The "Thumb" that "Spurred" us on!Intro
I am new to this site and don't know much about it. The following hike report was written for a South African hiking forum called Vertical-Endeavour, so many of the terms may be "South-Africanisms", feel free to post questions about what I mean.
The background of the context of this article is as follows:
- The Drakensberg mountains are the highest mountain range in Southern Africa
- They stretch over 1000km
- The highest points of 5 of South Africa's provinces and 4 of the countries of Southern Africa can be found in these mountains
- The range is one of the oldest in the world - this causes it to have numerous usable caves, passes etc
- The range also is the sight of numerous san (aka "bushman") rock-art paintings
- The range is largely undeveloped, so you sleep in a tent/cave, and often don't have a trail. This is part of why I find it so appealing! Well, that and the fact that its a 2 hour drive from my house on usually pretty good roads
- The range has 176 recognised "khulus", the South African equivalent of what the Scotts call a "Munro", or what the layman calls a "3300+m peak"
- Thabana Ntlenyana is the highest point in the range (also the highest point in Lesotho and Southern Africa) at 3482m (and I climbed it earlier last year, worth the effort!)
The Giant's Castle area is the centre of the range. Langalibalele Pass (aka Langies, its about 15km north of the Giant's Castle Massif) is the site of a skirmish between the "Carbineers" (some English soldiers, 5 of whom died in the skirmish - all had peaks named after them, Bond, Erskine, Potterill, Katana and Kambule. Major Durnford didn't die in the battle, but Mount Durnford was named after him) and Langalibalele (a Hlubi chief, the Hlubi people were basically a branch of the Zulu people, so you can kind of link him to Shaka Zulu). There is a full write up on this skirmish on Wikipedia under Langalibalele, so I won't write more about that here (Bushman's River Pass is now known as Langalibalele Pass, and Hlathimba Pass is about a 2 days walk to the south of Langalibalele Pass, if the Wiki article isn't making sense).
Eland, reidbok and any other odd term ending in "bok" are types of deer/antelope. Eland are bigger than cows and somehow thrive at the altitude of 2200m above sea level.
Thumb Spur Peak - hike report of our hike on 2 June 2012
It feels strange to return to the dragon after GT2012. “We meet again my old friend” I think to myself. The weather looks perfect – clear, not very cold and no wind.
The hike is off to a promising start, with an eland standing by the side of the road and having driven into the reserve at sunrise. We get our mountain register entry into the book – we typed it out in advance to save time. The route for the day is ambitious, we need to get going.
We head off towards Langalibalele ridge. Memories of rocks being thrown at the group I led up Langalibalele Pass last year come to mind. Today will be a good day though, nothing like that will happen – I hope!
We stop at rock 75 for a short stop. We didn’t only come for the history of the area, but there is no reason not to enjoy it, especially with the relevance of the pass we are hoping to come down. With the distance to cover in the day we need to keep moving.
As we cross the fourth stream I make sure everyone gets water. I realise that we probably won’t have usable water again until we are back at this spot. This route is dry enough in summer, in early winter after a dry summer I expect basically no water.
We begin the murderous assault on Langalibalele Ridge. It’s steep and long, and (unlike the weather forecast) it’s fairly warm. As we approach the middle of the ridge a breeze picks up. We notice some eland on the north slope of Middle Ridge. With a clear view of our route down off the escarpment, we stop for a break. Richard pulls a very powerful monocular out of his backpack. The route down looks pretty clear, but step one is to get up Langalibalele Pass.
As we get closer we notice some more eland on the path just before it drops into the gully. Good wildlife stats today!
We reach the top of Langalibalele Ridge and begin the section where the path traverses into the gully. The landslide has clearly eroded substantially since I was last here, that’s a concern for the future. We reach the almost entirely frozen trickle of a waterfall that marks the start of the pass.
Langalibalele Pass is always a nice pass – not too hard, and very scenic. The pass starts with a “steep” ridge, the only part of the route that includes sustained fast altitude gain. We agree to only stop for a break once we reach the top of this section. As we reach the top of this section we take a break to look at “This” Cave (aka “That” Cave), the cave looks well sheltered, deep and flat, but difficult to reach. With our time constraints we have no time to check it out. Upward and onward we must head.
As always, the pass is fairly easy, no real drama. We notice a rock wall that looks man made near the top of the pass. As we near the top of the pass the Carbineers’ Grave comes into view.
Now on the escarpment, we admire the view for a few minutes. The time is already just past 12:30, we are already far behind schedule, but we decide to still have a go at Thumb Spur Peak. My GPS tells me that it’s only half a km and straight in the direction of the rocky outcrop in front of us. As we get closer to the rock band we realise that the we are far too low in altitude for this rocky outcrop to be Thumb Spur Peak. We begin to contour around the ridge. Shortly after this the actual rocky outcrop comes into view.
The climb up the 144th highest khulu is pretty easy, we find a gentle gradient in the rock band, and then follow the rocky top to the cairn on the high point. The view from the top is incredible. The view reminds me of Tseketseke Peak. The view looking down on the Thumb, as well as the view north looking at the back of Bannerman Face, and south at the Carbineers and the Giant is well worth the effort. We stop for lunch on the peak. Richard scouts the top of the four possible passes south of this khulu. 2 prove to be impassable, 1 looks dangerous and exposed, but doable, and the gully we plan on dropping down looks very doable.
