Xeni Cave is one of the caves that some hikers love to hate. Don’t get me wrong the cave itself is wonderfully spacious and plenty of level space – even some concrete tables to cook on. The issue is the last 500m or so that is quite taxing on most as it’s not on a clearly defined path, instead it’s a lot of bolder hopping and stream crossings that have to be negotiated.
We set off just before 13:00 and the heat was quite unbearable as the sun baked down on us. There were some impressive cumulus clouds building over the high Berg and some parts of the Berg were already engulfed by the clouds. Every now and again a far off rumble of thunder could be heard, but we pushed on. Our aim was to get to the cave no later than 17:00. The start was swift and before long we crossed the TsekeTseke River that was actually flowing very strong. The whole area had had a flash flood that washed away most of the trees in the valley and large sections of bare rocks were now exposed. The new river channel was deep and the water was flowing strongly. We found a suitable crossing point not too many rocks and a bit wider and definitely not as strong. Off came our boots as we prepared to enter the water. My walking stick plunged into the current and I could feel that it was a lot stronger than I first thought and also a lot deeper. The water was pushing on my legs and as I walked across the water ended up just below my knees.
Safely through we pushed on with the next leg of the trip following the Mlambonja River. Here we could see a lot of damaged as trees were lying around like matches, all their bark stripped off and bleaching in the sun. The path follows quite close to the river and some sections were washed away and we ended up following the river bed to the Xeni River confluence. We could see that the Xeni River was still flowing quite strong as well and in some sections the water washed well over the bank. We had to search for the path as the path and some of the opposite bank was washed away and debris was lying all over.The going from here was a lot slower mainly due to the bolder hopping that was taking quite some time. The rocks were loose and we had to be careful not to get a foot or leg trapped or broken when walking along them. As we rounded the corner and the Xeni valley opened up we could see the devastation as large sections of the river bed were now bare rocks. The river changed course from my last trip to the area and was also flowing still quite strong. There were no more rocks to walk across and we had to take off our shoes and wade across or try to jump but it was not always possible to stay dry. The last 500m, or so we thought, the rocks were loose and some areas had sandy beaches but every now and again you would get a muddy patch that would threaten to suck your shoes off. Luckily for us there was a group had gone before us and we could basically follow in their foot prints.
The clouds by this time were now threatening and the thunder was a lot closer than we would have liked it to be. Soon the first drops started to fall and we were still about 300m from the cave. It was not that far left to go, but with climbing over wet rocks and crossing rivers it felt like an eternity to get to the cave turn off. The peaks in front of us were now totally covered and as the rained just eased of for a bit we could see a huge waterfall cascading over the escarpment. The greatest risk of walking in the river bed is that all this water might be on its way to us, so we made our pace a bit faster and soon the small ladder that leads up from the river appeared before us.
It rained hard and the path was a river in itself with small waterfalls as it flowed over the steps and steep sections. The last bit of the path to the cave is a steep climb out from the river and made a bit more challenging by the rain and water running down the path obscuring the rocks and holes. We pushed on and soon we were walking into the safety of the cave. It was dark as the storm moved in over us and looking out from the cave we could see the lightning playing in the clouds. By now the water was rushing over the lip of the cave making even a conversation difficult.
The cave was dry for most part and we quickly changed into something dry and warm before setting up our sleeping areas. It was way too early to go to bed, even though it was already quite dark due to the cloud cover. Unfortunately Xeni Cave has seen a lot of abuse over the years and there were some fresh signs of a fire being made in the cave. Unfortunately some of our fellow hikers don’t believe that a camp fire does any damage however it causes long term issues as it eventually just gets out of hand. Except for being an eye sore in a cave people start to damage trees and shrubs to get fire wood and eventually it leads to the destruction of the natural covering in front of the cave. Most caves are already dusty and the extra ash just makes things worse especially if the wind starts to blow into the cave.
We made good use of the tables and quickly had our supper prepared and no matter what people say, after a warm meal you do feel a lot better. It was still way too early to go to bed and after a bit of chatting and watching the lightning show we finally were close to 20:00 and every one slowly started to make their way to their sleeping bags. It was still bucketing down and the sound of the waterfall and rain drowned out just about all the noise and soon we were all dosing off.
Xeni Cave is a relatively large cave with fairly level sleeping areas, however in summer it is a bit wet on the one side, but will still sleep the maximum of 12 hikers with ease. The floor is a bit dusty in the dry seasons and there is some dry grass in the sleeping areas. The grass keeps the dust under control, however some believe it also makes a bit of extra padding. Trust me after a few minutes you’ll quickly realize that it actually doesn’t do much. Usually the waterfall serves both as a water source and shower. With all the drips in the cave, water was no issue and a few pots placed in the correct areas were quickly filled up.
The next morning was looking like the clouds were rained out as the blue sky greeted us. The sun was painting the high Berg a light pinky orange as we enjoyed a freshly brewed cup of coffee. It was already warming up and it looked like it was going to be another scorcher of a day. There were no clouds around yet but by the time we left the cave and walked down to the river it all changed and soon some puffy cotton wool clouds were building over towards the south. We had a quick breakfast and packed up. Most of our gear was now dry or just damp and the only really annoying part was putting wet shoes back on.
Walking back down from the cave we could hear that the river sounded like it was flowing a lot stronger. The water was flowing over the rocks that we used to cross over yesterday, and lucky for us we could still wade through. The water was actually quite refreshing in the heat as we made our way back down the valley. We picked our way through the rocks crossing the river a number of times and knowing that we were walking out did not mind too much with getting our feet wet. Having to spend another day walking in wet boots might have caused us to take them off for most crossings.
Before long we reached the final river crossing for the day. By now the clouds have been building and looked threatening over Cleft Peak. A low rumbling could be heard as the clouds started to play around the peaks hiding them away from sight then just lifting for a moment. We found some shade and enjoyed a quick snack break and fresh mountain water. We were aiming to make it back to the car park before the rain starts.
We got going on the last stretch back and although lockdown has been eased, we did not see many people on the trail between the hotel and the river, as this is usually a popular walk for the guests. We walked back to the vehicles on a relatively easy path that took us into the Cathedral Peak Hotel. We made our way past and on to the car park. It was a relief for the newbies to be able to put their bags down for the last time and just relax under the trees. Although it’s not a difficult walk, it is the boulder hopping that takes its toll on your legs. We took a slow drive back to Didema to sign out and decided to have some lunch at the restaurant, before heading back home to plan for our next adventure.