ORGAN PIPES TO TSEKETSEKE
The total distance of the trail is 30 kilometres and the elevation change is 1500 metres up and 2000 metres down. We did the trail over four days.
Organ Pipes Pass must be one of the easiest ways to get to the high mountains - but only if you are prepared to cheat. Fortunately, we had no qualms about doing so.
We started this trail, not at the hikers’ parking near the hotel, nor at the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Didima camp, but at the top of Mike’s Pass. This saved us a good five kilometres but, more importantly, 500 metres in elevation. It is certainly worth the small fee that the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife office charges for the ferry.
The route then runs up a ridge to the old fire lookout and beyond to the top of the Organ Pipes Pass. The traverse over to the head of the Tseketseke Pass is less than seven kilometres, but involves a good 300-metre climb over Cleft Peak.
Tseketseke pass is one of the lesser-climbed passes in the Berg and involves a rocky scramble over much of the way, particularly along its lower reaches - making for slow and tiresome progress.
The return route to Didima was along the trial that runs past Ribbon Falls to the hotel and then on to Didima.
All overnighting is out in the open, so do carry a tent.
Getting dropped off at the top of Mike’s Pass is one of the services offered by the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife team, and they were there promptly at 7.30am. Highly recommended as the lazy option!
The shop at Didima 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 no ablution facilities that we know of, although it is quite possible that you will be allowed to use those at the newly built Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife campsite if you ask.
All map references refer to the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife hiking map no. 2: “Cathedral Peak”, third (current) edition.
Day 1, Mike’s Pass to Organ Pipes
Day one is nine kilometres long, ascends 1 000 metres and involves about seven hours of actual hiking time. Our day started off with a ferry to the top of Mike’s Pass. From here it was a flat four-kilometre stretch to get to the contour path.
It had been 20 years since we last hiked this route, and we were not sure where, or even whether, we were going to find water along the route. We did, however, know that the water tank at the old fire lookout had rusted through (from a day trip earlier in the year) and we should not expect to find water there.
However, there was a small river crossing a few hundred metres along the contour path, but in the opposite direction to which we were travelling. We thought it prudent to make the detour, fill our water bottles and pick up some extra water in our water bladders before we started climbing the ridge to the old fire lookout.
After a hard slog, climbing 300 metres over one-and-a-half kilometres, we arrived at the old fire lookout just before noon. Here we broke for a long lunch, before we tackled the main climb up the Organ Pipes trail.
As it turned out, there was a small dribble of water just below the trail about a kilometre up from the old fire lookout, although I am convinced it will not run in winter.
Progress was slow, but steady. After taking a wrong turn, which cost us half an hour to correct, we eventually came to a little crest in the trail high up in the pass. From here, all that remained was a sharp little descent, a flattish section of a few hundred metres, a stream crossing and then the final ascent of 100 metres. It was only 4pm, and we had more than enough time to get there, but the head of this pass is spectacularly beautiful and we decided to camp for the night. Water, after all, was only a few hundred metres away.
Day 2, Organ Pipes to Top of Tseketseke
Day two is six kilometres long, ascends 400 metres and descends 300 metres in total and involves about four hours of actual hiking time.
Camp was as thrilling the next morning as it was the night before. We were surrounded by the rocky columns that give the pass its name and had the most beautiful view over the Column and the Pyramid in the middle distance to the north and the whole of the Cathedral range in the far distance.
The pass is clearly visible from a long way away, and the path up it easy to keep track of. It is not a difficult ascent at all and, after a good breakfast, we got going and were on top of the mountain by 10am. Here we swung north and started our trek along the escarpment of the mountain.
Although it looks tempting on the map to try to contour around the back of Cleft peak, it means you will have to crab-walk on an uncomfortable slope for a good few hours, which is just not pleasant. And ultimately your altitude advantage is insignificant. It makes more sense to simply head straight up the side of Cleft Peak and go over it. Cleft Peak is the only barrier between you and the head of Tseketseke Pass and the views from the top, and all along the escarpment, are breathtakingly beautiful.
We arrived at our destination reasonably early, and had a good few hours to make camp and sit back and enjoy the view as the sun set over the Pyramid and the Column further down the valley.
We did the trail in late summer, when the wetlands and stream above Tseketseke Pass were brimming with water, but even in winter water should not be a problem.
Day 3, Tseketseke to above Ribbon Falls
Day three is seven kilometres long, ascends 100 metres and descends 1 000 metres in total and involves about six hours of actual hiking time.
Finding the head of Tseketseke can be a little tricky. Often, the head of a pass will sit at a localised low point on the escarpment, so this is typically what one heads for. However, in this case, the pass sits about 100 meters off to the south-east of the lowest point and is about 60 metres higher in elevation. To my eternal embarrassment, I was determined to head down the wrong gap and was only prevented from doing so by my young son’s insistence that this “just did not feel right”!
Overnight, an early morning mist had settled over the little Berg and the whole landscape was covered in a blanket of cloud. The trail descended into this bank of cloud - beautiful initially, but cold and damp as soon as we entered the cloud bank.
Tseketseke was a hard scramble. It started off quite mild, albeit steep. But as soon as we hit the vegetation line, the going got tough. The trail is clearly not used regularly, and has become very faint.
Furthermore, it runs along the stream floor for much of the way. So in addition to fighting with overgrown vegetation, we did a lot of boulder hopping. So, by the time we arrived at the bottom of the pass, we were a lot wearier that we had expected.
Although there was time for good lunch break, it was too damp and miserable, and we chose to push on after a quick snack and a welcome coffee.
As an aside, the hut at the bottom of Tseketseke Pass is not in good shape. I would much rather overnight at the clearing 500 metres lower down, right before you come across the contour path - even if it is raining outside.
Once on the contour path, we had just less than four kilometres to go to our overnight point, which was on the plateau just above Ribbon Falls. This is a popular first/last night’s overnight spot for hikers.
We arrived tired and wet, but the sun was beginning to break through the cloud cover, the mist had lifted and so had our spirits.
Day 4, Plateau above Ribbon Falls to Camp
Day four is eight kilometres long, descends 700 metres in total and involves about five hours of actual hiking time.
We woke to strong sunlight on the morning of the final day. As often happens in the mountains, it looked as if it was going to be a scorcher. As temperatures kept climbing, we hiked out way down the trail that runs past Doreen Falls, the western flank of Tryme Hill and on to the hotel.
At the hikers’ parking lot, we swung right and took the trail back to Didima, where we had left our car. The day was hot and humid, and we were happy to get back to camp just after 1pm.
As is tradition, we finished the day with a beer and a burger in the Didima restaurant.