A wilderness hike in the Cederberg in December is not everybody’s cup of tea, so when the weather report predicted the mercury rising to a scorching 40°C on day 3 of the proposed trip, I was quite surprised when there were no last minute cancellations, even from the seasoned group of hikers that were to join me.
I had my sights set on the rock jungle high up between Apex Peak and Sandfontein Arch in the southern Cederberg, as yet unexplored territory for me. The idea was to enter the mountain from the north at Algeria, hike down south through Agter-Kruis valley behind Sneeuberg up to Bakleikraal, then following the old Kaapse Weg contour path to Zuurvlak approaching Apex from behind, and exiting kloofing style via Hondverbrand river (‘Burnt dog River’). I sold this idea to the group as the ‘medium to hot’ route, with an alternative ‘mild to medium’ route exiting via the bejumbled, overgrown Breekkrantz valley, overnighting in Maanskyn (“moon shine”) cave along the way.
Ralph Pina was the first to join me at Nuwerust Rest Camp where I had camped the night before, and which would also be our end-destination, 6 days later. Covered in dust he had completely written off one of the tyres on his trusted bakkie and had to replace it with a spare tyre. The incident occurred on the way there along the gravel road from Op-die-berg. Groenie, my red Audi A1, also just barely made it up the steep Grootrivier Pass. Paul and Ekkehard arrived next, and finally Alex, and we hit the road northwards, leaving Groenie behind for our return, reaching Algeria without further incidents.
Loaded with heavy packs, but feeling strong and ready for adventure and the quiet of the wild outdoors, the intrepid team left a mildly crowded Algeria rest camp at 7am sharp the next morning, temperatures already in the mid-twenties. The footpath avoided the shaded Poepkloof (‘fart’ kloof), crossing a small stream, our only water point for the day, and headed up a steep hill for the 700m ascent towards Suurvlak se kloof where fine-leaved fynbos miraculously flourished in the heat. Shady tea-break spots come at a premium in this part of the world and we were still acclimatizing, but once on top, we eventually found one against a rocky outcrop overlooking the spectacular Kruisrivier amphitheatre with Wegwaai (‘wind swept’) peak in the near distance. Solitude abounded. We headed down the wooded Kruisrivier kloofie, passing grand old waboom (Protea Nitida*) trees, several of which were marked with leopard claw scratches of various ages. Our conversations were seeking out elusive leopards lazing in the sun on the opposite cliff faces, but none appeared. We were heading towards the beautiful, shady camp-without-name situated roughly midway between Onder and Bo-Kruis camps, next to the Kruis (‘cross’) River. The heat beat down as we steadily dropped into the valley, from shady spot to shady spot, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly over the next days.
We arrived at camp-without-name at around lunch-time and plans to explore the upper reaches of the Kruis River amphitheatre later that afternoon quickly evaporated as the heat pressed us in under the trees and into the oasis of cool pools at the camp. A restful afternoon under the trees followed. Most of us did not bring tents, since we were weighing our decisions about what to bring and what to leave, in order to keep the packs light. Considering the strong potential for lack of water in some areas, I urged everyone to carry at least 4 litres of water storage capacity, as well as a ‘flotation’ device, for getting packs down Hondverbrand River. Keeping food light and fresh (and reasonably tasty) for a 6-day wilderness trip is another challenge, so we mostly relied on dried fruit, crackers, salami, tuna, smash and dehydrated meals**, with the odd splash of condensed milk for teas and Alex’s now famous Riempie-skommel (Riempie-‘milkshake’ – more on that later). Ekkehard surprised with a slab of dark chocolate (less chances of melting) every evening, and one fresh apple/day, and Paul managed to still pull a croissant and cheese out of the hat on day 4. Pack-weight averaged at about 18kg.
