uMhlambonja Ascent - round trip
By Nightjar Travel
The total distance of the trail is 30km and the total elevation change is 1850m. We did the trail over five days, although only four were spent hiking.
The trail begins at the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Didima camp in the central Drakensberg, and we eventually returned here. However, at the onset, our fate was unbeknownst to us. December 2010 turned out to be a voluptuously misty and rainy December for the Berg, and our hike began as Mhlambonja Pass to Organ Pipes Pass – the fourth in a series of hikes in rapid succession. With so much time in our boots, the majority of which had been done with visibility no further than the hiker in front of you or staring at rain clouds, we were, however, willing (Read: enthusiastic) to be flexible in order to avoid trudging through the rain again.
Mhlambonja Pass is a versatile option under such conditions. Our original five day plan would have taken us down Organ Pipes Pass, including a full day of hiking on the escarpment. However, should the escarpment turn out to be unpleasant, we could have descended via Tseketseke Pass – a tough descent due to the sparse nature of the trail, but it would have saved us the climb over Cleft Peak. Our worst-case scenario was that, upon reaching the top, there was no visibility at all, and we would simply come back down Mhlambonja. Fortunately, Mhlambonja Pass summits onto some beautiful rolling meadows, complete with a river and swimming holes in summer, and it is easy to while away an entire day within a 1km radius of the top without feeling like you are losing out – especially considering the view from the escarpment, should the mist clear for even a few minutes.
Day 1, Didima camp to the foot of Mhlambonja Pass
10km +650m -150m 6h
We drove the 1km from the hikers parking to the trailhead to deposit our backpacks, and then drew straws to see who would return the vehicle to the parking lot. Do remember to close all your windows and sunroof, as baboons leave an interesting smell inside a vehicle, not to mention the little artefacts of their sharp nails. Yes, that includes the sunroof. And, yes, send someone back to double check if you’re not sure! The first few kilometres are on flat contour path, and take you through the trout hatchery and past the small fishing lake. In the scorching morning sun, the rises in the reeds seemed much more appealing than the packs on our shoulders, but soon we were climbing up the nose of One Tree Hill, and the Berg breeze began to cool us down, and the view of the Camel kept us distracted. As with most nose ridges in the Drakensberg, remember to turn around frequently and appreciate that feeling of being projected into the view as the terrain falls away so steeply to either side of you as to deceive your peripheral vision.
Make no mistake; this is one of the tougher routes up the little berg, but the way the escarpment face looms up in front of you keeps your mind in awe and far from your feet. You cross several small streams, with greater frequency after the brunt of the climb is over, until you finally descend on the contour path into the Mhlambonja valley proper, where you follow the river briefly until you reach a pair of spectacular clearings, spaced about 50m apart, for camping.
Day 2, Foot to summit of Mhlambonja Pass
5km +1000m -50m 6.5h
Much to our delight, we awoke to cooler weather, with a slight flirtation of clouds. Retrospectively, this did not bode well, but we were delighted not to have to do the pass in full summer’s heat. Day two sees you getting out of bed at the foot of the pass, and, without further ado, proceeding with the climb. Mhlambonja is a typical Berg pass; densely vegetated in the lower reaches, but soon turning into a steep rocky expanse with decorative patches of grass. However, the trail is, for the most parts, well defined, the river crossings are not too challenging, and the top is visible for a large portion of the upper climb, making this pass an enjoyable climb for even modestly fit hikers. There is only one true heartbreak, which is a steep and slippery 30m descent to cross the river in the lower reaches, but soon thereafter the view opens up and the stolen meters of your climb are instantly forgotten.
From the cairns marking the top of the pass, you gaze down into rolling escarpment meadows, which allow for comfortable camping right next to the river – surely, the last thing you want to do after your climb is to walk for water. We took our time strolling along the river to find the perfect campsite – there are many options but some are better than others and a little patience is always rewarded.
Day 3, Meadow to Escarpment at summit of Mhlambonja Pass
1km 100m 25min
We awoke to find that the cold rain of the previous evening had turned into pea soup mist, and immediately decided not to continue to the other passes, but instead to find a good view point and spend a relaxing day hoping for a few clear minutes. Thus we trekked a kilometre or so to the very edge of the escarpment and found a large flat space to camp on. We filled our water bladders and had a pleasant breakfast, which fortunately and spectacularly coincided with a few mist-free minutes of breathtaking views.
We spent the rest of the day frolicking in the freezing swimming hole nearest to camp, playing cards, and occasionally glancing over the edge of the escarpment. Lazy? Certainly. Spectacular? Definitely. Enjoyed? Obviously.
Day 4, Summit to foot of Mhlambonja Pass
5km –1050m 5h
With reluctance we woke to the knowledge that today we had to leave our isolated little expanse of mountain kingdom, but again the mist cleared for sunrise and we were treated to views of the Drakensberg range that made an entire month of hiking in the mist worthwhile. Mhlambonja pass turned out to be a pleasant, but long descent, taking a full day. However, the usually highly visible trail aids tremendously, and the descent never becomes arduous.
For lunch we broke at a set of cascades, which made for delightful photography – hold on to your camera carefully (wince). We spotted the cascades on the ascent but they fall just before the heaviest climb, making them ideal for lunch on the way down, but not on the way up.
The flora in the pass is spectacular in its variety, and, should you still have a functional camera, more photographic opportunities abound. (By now you may have guessed that one of our party dropped his Canon 5D down the aforementioned waterfall. Things were a little tense for the next hour or so.) However, the light forest of the lower slopes is also best appreciated on the descent when your momentum carries you through the thicker brush, rather than your strength having to pull you up through (Read: into) it!
We again camped in the open site that we used on the way up, and greatly appreciated the deep bathing pools a few meters upstream, after our sweaty descent.
Day 5, Foot of Mhlambonja Pass to Didima camp
10km +100m -600m 3h
As is so often the case, we awoke on the last morning with nothing but beer and burgers on our minds, and took little notice of anything on the hike besides keeping the pace up. Fortunately for us, there are a variety of contour paths on the little Berg in this area, and we followed a different trail out to the one we came in. This provided us with some fresh and interesting scenery, such as Xeni cave.
We broke for a quick lunch, and polished off every last drop of our packed food, before we marched on out to the hotel.