Duration: 4h27 with stops and 1hr quicker on the way down
Max Elevation: 2,364m
What a way to spend my birthday – let’s call it a million star hotel!
We followed the Tarn Cave Pass to reach the cave. After signing the mountain register at Bushman’s Nek – Emzevelo we set off just before 8am. 9 of us in our group with hike leader Jonathan from Mountain Club of SA.
We crossed the Ngwangwane River 3 times in the first 1km. Water levels are very low so no feet got wet. The path is fairly flat for the first 4.5kms – we took a rest at Cedric’s Pool before we started our climb. The path is steep in places but all manageable, the one section we had to hoist backpacks up and scramble up a rock face.
It was quite disturbing to see the tarns on the top of the pass almost completely dry. As a precaution we replenished our water supply at the last water crossing.
Tarn Cave is just wonderful, a vista looking onto the Devil’s Knuckles. We were blessed with perfect weather conditions, two magnificent days of clear blue sky.
My gang of 6 including myself stayed at Sani Lodge in the Honeyguide Cottage on the Friday night. We left the cottage at 6am to meet at Bushman’s Nek at 7h30am. We took the 2nd turnoff to Bushman’s Nek – from this turnoff it is 25kms on dirt road, the condition of the road isn’t too bad but there are a few potholes and bumps to look out for.
Our group consisted of:
Gillian and Pierre, Kim and Prof, Lawrence, Melissa who I met on the Giant’s Cup hike in December 2017, Shaun (his first overnight hike), Jonathan (hike leader from MCSA
We reached the cave just before 12h30 – the group continuing up the South Knuckle had a quick bite to eat, sorted themselves out and headed off at 1pm. Three of us stayed behind in the cave and just chilled for the afternoon. The “knuckle” group got back to the cave as it was starting to get dark at about 6pm – they all said the climb up and down was very tough.
We had a quiz during dinner which was a lot of fun, team “Chocoholics” won 2 slabs of chocolate, very apt! Then it was time for bed, we took a moment to gaze into the galaxy and admire the millions of stars, we heard the cry of jackals a few times in the night.
Waking up early to watch the sun come up is the most special time of day for me. The Devil’s Knuckles turn from a rich brown to green in the short space of 30 minutes after the sun is up.
We started to pack up “house”, had breakfast and left the cave just before 8am. The descent went a lot quicker but still tough on the old knees. We stopped again at Cedric’s Pool to cool off our feet and enjoy a snack and then pressed on for the last 5kms to reach the car park at Emzevelo just after 11am.
Cost R4,000 which includes 3 night’s accommodation, Karkloof Canopy Tour, cheese and wine on arrival, all meals including lunch packs, transportation of luggage each day, 3 full days of hiking.
What Is Slackpacking?
Slackpackers can move far and fast over difficult terrain because they’re carrying a small pack or no pack at all, while most everybody else on the trail will be toting full-on camping gear.
You see, slackpacking is backpacking without all that awkward carrying of gear or sleeping outside.
Day 1 – 20kms – fairly tough for the first 4kms
This hike in the beautiful Karkloof a mere 20kms from Howick in the KZN Midlands encompasses 3 major waterfalls namely Grey Mare’s Tail Falls (101m), Karkloof Falls (105m) and finishes at Howick Falls (111m).
Our group of 10 intrepid hikers met at Shawswood Cottages at 5pm on the Friday. We were welcomed by a wonderful spread of snacks and drinks.
Shawswood has been in the Shaw family since the mid to late 1800’s. Our cosy and rustic accommodation was once polo pony stables.
Roxy an outside caterer from Copperfields Country Café and Catering in Howick prepared dinner for us. Rob on our hike said her cheesecake was the best he’d ever tasted.
We awoke on Saturday to a glorious sunrise all amped and ready to roll. After a delicious breakfast prepared by Roxy we set off at 8am through the forest following old logging trails. It was a tough 4km pull to reach the escarpment where we enjoyed spectacular views of the Karkloof Valley and Mount Gilboa. We followed the hiking path crossing the Grey Mare’s Stream which eventually led us to a magnificent view of the Grey Mare’s Tail Waterfall.
