A Cederberg Amble
Words Matthew Holt, pics Matthew Holt & Fiona Mcintosh
I tiptoed along the ridge, mindful of the fresh air either side. The summit beacon was now in view, which should have been uplifting, but instead my gaze was drawn to the imposing rock fortress some 12km across the valley, which was our next destination.
This was all Don Hartley’s fault. A visionary of a particular sort, Don opened climbing routes on Table Mountain that others considered suicidal and ran mountain trails when most people still pounded away on tar. Though now in his sixties and no longer in prime athletic shape, he can’t stop devising fresh challenges.
Offering Richmond advice on Sneeuberg.
‘How about a trail run up Tafelberg and Sneeuberg,’ suggested Don, eyes twinkling with enthusiasm, when I rashly visited his Hout Bay abode. ‘I measured it on a map with a piece of string and it looks doable. What do you think?’
I pictured Sneeuberg’s exposed ledges and my heart skipped a beat. ‘Too dangerous to race,’ I countered, perhaps too emphatically. ‘That’s a shame,’ mused Don, leaving me uneasy as to the cause of his disappointment. But, of course, driving home, I realised it was another of Don’s brilliant ideas and decided to give it a go – though without telling him beforehand, just in case.
Requiring some companions-cum-competitors for the event, I selected Fiona, the wife, who was duty bound to let me win; and Richmond MacIntyre, who boasts an impressive CV and formidable glare, but is pinned together by so much metal, he has the running prowess of the Tin Man. ‘Great idea, count me in,’ replied Richmond instantly, when I broached the idea on the phone, calling me back after 10 minutes to clarify the names of the peaks.
Approaching the Sneeuberg summit block.
A few days later, we drove north on the N7, till the Cederberg Mountains appeared on our right, with Sneeuberg’s sharp summit ridge abutting the sky. Turning on to the gravel road, we crossed the Olifants River (which was just a train of sand dunes), climbed over Nieuwoudt Pass (named after the Cape family who settled here in the 1800s), dropped down past the brand new visitor centre at Algeria (which was empty) and then snaked carefully up Uitkyk Pass. Beyond here, the valley opened out before us like the Promised Land: a green oasis of vineyards and orchards, hemmed in between two spines of jagged peaks, topped by Sneeuberg (2027m) to the west and Tafelberg (1969m) to the east.
We’d rented a cottage at Sanddrif, South Africa’s highest winery at 1000m. ‘So much for my night of abstinence,’ grumbled Richmond unconvincingly as we headed off for a wine tasting. From humble origins in the 1970s, Sanddrif now produces an array of award-winning red, white, rosé and sparkling wines - so we sampled 18, before committing to a sauvignon blanc to accompany our pasta.
Approaching Sneeuberg summit.
After dinner, despite my protestations, Richmond insisted on unrolling his maps and showing off his calculations. When it comes to outings, Richmond and I belong to different schools. Richmond will work out his trip beforehand to the smallest detail, calculating the distances, gradients and requisite speeds - so all that’s left to do on the day is force his body through the parameters. Conversely, I prefer to have a grand goal, vague plan and hope the weather’s fine; which I ascribe to the fact that I’m an Aquarian, whereas he’s a machine. Inconveniently, according to his calculations, my chosen route wasn’t 40km, as I’d told him, but 55km instead – and therefore if we were to start at my proposed time, we’d likely be benighted. Caught on the back foot, I reluctantly conceded to an earlier departure.
Leaving Sanddrif at 4am, we drove to Cederhoutkloof, a dried-up river valley roughly midway between Sneeuberg and Tafelberg, where we dismounted and readied to start. It was dark, silent and cool, with the only light coming from the beams of our head torches. ‘Let’s regroup at Sneeuberg Hut,’ I pronounced, with the confidence of the certain frontrunner. With no further ceremony, we set off; Richmond marching at such a ferocious pace that his headlamp soon merged into the constellations above; Fiona loping like a gazelle, so she was quickly enveloped by the darkness; and me, on my own, at the back.
