Matt, who hails from Houston Texas, was in South Africa for a few weeks and when he contacted me, he made it clear he wanted to see some really beautiful vistas of the Berg, something he will not forget in a hurry and Mnweni came to my mind. Mnweni is rugged, breath-takingly beautiful and not much visited. Due to not being well known, there are no major hotels in the vicinity and only hikers visit here regularly.
With arrangements made, supplies bought, bags packed and bursting at the seams, we headed off to the Mnweni Cultural Centre early on Tuesday morning with the aim to start as early as possible as the walk in can be a whole day affair. After completing all the necessary paperwork and mountain register, we shouldered our bags and set off for the start of our Mnweni adventure. The day started off overcast and cool with the prospect of clearing up later in the day and no rain forecasted for the rest of the week, although Agrippa warned us that it might snow during the day. The road section was a good warm-up to what was still to come and as we started our first uphill we were huffing and puffing under our loads. Reaching the top we could look down on the Mnweni River and admire the golden colour grass covered hills. Last time I was here, these same hills were covered in green with patches of white and pink cosmos flowers.
Soon we headed off again in the direction of the mountains and eventually reached Mlambu’s Kraal and by now we were in the rhythm and getting used to the weight on our backs and we started to crank up the pace. Walking through the Protea trees we could feel that it must have rained a bit earlier as the grass was wet and the clouds looked really ominous as if it could rain at any moment again and we delayed our lunch break ’til we reach our first river crossing close to the Icidi Pass turn off.
With lunch behind us, we pushed on past Scally and Shepherds Caves, with Shepherds Cave currently being occupied by some local herds men, we continued on to our final destination, our campsite for our first night. We ended up a bit short of Chichi Bush Camp by about 450m but this would turn out to be beneficial to us later. With two flat camping spots in between the rocks we quickly pitched our tents before it rained as the clouds still looked very ominous and dark and got our supper going before it rained. As we sat there enjoying the tranquility of the mountain, it suddenly started to clear up and we could see the first glimpse of the peaks all around us, with the glow of the setting sun warming the peaks, we enjoyed our supper. As the sun began to set, the temperature plummeted and we were forced to retire to our tents for an early night. All went fine ’til we were rudely awoken at about midnight when a very strong wind started to blow and started to rip our tent pegs from the ground and threatened to blow our tents down. As we were running around outside tying down our tents with rocks and more rocks we could see a star covered sky, but there was no time to admire the stars, as the wind was now blowing like a gale and the tents were being shaken around violently. It was not the most comfortable nights rest, but I was glad when we could see the sky beginning to lighten up in the east and the sunrise was just around the corner.
The morning dawned with the wind still howling as strong as ever and it was going to make packing up the tents very interesting, but we eventually got them packed up without too much damage done to the equipment and ourselves. We had a cold breakfast as I could not get the stove lit in the strong wind, maybe a good thing as a slight spark could have caused a runaway fire in this strong wind.
We shouldered our heavy loads again and picked up the trail again and started the slog to the pass. Looking down at Chichi Bush Camp, I could not see any flat areas and it would not have been a better option to have camped there the previous night.
Mnweni Pass looked very intimidating and steep, but you conquer it a step at a time. The wind was still blowing strong and as this pass is in shadows most of the day the temperature did not rise much higher than most probably 10°C and whenever we stopped for a breather the wind would cut into us so rest breaks were kept short.
The path follows the left hand side of the pass most of the way up before crossing the scree slope to the right hand side of the pass, which is steep and slightly eroded in places and clearly shows signs of being used by donkeys. Mnweni and Rockeries Passes are known smuggling routes and fortunately for hikers they do keep to themselves and as long as you do not get involved with them, you will have no issues with them as they pass you and your hiking companions by. They will usually use the passes over the full moon days of the month for their activities so plan your trips accordingly if you are concerned about security issues.
We were blessed with clear weather and some awesome views of Pins Pass and the Mnweni cut back as we ascended higher and higher up Mnweni. We could see some snow left over on the escarpment, most probably left from the last cold front and this meant that we could be cold tonight.