After a short snack break we continued to follow the path on the top of the escarpment, we were fortunate to see some buck grazing in the grassland. Before we started our descent into the forest we stopped for our lunch break.
The Karkloof Nature Reserve consists of about 60% mistbelt forest, 40% mistbelt grassland and ranges from 1000m to 1767m above sea level.
The house was built in 1937, it has beautiful gardens with the Nkonkwane stream flowing through the Thistledown property which then meets up with the Karkloof River further downstream.
Of interest the one bedroom features a bath which has been restored, having originally come from the Imperial Hotel in Pietermaritzburg, and which at one time was used by the Prince of Wales during his visit there! If it was good enough for the Prince it is good enough for our slackpacking hikers!
Norma the host at Thistledown is an absolute “Master Chef” – we had the most delicious dinner seated around a roaring fire. After dinner Julia had organised for Kia from Karkloof Canopy Tours to do a presentation to us about conquering our fear – rather apt for what awaited us the next day.
Day 2 – 15kms – moderate terrain
After a delicious breakfast at Thistledown we walked up the road to start the morning with the Karkloof Canopy Tour which took approximately 2 hours. The Karkloof Canopy Tour consists of 12 platforms and 10 zip-line slides, the longest of which is 200m!
After picking up our packed lunch we started our hike which took us through mealie fields, wetland and we visited 2 hides in the Kloof Conservatory, we were fortunate to see 2 Wattle Cranes. We transgressed through private farms where the hike leader Julia had obtained permission from land owners. This is the beauty of doing these hikes, you see places you would not normally be allowed to go. Very special.
Our hike then went through beautiful forests where we picked up the pace and came out at the Polo fields of the Karkloof Country Club. We then followed the mountain biking trail along the Karkloof River where we finished our day at the picnic site where a beautiful tea had been set up for us by our hosts at Amber Avenue Guesthouse our accommodation for the night. I am embarrassed to say I had never seen the Karkloof Falls before, absolutely magnificent waterfall in the most beautiful setting. I so enjoyed the views today along the Karkloof River. We were kindly transported (a short hop) to Amber Avenue.
After another delicious continental breakfast we set off from Amber Avenue at about 8am and made our way through the Everson Estate with sweeping views of Albert Falls Dam. We walked through huge avocado plantations. Westfalia Fruit Estate (held in the Dr Hans Merensky Trust) supplies avocado pears basically all year around to major retail groups in South Africa and abroad. I have never seen so many avocado pears in all my life! Of interest Dr Hans Merensky initiated the first avocado orchard in 1933.
We took a little break at a peaceful dam on the estate and set off again into the Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve with the most unbelievable views. After approximately 18kms of hiking we were welcomed at our lunch stop by Paul Colvin (Julia’s Dad) who poured us each a glass of champagne where we toasted to 3 wonderful days, great friendships made and Julia’s birthday! Just further along the path Roxy from Copperfields Country Café and Catering had set up a beautiful picnic lunch for us.
Those of us with a long journey home left the group at this point whilst the others continued on to the finish taking the Black Eagle Trail and ending at the education centre at Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve. The last stop on this hike being the impressive Howick Falls.
I covered 55kms on the 3 days and I can now say I have conquered the Karkloof. A hidden gem on our doorstep. Thank you to Julia from Spekboom Tours and her team of helpers Jonathan, Ingrid and Teigue for a most enjoyable 3 days of slackpacking – well done on another highly recommended hike!
At a height of 3051 metres in the southern Maloti-Drakensberg mountains, RHINO The Peak is Southern Africa’s ultimate mountain challenge. Distance approximately 23kms up and down.
In November 2015 I was invited to climb Rhino with some of my trail running mates – but I decided I needed more time to get my head around this climb as I knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. So in December I put it out to some mates that I was keen to climb Rhino in the New Year and before I knew it we had 14 people signed up to tackle the beast.
As soon as the date was set I started to get my head around what I was in for – I stuck to my running program in the week but dedicated Thursday hills to “hiking” in the Virginia Bush Nature Reserve with a 5kg pack on my back and brought out the trekking poles for practice.
