Saturday, October 23, 2010




Climbing the Cockscomb had first been introduced to me as a potential hike by Ant Adler when he had joined the Alexandria hike almost exactly two years ago in September 2008. At that time we had, as hikers always do, been talking about our experiences. Ant had brought up the Cockscomb as something that he would set up. However, since then, for a number of reasons, I have not been able to join the group. Another interesting fact is that Amber had been due to hike this trail but had an emergency Apendectomy and that made it impossible for the Zeelies to be on the hike.

This time however, I had diarised this weekend far in advance and would have been very reluctant to have had to cancel. Barbara had booked to fly to Cape Town for Christian's birthday and for Nicci & Stefan's housewarming party. Amber Zeelie was also due to join us but had to pull out at the last minute due to school band commitments. Once Ally learned that Amber was not going to be on the hike she was also in two minds but in the end, with no pressure or persuasion from myself, Ally elected to do the climb.

There had been a number of Email communications going back and forth as to who would be on this hike. Graham Richards was scheduled to be part of the group but had a really nasty fall in a Mountain Bike event and it appears that he had hurt himself and cracked ribs. He had to pull out. Hannes was really busy at work with a number of projects and had just returned from two away trips to Mauritius and to Victoria Falls. But I think that Hannes was like myself; nothing was going to get in the way of us doing this climb.

Ally and I took the day off on Friday 22nd. We made up a list of provisions and to do and started just after 08.00am at Checkers where we bought most of the stuff. Ally carried the list and ticked off each item as we found it. After a couple more chores we went home where we packed our backpacks and were finally ready just after 11.00am. We collected Hannes at his home. Ally put her pillow and blanket on the back seat and made herself comfortable for the drive. We were first to arrive at the Engen Filling station on the Uitenhage road. I bought myself and Ally something to eat for lunch and then saw Ant at the Steers. Matt arrived a little later in his Ford Pick up. Matt Gibbs is a name that I have heard so many times in relation to Hiking. Now we finally met. Fred Kohler and Mike Perks arrived in Fred's Hyundai.

Hannes forgets to shake hands with his left hand and is in agony when Ant gives him a firm handshake. Hannes had a bike accident and came down hard on his right hand which is now bruised and he feels the pain as soon as any pressure is put on the hand. The group purchase hamburgers and we set off at around 12.30.

The drive to the start of the Cockscomb climb takes you past Uitenhage on the road to Graaf Reinett. From our house it is 50kays of tar road to the turn off then 60kays of dirt road past a number of game farms and really sparse looking sheep and goat farms before reaching the left turn for the final 10kay. As we were driving, Hannes commented a number of times: "That must be the peak". He was referring to tall mountain peak that was hardly visible as the mist covered what I think is the East side of the mountain. It looked quite daunting from below where we were. the drive was a total of 120kays which took us just under 2 hours.

I was driving fairly carefully as stones would continually hit the bottom of the car as the tyre flicked the stone up. I was also not wanting to drive in Matt's dust. And, ironically as it turned out, I was worried about Fred getting a puncture with the narrow tyres of the Hyundai.

Once we reached to starting point it took us a few minutes to "saddle up", take a few pictures and head up the valley. Each of us has a packet of Brickets. There is no firewood up on the moutain and the only way to braai is if you have your own charcoal. Ant pointed out the route that we would be taking. The walk starts with a short section of following the stream up this valley and then we take a left turn up a steep climb. At this stage the hiker is not warmed up and I was quite out of breath within a very short while. I hear names of the steep slopes such as Aggie's Agony.

Ant describes this section as folows:
"We started from the farm Willow River owned by Hannes Rudman. Entered Pinnacle Gorge and then ducked under the gate in the fence entering the farm Afgunst owned by Schalk van der Merwe. We then walked up Aggies Agony. And then (Much Later and much higher up)on to the gate marking the entrance to Frans Loots’s property.

We climbed at a steady pace looking back from time to time. It was amazing to me to see the magnificent rock formations even at this early stage of the climb. Twisted cliff faces, Deep Crevasses, balancing rocks and curves in the mountain that must have been formed over millions of years as the earth was being formed. Ant recalls his weekend on a wine farm and uses a word with which I am not familiar: he used the word verdant "to describe the vines which I said I could almost see and hear growing". According to the Dictionary Verdant is described as:
"Green with vegetation; covered with green growth". and also: "Lacking experience or sophistication; naive. At this stage of the hike I think that Verdant could have described me: Lacking in experience.