Even after numerous photo sessions and rest breaks we reached the top of the pass just after 13:30. We walked on to the Senqu River and with Matt struggling slightly with his hip we did not plan on walking too much further for the day. We found a spot to pitch our tents. With the wind still blowing strong we made sure that we were doing a proper job this time round in securing our tents for the night. After some lunch and a rest Matt went exploring to the edge of the escarpment to get some photos of the view to the North. The Senqu River is not flowing but there are still some pools left and in the little gorge. I found a pool totally frozen over and the ice so thick it could not be broken.
As the afternoon turned into evening the temperature started to drop fast and yet again we were driven into our tents for an very early end to the day and by sunset the wind was freezing and not showing any signs of subsiding. The wind carried on blowing well into the night and in the early morning hours I was awoken by the cries of two jackals calling over the valley and somewhere a dog’s barking could be heard. It was freezing and even in my down sleeping bag I could feel the cold creeping in and I snuggled in for a few more hours sleep before it is time to leave my warm cocoon.
As I zipped my tent open, I was showered by fine ice crystals. Both the inside and the outside of the tent flysheet were covered by fine ice crystals, and on the ground frost was formed on the grass and everything that was left outside was frozen stiff. Getting dressed was painful, not physically but mentally, you knew that it would be so easy to just carry on lying in until it warms up a bit, but that was going to be very unlikely as the wind has started to blow again, luckily not as strong yet.
I got my MSR stove roaring and while I was boiling some water for coffee, Matt and I started to pack up camp and get ready for the rest of our journey down Rockeries Pass. I was glad I decided to bring the MSR Dragonfly stove, except for being noisy, roaring away like a rocket, it boils water in no time and the cold and altitude does not affect it, and before long I was sipping away on a fresh cup of coffee while warming in the early morning sun. With fresh legs and renewed enthusiasm we set off towards Rockeries Pass and the closer we got, the better the view of the Cathedral Range was getting. Looking down Rockeries Pass, the skyline was dominated by North Peak on your right and the Rockeries on your left; the pass gets its name from this rock formation and not the fact that the path down the pass is very rocky. Rockeries Pass is not as steep as Mnweni Pass but is definitely a lot more used and more eroded and yes, very rocky as well. Zig-zagging our way down, we eventually reached the donkey crux where we had a quick break for lunch. The donkey crux is suppose to be a hindrance so that the donkeys cannot use this pass, but the locals have found a way to get the donkeys up, and this process is not for the feint hearted.
From the donkey crux it was about another 5,5 km to our campsite for the night and luckily from here the path is less rocky and definitely not as steep as before and we could crank up our speed. The valley opens up, and looking back we could see how huge this valley actually is, with the Rockeries to the south and the Mnweni Inner and Outer Needles to the north. On reaching our camp for the night we found it totally deserted and not even a sign that it was recently used. The temperature here, even with a slight breeze, was about 10°C warmer than what we had been experiencing over the last couple of nights and we were sitting outside ‘til close to sunset before retiring to our tents. The night was warm and we enjoyed the fact that we could lie in our tents knowing that tonight we would not freeze and that tomorrow would be a new day with not to many challenges ahead of us.
Our last morning dawned on us and we knew that this was going to be a very short day compared to the last 3 days. It was only 7km back to the Cultural Centre on a dirt road and it really should not take anyone more than 2 hours to walk. After packing up and making sure we did not leave anything behind, we shouldered our bags for the final time and headed off over the hill down to the road and our way back to civilization. Matt who was planning on doing Kilimanjaro later next week, seemed keen to get back to the Backpacker Lodge to get a warm shower and some proper sleep, so we cranked up the pace a bit. It is interesting how sleeping on the ground and not having running water makes you appreciate the small things in life that we normally take for granted, and being limited to what we can carry on our backs should make us more appreciative of what we have and realise how much we actually have to be grateful about.
After signing out and packing the vehicle we set off back home and our separate ways, knowing that we made new friends and hopefully we will see each other somewhere in the future.
God blessed us with some great weather, awesome views and memories that will last a lifetime, and even if we do not always see the good in the world, we can always remember that this is the day that the Lord has made and it is good.