INTRODUCTION TO MONKS COWL AND CHAMPAGNE VALLEY (CATHKIN PARK) HIKING TRAILS
Monks Cowl and Champagne Valley (Cathkin Park) hiking trails are amongst the most popular in the Drakensberg. Most of these trails commence at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Monks Cowl Camp. These trails include Sterkspuit Falls, Nandi’s Falls, Keartlands Pass, Blindman’s Corner, the Spinx and Crystal Falls, Hlatikhulu Forest and Makhulumane Rock and Forest. Also, Sterkhorn, Gatberg, Gray’s Pass and the Monks Cowl to Injisuthi hike.
The Cleos Falls Hike starts at the Oaks Supermarket or Drakensberg Sun. The Fern Forest and Blue Grotto hike start at Drakensberg Sun.
Monks Cowl Camp has a magnificent grassed camping site, a convenience store, and a daywalker parking area. A special area is available for overnight hikers to park their cars.
This easy walk starts at the Monks Cowl Camp of KZN Wildlife. It is marked and is roughly 4 km in length and 1.5 hours in duration. The highlight of this walk is the view of the spectacular Sterkspruit Falls.
KEARTLAND’S PASS, BLIND MAN’S CORNER, THE SPHINX AND CRYSTAL FALLS.
Moderate walk. Because this is a circular route with some uphills, it is described as mild to challenging. It is well-marked. It starts at Monks Cowl Camp. Follow the signs to Keartland’s Pass and Nandi’s Falls. You will reach an intersection where the path splits into Nandi’s Falls and Keartland’s Pass.
Moreover, be careful to follow the path to Keartland’s Pass. The Keartland’s Pass route intersects with the Contour Path. Turn right towards Blind Man’s Corner. Turn back at Blind Man’s corner and follow the Sphinx route to Monks Cowl. Also, en route, you will encounter the magnificent Crystal Falls. You can also do the hike in the reverse of the abovementioned. Some 11.5km and approximately 6 hours in duration.
An easy walk from the Monks Cowl Camp. Well marked. 8km. 2.5 hrs.
HLATHIKULU FOREST HIKE
This is an easy hike of some nine kilometres in total. The duration is approximately three hours. Start at Monks Cowl Camp and follow the cairns marked Mkhulumane Rock and Hlathikulu Forest. Cross the Sterkspruit River and ascend to a cairn that shows the route onto Mkulumani Rock and left to Hlathikhulu Forest. Continue along the path. You will encounter a magnificent forest and a route back down to the river and Monks Cowl Camp. Alternatively, follow the route to Nandi Falls, cross the Sterkspruit River at the point marked one on the following map and up to the Hlathikulu Forest marked two and then onto Monks Cowl Camp. Please note that various sources spell this forest’s name differently – Hlathikhulu, Hlathikulu, Hlatikhulu and Hlatikulu.
MAKHULUMANI ROCK HIKE
The Makhulumani Rock hike is a moderate day hike of some four hours and nine kilometres. This hike begins at Monks Cowl Camp or Bergview Estate. From Monks Cowl, follow the path and signs to Makhulumani Rock. Cross the Sterkspruit River until you meet a junction at the co-ordinates -29.04022 and 29.39365. Turn left up a path that meanders up a small valley and stream.
You will encounter the large ‘monolith’ Makhulumani, breathtaking forests, waterfalls, and a steep section of wooden ladders that takes you to the top of this valley.
JACOB’S LADDER AND STABLE CAVE HIKE
Jacob’s Ladder and the Stable Cave Hike is one of the longer hikes undertaken from the Monks Cowl Camp. This trail can be undertaken in a day. However, it is recommended that hikers overnight at Stable Cave.
The hike duration is ten hours, and the total length is 20 kilometres. Take the route to Sterkspruit Falls, but cross the Mpofane River at the cairn marked four on the KZN Wildlife map for the area. Follow the way to the Hlatikhulu Forest and Makhulamane Rock. At the fork of the Hlatikhule Forest, follow the route to Makhulamane Rock. At the turn to Makhulamane Rock, carry straight ahead to Van Damm’s Cascade and Jacob’s Ladder. Be careful to fill up with water at Van Damm Cascade as there is no water on Jacob’s Ladder and very often none in Stable Cave.
Ascend Jacob’s Ladder. At the top, turn right to an entrance in the fence. You will pass a spectacular sandstone overhang. Enjoy the magnificent views of the Valley below and Cape Vulture soaring overhead. The path turns to the right at a ‘V’ in this formation.
The path then follows a series of zig-zags for a while and then a slight uphill. At the top of this hill, you will note that the trail forks to the left. Follow this fork along a ridge. Finally, you will note the opening to the Stable Cave shelter.
Stable Cave is a long sandstone overhang that can easily sleep up to twelve people. Enjoy the views of Cathedral Peak on the horizon.
THE BLUE GROTTO AND FERN FOREST
These hikes can be done separately. However, it is recommended that you combine the two into one walk. The Route is marked from the Drakensberg Sun Hotel. The hike can be described as easy to moderate. It is a hike of some 10km in length and 4 hours in duration. You will encounter two spectacular waterfalls and a crystal-clear pool in the Blue Grotto. The Fern Forest is a “fairy garden” of cascading streams and dense clumps of ferns. Remember to pay the relevant fee at the Drakensberg Sun activity centre and fill out the register.
