
Thanks Ghaz. Looks like you guys had a ball!

That's a pretty awesome puffadder by the way!

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09 Feb 2016 13:11 #66972 by Dillon

ghaznavid wrote:



Haha, I would've been busy packing up my tent just below Tsepeng at the moment this pic was taken.

"Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous."

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09 Feb 2016 13:17 #66973 by ghaznavid

Dillon wrote: Haha, I would've been busy packing up my tent just below Tsepeng at the moment this pic was taken.

Small world!

That photo was largely just a case of messing around with my 44X optical zoom (and an excuse to use my 100g 30cm tripod) - but GE tells me that Tsepeng is roughly 30km from KaNtuba Buttress. Just goes to show how clear that morning was!

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09 Feb 2016 13:37 #66974 by Papa Dragon
Awesome pics, thanks ghaz :thumbsup:

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