When 16 January 2016 finally arrived I felt ready although very apprehensive of the unknown. In March 2015 Malcolm Millar took me on a 4 day hike in the Southern Drakensberg – we slept in 3 different caves, I carried a 20kg pack on my back so I kept thinking if I could do that I could do Rhino.
Our group of 16 adults and one 9 month old baby met at the Garden Castle Reserve at 5am – we were disappointed that it was raining and misty but the general feeling was let’s start and take it from there, if it gets too unpleasant we turn back.
Rain jackets on and an extra layer we set off – the first 5kms to Pillar Cave was relatively easy going with a few river crossings. I opted to wear my hiking boots rather than my trail running shoes because of the rain and felt my boots would have more grip. At Pillar Cave we bid farewell to our friends with the 9 month old baby – they’d only planned to hike to Pillar Cave. After a snack we were ready to move on – plus hanging around we were getting cold as it was still raining at this point.
At no stage on our hike did we clearly see the Rhino Horn – the day was very misty and every now and again we had a glimpse of blue sky. On our way out we were passed by Andrew Barnes and Ross Treleaven who were running – I met Ross the year before at Mutter (trail run in the Southern Drakensberg) and Andrew I know through business. On their way back I asked them roughly how long the run would take them and Andrew replied about 4 hours – RESPECT!!!
As the day wore on the path got steeper and steeper, the beautiful fauna and flora took my mind off the thin air – we saw one small grey snake on the path and as we headed into the gully we had some Dassies sunning themselves on the rocks and looking curiously at us. The rain had now stopped and the layers were peeled off – we were warm but as soon as we stopped we’d start to feel cold again so the idea was to keep plodding on at a slow pace.
Our one friend at this stage wasn’t feeling well so she decided it was time to turn back, we all know you never leave anyone alone on the mountain so one of our party went back to Drak Gardens with her.
For me the gully was the trickiest and most challenging part of the climb – the slippery shale down into the valley and the very steep climb up was tough! I abandoned one trekking pole and used my other hand to hang onto either rocks or strong tufts of grass.
When we reached the last overhang we left one of our mates there who was suffering with knee pain and the rest of the party pressed on to the escarpment. We stopped for a group photo as this was certainly a welcome stop and a hurdle achieved.
The escarpment was still covered in mist, we saw sheep and horses on the plateau – we picked up the pace to the summit. When I reached the summit there is that last big rock to heave your body up onto and at this point I just gave up – after some encouragement from our leader I hoisted my butt up onto the rock – swung my legs over and got to the summit. We took a quick group photo and decided to head back down to the overhang to find our mate and get down the gully as quickly as possible as we were worried about the mist.
When we found our mate he had the company of 3 shepherds and a dog – we exchanged greetings, much laughter from the shepherds – we said cheerio to them and went on our way. We must have been moving for about 10 minutes when we heard this mighty crash and the next minute a round bolder the size of 2 soccer balls came bouncing and hurtling towards the group – it missed our leader by about 1 meter, it was a very scary situation. We all felt a bit uneasy and decided to try and get down the gully as quick as we could – this is no easy task as the terrain is very steep, I spent a lot of the time on my butt, I felt more comfortable being closer to the ground. After a few tumbles and slips we were back on the well marked path and heading for home. We stopped for a 20 minute lunch break. We were fortunate to see an Eland.
Perhaps the altitude had got to the party but the river crossings on the way back seemed so much higher – I managed to keep my boots and socks dry on the way up but wasn’t so lucky on the way down. The downs played havoc with my toe nails – my toes were hurting and as a result I have a few blue toe nails now.
It took us 6 hours to reach the summit which is exactly as I predicted – and 5½ to get down – I think I slowed the party down in the gully. I had envisioned a 10 hour day but we were out there for 11h30 hours – my Garmin recorded a moving time of 7h30 hours.
A tired group of happy hikers were grateful to the mountain Gods for looking out for us – we all stopped at the Drak Gardens bar for a well deserved beer.
Would I do it again? Not right now, I would still like to do the climb on a clear day for the views and perhaps next time take a local guide with.