CLEO’S POOL (FALLS)
This hike starts at the Drakensberg Sun Activity Centre or Bergview and is well-marked. 7.5km. It takes just over 3 hours. Easy. The falls are in the Monks Cowl Reserve. This hike can also be approached from the Dragon Peaks/ Oaks Supermarket side of this area.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.- Nelson Mandela.
The hike up Gray’s Pass is one of the more accessible routes to experience the wonder of the Drakensberg escarpment and observe the rugged beauty of some of its most prominent peaks. Moreover, it is one of the best routes to reach the plateau of ‘Champagne Castle.’ However, it is a hike that should not be underestimated. It is a moderate to strenuous hike of some 40 km, particularly if a hiker intends to explore the top section and walk across to the top of the ‘Champagne Castle plateau.’
The hike starts at Monks Cowl Camp. Remember to complete the mountain register and to indicate that you will be away for at least two nights. Take the route to the Sphinx and then the contour path to Blind Mans Corner. Keep to the left of the cairn, which marks Blinds Man Corner and keep left onto the trail to Hlatikulu Nek. At the base of Hlatikulu Nek, turn left to enter the valley of the Mhlawazini River River. This area is also referred to as Champagne Valley or Monks Cowl Valley. You then hike to the base of Gray’s Pass, where you will find Keith Bush Camp alongside the Mhlawazini River. You will return similarly.
The author recommends that three days be devoted to enjoying this hike. The first day should be used to reach the ‘base camp’ of ‘Keith’s Bush. Keith’s Bush is an ideal camping spot next to the Mhlawazini River. The second day should be devoted to climbing and descending ‘Gray’s Pass’. This pass is a strenuous section of the hike, with some treacherous areas with steep drops. The gradient of this pass is some 800 metres. This ascent is similar to the height of Table Mountain! The last part is made up of loose boulders. Approach this section slowly and cautiously. The top of Gray’s Pass is some 3,100 metres. The coordinates of Gray’s Pass are -29.071650, and 29.323083.
The views from ‘Grays Pass’ are spectacular, with unrivalled views of Monks Cowl, Cathkin Peak, Sterkhorn and the Amplet. Furthermore, the sight of the Dragon’s Back and ‘Gatberg’ are impressive. However, what makes this particular route unique is that the cliff faces of Champagne Castle and the area in its immediate vicinity contain ‘nesting holes’ for a significant number of Cape Vultures and the rare ‘Lammergeyer’ or Bearded Vulture.
The final day of the hike is the return to ‘Monks Cowl Camp’ via Keartland’s Pass or the Sphinx.
INJISUTHI TO MONKS COWL
This hike is strenuous. Moreover, It is approximately 21km in extent and takes over six and a half hours to complete. Start early, around 06h30, and you should reach Monks Cowl before 16h00. The hike provides spectacular views of Shada Ridge, Champagne Castle, Cathkin Peak and Sterkhorn, amongst other peaks and ridges.
You will need a friend to drop you off at the Injisuthi Camp and collect you at Monks Cowl Camp. The walk starts from the main office, and you must head toward Van Heynigens Pass. You will walk between Chalets Three and Four.
The walk-up Van Heynigens Pass is tiring, but it is worth it when you reach the top and walk across to the viewing point. The views of Red Wall, the Greater Injisuthi Buttress, Cathkin Peak, Monks Cowl and Ship’s Prow are particular. You then need to return to the main contour path and turn right to walk along Shada Ridge to Blind Man’s corner. At Blind Man’s Corner, you turn right down the contour path to either the Sphinx Route or Keartland’s Pass to reach the Monks Cowl Camp.
STERKHORN OR MOUNT MEMORY
This peak is 2,973m and is one of the most strenuous hikes in the Drakensberg. This hike can be completed in a day or some seven hours. However, you need to be very fit to do so. It is more pleasant to do this hike over two days.
The trail starts at the Monks Cowl Camp. Follow the route to The Sphinx, Breakfast Stream and Blindman’s Corner. You turn left at Blindman’s corner and follow the route to Injisuthi. The turnoff to Sterkhorn is relatively close to Blindman’s Corner.
You will notice a small forest at this point. This is an ideal camping site, close to a stream. This is also the perfect spot to hide an overnight rucksack and proceed with a day pack. You will note that the path has a very steep gradient. Eventually, you will reach a narrow ledge. It is recommended you then use an anchored rope and harness to proceed. The drop is considerable. Once you have moved past this obstacle, you will ascend again along a narrow path. You come across a cave. Exit the cave vertically. You will then reach a safe platform. The final stretch is a scramble up a path until you reach a cairn and white cross
CAYLEY MOUNTAIN RESORT TO BELL PEAK
This is a pleasant hike of some four hours. The walk starts at Cayley Lodge and skirts the edges of the AmaSwazi community.
The hike is very peaceful, and you have lovely distant views of the AmaSwazi community going about a simple existence. A notable highlight of this hike is that you pass a critical San Rock art site with some magnificent frescos.
Finally, you reach the top of the “Kop” after a steep scramble. Undoubtedly worth it, but you will need a rock art custodian to appreciate the rock art.