We head down towards the pass. The pass was originally known as Langalibalele Pass, but somehow fell into disuse many years ago. Bushman’s River Pass took over the name of Langalibalele Pass. As Langalibalele was a Hlubi chief we agreed that we should christen the pass “Hlubi Pass”. I get a GPS reading at the top of the pass. Knowing that we are far behind schedule we have no time to sit and enjoy the relevance of the pass we are about to attempt.
We begin to drop down the pass. It’s clear that someone or something is using a route that cuts under the highest rock band of the escarpment in the area. There is a clear path at a contour of around 2900m, the route neither goes up nor down the gully, it just cuts under it.
We keep close to the rock ridge on the north side of the gully, it’s not as steep as the other side. The views of the Thumb from the pass make me wonder why this pass is not still used and considered a classic. Maybe the easier pass (Langalibalele Pass) that tops out lower, has better water and has a well-defined path the entire way up puts people off using this steep gully.
We continue down the north side of gully until just after a small 3 sleeper cave. The cave would make a good emergency shelter, but with a low roof, un-flat floor and dripping water on the side, it’s unlikely to be much more than that. On the bright side, the cave is in a corner and faces up the pass, so it should be well sheltered.
We now start to move towards the dry river in the middle of the gully. The goal is to cross the river, and begin to traverse the steep bank that divides Langalibalele Pass and Hlubi Pass. We begin to make jokes about how this pass may be better described as “Gloomy Pass” (you may have to read that with the pass name aloud to catch the joke).
The slope is steep, but a fall is quickly broken by the bank that is fairly soft and very close to your face to start with! We continue to traverse below the rock bands. Time is beginning to become a major concern, most of our return trip is already going to be in the shade, it’s almost 3:30 and we still have around 8km to go. Fortunately I made sure that everyone in the group was equipped to hike in the dark. I just hope that the gates aren’t locked when we reach them.
We slowly but surely get closer to the ridge between the passes. Hoping to reach the path down Langalibalele Ridge a few hundred metres after it crosses the top of the ridge, I keep an eye on my GPS, looking for the distance between our route up and down.
We are now very close to the route up, we decide to cut across to the top of the ridge. As I reach the top I begin to laugh. It’s true that we are 300 metres from the path, just there happens to be a massive gully between us and the path. We reached the ridge at eye level with the top of the part of the pass that is significantly steeper than the rest of the pass.
We stop for a short break on the ridge – what a view! It’s getting darker and colder, the clock is against us and we can’t be caught on the ridge in the dark. We follow the knife edge of the ridge, and eventually we join up with the route that follows the ridge.
I soon discover that both Richard and Mike have run out of water, and mine is low. I was worried that this may happen, but not much I can do about it now. In about 45 minutes we will cross the river at the bottom of the ridge, we must just survive till then.
The ridge proves to be uneventful, and we soon reach the river. The sun has now set and the last light of the day is fading. The moon is bright and should provide us with enough light, failing which, we all have headlamps.
As we come around a corner just after the Giant’s Ridge, an eland is standing in the middle of the path. It wasn’t in a great hurry to get out of our way, but as we got close it headed slowly up the bank. Shortly thereafter a group of reidbok ran up the bank, changed their mind and ran down to the river again.
As we approach the end, we are relieved to be coming to the end. As the old quote goes “I love starting a hike, I love being on a hike, but I am happy that all hikes come to an end”. We spend the last half an hour of the hike walking by moonlight, the light was more than adequate and headlamps weren’t necessary – although we were all happy we had them.
After the long day we reach the car park at 6:00. So we were on the trail for 10h30, of which my GPS tells me 4h30 were breaks (amazing how those add up!), we hiked 23km at an average moving speed of around 3.8km/h (and I got 249 photos – far below what I was aiming for).
After signing out on the register we head for the gate. We reach the gate at 6:15 as the rangers are beginning to lock up. Good timing indeed!
As we drive out – tired by happy, we all agree that it was a hike well worth doing. I have realised that this hike largely resembles the Rhino day hike theory: A fairly fit friend says they want to go and do a day hike in the berg, easy but with a view. Most people would respond that Rhino via the Mashai Pass is a good hike to do. This route could easily be done as up Langies (which is far easier than Mashai Pass), climb Thumb Spur (which has a better view than Rhino, and is only 1 metre lower, 3056mvs3055m) and head down Langies again(or Hlubi Pass for that matter) – this coming from the world’s biggest fan of Rhino Peak! It’s also a good day out for experienced hikers looking for a training hike or anyone looking for some good photos.
This hike should really be considered a classic. I rate the view from the khulu as one of the best – up there with the likes Tseketseke Peak (although the view of the Pyramid and the Column from Tseketseke Peak is hard to beat).Hlubi Pass is definitely a pass worth doing for those who enjoy pass bagging, berg history or are just out for doing something that most people don’t do.
[I will put in pics when I figure out how this site works]
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