Monk’s Cowl to Ship’s Prow on the Contour Path
By George Brits
This trail starts at the Injesuthi Hutted Camp in the central Drakensberg. The first night is spent at the foot of the Monk’s Cowl valley and the second at the foot of the Ship’s Prow valley. The total distance of the trail is 30km and the total elevation change is 1000m. We completed it over four leisurely days. Only the last night is spent in a cave, making a tent an essential item. Also, we hiked this trail at the beginning of October, just before the onset of the summer rains, so we knew that water was going to be an issue. Not a major issue, but still something that requires a bit of forward planning.
The first day’s hike was quite a hard eleven kilometre slog, but we made up for it by taking a leisurely approach to the second day, covering only the four kilometres to the Ship’s Prow stream. On the third day we covered a more substantial eleven kilometres to take us to Grindstone cave in the Old Woman valley. The first bit of this path is seldom used and very faint and overgrown. Be careful not to stray from it. It took us over an hour of searching and scrambling through “ouhout” forests to cover the first two kilometres. After that the path clears up quite well. Grindstone cave is no more that a large overhang and offers less than ideal protection in adverse weather. Don’t feel shy to pitch your tent in the cave if you have to! The final day from Grindstone cave to camp is a very easy descent down the Old Woman valley and can be covered in just over an hour if you’re in a hurry. Normally, when hiking in the wilderness areas of the Drakensberg, you simply buy your permit when you get there, fill in the mountain register and go. However, the overnight caves are booked out to one party at a time and they are quite popular. It is therefore a good idea to reserve these beforehand. Booking is done through the main Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife number.
We chose to do this trail in an anti-clockwise fashion because it meant that we would be walking “into” the mountains all along Shada ridge. Once you’ve crested Van Heyningen’s Pass, the trail ascends a gentle 300m over about seven kilometres to its junction with the contour path. More importantly, there is little structure on the ridge and one is spoilt for great views of the main Berg over its whole length.
The office at the Injesuthi Hutted Camp has expanded over the years to include a few basic “tinned” provisions, as well as snacks, soft drinks and beers. The latter, in particular, is a great bonus when you get back to camp after four or five days of hard hiking. However, it is not intended to provide a full supermarket service and hikers are best advised to stock up on provisions for the hike (and afterwards) beforehand.
There is a lovely ablution block in the camping area at the bottom of the camp. Very useful for a hot shower before you hit the road for the trip home.
All map references refer to the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife hiking map no. 3: “Giant’s Castle”, third (current) edition.
Day 1: Camp to Monk’s Cowl valley
After leaving the car in the designated area (and filling out the mountain register), we headed for the river crossing opposite bungalow no 3, the one closest to the mountains.
The trial takes a long detour to get to the foot of Van Heyningen’s pass. The first two kilometres run into the mountains along the right-hand bank of the Delmhlwazini river (facing the mountain) and then cuts back almost 180 degrees in the opposite direction for another one and a half kilometres. Keep a sharp lookout for this junction. You are almost guaranteed to miss it!
Van Heyningen’s pass is picturesque, and the 300m climb is over almost before you know it. Refill your water bottles no later than the second time you cross the river. In the dry season, this is the last time you will see water before you reach the camp site on the Cowl Fork stream, a good four hours away.
From the top of Van Heyningen’s pass, the trail runs along Shada Ridge until it joins up with the contour path after seven kilometres. Shada Ridge is a gentle ascent and offers spectacular views of the main escarpment, especially along its top section with the Giant’s Castle chain of peaks off to the south and Champagne Castle, Monk’s Cowl and Cathkin peak right in front of you.
From the junction with the contour path, camp is just a short two kilometre hike away. At the end of this section, the trail drops into the riverbed and continues up the right hand side of the riverbed for about two hundred metres before it crosses over to the other side. Camp is about half-way up this stretch where the path first meets up with the rocky riverbed, immediately on your left. As is often the case in the mountains, it is just three flat areas of two or so metres across and easily missed. Once you start seeing the cairns that indicate that it is time to cross to the other side of the river, you have gone past it!
