Most often my hike planning consists of me frantically scrolling through Google Earth on a Friday morning looking for an interesting summit that’s in the Goldilocks zone of my abilities. Something less than 15km and around 800m elevation. Often this is heavily influenced by whether the summit is a SOTA summit.
Klein-Drakensteinkop kind of fell into my lap. I was looking for hikes around the Wemmershoek Dam (that I still want to go explore with plenty of summits to bag) and Klein-Drakensteinkop stood out because it looked like it had a nice set of trails to explore. I mapped it out by drawing the route in Google Earth. 8km each way and 900m elevation gain. This would be the longest hike and most elevation I’d done since I was a teenager. (Turns out it was longer with more elevation)
With all the bravado of a mid-life crisis I decided I was going to go for it. I emailed the farm I’d identified as having access to the trail head. (There are probably a few)
I got a call a few hours later from someone at the farm granting me permission to hike. They didn’t want the farm’s name mentioned as they stressed that my approval was strictly a once off thing and they don’t want to get hounded by others asking permission. Their wish, my command. Good people! Thank you.
So it was official, the next morning I was going to set off on a hike that was roughly 20% more distance and elevation than my previous hikes over the last year. I think that’s perfectly reasonable as a progression, but obviously it was going to be tough. Tough is what makes us stronger.
Packing is always fun. I enjoy that I’ve got my kit down to the bare necessities. Everything has bags, things are labelled, everything has power-pole connectors. Neat and orderly. I even have a spreadsheet that details the various pack lists depending on what radios I’m taking, including how many grams each thing weighs. Nerds don’t die on mountains.
The plan was to take my Xiegu X5105 (5 watts QRP) radio along for this hike as it is smaller and lighter. So the rough list is: radio, telescopic mast, inverted V dipole antenna, coax cable, guying system for mast, tiny toolbag, emergency dry bag (first aid etc), waterproof tarp (shade), torch, USB power banks, walky talky, water, food, spare socks.
The last thing I did before bed was load the route I’d drawn in Google Earth into my phone to use it with Locus (an amazing mapping and navigation app for Android).
I set off early the next morning – I was hiking at 6:30. Sunrise was at 6:55 but there’s generally enough light to start hiking half an hour before. There’s a long and quite pretty walk through the farm’s property, past vineyards and down the farm roads that wind towards the mountain.
Soon the farm roads change into rough trails through vegetation where the path tends to peter out every so often. Occasionally you need to do some scouting to find where that trail goes. This is where I was very happy to have a pre-planned route on my phone with Locus. At every ambiguous point on the trail I would refer to the map and see which route made sense, or which direction I was meant to be heading in. Obviously this is achievable with a GPS, but the old Garmin I have is sloooow and doesn’t have a built in magnetic compass, so while it’s good for big-scale navigation, it’s not the best for the small stuff.
Eventually the small trails I had taken broke out onto larger, clearly defined trails that wind their way up the valley crisscrossing the river every few minutes until eventually the river goes subterranean, but not before one last beautiful water spot with small pools about the size of a bathtub that you could “swim” in if you were so inclined.
Finally you crest onto the saddle between Vaalkop and Klein-Drakensteinkop. The area has a “great plains” feel to it and is deceptively flat compared to what the maps would indicate. Unfortunately some motocross riders have turned this area into a playground which damages the paths badly. Obviously as a biker I don’t begrudge people’s hobbies, but I think they need to stay off the hiking trails.
Once on the saddle the trail winds, ever upwards, towards the East as you start to circle the back of the Klein-Drakensteinkop mountain. The Wemershoek dam begins to peak out behind the distant ranges. On your left the mountain looms steeply and disappears into the distance as there’s no clear line of sight to the summit, leaving you to simply trust that your maps aren’t lying to you.
In the North-East corner of your circumnavigation you will find a small trail that heads, almost directly up the mountain. At this point you’re about 400m elevation gain from the summit, but with 2.5km left to hike. The route up is tough with loose rocks that sap your energy. Luckily the view makes up for it… As you ascend the Wemershoek Dam comes into full view and in the distance the Berg River Dam pops out and you realise you’re looking into the Franschoek valley.
The route up takes you via a minor peak called “Spitskop” and then down into a little valley and up again for the final ascent to Klein-Drakensteinkop. This is not to be confused with the other Spitskop that is less than 4km away. The more you spend time in the mountains of the Western Cape the more you’ll realise that no names are unique.
