I did a five day, 41kms hike in the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve from 15th September to 19th September 2010. The reserve is 360kms north of Cape Town near the town of Nieuwoudtville.
The 5,000 hectare reserve is situated in the Bokkeveld Mountains and is on the edge of the escarpment. We were signed up to do the 52kms Rock Pigeon Hiking Trail but on two occasions a few of us switched to sections of the Rameron Pigeon Hiking Trail, resulting in some of us doing a lesser distance. We carried full packs except that tents and mattresses were provided. I found the trail to be demanding with a few challenging moments.
Oorlogskloof can be translated from Afrikaans to mean War Ravine or Gorge. It was apparently so named in September 1739 by white farmers who had created a commando (or posse) to discipline the indigenous Khoi and San people who were accused of stock theft. The main gorge was created by the Oorlogskloof River cutting into the plateau with tributaries creating other smaller gorges or valleys. So the trail started on the plateau and dropped into and climbed out of these gorges and valleys and, towards the end, travelled along the escarpment, at the edge of the plateau, with views down to the lower altitude farms. The Google Earth image below was produced by Victor showing the route that he did. My route was the same for about 80% of the distance. If you double click on the image a larger version should be visible.
My hiking companions were:
John Taylor (56) a property developer and the organiser of the hike
Janie (53) the wife of John and the owner of a company teaching writing skills
David (51) previously in IT but now been a tour guide for seven years
Dennis (60) a real estate agent
Jacqui (48) a lifestyle counsellor
Klaus (54) previously an arts and crafts museum curator in Germany but now a tour guide in SA
Steve (62) a retired professional photographer who left Warwickshire, England in 1976
Victor (50) an electronics engineer
So an average age, including me (56), of 54 with a variety of life stories and relationships. Except for John and Janie I did not know any of the others.
Day 1 Wednesday 15th September
4kms from the start at Groot Tuin to Brakwater
15h00 to 16h30 = 1.5 hours
This was an easy start after driving up from Cape Town in the morning. The route started on the plateau and after meandering on the flat through forest and rock formations it dropped into a valley, up the other side and down into a second valley. It quickly became clear that the developer of the trail was determined to show us every interesting rock formation, water feature and view and thus the path zig zagged to take us to these features. As we learnt over the next few days rocks are a dominant feature of the area and so we boulder hopped, climbed rock stairs, kept our balance on huge sloping rock slabs, pulled ourselves up, sat down to move forward, squeezed through narrow rock passages, ducked through rock caves and shimmied up rock chimneys.
Baboons objected to our presence and barked from a safe distance. We saw a dazzle of seven mountain zebra far below us in the valley. Small pretty flowers grew alongside the path. And so we descended to our camp at Brakwater. This was five heavy canvas tents, each 2 metres square with three 5cm thick mattresses in each. They were attractively laid out in the trees with a central area around a fire place. I was hot from the hike and had a quick swim in the icy cold river close to the camp. We started to get to know each other as we prepared dinner. I was teased as I discovered that my small supply of whisky had leaked in my bag with all my dinner food. A fire was built and lit as it got dark. I was asleep by 20h00.
This was the first time in 35 years that I have done a hike with a full pack. Over that time technology has improved and equipment has got lighter but my body has got weaker. The objective was to keep the weight as low as possible but still have everything I needed. My pack weight built up as follows:
|Track suit bottom and fleece||0.65|
|Cooking stove and 2 gas canisters||0.85|
|Pot and mug||0.35|
|Water bottle and water (0.7l)||0.85|
|Oatso breakfast x4||0.25|
|Hot chocolate and tea bags||0.20|
|Towel, swimming costume, 2 pairs of socks, toilet roll, tooth brush, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, dish washing liquid, wash up brush, wooden spoon, spork, whisky, first aid items, sun cream, rubbish bag, notebook and pen, head torch||2.40|
|Total pack weight on departure||15.50|
|Total pack weight at end||12.75|
|Weight of rubbish at end||0.35|
|Weight of uneaten food at end!!||2.70|
So if I had catered correctly I could have reduced my pack weight on departure to 12.8kgs. I didn’t use the spare gas canister nor the dish washing liquid (hot water was sufficient) nor my swimming costume but otherwise everything else was used. I certainly could not have had fewer clothes! So it would have been difficult to get lower than 12.5kgs. Steve had a pack half my size which must have weighed less than 10kgs and he seemed to have everything he needed. I don’t know how he did it! My trip would certainly have been easier if my pack had been 12.5kgs rather than 15.5kgs on departure.
