Six days searching for the meaning of life in the Cedarberg Wilderness Area with little protection against the elements, except for shelter under rocks and the occasional hikers hut, sleeping out under the stars surely ranks right up there as the ultimate ‘soul food’ – better than any 5 star luxury spa could ever offer. No Facebook, Twitter, cellphones and other modern distractions to cloud your thoughts and introspection.
No complications. Its all very straight forward: Pack everything you need to survive into a backpack and head off into the mountains. Walk till you can’t bear the weight of you backpack anymore or till you find a perfect spot for spending the night: usually over looking a beautiful valley, or sometimes under the overhang of a rock if bad weather is looming or the wind is howling.
Not much in life these days brings out our primal roots as when spending a week in the wilderness with only a backpack, pair of trail shoes, a sparse food supply and our wits to keep you safe.
So it was after a year of unbelievable events that we headed out to the Cedarberg Wilderness Area in search of our lost souls that had all but run away, battered and bruised from the year that was 2012.
Packing for a self-supported trip is not as easy as it may sound. Considering you will be out in the middle of nowhere, there are several things to consider. Safety is the most important, hence packing smart medical supplies and enough water bottles and food are essential, clothing for bad weather, sunblock and hat for blistering heat and a sleeping bag. Map and compass. Then put that all into your backpack and realize you can’t actually lift it off the ground and put it on your back, never mind trying to carry it up a steep 1000m climb to the top of Tafelberg. And that’s before the water bottles have been filled!
So after a process of serious weight elimination backpacks were re-packed with just the bare essentials required for survival.
The adventure would start at Algeria, a CapeNature campsite at the base of the Uitkyk Pass in the Cedarberg. We arrived right after lunch in blistering 35 deg heat and instead of sensibly waiting for the heat of the day to subside we decided to head out immediately, straight up to the Middleberg hut, nearly 1000m above the valley where Algeria lies.
Needless to say it was near suicide. As the sun was beginning to tip, the wind sheltered and sun-scorched valley turned into a furnace and it took every ounce of willpower to lug those heavy backpacks up to and over the top.
But as with anything in life, time passed and progress was made and before we knew it we had reached the top of the valley, albeit dehydrated, sunburnt and exhausted!
By then it was nearing 5pm so instead of clocking a few extra km’s we headed past the Middleberg hut and found a perfect spot for the night over looking a beautiful, rugged Cedarberg Valley, right next to a tiny stream.
Sleeping bags unrolled, supper of noodles and soup and crashing to sleep, ignoring bugs crawling across our chests. Well mostly, as pointed out to me the next morning:
“You know it’s a big bug when you can smell it as it crosses your chest!”
After an uneventful and surprisingly good nights sleep under the millions of stars and semi full moon, we woke up as the sky turned pale with the very first rays of the sun cresting the horizon. Coffee made, and had, while over looking and taking in the early morning smells and sights of this beautiful valley, we set off towards our next destination: Crystal Pools. Since our scorching torturous trek up the side of the mountain, the day before, the thought of crystal clear pools of cool mountain water was very appealing.
And so we set off, and up and down, and the temperatures started to rise and the backpacks started to become heavy again.
The route to Crystal Pools took us through some of the most beautiful remnant Cedar Forests. These trees must have been truly spectacular when forests of them covered the mountainside. These days it’s hard to spot one that’s truly still alive without at least one dead branch giving away the demise of this species in every tree.
Anyhow, we reached Crystal Pools in the heat of the midday sun and found a perfect little spot under a weathered rock. While contemplating a swim in the truly beautiful clear pools, we both fell fast asleep only to wake up crook’ necked and cooking in the sun two hours later! Obviously this trekking business was taking its toll on our urbanized bodies!
Pulling ourselves together we headed down for a swim in surprisingly cold water! So cold in fact it was quite a contrast between the hot sun and freezing water we battled to stay in the water. The pools were beautiful though, filled with tiny invertebrates and little frogs fighting each other as they defended their territories in an untouched and pristine mountain stream.
Swim done, it was time to find a spot to sleep for the night. And what a perfect spot we found: Beneath a HUGE boulder looking out into a small rugged valley. Totally protected from the elements, or so we thought… Somewhere between 10pm and midnight a thunderstorm started brewing. First the wind, then a rumble of thunder, then flashes of lighting so close it blinded us. OK. Uhm! What now? High up in the mountains, no shelter, caught in an electric storm… At least it was not looking like rain… famous last words spoken.
The next thing we knew, huge drops were falling on us, with thunder, lightning and wind threatening to blow us down the valley. We had to move or we’d get totally soaked. So we hauled everything in and crawled around to the other side of the boulder where a small overhang allowed for much better protection. Whew! And then we slept, through the rain, wind and thunder and woke up to a misty morning with a chill in the air.
“The sun will burn it off” we discussed while heading up and out of the valley that was Crystal Pools. “Soon we will be wishing for this misty weather…” we said.
