010 – Table Mountain Fernwood Circuit – (10km / 300m Elev)

Sometimes it is good to go back to basics. It doesn’t always have to be summit conquests or never before explored trails.

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The trails on the Eastern side of Table Mountain are as diverse as the people who hike them. Kids on tricycles, families with prams, overcompensating mountain bikers, trail-running bros with their shirts off, and senior citizens grinding out the kilometres and putting us all to shame.

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The best place to start is the Newlands Forestry Station. It is centrally located and safe(r) due to the large numbers of people who hike there. From the station you have any number of options. You can do the gentle forestry road loops through the forest, head uphill to connect with the contour path (a trail that encircles most of the mountain at around 400m elevation), head South towards Kirstenbosch Gardens or North towards the City Bowl. If you connect with the Contour Path there are a number of routes to the summit (Nursery Ravine which pops out on top of Table Mountain at Hely-Hutchinson Reservoir) or Newlands Ravine which heads up to the Saddle between Table Mountain and Devils Peak.

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When I set off I didn’t actually have a plan. I know this part of the mountain really well and wanted to see where it took me, so I looped through the forest and then headed South towards Plumpudding Hill directly above Rhodes Memorial. An interesting thing about this spot is that you can still see the large concrete base from a radar reflector that was installed after the 1971 crash of three SA air force planes into the side of Devil’s Peak. The reflector was installed to lessen the sting of human error, but it soon became dilapidated and was eventually removed.

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The survey beacon at Plumpudding Hill

From here I scrambled up the terribly maintained (crumbling rocks etc) path towards the block house. This is not the best way to get to the Contour Path, but it works.

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Fernwood begins

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Water at First Waterfall

At the Contour Path I headed South towards First Waterfall. This is a magical place to be, even in summer and I highly recommend making your way up to the waterfall and getting yourself wet. In the depth of winter rains some crazies come up here and stand under the tons of water falling on them (I plan to do this soon) but today, mid summer, it was just a gentle stream. I sat for a while and drank my coffee while chatting with some passers-by who then went on their way. Then something magical happened.

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Friends looking perplexed

I heard rocks falling. Movement above me? Who would be so dumb to be climbing up there, knocking rocks off and knowing that people are below them! I moved away from where the rocks were falling and looked up. A Himalayan Tahr was staring at me. Then another, then another. They seemed to trying to figure out if I was a threat, but doubting my apex predator skills. Once they had decided that I was a noob they carried on with what they were doing. Clambering down the rocks to get to the stream above the waterfall. I watched them for 20 minutes.

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The Tahrs are controversial and are obviously not indigenous. They are the offspring of (supposedly only 2) Tahrs that escaped Groote Schuur Zoo in the 1930s. There have been numerous attempts to cull them, and numerous funds started to absolutely not cull them. Ironically, they are endangered in many countries, including India, who has supposedly asked for them to be caught and donated to India. Regardless of your views on them, it is still incredibly special to experience moments like this with wild animals up close.

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I left the Tahrs and kept heading South along the contour path. The Fernwood Trail has been wonderfully done up with raised walking paths ensuring that the ecological impact of hikers is minimal, and allows you to walk for ages while being completely surrounded by shady indigenous forest. Ever corner another postcard-perfect image.

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After a while the Contour Path opens up and you start to see the Southern Suburbs. At this point you could continue all the way to Kirstenbosch Gardens and eventually Constantia Neck. Both are great walks, and Uber makes getting back to your car very easy.

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I had to head down though, and took one of the many paths downhill (just after Newlands Ravine), then wound my way (a bit aimlessly) through the forest and over rivers etc until I got back to the Forestry Station.

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All in all, a lovely walk and as usual, every hike adds something new to the list… this time it was the Tahrs up close. I highly recommend hiking in this area. It has something for everyone.

Summary

Date: 27 January 2019
Distance and Elevation: 10km / 300m Elevation Gain
Coordinates: Start Newlands Forestry Station Plumpudding Hill First Waterfall Head down from Contour Path
Conditions: On the day it was sunny and not too hot. If you stay in the forested area you’ll be in shade a lot of the time.
Radio Stuff: Take an HT as there are some locals who monitor 145.500. Plenty of trees for HF antennas.
Notes: This area is notorious for muggings, so go into it with that in mind and try and stay close to the busier areas.

