The Drakensberg experienced some heavy snowfall during the second half of July 2016 which coincided with a plan to venture out into this mountainous wilderness with my friend Carl Smorenburg. We decided to meet at the Mnweni Cultural Centre (MCC) on Friday and hike out to the bottom of Fangs Pass on Saturday for the night. We would camp at a beautiful spot just above the Mubudini River facing Mbundini Abbey. The hike was one I have been itching to do for a while and with the prospect of seeing and photographing some snow I was excited!
I am a "bit" O.C.D. when it comes to packing for my hikes, so planning and preparation started a few weeks before. Checking my gear, working out a meal plan and packing the lightest and most versatile equipment possible. It was also my first hike with my new Garmin Etrex 30x GPS, and my MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent - a wonderful lightweight option for hikers at roughly 1.7kg.
I met Carl and his friend Andre on Friday and spent the afternoon and evening shooting sunset in the Thonyalana River facing the Cathedral Spur, the Saddle, Rockeries and the mighty Mponjwane Peak (Rockeries Tower). The air was crisp, clear and the snow still showing nicely. A hearty braai was had on our return to the MCC and we called it a night soon after and went to sleep.
I awoke early the next morning, with the start of the hike imminent and the prospect of seeing a new area of the Drakensberg enticing my excitement. We photographed sunrise again in the Thonyalana River. It was cloudless again but wonderful to be out experiencing a magnificent part of the Berg. The Mnweni area has a magnificent cultural essence to it and it felt spiritual.
We got back to the MCC, had breakfast and packed up our hiking gear and cameras. We got a lift to the start of the hiking route which saved us about a 4km walk. We started hiking at about 9am.
The camera gear I took with me included (packed into a small pro F-stop ICU) :
- Nikon D810 with L-Bracket
- Nikon 14-24 f2.8 & 24-120 f4 lenses + circular polariser for the 24-120.
- Cable release and micro fibre cloth
- Extra battery and memory cards
- Tripod and ball head (packed on the outside of my hiking pack)
The hike to our campsite was 13.94 km, gaining an altitude of 646 meters in total. The walk was tough but what a beautiful hike it was. The first couple of kilometers traversed areas close to local settlements and it was wonderful being on foot with friendly locals and their children around.
We joined the Mnweni River valley about 3 km into the hike, and this is where the beauty of the Drakensberg once again appeared in all of it's glory. In our view were the snow covered peaks from the Devils Tooth, Ifidi, Icidi, all the way to the Mnweni Needles.
It was a clear day and by now getting quite hot. We ascended the ridge alongside Mbazibale (Dassie Rock) and stopped for lunch just past the last kraal called Mlambu's Kraal. The view was breathtaking! The trail up until our lunch spot was quite well defined, but things soon got a bit more technical. We descended into the Mnweni River valley again, crossed the river and continued towards the confluence of the Mnweni and Mubudini rivers leading up to the view of Mbundini Abbey and Fangs Pass. We stopped at roughly the 10 km point at Dagga Smugglers Cave for a well earned break. This is where the trail got a lot more technical and adventurous.
The last few kilometers were tough, the trail was overgrown and we made many small river crossings across wet and submerged rocks. I was really happy I had good trekking poles for these crossings! Carl and Andre made their way to camp as I was very tired and slow, but I kept a steady pace and eventually made it to the campsite at about 3:30pm. The hike should take roughly 4 hours for the fit, but it took me 6.5 hours. I was extremely happy to make it to our campsite as it was a hard long slog with a 19kg backpack but extremely rewarding. We set up our tents, had a bite to eat and set out for our sunset shoot.
Mbundini Abbey is extremely beautiful and very photogenic and one doesn't need to walk far for amazing compositions. You can shoot beautiful images from your tent! We made our way to an idyllic waterfall about 30 meters from camp and spent time photographing the sunset. During sunset I manage to drop my iPhone into the icy river. I quickly stripped down to my underwear and jumped into the icy cold water to try and find the phone. I managed to pull it out right away and it still worked!? Submerged for 2 minutes the iPhone still worked! Although it obviously suffered water damage and died the next day.
Sunset was clear, and I took some basic shots of the waterfall and river looking for compositions for sunrise the next morning. We retreated back to camp before twilight as I had planned for a twilight shot. I set up my camera next to my tent, got organized for the night and shot a couple frames before bedding down for the night. The image below turned out to be my favourite from the hike, and one that was well worth the effort getting to this amazing location.
Our tents were pitched no more than 10 meters from the Mubudini RIver and the sound of the river soothing. My body was quite sore from the hike and I didn't have the best of nights, but I guess that adds to the whole experience. At least I had about 10 hours to rest until sunrise. We woke up to a lot of mist and low cloud around, and went out for sunrise. It turned out to be a good sunrise, mainly because of the swirling mist and cloud giving way to the beautiful snow-covered jagged peaks of Mbundini Abbey.
We started packing up our gear at about 7:30am and at roughly 8am set off for the long 14km walk back. Knowing the route was mainly downhill and knowing what to expect, I felt a lot more confident than I did the day before. Considering it was mid-winter and 4 days after a big snowfall and cold front, the temperatures where surprisingly mild. Well, mild for winter. There was frost around our tents and inside my tent the temperature only reached a minimum of 3 degrees. We did however prepare for the cold and that always makes all the difference.
Cloud was swirling about for our entire hike back, and I remember one very idyllic scene. Beautiful crisp river full of water in the foreground, the Icidi River valley leading to low cloud in the distance and the towering peaks of the Ifidi and Icidi above covered in snow. I tried taking an image with my phone, but the lens was fogged up from the interaction it had with an icy river the day before. This view over to the Icidi and Ifidi remains my fondest memory of the hike.
We made our way back to where we had been dropped off the day before in about 3.5 hours, and I was certainly happy to be finished walking. We got a lift back to the MCC and had an awesome shower to end off a magnificent hike. We departed ways and made our way back home.
The hike was a great experience, and although tough for the unfit, the images made it so worthwhile!
For those with GPS's, I tracked the route from our drop-off point to our campsite and marked way points for this drop-off point and camp site. You can download this GPS data here.