This early stage of the climb would be the toughest from the point of climbing uphill was concerned. Fred, Hannes, Mike and Matt pushed on ahead. They soon disappeared over the ridge. Ally and I were content to hike at a reasonably steady pace without pushing so hard that we would be exhausted. Fred returned to assist with Ally's bag for the last section of this first uphill. Over the ridge and there was still a long pull with a pathway that was very jagged and marked by Cairns. From time to time Ant would place an additional rock on the cairn to show the route a little more clearly for the next walker. Cairns along hiking trails are often maintained by groups of hikers adding a stone when they pass.

Up and up we climbed. The group waited for us a number of times in the early stages but I think that Fred was a little concerned that we had left later than planned and that the slow pace may take us past dusk. There was also the real danger of the mist settling down on us and making visiblity a problem. We cllimb past rocky ridges. Very little vegetation. There had been a fire about 18 months to 2 years ago and we are able to see some recent growth of grassy clumps. But mainly all we see is rocks and boulders.

This is a tough climb in the best of conditions. This afternoon there was a biting cold wind and despite the exertion of the climbing we began to get quite cold. Ally put her windbreaker top on. This top is Barbara's which she had bought when we were on the Orange River Canoe trail for the first time with the Trevor Jennings Group. I am aware that we must stay with the group but Fred makes this clear as he tells us of a time when he climbed up with two young teenage boys who went on ahead. They took a wrong turn and took the Mountain Club route. They ended up across the valley from the cave. And while Fred's group could shout to them from the cave, they were not able to connect so these two youngsters had to sleep out in the open. Cold and Scarey.

It was in the later stages of the climb that Ally must have been feeling low as she SMS'd Barbara "Help me". I asked her later what she thought and her response was that maybe her Mom would fly back to PE and drive to the start and that she could walk down and out. Ally must have been really tired and miserable. But she pressed on and up. As we climb into the bitingly cold wind I look around for shelter but there is none. The landscape is rocky and barren. There are tufts of grass but no bush or crevices to sheler under. We are able to see the valleys and gorges below us. They too seem sparse and empty. What we do see are many colourful Watsonia. Colours that are not normally seen from the road on the Garden Route we now see here high up on the mountains.

Frans Loots writes:
In January 1996 I became a mountaineer (by default).
I inherited a mountain peak! The Cockscomb. At 5 700 ft (1759 meters) it is the highest summit in the immediate Port Elizabeth region. The mountain lies some 80 kilos North of St Francis Bay, and forms part of the Groot Winterhoek range. It borders on the the Baviaans Kloof.

At 4 500 ft, tucked into one of the ridges is Echo cave. Complete with rudimentary mountain hut, ice cold shower and flushing loo with the best view in Africa.
To summit, we climb from the North, starting out from the neighbouring farm just off the Steytlerville road.

To get to my piece of Africa you have to first embark on a three and a half our, unrelentless climb of 2 500 ft. It's a bit like cruising long distance to windward on a heavy keelboat. It is zig-zag, slow going, up and down, but always climbing. Every now and then you hove- to for a break. Eventually you see your destination but the last little bit takes forever.

Peter writes:
Frans is a resident of St Francis bay and is friends with Ant Adler through sailing. Frans is in the process of launching his Trimaran, Banjo, to sail up into the Atlantic Ocean. He will sail to Simonstown and start some race on 1 December 2010. I hear that Frans' dad was Ben Loots. Inside the cave there is a sign telling us that this is the private property of Ben. We hear that Ben would spend substantial time (a week) up in the cave. The Cockscomb is 1759m high, Ben Mc Dhui in the Southern Drakensbuerg but still in the Eastern Cape is 3001m high while the tallest mountain in Africa is Mount Kilimanjaro at 5896m at Uhuru (freedom) peak.

It is very easy to lose the pathway if you are not careful. We lost our way a couple of times and would look out for the next cairn which could be just one or two stones but it was the marker to show us the way forward. Graham would not have enjoyed this hike with sore (Cracked?) ribs. One has to be fit to climb this mountain. In fairness to yourself and to the group you are with, you have to have a reasonable amount of stamina and be injury free.

