Friday, February 17, 2012

Epic Hikes: Cederberg Cracks

[In loving memory of my mother who passed away on Jan 11, 2012.

We went to South Africa in December to visit my family and rounded the trip off in the Cederberg.

This is an account of another great hike.  This one in a remote area Northwest of Cape Town in the Cederberg mountains.  We got the news about my mother as we were leaving Cape Town and after some phone calls to family members and rearranging flights to get back to Limpopo we decided not to change our plans for these two days but to have me get back early the next day for a flight and for Anne and boys to follow the next night.

The drive was surreal.  A desolate landscape in the Western Cape off the road to Namibia with a long stretch of dirt road and dry grasslands.  Feeling sad about the long stretches away from home and our all too brief time with my mother in December when all of her family were able to spend a day with her.

Our friends, who traveled ahead of us, had told us of some walks that we could do while we were out there.  The one was intriguing - a hike called The Cracks which, if you are fit, is 3 hours long and takes you into some narrow gorges at the top of the mountain.  This is one approach that hikers use to get to the Wolfberg Arch - a well known prominent arch in the Cederberg mountains - a round trip of 8 hours.

The landscape is very dry and it can get hot here at this time of year so we were very lucky that the day was fairly mild.

We left in time to get to the start of the hike at around 9am.  We had to stop at the resort nearby to pay a fee to access this hike (the fee gives you a combination for a lock on the gate leading to this parking place near the trail-head).

A fairly gentle start with switchbacks taking you up a relatively steep mountainside.  Anne and Jess are both asthmatics and although Anne has become pretty fit with her running they both find these uphill walks hard.  We still did pretty good time, despite this - taking around 4 hours for the round trip.  Some of the guides say that this should be about 2 and a half hours if you don't stop but that was out of the question.

I am pretty unfit at the moment to so welcomed the slower pace as well.

Looking back down from around halfway up across the valley, the clump of trees off to the right is where we parked, near a resort. 
 As you get closer to the top, the narrow cleft in the prominent cliffs that you are walking towards comes into view.  Sweeping off the cliffs in these suicide-like dives, the red-winged starlings put up a show for us as we got closer to the cliffs and the bright orange and yellow rock stood stark against the bright blue African sky.

These cliffs look like a rock-climber's dream and I wondered where my climbing friends come when they visit the Cederberg.  I suspect that there are some here although these are not mentioned specifically in the descriptions of climbing around this area.

Once you reach the foot of the cliff, the path leads to what looks like a blank wall with a ledge to the right.  It looked like a fairly tough scramble to get on the ledge, but our friends just walked around into the dark behind the rock in front of us and climbed up a narrow chute to the ledge through a hidden entrance.

From there along a narrow path - with large bucket holds to keep you comfortable (no chains and barriers here) - around a corner into this world of chambers, narrow slots and tight corners.

The colors and the vertical height of the walls around you are breathtaking.  We all scrambled up over these huge boulders into an open area beyond where we looked back on a large arch and these teetering high cliffs, seemingly made of stacks of rocks piled up one on another like the wooden block towers that children build.

From here another short hike up to the actual cracks.

And an array of chambers with beautiful shapes and colors,

a long natural bridge
and the most beautiful setting with a shaft of light coming down onto a flattened surface.

I deeply regret that I didn't have my tripod - though I have learned that hiking and photography do not really work well together unless you hike with other photographers.

Walking through these cracks I found myself wishing I had hours more to spend working on the photographically rich scenes.  As it was I had to push the ISO up and make the best of large contrasts in light with little time to experiment.  Still I was able to capture some that are satisfying despite the standard problems with hiking with a camera.

The hike through the cracks includes a high bouldering problem, a section where you have to slide through on your back, head first into a right-angled turn that forces you to sit and then hug an egg-shaped rock to pull yourself up and out the other side.  At this section, if you are too wide of girth you would be forced to climb up a much harder bouldering problem to get over the obstacle.

Once we came out the other side, we stopped for a snack and then walked around the top to another rather wider canyon which brought us back to more or less where we came in at the bottom of the cliff.

The sky, bright blue and an interesting fish-shaped cloud greeted us on the back side.

In the exit canyon we came across some beautiful erosion holes

and a butterfly - surprisingly still on a branch as I passed.

It sat so still despite me getting pretty close to it with my camera - a beautiful orange winged creature.

The walk down was uneventful - surprisingly quick considering how long it had taken us to get up.

Anne and Jess (dubbed the "half-lungs" for the hike) posed at the end, rather proud of their achievement with the cracks in the background.

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