Bannerman Pass – Langalibalele Pass
By George Brits
We recently decided to give the Berg a bash, but being a tad out of shape, decided on one of the easier routes to the escarpment: up Bannerman pass, and down Langalibalele pass in the Giant’s Castle section of the park. We did the trail over four days, although it is quite possible to do it in three if you are pressed for time.
The trail starts at the Giant’s Castle Camp in the central Drakensberg. It ascends the little Berg via Bannerman path and the first night is spent in Bannerman hut. It then ascends the main berg via Bannerman pass and traverses south to Langalibalele pass. The escarpment traverse is just over six kilometres in length. It is not particularly onerous and can easily be done in a day. From here it is one continuous descent via Langalibalele pass and Langalibalele ridge back to camp.
This trail is one of the gentlest ways to get to the escarpment of the Drakensberg on foot. The last section of Bannerman pass may be marked on the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife hiking map as “difficult, may require ropes”, but we don’t think this is warranted. The return trip from Giant’s Castle camp to the top of Langalibalele is listed in the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife promotional material as a day trip. They do caution that it is long and arduous, but it is still listed as a day trip. So, not that hard at all.
Apart from the first night, which can be spent in Bannerman hut, overnighting is out in the open. So, do carry a tent. The little shop at Giant’s Castle stocks a basic supply, but you will have to bring your hiking provisions with you. However, they do have a decent restaurant, which is a huge bonus at the end of the trail.
There are ablution facilities near the designated car park for overnight hikers. Very useful for a hot shower before you hit the road for the trip back home.
All map references refer to the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife hiking map no. 3: “Giant’s Castle”, third (current) edition.
The total distance of the trail is 32km and the total elevation change is 1600m.
Day 1: Camp to Bannerman Hut
We arrived at Giant’s Castle just after eight in the morning on a clear and pleasant late summer’s day and set off as soon as we had filled out the mountain register. The trail sets off from the parking area / campsite just north of the hutted camp (i.e. the side you come in from).
As an aside, there are signs at the designated overnight parking spot warning you to cover the windscreen wipers of your car because the crows in the valley have developed a taste for rubber. In our experience, you are well advised not to ignore these signs!
Out of the campsite, the trail drops steeply to the river bed on a cemented path, crosses the river on a foot bridge and then starts climbing steeply. From this point the track runs straight towards the mountain for six odd kilometres, climbing at a steady rate of about one hundred metres per kilometre. Unfortunately, for most of this stretch, the main escarpment is out of sight; it is not until you are quite high up the trail that the escarpment shows itself in all its splendour.
At the end of this stretch, the bulk of the day’s suffering is over. Once you have turned right onto the contour path, you are just four kilometres away from the overnight hut - and as an added bonus, this is one of the few stretches in the Berg where the contour path actually does what it name suggests - it contours.
The hut is a short walk from the river, so it makes sense to include a water bladder in your pack, unless you don’t mind making multiple trips down to the water. The hut itself was in good shape, but since you will be carrying a tent anyway, you can always camp next to the river if you did not fancy sleeping in the hut.
Distance covered 11km, elevation gained 650m.
Day 2: Bannerman Hut to the Escarpment
We set off early in the morning to conquer Bannerman pass. It is a straightforward ascent of 800m over 3km, at a pretty steady gradient. It does get a bit steeper towards the top, but not unmanageable so. The trail is clearly visible throughout. We were enveloped by a dense mist halfway up the pass, which stayed with us for the rest of the day, but never felt that we were at risk of losing the trail. Of course, once we crested the pass, the path disappeared, as it always does on the escarpment.
We broke for lunch at the top of the pass. Although there is no water right at the head of the pass, there is plenty lower down and we made sure that we kept our bottles full on the ascent. Bear in mind that we did this trail in summer. The situation will be very different in winter.
After a short rest, we turned south and set off for our overnight spot. We trekked over two low ridges (120m) to get the top of the flat peak just above Bannerman Face and then dropped down to the stream below.
Once the mist had set it halfway up the pass, it settled in for the day and we had to navigate our way around the mountain with visibility that seldom extend beyond about fifteen metres. In the old days, this would mean sitting around for long stretches of time until the mist lifted for long enough to find your bearings, setting off for as long as it took to lose your bearings again, then sitting down and waiting for the whole cycle to repeat itself.
Fortunately, GPS technology has changed all that. We had the foresight to load a few waypoints for our traverse across the escarpment (about one per kilometre) and could make our way to the overnight spot without incident. Although it takes away a bit of the wilderness experience, it adds a lot in safety and comfort – a trade we are happy to make any day of the week.
Distance covered 7km, elevation gained 950.
Day 3: Escarpment to foot of Langalibalele
The next morning, we woke to a clear, crisp daybreak. The peaks were aglow in a beautiful, soft light. Since the head of Langalibalele was just two kilometres away, we were in no particular hurry to get going and sat around making breakfast and enjoying the wild beauty of the escarpment for a while.
Once we got going, we ambled along the edge of the escarpment. Cloud was beginning to drift in again, with mist swirling through the high altitude peaks making for a dramatic picture.
By half past nine, we were at the head of the pass and ready to begin the trek home. After a descent of 500m over two kilometres we crossed the Bushman’s river. This is an ideal spot to break for lunch, which we duly did.
From here the trail flattens out a bit before it starts descending Langalibalele ridge. Since the next day’s hike was going to be fairly easy, we decided to break early and set up camp on a shoulder not far from the river crossing.
The campsite was chosen primarily for its photogenic appeal - and we paid the price for not having selected a more secure camp site that night. A around midnight a big wind came up and nearly blew us off the mountain. I know it always feels much worse in a two-person tent that it really is, but it’s still pretty intimidating. We were quite relieved when the day finally broke. Since the wind was still blowing quite hard, we broke camp will little fuss and were on our way to find some relief lower down in the valleys.
Distance covered 6km, elevation dropped 650m.
Day 4: Foot of Langalibalele Pass to Camp
On the final day, we dropped 700m off Langalibalele ridge and then had a flat run back to camp over the last few kilometres. As you get older, the downhills are often harder than the climbs and hiking sticks have become an indispensable part of our kit. Some of us even carry a second stick strapped to our packs, specifically for the downhills. It takes just enough strain off your knees to keep you going.
On the way back we passed the turn off to Two Dassie stream and the Main Caves. You can visit these caves but you have to obtain a permit from the offices at the camp first. Although the rock art is quite faded, and there are better to be seen elsewhere in the Berg, you will pick up on one or two interesting historical facts. So, if you are staying on after you hike, or if you are ever in the area as a “day tripper”, it is probably worth making the effort.
The final exclamation mark of this trail was the mandatory stop at the Giant’s Castle restaurant for a beer and a burger, after which we headed for a shower in the campsite and home.
Distance covered 8km, elevation dropped 700m.