009 – Mont Rochelle to Dutoitskop (8km/ 750m Elev)

Mont Rochelle had been on my list for a few weeks. A friend had suggested one of the lower peaks as a great spot for a radio setup, but since the actual summit (Dutoitskop) was a SOTA summit I decided to get to the top instead. Got to collect those sweet internet points.

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Mont Rochelle is a private Nature Reserve and very well organised. I called them a few days before the hike to make sure that I could set off before their official opening time and they were very friendly with their “yes, of course!”.

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I was the first car in the misty parking lot at 6am. You park your car far away enough from the road that it feels relatively safe even though there’s no one there to watch it that early.

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The routes are well marked and as I climbed the mist began to burn away and in its place were amazing views in every direction. There was no wind. I felt like I could have heard a caterpillar chewing a leaf nearby if I had listened carefully.

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The more I hike the more I appreciate the quality of the trail. How well it was originally planned and how well it is maintained. The Mont Rochelle trails are wonderful in this regard.

It was a long slog for me, especially carrying a 15kg pack. I sent some friends an optimistic ETA for the top, then half an hour later had to “lol, no” that message.  The last 2km felt like it was 90% vertical and someone had hid rocks in my pack. I slogged, stopping every few minutes to let my body cool down and my heart slow to a mild panic. My tongue felt like a flap of dry leather in my mouth.

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I heard some people behind me on the trail, maybe as far as 1km back. They were gaining on me. The indignity of being passed by a group of hikers pushed me forward… This was my Rocky moment.

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Eventually, as these things have a way of happening, I reached the top (first!). It was spectacular. The weather was absolutely perfect. Clear for a million miles in every direction with some high cloud cover to break the heat, and not a breath of wind.

Dutoitskop is a lovely summit as there are multiple ways up and it’s quite flat at the top, so that multiple groups can be up there chilling by themselves.

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I obviously hogged the survey beacon because it makes putting up my antenna a lot easier. The radio’ing was fun, I “activated” the summit and then continued to chat to a few of the regulars from around the country. In some ways this is a bit like a group of friends who meet for coffee once a week. The same voices, with a few new ones every now and then. There was even a group of hams doing some operations at Piketberg (120km away) and I was able to chat to them crystal clear on my cheap Chinese walky talky.

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Can you spot Table Mountain?

This hike was way more about the beauty of nature (and the conquest of summits) than the radio. I spent a lot of time just looking. Dutoitskop is a very unique summit. From the top you can see Table Mountain and Lions head, the Teewaterskloof Dam and, incredibly, the Wind Turbines at Caledon. It is almost hard to comprehend all those things could be visible in the same picture.

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The route down was tough. It was hot and my feet were burning from 20 years of not using them enough (and a bit of shitty genetics). The lack of wind persisted and the cool walk up was replaced by an oven walking down. Mercifully, the condition of the trail  made it easier to descend while exhausted.

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Taking a break in a tiny spot of shade.

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When I was a few hundred meters from the conservation office a young couple traipsed past me in their trail running shoes and hydration packs. I was okay with the indignity. I was still the first person at the top.

Summary

Date: 20 January 2019
Distance and Elevation: 8km and 750m Elevation Gain.
Coordinates: Start Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve (take cash for a permit)  Dutoitskop: -33.8825236, 19.1491087
Conditions: I could not have asked for better weather on this hike. I imagine it could get blisteringly hot up there, so take lots of water. There are no streams on the Dutoitskop summit trail.
Radio Stuff: Highly recommend using the survey beacon for your mast, but beware that hikers will be walking past your kit, so take something bright to mark your lines.
Notes: This is a great hike and area in general. There are a bunch of shorter/easier options, so go have fun!