The next morning saw us following the wooded path next to the stream down to Onder-Kruis, where we filled up with water and tackled the 12km-long undulating contour path of the Agter-Kruis valley to that evening’s camp at Riempie se Gat (‘Riempie’s hole’). More signs of leopard, tracks and scat, were found along the way to our shaded lunch spot next to the stream at the bottom end of Duiwelsgatkloof (‘Devil’s hole’ kloof). The temperature was soaring to a high of 36 degrees and we welcomed the smallest shade and cross-streams along the way, under-dunking and pouring water all over ourselves. It started dawning on me that the dry Apex Peak-Sandfontein Arch section of the trip was maybe not such a good idea at this time of year as we had already started feeling like burnt dogs chasing cool pools… but we pushed that decision out to the next day. Hot and bothered we reached Riempie se Gat in the late afternoon and eventually chose two shaded flattish rock ‘patios’ slightly higher up from the river looking up at Sneeuberg (‘snow mountain’) in the distance, for the evening’s camp. The deep pools in the stream below provided relief from the heat, an opportunity for a wilderness bath and much needed washing of clothes. Over supper Alex entertained with stories from our previous visit to Riempie, where the Riempie-skommel (a 50/50 blend of whiskey and condensed milk) was born after a 22km yomp from Sneeuberg Hut, including an ascent of Sneeuberg itself.
By day 3, once again awakened by bird song, we began treasuring the coolness of the dawn hours. Our morning’s hike consisted of an 8km 800m ascent to Bakleikraal (‘fight’ kraal)where we could refill water, and from where Ralph would take the exit out to Eikeboom via Sneeuberg Hut and the rest of the team carry on towards either Slangboshoek, or Breekkrantz, via the Ou Kaapse Weg contour path. A long day for both parties. The following day’s ‘medium to hot’ prospect of carrying 4 litres of water up Apex Peak to see us through 1.5 days, became less and less alluring with every uphill step in the sun. Stunning fynbos and dramatic rock formations provided mental relief. We came across masses of bright pink Erica Inflata (Balloon Erica), and was it only me, or did we also halu-maginate a growling leopard along the way? A patch of aromatic anys-buchu (an indigenous plant smelling like aniseed) inspired the final 100m of the ascent.
Bakleikraal provided a shady lunch spot next to a large boulder, as well as a cool breeze, refreshing steam and small waterfall. Slingsby’s map also indicates an historic Anglo-Boer War fort in the area, and as we wished Ralph farewell after lunch, we contemplated conversations between Boer and Englishman in this same spot, 120 long years earlier. We continued along the 6.7km contour path toward the top of Breekkrantz, the scenery dramatic with steep rugged cliffs folding into deep valleys to our right, and peaks like Donkerkloof Kop (‘dark kloof peak’) towering ahead and to our left. The mountain made the decision for us, as there was no water along the way, not even at the ‘pool’ indicated on the map at the entrance to Breekkrantz, and we headed straight down towards Beesgat (‘cattle hole’) in the Breekkrantz valley, with the westerly afternoon sun blazing down on our backs. By about 4pm, quite fatigued after more than 15km of hiking in the heat, we found a small stream and then another one leading down to a waterfall. The rare Disa Marlothii fringed the edges. There was no path, but we could see a flat area next to the stream in the valley below, and headed straight there for the evening’s camp. Access to the river was through thick bush, but we had water and a place to sleep amongst stunning fynbos … we were home free.
We unanimously decided that the next day would be a day of rest. We had two options, bundu-bash the 3km up to Maanskyn Cave, water in the stream below depending, or bundu-bash/kloof down the Breekkrantz river to a good pool and camp there. I had hiked up Breekkrantz valley 2 years before, and tried to mentally prepare my teammates for the non-existent path indicated on the map. What was left of the Ou Kaapse Weg in this area was now properly overgrown. At about 8am that morning, after another fresh and early start, we hit the jackpot – stunning pools with adjacent flat rocks, drosera capensis and disa caulescens in full bloom plentifully lining the edges of the stream. We swam and made full use of it, but as it was still early, we decided to head on and seek out the alluring Maanskyn Cave. I had visions of a day filled with soft snoozes in the shaded overhang, peering out over the wetland, every now and again dipping into the stream below the cave. But after a strenuous bash through thick slangbos (‘snake bush’ – an aromatic indigenous herb), we found the bottom of the cave stream all dried up. No use going up to the cave if there’s no water. We opted for a bash down the Breekkrantz river instead. We soon found ourselves worn out by the heat and the bash, but luckily water and pools in the Breekkrantz stream were abundant, and our tea-break became our lunch-and-laze spot for the rest of the day. That evening’s camp was at an old shepherd’s kraal (‘cattle camp’), on a flat, grassy spot overlooking the river, with some ancient waboom for shade, the kraal ruin making a perfect camp kitchen. It was 20 December and as the valley had an almost perfect east-west alignment, we could witness the start of the great conjunction as Jupiter and Saturn started aligning in the western sky at dusk.