Day 2 Thursday 16th September
8.5kms Brakwater to Driefontein
08h30 to 14h45 = 6.25 hours
The river was supposed to be crossed by walking on two poles 30cms apart. I was very uncomfortable about trusting my balance, especially with a full pack on my back. Fortunately the river was low enough for me to be able to boulder hop across it.
We walked 500m up a jeep track and then turned on to a contour path along the side of the mountain. The route often went over, round or under rocks which slowed the pace.
In one place a large steeply sloping rock blocked the path and had to be negotiated by holding on to a rope as one walked at an angle across the slab. After three kilometres the path met the river and hugged the river for the next 3kms. We had a long lunch next to rock pools and I had a swim and washed my shirt. Dennis was not as fit as he should have been and so he was going slowly. John, Janie and David kept him company. I left the lunch spot with the other four but quickly found that they were far fitter than me. The path climbed steadily and I tired quickly. Big rock steps became huge obstacles. There were many short wooden ladders of two or three steps but often in quite exposed places. At this point the mountain fell away sharply from the path.
Victor, Jacqui and Steve waited for me to reach a waterfall over the edge of the escarpment.
The way past it was to crouch through a slightly wet 15m long crack in the rock behind the waterfall.
Shortly afterwards there was a sign that indicated 260m to Driefontein camp which seemed quite inconceivable as everywhere around us was so steep. There was a short sharp series of steep large rock steps and then we breasted the escarpment to find a flat plateau and a lovely camp between rocks and trees.
About ninety minutes later John appeared to advise that his party of four were not doing the last ascent to the camp but instead were descending 500m down the mountain to the camp on the Rameron Pigeon Route called ‘Kameel se gat’, which was on our route for the next day. We had another lovely fire and I retired early. Sunset was around 18h30 with sunrise twelve hours later. I was normally asleep by 20h00 and awake, but not necessarily up, by 06h30. When I went to the toilet at 03h00 the moon had set and the sky was ablaze with stars.
We did the trail at the perfect time weather wise. It was lightly overcast half the time and sunny the rest. We could not measure the temperature en route but we generally felt that the temperature did not exceed 25°C and was generally lower during the day. There was also a light breeze for most of the time. As soon as the sun set it got colder and temperatures probably dropped to 7°C at night. We had a few drops of rain one night. We found water relatively easily although I did run out of water twice on Day 3. I assume that after the end of October this trail gets incredibly hot during the day and, very importantly, the water dries up until the winter. From the description of the camps it is clear that at some time in the year the water disappears at Doltuin Camp at which point one has to walk for 20 minutes from the camp to collect water! In the winter the nights will be a lot colder and there will be rain. The Oorlogskloof River is apparently too high to be crossed below Driefontein at times during the winter.
Day 3 Friday 17th September
12kms Driefontein to Doltuin
08h15 to 16h15 = 8 hours
This was my toughest day. I have a fear of exposure which I define as a situation where a slip will result in me falling a long distance and there is a reasonable chance of a slip. As we reached the edge of the escarpment I recoiled at the exposure of the last 50m that we had climbed the previous afternoon. I turned away from the view and faced the rock and started edging my way down. Steve guided me as to where to place my hands and feet. There was then a 450m rock strewn descent. The other four leapt from rock to rock like mountain gazelles while I edged down on my backside, clung to branches and slipped on loose gravel.
I was able to boulder hop across the river and avoid the six 8m long pairs of poles intended as bridges.