Ant stayed with us to show us the way to the top. Finally we went through a fence / gate and Ant told us that we had now all but completed the climb. Ahead was a short technical section but we were now almost completely sheltered from the wind. A short bit of rock clambering and there we saw Hannes and Fred coming to fetch us. I think that they were genuinely surprised that we were already almost at the cave. They helped us over the last bit and in a few minutes we were in the cave.

I was shocked at what I saw. It quite took my breath away. Magnificent. The cave is deep and easy to walk in. The floor of the cave is smooth rock with grass strewn over to make it warm and cosy. On the left of the cave is a small hut that has been built over a number of years. It is built into the rock. It is a very rudementary structure but quite adequate for storeage of a few provisions, mattresses and a pile of old equipment, hoses and various other stuff that you would expect to find in a farm shed. The climb has taken Ally and myself just under 4 hours. We did not rest up but walked at a steady pace the whole way.

In the middle of the cave is a table and benches that Anthony had brought up with a Helicopter. He had it brought to the place where we had come through the fence/gate and then a group of chaps had carried it from there, over the big boulders, across a narrow section to the cave. This bench table is a great addition to the interior as it provides a converstion and meeting place. It appears to have been sawn into three sections; two benches and the middle table section and then bolted together.

Fred points out that there is a tap and two tanks with limited water. Somehow the water supply has dried out and there is no water flowing to the cave. Fred takes Ally and I to a smaller cave just below the main cave where the toilet is situated. I notice that almost all of us have scratches and nicks on our legs and hands. Bumping a knee on a rock, scraping knuckles or scratching legs on branches is inevitable on a hike like this.

Ant has the key to the little hut and brings out a couple of thin mattresses. We all set out our bedding. I start to add layers. I have brought three T-shirts and an anorac. I put them all on and am still shivering. Hannes declares that he will be the fireman and starts a charcoal bricket fire. I am not able to warm up and use my sleeping bag for additional warmth. I think that it is a combination of the cold and being exhausted from the climb that makes me so cold. I open a beer and start to thaw out. After a half hour or so I feel a whole lot better.

I put the grid on the fire and try to start grilling the steak that I have prepared. But the fire is not hot enough. The grid is too high and it is so cold and damp (from the mist) that the fire is heating the base and not the grid. Finally we take the frame of the grid off and place the grid low down on some stone just above the fire. And we add some more brickets. I was first on the fire so Ally and I are able to have our supper. We have some steak, Mielies and braai rolls. I have brought too much food. We also have cooked potato and carrots which are never eaten and carried down again. Hannes is shocked at our carrying the Pick & Pay Sweet Chili Sauce up but he enjoys some with his meal.

As we are sitting at the table having a drink and chatting I am suddenly aware of the moonlight. It is a full moon and for the first time since we arrived there is a clearing in the mist and we are able to see across the valley to the cliffs on the opposite side. The peak is still covered with mist but Fred is able to show me where we will climb to the Saddle in the morning. The full moon shines and reflects off the rock face of the valley and looks quite dramatic. And then suddenly it is gone again as the mist closes over and shuts down the views.

After the second beer of the evening and having eaten more than enough I am quite exhausted and ready to lie down. Ally has already settled herself in with her book that she is reading. I also brought a book up the mountain but never even opened it. I really do not know what I was thinking when I packed for this hike. No fleecy top but a heavy book?

I sleep well. Of course we wake up in the night. But I am not uncomfortable. The thin mattress on the grassy floor of the cave is quite adequate. I have my camping pillow and feel rested when I get up soon after day break. I lie in bed for a while watching the mist as it alternates between totally covering the valley to opening up to the most spectacular views. Later on I heard some talk of snoring. I was not at all disturbed. But perhaps it was me that was making the noise?

As we had climbed yesterday the vegetation was sparse and the terrain rocky. On this side of the mountain (every time the mist clears) we are treated to views of magnificent mountain fynbos. There are all kinds of colours and I see pin-cushion protea, Bright pink protea bush just below the cave which add to the various shades of green and red bush.

I put on the kettle and have a roll with some coffee. I settle down to read Matt's newspaper while waiting for others to wake up. After a short while bodies begin to stir. Ally is a good sleeper and I have to wake her up when the decision is made to move out for the morning hike. We pack a small tog bag and carry water. The mist is still flowing across the valley but clears every short while. We walk across to the saddle on the other side but when we get there Fred (leader of the pack) decides that it could become dangerous with the damp and low visibility.

