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Towerkop, the Magic Mountain

Towerkop, the Magic Mountain

Aug 2014

Words by Fiona McIntosh, Pics by Fiona McIntosh and Jan Viljoen

The rock was steely grey and cold to the touch. Struggling to find even small finger grips on the slippery, bulging face I inched my way up, balancing on tiny edges with lots of air beneath my feet, my hands becoming increasingly numb. I had ropes for safety, nuts and friends, sticky rubber climbing shoes and a helmet, but still I was scared. Yet 125 years ago a local lad with no rock climbing experience shimmied up this steep, exposed, challenging rock face - the first recorded climb in South Africa.

As you drive through Ladismith on the R62 you can’t but notice Towerkop, one of the Cape’s tallest and most intimidating peaks, rising to 2 189m. Legend has it that the mountain was split in two by a witch who whacked it with her broomstick after becoming frustrated with the peak that kept rising in front of her as she tried to fly home. Literally translated as the ‘magic peak’, it is impressive from whichever angle you look at it. Its sheer-sided summit rocks are the goal of many a hardy rock climber. Local folk believed that Towerkop couldn’t be climbed. But that did not deter a Mr Ziervogel and party who made the first known attempt on the peak in 1850. A severe thunderstorm thwarted their effort and several nearly lost their lives in the process. Towerkop was deemed unclimbable and a £50 wager in Ladismith said no one would get to the top.

Gustav Nefdt proved them wrong. A lively young man, Nefdt was often up to mischief. His father, the owner of the Ladismith Hotel, took to locking him up in his room on the second floor to keep him out of trouble. His mission failed. The agile, strong-fingered Nefdt merely climbed out of the window and down the unplastered walls. 
With the confidence of youth he decided, in 1885, to make an assault on Towerkop. As the rest of the party slept at their temporary camp on the slopes, Nefdt set off solo - returning later in the day scratched and bruised, but victorious. With neither climbing ropes nor gear he managed to overcome the steep, slippery final face to reach the summit. Climbing down had proved even more difficult and he had slithered and fallen the last eight metres. 

Not surprisingly his report was met with disbelief and the townsfolk refused to honour the wager. Nefdt was a fool and a liar they said. Not even a lizard could scale that face. Affronted, Nefdt rustled up a party, which included two excise officers who were to act as witnesses. He was searched before setting out and once up the precipitous cliff brought up two of his friends on a rope. On the summit he turned over a stone to reveal a sock that he had left there on his first ascent. The ‘lizard’ had not been lying after all.

At the end of September 2010, the Mountain Club of South Africa celebrated the 125th anniversary of the climb with a week-long meet in the area. We camped at 2 000m and followed in the footsteps of Nefdt and other famous mountaineers such as Berrisford, Traverse Jackson and CJ Nel. Jan Viljoen, the inspiration behind the meet and a keen climber and mountaineer who grew up on the slopes of Towerkop, climbed the mountain for the 48th time and left another sock beneath the summit cairn as a tribute to the lizard. 

It was hard, cold and exposed climbing and our respect for the bold Gustav Nefdt grew and grew. We ended the week traversing from Towerkop to Seweweekspoort Peak - at 2 345m the highest mountain in the Western Cape. The descent took us down to the farm of a certain George Nefdt who welcomed us in and made us tea as we waited for a lift. A wiry man with an infectious, cheeky smile, George showed us photographs and elaborated on the bare bones of the story of his famous grandfather. ‘Was Gustav paid the £50?’ we asked. George’s face lit up. ‘No one knows,’ he assured us, ‘all we know is that Gustav never climbed again.’ 

For more on Towerkop visit

Towerkop Rock Climbing, Nel's Cave

Nightjar Travel