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Monk’s Cowl: From office to Blindman’s Corner and back

Drakensberg hikes

The turnaround point at Blindman's Corner. Pictures by Garth Johnstone

By Garth Johnstone

I’d recommend you have your A-game on when you take on this challenging day hike – from Monk’s Cowl office/parking lot to Blindman’s Corner and back down via Keartland’s Pass.

It’s not the distance that will get you (it’s only 12km) but the steep ascent and descent and the constant undulations will wear you out.

My kms per hour, which I always go by to assess how tough a walk is, were down from the usual 5 or 6-ish to just above 3.

Proteas line the path on the Berg hike to the Sphinx.

Having said all this, there was a very frisky group of 20-somethings warming up near the office when I left to go home, who looked just about ready to run up the thing. I looked at their trail running shoes and mentally wished them the best of luck.

Grouchy

I was probably feeling grouchy because my favourite pair of hiking boots had packed up coming down Keartland’s Pass and I had to finish my hike barefoot… seriously! (Mental note to self to always take a pair of running shoes in the bag in future in case of a footwear emergency.)

The key part of this 12km hike is the roughly 2km up The Sphinx. It is a relentless pull up a fairly steep hill that seems to go on forever. I was forced to take a few short breaks on the way up, straining away as the mist rolled in, making it impossible to gauge how far I’d come or where the top was. I only found out I’d conquered the nasty little brute when I bumped into two fellow hikers who explained that the top was behind me and I had started walking towards Blindman’s Corner.

If you stop and take a moment, there’s loads of beautiful plant life to appreciate.

Anyway, all good fun, and followed by a comparatively mellow walk up a few rises and along the plateau through grasslands to Blindman’s Corner. Here you are alerted that going any further without proper gear is ill advised and the authorities take no responsibility for the actions of those who ignore the warning! The weather is known to change radically and very quickly above this point.

Walk to Aasvoelkrans cave – Highmoor Reserve

Just to the left of Blindman’s Corner is a mini-forest, which has improvised log benches for you to take a break in the shade, perhaps have something to eat and enjoy the peaceful surrounds.

I was sitting back comfortably, congratulating myself, thinking the worst was behind me. Well, it’s not the first time and won’t be the last I get ahead of myself. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Keartland’s Pass was waiting and would prove a nasty challenge.

Near Blindman’s Corner is a lovely wooded area, where you can take a load off for a while, have a snack and enjoy shade provided by the canopy of trees.

You’d think that 5km of descending down a pass in the Little Berg wouldn’t be such a schlep but I really felt every step of this reverse Stairway to Heaven. You just seem to go down forever, and the old knees, hips, ankles and lower back feel every jolt. About 2km down I sensed a weird feeling in my right boot and correctly surmised that the sole had become loose and was starting to flap around. Sigh!

My trusty boots doing a Kermit the Frog impression.

Here was a serious twist to my tough day out. My pace slowed as I started doing a bizarre kind of half goose step, my right leg shooting out and then extending so I didn’t become snarled up on the sole of my shoe. With about 1.5km to go to camp I eventually gave up, removed the boots, tied them up and soldiered on barefoot a la Zola Budd.

What a sight! Ouch, ouch, the bloody stones!

Boulder-hopping in Tugela Gorge – Royal Natal Park

But finally, after a very testing time, the office came into view and that familiar satisfied glow washed over me. Walk done, mission accomplished, all those natural chemicals doing their thing.

Beautiful alpine greenery.

Next time I will make sure to pack some takkies as a back-up and also pray there’s no mist so I can get a good gander at Sterkhorn, Cathkin and Champagne Castle.

Rating of this walk – one of the best!

If you go:
Be prepared to push hard on the way up and be patient in descending, as it’s rather steep and tough on the body;

You need R45 to access the reserve;

Take a fair bit of water and use your opportunities to top up, in case rivers and waterfalls are low;

Remember sunblock and basic first aid gear; anti-inflammatories, paracetamol; bandages, for example.

If you’ve got space take a towel, so you can duck under the waterfall at Crystal Falls. It’s a magic spot.

Stunning Crystal Falls, on the way up the Sphinx.
There is water along the route, but arrive with a litre at least, particularly in winter.

Signage to Keartland’s Pass – a tough route for this weekend warrior.

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