So we decide to walk away from our side along what appears to be the mountain club trail. Ally and I are at the back of the group. She has this idea that the Cave would be a cosy place to spend a wet morning like today. But we press on and after a short while arrive at the Mountain Club Cave. It is an open space similar to the one where we spent the night but with no facilities. Stones mark out sleeping area's and I find a "visitors book" which I sign on our behalf. This cave is known as the T'Numqua (Mountain of clouds) cave.

Ant tells me that there is some kind of rivalry but it does not concern us and we do no harm. "Leave footprints and take photographs." We leave the cave and head back to Echo Cave where Ally plans to spend the rest of the day. Again the others go ahead of us and we follow at our own pace. Ant sits on a rock waiting for us to make sure that we don't take a wrong turn. Back at the cave we decide to see if we can find the source of the water pipe which is no longer flowing. We started off trying to follow the pipe and after a bit of scrambling around and bum sliding down the grass slopes we were able to find the general direction of the water pipe. Mike and Hannes were above us.

Fred somehow, with super Xray vision, found the pipe in the sloot. At this time the mist was heavy around us, the grass was thick and intertwined in the protea bush. Both Mike and Matt went up above the point where the pipe appeared to go into the ground but could not find any more piping nor could they find any kind of weir or pool of water. Fred and Ant scrabbled around trying to see if this was really the source of water. They tried a number of times to phone Frans to see if he could describe the sump. But it appears that Frans has never before had any water problems and so has not had a reason to do any repairs. We ended up with no solution. I, personally, am not convinced that the drought is the reason for the water drying up. There is so much water in the mist that there must surely be seepage to the sloots and springs?

To reach the pipe (water source) you take the pathway as if you were going to the saddle. As soon as you reach the old fence then you follow the fence to where it crosses the sloot. At this point there is a change of direction of the fence. Here you head upwards looking out for the first rockface on the left of the sloot. Ant built a small cairn just there. From here it is a short scramble through fynbos into the sloot and the end of the pipe is there. It appears that there should be a small pool/weir there but all we found was packed soil. Perhaps what needs to be done is to take a small pick or trowel and to dig the soil out alltogether to establish whether this is in fact the water source?

Back at the cave. We have not solved the water problem but have no idea what to do next. Ally was fast asleep in her sleeping bag. It was midday and someone suggested that we pack up and head home. I was happy either way as we had planned to stay another night and I had more than enough grub but the weather forcast anticipated heavy rains so the majority decision was to descend before we were caught in the rain. Within an hour we had packed up and at around 13.15 we left the cave. We carry home: beer, food and provisions that would normally have been consumed. I am sure that this is a first time for me to carry beer out of a hike. We leave the unused brickets.

The climb down was pretty relentless. There were no stops or breaks in the walking. Ally and I followed. Always on the lookout for the next cairn we would lose the path from time to time. At one time the front group waited for us and Mike & Matt stayed with us for a while. Mike tells us of his plans to jog and walk the Five Peaks of the Hogsback next weekend. He is doing this supported by Barbie and with Tim and Andy partly to show us how tough he really is (joking) and also to raise funds for Scripture Union.

Over the final sharp section of scree we began to tire but Ally was strong and we pressed on. Going down the loose scree is tough on our feet and legs. I have decided that my Christmas Present to Ally will be a solid pair of hiking boots. She has climbed this and all her previous hikes in Running shoes. Finally we reached the stream at the bottom of the valley. The fact that the stream was flowing fairly strongly made me again think that the problem at the cave was not the drought but some other form of blockage.

Ally and I made our way back to the cars. Ant had already had a shower and was looking his normal dapper self. The rest of us men looked pretty shabby and unshaven. I had not brought a change of clothes. So after saying our farewells we all headed off home. It is a long drive on dirt road but I was not in a hurry and tried to drive conservatively. We could see the dust of the two vehicles ahead of us. I was surprised to see the Hyundai speeding along.

As we had about 20kays of dirt road to go we must have hit a rock. I could immediately hear the flapping of a puncture. The steering was firm but we stopped to find the passenger rear tyre flat. We packed out the backpacks, found the tyre wrench and the spare. Hannes set about loosening the nuts while I took out the spare and began to jack up the car. All the time Ally stayed comfortably stretched out on the back seat.