I found this last part of the hike very enjoyable. It’s very clear that you’re near the summit, the path is easy and while you’re still climbing, it’s at a pace that I find I’m able to walk while enjoying the scenery. (A far cry from the previous few km where I was shuffling uphill with my head down watching rocks)
Finally the Summit! It’s quite flat and spread out, so there’s no dramatic cliffs to fall off. A small rock cairn, that I regret not adding to, sits at a point that someone must have decided was the highest, although it would be tough to confirm with it being so flat.
There was no wind at all. I could hear music playing from one of the farms in the distance, probably more than 6km away. As always, I took a moment to share my sumitting with the people who track me and then scouted the area to figure out where best to set up. I didn’t feel the need to set up shade as the sun wasn’t too harsh, so I chose a spot on some large flat rocks near the edge so that I could lie down if I wanted to.
Got the mast set up, antenna run, coax, radio plugged in… Noise… I’ve talked before about how one of the reasons I hike with a radio is because when you’re away from all the electronics of civilisation the RF noise-floor drops to almost nothing. This is great for radio as you’re able to hear fainter signals. Now, occasionally the sun at the centre of our solar system does some crazy stuff that creates background noise everywhere. It might last for a few hours or sometimes days and it’ll usually be worse during the day. I reached the summit at 11am… the stars were aligned to make this difficult, but definitely not impossible.
I started calling on a pre-agreed frequency (7.090MHz) to see if any of the other amateur radio nerds who participate in this crazy hobby were able to hear me. Immediately I got an reply from ZS4CGR, one of my regulars from the Free State, over 700 km away. Again, it’s important to highlight that this radio uses about half the power of an energy saving light bulb. A few minutes later I was speaking with ZS6UT who is 1,280 km away. Then it was time for two locals ZS1OB and ZS1MTB (both less than 30km away) and finally ZS2AL (600 km away). ZS2AL asked the same question I would ask: “How many watts?” since “QRP” has begun to mean vastly different things. I love the question.
I played around with my walky talky and spoke to a few people around the greater Cape Town/Paarl area, which is always nice to do because gives you a good sense of what your range is if you need that radio in an emergency.
Eventually it was time to pack up. I had committed to the farm to being down by 3pm, and that deadline was rapidly looking unrealistic, which was irresponsible and made me feel bad. I wrote a quick email to the person who had given me permission and pushed out my return by an hour thinking that would be more than enough.
The climb down was tougher than the climb up. On the way up one of my boot lace holder things had broken, which meant I couldn’t tighten it properly (on the foot that has the most issues). This didn’t bother me too much on the way up, but coming down it was starting to hurt, and the weird way I had to lace my shoe was making my foot chafe in new and exciting places. I’m starting to learn that descents are often tougher than the ascents and if you add blisters to the mix you slow right down to a hobble even if you’re rushing to meet your curfew. The steep paths with millions of loose stones are effectively ball bearings under your feet so you’ve got to be careful.
The hike down was mostly uneventful. The nicest river spot is conveniently at about the halfway point, and despite my deadline I decided it was wise to take a break and get my feet in the water and change my socks (I’ve started carrying a spare pair of socks). The first couple of steps after the numbing ice-bath with the new socks was a bit painful, but soon I felt a better and possibly even sped up. One small bit of excitement was that my phone overheated (probably because I’d been charging it constantly) and stopped turning on. I used my HT (walky talky) to ask a friend to call my wife and let her know that everything was fine and that I might not be in contact until I got home. See, responsible! The phone started working again a while later but highlighted the fact that I should have had my old trusty GPS in my backpack with the same route loaded in.
The last slog through the wine farms was flat and seemed much longer than it did in the morning. When I got to the car I threw my stuff in the back and with tender feet, and very thankful for an automatic, drove to the security boom where the guard and I chatted briefly. “Where did you go?” has asked. “Up there“, “WHAT? To the top?“, “Yes! It was quite tough“. I loved that.
Date: 30 March 2019
Distance and Elevation: 17.5km and 950m Elevation Gain.
Coordinates: Somehow get yourself to here and then follow the trail up to the summit.
Conditions: Lovely day. Slightly misty in the morning and then very calm during the day. I reapplied sunscreen a few times.
Radio Stuff: You’ll need a telescopic mast. On the day the bands were in pretty bad shape, but I’m pretty sure none of that was local.
Notes: This is a long hike, take lots of water. You’ll be away from the river for ~10km of hiking so don’t assume “oh there’s a river we’ll be fine“.