We duly regrouped at the empty stone hut, filling our water bottles in the trickling stream. The wagon trail gave way to a narrow path that skirted beneath Sneeuberg’s brooding silhouette, till a faint trail branched off right up to its south shoulder. As we stomped up the steepening zigzags, the sky turned ethereal blue, a grapefruit pink band appeared on the horizon and the iconic Maltese Cross materialised on the plain below. I told myself to catch sunrise more often, knowing full well I wouldn’t.
The shoulder was just a few hundred metres below the summit, but from here the going got more complicated, with sporadic cairns guiding us through a labyrinth of chimneys, ledges, wormholes and step-overs. We were approximating the route pioneered in 1922 by a four-man party from the Mountain Club of South Africa, which including the grandfathers of Table Mountain climbing, Messrs Cameron and Travers-Jackson. Somewhat fortuitously, we popped up on the short summit ridge and scampered over to the beacon, trying to ignore the distant sight of Tafelberg across the valley.
Descending the old wagon trail.
Once back at the shoulder, we broke into a jog, returning to Cederhoutkloof by 10 a.m. The 27km round trip up Sneeuberg had taken 5 ½ hours – which might have been satisfying, but for the fact we weren’t yet halfway. There used to be a nearby farmstead at Eikeboom, where Travers-Jackson’s successful party were regaled with coffee, home-made bread and ‘wa’boom’ honey - but the farm’s now long gone and we had to make do with some gummy bears and water we’d stashed in the car.
From here to the start of the Tafelberg trail at Welbedacht was a dispiriting 5km plod along the gravel road, with vehicles speeding unsympathetically past, throwing up clouds of dust. At Welbedacht, the site of another long gone farm, I’d fantasised about resting in the cool shade of the oak trees and bathing my feet in the rippling stream, but Richmond was already snorting impatiently at the trailhead, like a racehorse under starter’s orders. ‘Let’s regroup at Spout Cave,’ I said wearily. And with that, Richmond went storming up the switchbacks, Fiona was quickly out of sight too and I was on my own at the back again.
Heading up Tafelberg with Sneeuberg opposite.
After clambering through several rock bands and boulder fields, we duly regrouped at Spout Cave, craning our necks at the towering red and black sandstone walls that made Tafelberg look impregnable. The Achilles heel in its defences was a narrow gully, improbably reached by traversing along the peak’s south face. It was discovered in 1896, by a Mr Mann from Cape Town and a local farmer named Villoen, who got separated from their climbing companions in fog, but carried on regardless. A fixed metal chain helped us surmount the smooth, water-worn chimney at the head of the gully, where Mann and Villoen somehow fashioned a rope from a handkerchief, bootlace and belt.
Emerging on top of the table, we followed a trail of cairns through fantastical weather-sculpted rock formations to the summit beacon on the northwest corner. It was now 2pm, the sun was full on and our water bottles were empty, so we snapped a few quick photos and turned to descend.
From Welbedacht, rather than retracing all our steps, I suggested taking a more direct line across what was marked on the map as ‘Die Vlei’, potentially saving a couple of kilometres. ‘It’s bound to be dry this time of year,’ I pronounced confidently, heading off into the marsh grass. Inconveniently, we had to wade through two waist-deep rivers.
The final stretch, back on the gravel road, was pitiful and painful, grinding along on grating hips and clunking knees, in waterlogged shoes. At 5 p.m. after nearly 13 hours, we stumbled across our imaginary finishing line at Cederhoutkloof. ‘Right, let’s go.’ said Richmond, who’s never been one for effusive celebrations.
Back at Sanddrif, we bathed in the river, grilled steak on the braai, rehydrated on chilled wine, watched sunset turn the Wolfberg Cracks golden and agreed this was what being in the Cederberg was really about.
On returning to Cape Town, I telephoned Don to thank him for his inspiration and, hopefully, retrieve some respect. ‘Sounds like a nice day out’, said Don kindly, before describing his envisaged route - which was quite different, elegantly circular and somewhat longer. ‘Anyhow, I was thinking about running up Du Toits Peak,’ he continued. ‘What do you think?’