It was still dark when I awoke the next morning, and perfectly still. Birdsong eventually announced day-break as the team slowly arose. The distance to our next camp at Bakmakersfontein (‘bowl maker’s fountain’ – butter bowls used to be made here of waboom wood in bygone times) was only 6 kilometres, and the map indicated a path and several stream crossings with water along the way. Attempts to follow the path via GPS proved fruitless, as it was completely non-existent for the first 3km, and completely overgrown for the last 3. The fynbos was lush, with Erica Eugenea (noble heath) flowering abundantly and our path restricted by thick growths of mostly widow pea. Paul relentlessly led the way through the thick bush. Water was far less abundant than the map indicated, and we finally reached Bakmakersfontein after six harrowing hours with very little water left in our packs. The map indicated a fountain close-by the ruins; alternatively we could venture down a steep track to the river far below the camp. The heat was scorching, and I feverishly started bashing through more bush seeking the fountain higher up in the hills. After more than 30 fruitless minutes of this, I noted that the others had disappeared and I headed back to the camp, unwillingly surrendering to the fact that we would have to tackle the hot descent down to (and back up) the river below for water.
‘Santie! Ons het die fontein gevind!’ … that was Alex shouting up ahead. They had found water! I grabbed all the water bottles I could get hold of and found my way down a little path to the tiniest of tiny little streams. Water! I slowly filled bottle after bottle and drank and drank and poured and poured and poured the cool water all over myself. I was dry again within minutes back at the camp and I put on a light flowery cotton dress and covered my now filthy, dirty hair with a soft cloth to try and recover some faint semblance of femininity after the physical and mental strain of the past days. We were all quiet as we took in our surroundings. The hot orange rocks and dried grass of the ruined Bakmakersfontein settlement reflected a desolation which I struggle to put into words. Pieces of wire, shreds of old glass and porcelain, and one tiny white shoe of a child, lay scattered amongst several rock ruins. Later on the heat started dissipating and smiles reappeared. It would be our last night in the mountain. That evening we witnessed the great conjunction of 2020 through a sliver in the clouds. Tomorrow we would head out and back to Nuwerust, ‘civilization’, i.e. cold beers!
Ekkehard’s legs were in a bad state the next morning as I had neglected to properly inform the team of the severity of the bash in my pre-hike emails and he was hiking in shorts all this time. I had brought one pair of long pants only which I eventually wore each and every day, and even after several washing attempts along the way, were now filthy-sweaty and green. The old 1:50 000 map which I had loaded onto Avenza*** indicated the relief of a jeep track shortly after we reached the river 5km down into the valley, and with light hearts we headed out early the next morning for the final 11km stretch. The change in vegetation from fynbos to succulent karoo made the dry heat more palpable, but at least the bush was less dense and we quickly descended to another Beesgat. Ekkehard never once complained, and only asked when will would reach the jeep track, but I could see he was taking strain from more and more deep scratches to his legs. A sort of a faint path appeared as we trudged downstream, but the river was overgrown with thick reeds, which made access virtually impossible. We moved from shaded spot to shaded spot until finally there was a small opening through which we could reach the river. Bliss as we took in the cool water, Paul metamorphing from growling leopard to water snake. Finally after passing another derelict ruin at Alsfontein, with a last glimpse of the still out-of-reach Sandfontein peak in the distance, we crossed over a little neck and there, amongst oak trees, was a wide, open jeep track.
Slowly we stepped back into civilization … First orchards appeared, then one or two farm workers, houses, the road, vehicles. Deeply touched by the wilderness experience of the past days, and with a new appreciation for that substance we so easily take for granted – water – we reached Nuwerust at about 12:30, happy, but dirty, hot, tired and very sweaty and stinky. We immediately headed for the bright blue pool,… and the answer to Ralph’s question on day 3, three-quarters of way up the hill to Bakleikraal, ‘Why I am doing this to myself!?’, dawned on me. You can’t explain it in words, ….but it is just not the same as a dip in a crisp, cool, disa-lined stream, high up on a hot mountain.
*All flower ID’s were confirmed on ‘iNaturalist’ – a phone app and web-based citizen science project and database for uploading and verifying observations from the natural world – https://www.inaturalist.org/home
**Rehydrated meals – Dri Food Co – https://drifoodco.com/
***Avenza – free Mapping and GPS app – https://www.avenzamaps.com/