Champagne Castle – Mdedelelo Wilderness Area
Champagne Castle via Gray's Pass, Keith Bush Camp & Nhlathikulu Nek
Not really a day hike
I look at the map of the Drakensberg hanging in the study from time to time, making mental notes of routes I still want to hike. The valley between Champagne Castle, Cathkin Peak and Monks Cowl being one of these routes. Usually, it’s a three day route, sleeping both nights at Keith Bush Camp and summiting Champagne via Gray’s Pass on the second day. It’s also very doable in two days, but slogging a full pack up the 1000m that one gains in the last 2,5 kilometres to the summit isn’t exactly easy. I’ve toyed with the idea of trying it in a day, hiking with just a day pack and setting off early and it sounded like it could be, well, fun.
I checked if the family cottage was available for the weekend and coaxed my Dad into an impromptu berg trip. I’ll do some hiking and he can do some reading or working on the ever deteriorating road leading up the berg.
It’s early on Saturday morning and I set off slightly nervous on my ambitious hike. I usually don’t hike alone, but considering that we know the route, know the three places where one can get cellular reception to send checkpoint SMSs and that I have someone at the cottage who can come looking for me, I took the chance.
To get to the top of the Little Berg I take a shortcut through the Mankulumani Forest and up a long, steep grassy climb. At the top I run into four cattle herders from Lesotho. After a long conversation, consisting of mostly broad smiles, pointing in directions and hand gestures, it turns out that they also plan to summit Champagne tonight to tend to their cattle on the plateau bordering Lesotho. An epic day hike for me, a Saturday for them. It’s humbling.
The hike to Keith Bush Camp, past Hlathikhulu Nek, is relatively easy by comparison. It’s long and flat as it snakes around the contours of the Little Berg. The grass is short after a recent veld fire and the new veld a vibrant green, dotted with pink and white flowers. Even with the short veld I only see the two Grey Rhebuck when I’m 30 metres away. Too fast for a camera, I watch them as they dash away with their distinct rocking horse gait.
I spot two tiny green tents in the valley at Keith Bush Camp, completely dwarfed by the enormous cliffs of Cathkin Peak to the left, Monks Cowl ahead and Champagne Castle to the right. These mountains have a way to make one feel tiny and being there alone just amplifies the feeling.
With 15 kilometres behind me, I start up Gray’s Pass. Up the steep dirt path, over rock plates and eventually the loose boulder field, very cruelly situated right at the top. It is unforgiving. Luckily, there’s no shortage of awe-inspiring views to look at during the breaks that I have to take, more often than I’d like to admit.
The escarpment is flat, but only by comparison. The Nkosazana River flows north, from the basin on top of Champagne Castle over a dizzying drop into Vultures retreat. Above me, in the low bank of clouds, I can hear the swoosh of Cape Vultures’ wings as they ride the air currents being pushed up by the giant cliff faces. I watch them appear and disappear in the clouds and behind cliffs. I take it all in and start the second half of my day with a lifted spirit and jelly legs.
It’s a spectacular place and well worth the slog up. That said, it wouldn’t hurt to do it over two days next time. Make that three.
Trail Head Location (WGS84)
S29º 01’ 44.4” E29º 23’ 43.3”
S29º 02’ 56.1” E29º 24’ 21.5”
Monk’s Cowl Forest Station
Other Trails At Destination
Network of trails starting and ending at the Monk’s Cowl Forest Station.
Various day and multi-day hikes to explore.
Total Distance : 34km
Trail Type : Network
Trail Markings : Not good. A good map is a must.
Starting Altitude : 1564m
Summit Altitude : 3193m
Lowest Altitude : 1564m
Difficulty Rating : 10 / 10
Dustbins : N
Water points : Ample during summer, evn on Champagne Castle – Check with Monks Cowl Forest Station prior to departure during dryer months.
Toilets : N
How To Book
Monk’s Cowl Forest Station
+27 36 468 1103
Permits need to be obtained prior for overnight hikes and the mountain registry need to be signed.
The route taken through Makhulumaan Forest is not one of the Parks Boards' contour routes and can be dangerous when wet. The recommended route is from Monks Cowl Forrest Station via Blindman's Corner.
Hiked 3 Oct