And so we walked and started our climb towards the contour path that would lead us past Sleeppad Hut to the Spout Cave below Tafelberg. We started to climb and the rain started to fall, gently at first, not soaking at all. “Really good weather for trekking” we said. “Any heavier rain and add some wind and it would be awful”… The words were barely out of my mouth when the heavens opened and the wind started to howl and we started to freeze. Mid-summer in the Cedarberg? Yeah right.
Taking shelter under a rock, a tiny rock, we sat for a while contemplating our plan of action. Tafelberg was just around the corner, we could get there, but a very steep ascent in this cold weather, with not much dry clothing could end in disaster if everything in our bags got soaked. So, as good fortune would have it we spotted the Sleeppad Hut and ducked into it, stripping off our freezing wet clothes and diving into semi-dry sleeping bags to warm up on the hay-covered hut floor.
And then we slept, and read, and slept, and read, and ate, probably for 5 or 6 hours as the rain and wind battered the little hut. Sometime during the afternoon another couple of hikers crashed into the adjoining room. By that time we were totally over waiting around and since the rain had sort of started to clear, we decided to take the gap, and head for the Spout Cave. It was 6pm and we would probably be walking for another 3 hours, two thirds of which would be straight up and likely in the dark.
So off we went.
We reached the Spout Cave in the dark after a treacherous and slippery climb. On arrival we found a large group of climbers camped out in the cave for some festive season climbing on Tafelberg. Personally I think they must have thought we were either mad or totally inexperienced when we arrived there, soaked, in shorts, trail running shoes and huge backpacks, in the dark. Nonetheless they were friendly and offered us a handful of wasabi peanuts to warm up.
Must say they had an impressive array of food with them, anything from whiskey, brandy and coke, Christmas pudding and custard. Sure beat our rice, onions and garlic gourmet meal, oh and with water…
The Spout Cave is a very special place - mostly used by climbers as a base while they scale the sheer walls of Tafelberg. The thing that struck me most about it was that you really felt like you were high up in the mountains. Really high. A simple wrong step could send you tumbling meters down only to be smashed against huge boulders down below.
We hoped that by morning the rain and mist would clear so that we could climb up to the top of Tafelberg.
Unfortunately we woke up to thick mist that persisted and eventually packed up and started our decent and our route to the Wolfberg Arch at around 11am. The Arch was not originally on the itinerary but a huge fire had swept through Block C the area that holds the Sneeuberg Range and hence we could not access it. So the Arch it was instead.
A long undulating trek followed by a very steep ascent up Gabriels Pass eventually got us to the magnificent rock formation that is the Wolfberg Arch. Before ascending the last of the steep climb, we decided to fill up all our water bottles and hydration packs with water caught in the rocks, in case we arrived at our destination and there was no water… Well add a nearly 2kgs to an already heavy pack and it takes the level of effort up ten notches. Unbalanced by the heavy pack makes traversing the large boulders and uneven surface of the path very tough and toppling over becomes a real threat!
By the time we reached the Arch the weather had improved markedly though and was really pleasant, with only a slight breeze chilling things down a bit. And of course there was plenty of water about in rock pools from the recent rain. Enough to even have a semi-wash in one. It always strikes me how little water one needs for a wash to make you feel so much better. We really do waste a lot of water in the city. Spoilt.
The rest of the afternoon at the Arch was spent reading and chilling, enjoying the view.
Soon the sun was setting and we tucked into our sleeping bags for the night.
When morning came, the view was magnificent. The red rocks making up the Arch were glowing orange in the early morning sun - a fitting start to our last day in the Wilderness.
Our route that day would take us back the same way we came up to the Arch, but then continue down the rest of Gabrials Pass to the Driehoek Farm where we hoped to reward ourselves with a bottle of their newly produced Sauvignon Blanc… and a Coke each before heading up to the top of Uitkyk Pass. The descent however took forever! It was really long and tough pounding downhill with packs and uneven surfaces in the heat. By the time we got to Driehoek we were exhausted and over it. Contemplating faking injury to get a lift back to Algeria. But after some discussion we decided to sit out the heat of the day next to the river at Driehoek and attempt the last section of the route late afternoon.
The problem started, however, when we decided to ‘just have a taste’ of the ice cold Sauvignon blanc… at 11am. That was the end of our day, passed out, fast asleep – we weren’t going anywhere that afternoon. So like good citizens, we booked a campsite and stayed the night on a lush green patch of grass under a poplar tree. Even bought some local sausage from the farm to celebrate the end of our trip.
During the night a strong wind had blown in a front from the west coast and we woke up to really threatening looking weather. The last stretch of our route would take us straight into a head wind and apparent rain as we climbed to the top of UitKyk Pass. The temptation for a lift was growing… BUT no, we set out to finish what we started. So we headed off, rain gear on, heads bent down into the oncoming gale and mist and inched our way to the top of Uitkyk Pass and down the old pass and into Algeria.
We made it, and the next thing we were happily driving back to Cape Town, smelly and content, back to the City madness.
Text and photographs by Arne and Cecile