We had to give the wheel a bit of a kick to loosen it so we could take it off. Then we realised we were in trouble. The wheel nuts of the Mag Wheels would not fit the standard steel wheel rim. In fact there was a notice on the rim saying that we should only use the specially provided nuts for the spare. I tried cell phone but there was no reception. Back in the boot and scrabbling around I found a plastic container with spare wheel nuts. What a relief! The spare tyre had clearly never been used before. This car is over 4 years old. I have had it for nearly a year but have never bothered to think about a puncture.

Having fitted the spare we loaded the punctured tyre into the boot and one of the backpacks into the back seat with an indignant Ally and pressed on. I was concerned in case we had a second flat so again drove reasonably slowly until we finally hit the tar road. During the week I took the tyre in for repairs. I had fitted this tyre new in August this year. There was a cut on the side of the tyre and being a Firestone, Supaquick agreed to replace the tyre almost free of charge. The drive home was a further 50kays and went without incident. I off loaded Hannes at his home and then Ally and I unpacked our stuff. She immediately headed for the bath before I treated her to a promised McDonalds.

Sunday morning: It had rained for most of the night and continued raining to around 11am. Barbara returned from a busy weekend in Cape Town. Julia had a Hockey Dinner the previous evening and collected her two friends: Sarah and Michael from the airport.

Matt Gibbs writes:
Morning Peter, great to read your blog re the hike,definitely nothing
Wrong with the recall button in your memory!

To all,

wonderful to meet the new faces and reconnect with old hiking mates,I
really enjoyed the company.

To Ally , well climbed, way to go girl !

To Ants, thanks for the opportunity and your spot on organization,as
always.Even getting us off having to appear before a disciplinary at the
mountain club!
Anybody got photos available?
Kind regards

The genus Watsonia (Part of the Iris family) was named in 1752 by Philip Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden after his friend Sir William Watson 1715-87, a physician and naturalist. It is native to South Africa. Watsonia occurs in the winter-rainfall region of South Africa in the area between the Bokkeveld Mountains near Nieuwoudtville in the north to the Cape Peninsula and the Caledon district in the south, and is virtually restricted to areas of complete summer drought. It can be found growing from near sea level to middle elevations in the mountains, in stony clay soils and sometimes in seasonally marshy or temporary seep areas in sandy soils.

The 1759m high Cockscomb Mountain is one of the highest mountain peaks in the Eastern Cape and it was known to some of the earlier indigenous tribes as "T'numkwa" (Mountain of the clouds).

The landscape of the area is dominated by the Kouga- and Baviaanskloof Mountains, which run parallel to each other in an east west orientation. These are part of the Cape Folded Mountains The Kouga range is the larger of the two. Many high peaks occur in the western and central parts of this range while the eastern end is less rugged with plateau's and hills generally less than 900m in altitude. Smutsberg is the highest peak at 1757m above sea level. The Baviaanskloof Mountains form a long narrow range with Scholtzberg at 1625m being the highest peak. In the east the Baviaanskloof Mountains join the Groot Winterhoek range with Cockscomb being the highest peak, and at I 768m above sea level, the highest peak in the wilderness area.

Two main rivers drain the area, namely the Baviaanskloof- and Kouga River. They converge at Smitskraal from where they flow in an easterly direction to the Kouga dam (previously known as the Paul Sauer Dam). The Grootrivier drain the Karoo and flows through the reserve near Komdomo. The Witrivier which has its origins within the reserve joins this.

Although the "modern" Baviaanskloof is about 20 million years old, its precursor dates back 140 million years ago to the break-up of the continents when a major tensional fault formed along what later became known as the Baviaanskloof. Erosion, together with repeated subsidence and upliftment events have over the course of millions of years created the landscape one views today.

Skurweberg Sandstone - is associated with the Cockscomb and most of the higher peaks of the Baviaanskloof range.
The almost 1 800m summit of Cockscomb Mountain is easily visible. The mountain's name stems from the five jagged crests resembling a rooster's comb. It's one of many famous landmarks in the area.

The - UPE or the NMMU - Mountain Club started life as the UPE Mountain club (Bergklub) 38 years ago. Founding member and subsequent patron, Prof Ben Loots, started the club as an outlet for his energy, taking groups on strenuous weekend hikes

Scree, also called talus, is a term given to an accumulation of broken rock fragments at the base of crags, mountain cliffs, or valley shoulders. As can be imagined this surface drains very quickly.

1 comment:

  1. Can't say your description of the climb made me wish I was there, Peter, but sounds like a great adventure. Well done Ally!