The descent had taken 45 minutes and had tired me but there was to be no rest as the fit four leapt at the 500m ascent that faced us. The slower group had left early and could be seen at the top of the mountain ahead of us. I was tired and forced my way up the mountain. I sweated. I puffed. I rested. And the others just kept going. Klaus waited for me at a large rock blocking the way where he guided me as to how to climb over it. The four were waiting at the base of the final cliff where there was a small spring with gorgeous cold clear water. The final ascent was climbing through a chimney and then negotiating two slabs of rock by holding on to steel ropes. It had taken me two hours to cover the first kilometre of the day!
The next 11kms were comparatively easy as we meandered on the plateau. The path took us to the edge of the escarpment and spectacular views. It wandered through forests of Proteas. Gorgeous small flowers blossomed along the way.
Lots of baboon droppings testified to their hidden numbers. We caught up the other group and then we spread out along the trail again. The route always went over the rocky outcrops, never around them. My legs ached. I stopped three times to brew rooibos tea.
The day got hotter and the path ran along a small river. About a kilometre before the camp a small pool demanded attention and so I stripped off and bathed in the screamingly cold water and washed some of my clothes. I found Doltuin camp to be the least attractive of the four camps because it only had a few bushes but others liked the views across the plateau.
Klaus did a sterling job collecting wood for us to have another fire. There was light rain during the night.
I spin three or more times a week which is my principal way to keep fit. I haven’t done a lot of hiking this year but was quite comfortable hiking to the top of Table Mountain last Sunday. Carrying a full pack makes a significant difference to the fitness demands. Do not do this trail if you there is any doubt about your fitness. A good test of whether you are fit enough would be to start at the top of Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain with a full pack. Hike to the bottom of the gorge. Turn around at the bottom and hike back up again and then hike to Constantia Neck. I think that that approximates to Day 3 of the Trail. I felt that I was fit enough to do the trail even though I battled at times. I was left behind by the elite squad but they hike most weekends and are extraordinarily fit. There is no doubt that the fitter one is the more enjoyable the trail will be.
My pack was an Osprey Aether 70 which was wonderful. It kept the pack away from my back allowing my back to be cooled by air. There is a lower front entry section, a main top entry section and a good sized pocket in the top flap. There are two side pockets for water bottles. The waist, shoulder and breast straps all adjust easily to distribute the weight. My boots are Meindl Vulkaan GTX boots which I swear by. They support my feet in a wonderful way and protect my ankles when I twist and stumble. I had no trouble with my feet at all. I was very happy with the Tracer Tee shirt from Cape Storm which wicked the sweat off my body quickly and could be washed often en route because it dried so quickly. I wore Lycra shorts as underpants which eliminated any rubbing of legs and also dried quickly after washing. Most people carry Crocs to wear in camp but I prefer very sturdy hiking sandals (Teva Terra Fi3) which I also wear when I swim in rivers with uncertain bottoms. (I agree that me stepping into a river wearing only my sandals is not a pretty sight but I am normally alone!) As it got colder at night I added my rain jacket to my fleece to keep me warm. I was pleased with the light weight and efficiency of my K-Way Zermatt 950 Eco sleeping bag and my MSR PocketRocket gas stove.
Day 4 Saturday 18th September
10kms Doltuin to Pramkoppie
08h00 to 13h30 = 5.5 hours
The group went four ways today. Dennis and David took a 3km emergency route across the middle of the plateau to a jeep track. (This route was apparently tough going and overgrown.) Dennis then went a further 4kms north east along the jeep track to our first camp, Brakwater. He spent the night there alone and the next day did the 4kms back to the end of the trail. David went 4kms west along the jeep track to Pramkoppie Camp. The elite squad of Victor, Jacqui, Steve and Klaus did a 17kms route along the edge of the escarpment. John, Janie and me cheated by switching to the Rameron Pigeon route for about 3kms and then switching back to the Rock Pigeon route. This saved us about 7kms. On the map the two switching places were obvious. In practice they involved real bundu bashing with bushes slashing at my legs. Inevitably we had to dispose of a few ticks before they became too comfortable on our legs. Otherwise it was an easy pleasant walk over the plateau.
