Notes and photos supplied by John Saxby
Mnweni is situated in the northern Drakensberg, south of the Royal Natal National Park and just north of Cathedral Peak. It is ideal for those venturing into the mountain range for the first time, especially when utilizing one of the local guides. Guides are available from the Amangwane Cultural Centre and these guides know the paths well and the caves to sleep in.
The Centre would be a good place to stay for a hiking party. It’s about 30 km west of Bergville. It is the trailhead for the ascent to the scarp via the Mnweni Valley (at the confluence with the Hlongwane River), and has very clean and comfortable self-catering rondavels. The Centre appears on the KZN tourism website (under “News/Community Tourism”) and you can reach the manager, Agrippa Zondo, on 072-7122-401.
We took a circular route from the Centre, following the Mnweni River west and then south to Mnweni Pass, south across the scarp to Ntonyalena Pass, and straight down north and east again to the Centre. Total distance was about 55 km. Spread over five days, this was quite manageable, allowing lots of time for stops for photos, water, snacks, etc., as well as early halts at the end of each day. We started each day after the sun was up, usually after 08:30. I had read David Bristow’s section on the Mnweni in his book on hiking & climbing in the Drakensberg, and it was both inviting and sobering—he described every path as “extreme”, with some graded “severe” to ensure you kept reading. Happily, it was just as beautiful but nowhere near as demanding as he suggested.
Notes from each day
Day One is an easy trail with some moderately strenuous short climbs. The main gravel road becomes a narrow dirt road, and then a track. There are lots of cattle paths as well, so a guide is useful here unless you already know the way. Though there is plenty of water in the river, we filled our bottles at the Centre and used these for the first 3-4 hours—there are homesteads with people and livestock using the river. The hike is about 14 km, with a moderate total ascent of approx. 400 metres. We hiked from 09:15 to 14:30, and camped in tents at the confluence of the Mubudini, opposite Shepherd’s Cave, on a grassy bluff overlooking the river. It was a warm and breezy sunny day, and the late afternoon sun gave some spectacular light effects, with ridge upon ridge to the North appearing golden while we made tea in the shadows below. Khubulumani spotted a train of dagga smugglers, 13 donkeys in all, so we kept a wide berth.
Day Two was the most demanding of the days as it ascends straight up the valley to the pass, an ascent of about 1600 m in total, with most of this in the morning, including a very steep final 2 km to the top of the scarp. The hike is moderately strenuous to strenuous to the final water point, about 500 m from ChiChi Bush Camp. There are lovely boulders amid rapids and small waterfalls for a midmorning break. There follows 3 hours of very steep ascent, happily most of it in zig-zags up a steep grassy slope. The trail is very clear—it is a donkey track. If you are a rock-climber, this is spectacular country—faces, spires, chutes and gullies, overhangs, the lot. I just took photos and used the binoculars during our frequent breaks.
We reached the scarp in early afternoon, amidst the clouds, and headed for Mponjwane Cave for the night—just north of the Rockeries Pass descent. It proved tricky to find, at the end of a long and tiring uphill. The cave was a splendid spot to camp, though, overlooking the lowlands far below, with the Rockeries Tower just to our left. It was very clean, with dry grass spread on a sandy floor.
I had just reached my comfortable limit for the day, so hot chicken broth was very much in order. The night was spectacular, clear and cold (a few degrees above zero) and the stars quite special. With the light-pollution of the cities, you forget these things. Note: the cave has no water source, so load up when you cross the streams on the plateau.
Day Three was an easy hike, following the edge of the escarpment for about 10 km due southeast across the rolling uplands of the plateau to an open meadow just near the lip of Ntonyalena Pass. We breakfasted at a beautiful set of flat rocks beside a fiercely cold stream (ice on the still pools) and had a leisurely lunch at another spot.
Good options for landscape photography—long long vistas, and you look down on great craggy formations like Cathedral Peak.
Our campsite was comfortable with a good stream for water, but the winds at night were very strong, and the tents rattled and clattered all night long. Make sure the guylines are very well anchored! (But obligingly, the wind banished all condensation on the tents.)
On Day Four, we took the long and steep descent through Ntonyalena Pass.
This would be very tough in the other direction, and is tricky as a descent as well. There is a lot of loose rock—I went for a slide once—and the trek down took us between 3 and 4 hours. The journey was less spectacular than it might have been—clouds were rolling in, with a hint of rain. We stopped early after about 6 hours, and pitched our tents on a grassy spot near the confluence of the Ntsitsi. This gave us a last night on the trail, beside a small warm campfire.
We had a splash of rain that night, nothing serious, and hiked down to the Centre in about two and a half hours the next day, reaching the trailhead just before lunch. The tent flysheets were still damp from the heavy condensation of the night before, so we spread them in the brilliant sunshine to dry. After a hot shower, lunch, tea, repacking, settling the bill and the arrival of my wife to pick us up, the rain came—nicely timed to lay the dust. We dropped Khubulumani off at the bridge to his homestead, and headed for Bergville and a huge fresh meal.
Great trip, and I’d recommend our route to anyone. If you would like more info, please get in touch:
John Saxby, Pretoria
Footprint Hiking Club
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