Distance covered 11km, elevation gained 750m, elevation dropped 150m.
Day 2: Monk’s Cowl to Ship’s Prow valley
We rose late on the second day and enjoyed breakfast while basking in the mid morning sun. The plan, after all, was just to hike to the next valley, which was a mere 4km away. It was just as well that we chose this day to make the most of the mountain scenery because the last two days of the trail was hiked in thick mist and we would not see the main Berg again!
After breaking up camp, we eventually set off and strolled over to the next campsite in the Ship’s Prow valley. The last few hundred metres was a little unpleasant, as it involved a scramble through about two hundred metres of lovely “ouhout” forest that had overgrown the path to the extent that we were down on all fours in more than a few places. It is clear that this part of the contour path is not hiked very often!
The camp site has one of the most beautiful settings in the Berg as it looks straight up to Monk’s Cowl as it nestles between Champagne Castle and Cathkin peak. But, similar to the night before, it is easily missed. Just follow the cairns as best you can and keep a sharp eye out for the little clearings. Unlike the previous day, they are on a little rise about half-way across the braided network that makes up the Ship’s Prow stream.
Whether you camp here or elsewhere, please be mindful of the weather, particularly making sure that you will be safe in the event of a flash flood. This particular valley was the scene of three tragic deaths when a party of hikers were caught up in a flash flood in the middle of the night many years ago.
As an alternative, you can push on a bit and camp in the second, most beautiful stream after Ship’s Prow, where the trail penetrates deep into the little ravine. It will lighten the burden of the next day a little. Bear in mind that this section of the path is very vague and the “ouhout” forest dense. Plan to take about an hour to cover the one and a half kilometres.
Distance covered 4km, elevation gained 100m, elevation dropped 200m.
Day 3: Ship’s Prow valley to Grindstone cave
This was another long day. A real penalty for the previous day’s slacking. The spot where the trail crosses out of Ship’s Prow stream is not clear. According to the map, the trail picks up a fair distance upstream from the camp site. However, we noticed a few scratch marks up a small nose about 40m downstream from where we camped and decided to inspect it. It turned out a good call as it leads straight to the contour path after a short scramble (50m) up a steep nose.
I am sure this is not the traditional path, but the trails in this part of the Berg have become hard to follow for lack of use and I suspect that hikers are beginning to create new connections. Once on the contour path, the problem is far from over. The trail is vague and cuts through long stretches of overgrown “ouhout” forest. Its not too difficult to follow, but you do have to keep your wits about you. Once we crossed the second tributary (alternative camp site), the trail improved markedly and we made swift progress.
From this point the trail runs away from the mountains for about three kilometres before it cuts sharply right to contour around the next valley. Eventually it brings you to junction M7. This is a complex junction, so make sure you get it right. If you continue straight on, the trail drops down into Cataract valley and is a useful shortcut back to camp. Both right hand turns take you over the ridge and drops down into the Old Woman valley. The one to the right is the longer route and will swing you around to Grindstone cave after five kilometres. It’s definitely worth a go if the group is in good shape, particularly if you pushed on the alternative camp site the previous evening. We chose to take the shorter three kilometre route to the cave.
Distance covered 11km, elevation gained 150m, elevation dropped 300m.
Day 4: Grindstone cave to Camp
Grindstone cave was a welcome relief. We had hiked the entire previous day in thick mist and arrived at the cave damp and cold and in no mood to pitch camp in the wet grasslands. There are a number of overhangs in this stretch of the Berg, two of which are in use as overnight spots. It is worth investigating both before deciding where to stay for the night.
Both caves are very far from the riverbed. However, there was a small drip that ran over the lip of the cave we chose to stay in. Whether this had been running all along or had started up as a consequence of the day’s heavy mist, I am not sure, but it did mean that we could collect our water with the help of the kitchen ground sheet, sparing us the long trek down to the river.
Camp was a mere 4km from Grindstone. Since the mist was still heavy and visibility poor, we did not loiter around and made good speed back to camp, covering the distance in just over an hour.
Distance covered 4km, elevation dropped 350m.