About 2kms before the end we reached the escarpment and had a view for twenty or more kilometres across farmlands and, in the distance, the road that we had travelled on by car.
The path descended steeply to a neck between the mountains and then led us into a gentle valley where we found the delightful Pramkoppie Camp.
We had a lazy afternoon with cries of welcome as first David and then the elite squad arrived. David and I went in search of the signposted busmen paintings but decided that they didn’t amount to much. There is a long drop pit toilet at each camp normally surrounded by a reed fence. In this camp the vegetation was thicker so the toilet was found in a small clearing in the forest.
The last supper was eaten. The final alcohol consumed. Some last nuggets of personal information were shared. David enchanted us by playing on his recorder.
I carried 2.7kgs of food which I did not eat so I did not cater well. I ate less than I anticipated at main meals but did a lot of grazing during the day. I ate Oatso porridge one breakfast but couldn’t be bothered to cook it again. I cooked packet soups three times. I enjoyed a pack of Back Country Freeze Dried Thai Chicken Curry but was told that other meals in the range varied considerably. Another night I enjoyed a Pick n Pay Pasta and Cheese Sauce. I hated a pack of PnP Instant Noodles. Others enjoyed Knorr Fresh Ideas pasta products. I grazed on mixed dried fruit, biltong, droe wors, carrots, apples, cheddar cheese on Pro-Vita, small Mars bars and small nougat bars. I had a taste of David’s John West Light Meat Tuna which came in a single sandwich helping 85g size pack which I enjoyed. My greatest enjoyment came from regular cups of rooibos tea. Oh and of course I enjoyed my small bottle of whisky!
Day Five Sunday 19th September
6.7kms Pramkoppie to finish at Groot Tuin
07h30 to 11h15 = 3.75 hours
I could see that the day was starting with a 1.2km ascent out of the valley so I was first out of the starting blocks and slogged up the hill. We all met on the plateau and then the group split. Victor, Jacqui and Steve took the longer Rock Pigeon Route while John, Janie, David, Klaus and I took the Rameron Pigeon Route which was about 3kms shorter. We skirted the escarpment for a while with the now familiar spectacular views down to the farmlands and then picked up speed on an easy undulating path.
The last 2kms were along the same path as we had started on at the beginning of the trail. We performed the obligatory zig zag from rock formation, to clump of trees, to cottage ruin and back to another rock cluster and then arrived happily back at the cars. The beer that had been left in a cooler box tasted heavenly!
This is an attractive trail. The scenery is big. The views are spectacular. The rock formations are very interesting. The camps are attractive. The hiking is challenging at times. We were principally on the Rock Pigeon Route but I think that the Rameron Pigeon Route offers a similar experience. I found the exposure very uncomfortable at times but I don’t think that it bothered many others. One needs to have a good degree of fitness to enjoy the experience. The trail will be far more challenging, and possibly even unpleasant, in the heat of the summer, especially if water is scarce and also in the wet and cold of winter. The way is generally well indicated with cairns. At path junctions there are signs but these vary in clarity. Sometimes they indicate the direction by trail name. At other times they indicate the destination, rather than the trail, which is irritating when the destination is the same but the route is different. On the last day there was a trail route sign for a trail that no longer exists. There are kilometre distance signs every kilometre but irritatingly they start counting from Brakwater rather than the start of the trail so the count is always 4kms less than one has actually walked. Unfortunately the trail is not being maintained properly. There are about 300 wooden steps that have come away leaving the stakes in the ground. When the trail was first built those steps were considered necessary. Now they are not there. We probably used 60 short ladders. These are made from wood, are deteriorating and are often positioned quite precariously. In my view there will be an unhappy accident on one of those ladders soon. These negatives notwithstanding I think that this is a good trail and am pleased that I did it.