 

 

008 – Paardeberg to Rocky Outcrop (7km / 405m Elev)

The Paardeberg packs a lot of opportunity into a tiny mountain range. There’s a thousand different routes and something interesting around every corner. I had done some exploring in the area a few years back and had a reasonable sense of the trails but decided to just start hiking and see where things led me on the day.

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We started from Fynbos Estate (which looks like a wonderful wedding venue) who graciously gave us permission to hike from their land. We headed up the valley via the steep jeep track while the sun slowly rose from the east, illuminating the towering Sonkop cliffs to the west. The ground was wet from overnight rain; yet another miraculous weather change at the last minute enabling one of my hiking missions. It was cool with absolutely no wind. The sound of baboons (I hope those were baboons) arguing on the cliffs above, occasionally sounding creepily human and making you wonder if someone might be calling out to you.

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The path winds its way upwards and soon you’re looking down on those baboon cliffs and the horizon begins to spread out in every direction. At the first major fork we turned right (left takes you to Dragonridge and some radio masts but we wanted more altitude).

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The route alternates between wide open veld and lush fynbos forests that engulf you as you walk through them. I was hot from all the climbing and dragged my arms through the refreshing tall grasses, still wet from the earlier rain, no fancy spa treatment could compare!

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What causes this? How old is it?

We explored some rocky outcrops just off the path while sipping the first cup of coffee. My love (and ignorance) for geology growing with every adventure. Weird shapes that must be formed by water? How? How long ago? Surely I’m the not the first hominid up here wondering the same thing?

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One possible outcome of this hike was to get all the way to Kanonkop which we could now see in the distance, but truthfully neither my hiking partner or I had any interest in adding another 10km to our hike only to reach a spot covered in electrical boxes and radio masts.

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We decided to rather head to a huge outcrop of rocks perched on top of a hill, but weren’t sure how to get there so carried on along the path to see where it went (always a good idea). At the top we were greeted by another spectacular panoramic view of the valley, with Kanonkop on our right and the Paarl Valley spreading out around us.

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From the lookout point this path clearly headed in the direction of Kanonkop, but with no clear route to the rocky outcrop that we wanted to get to. We decided to backtrack and look for a way up. We didn’t find one so were forced to bundu-bash a short distance through some thick vegetation to get there. My hiking companion was not impressed by this but I kept reassuring him that it’s a great story to tell, especially the part about how his crazy friend dragged him through a thorny forest for no specifically good reason.

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From the top of the rocky outcrop you get yet another incredible view, this time of the Perdebergdam and the valley surrounding it. It took me a while to realise that this was the dam that I had visited a year before when exploring the area. It is funny how your orientation can snap into place when you add context.

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It was a bit windy and slightly chilly. We set up the antenna and I started making contacts while my hiking partner explored the area looking for an easier route down.

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A black kite inspecting our rigging

A few minutes later we noticed that a black kite was circling us. At first it just seemed like a coincidental fly-by, but then it circled again, closer, slower, intently looking at us. We started taking pictures thinking that any second now it would fly away.  Instead, for 15 magical minutes, it circled us, round and round, flying lower and slower.  So close that when it was at the same height as us we could see it’s eyes moving back and forth as it tried to figure out what we were up to. Eventually we must have become boring and it drifted off into the distance. I like to think we’ll meet again.

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We spent the next hour discussing our bird friend and talking to people across South Africa and Namibia. The weather closed in on us a bit and it seemed like a good segue to packing up and heading back down.

This is a really magical part of the Western Cape. On a map the entire mountain range is a small green dot, but hiking here is a world of its own and gives you context for how big this country really is and reminding you how many more adventures there must be out there in other small green dots on the map.

Summary

Date: 12 January 2019
Distance and Elevation: 7km and 405m Elevation Gain.
Coordinates: Start Fynbos Estate (get permission!)  Rocky Outcrop: -33.5809308, 18.7983747
Conditions: Cool in the morning with a strong breeze later in the day. The shady valleys on the way up can get chilly.
Radio Stuff: You’ll need a telescopic mast. There aren’t well situated trees to string anything up.
Notes: I’d like to go back and do a longer route, perhaps one that traverses the entire mountain range in a day.

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A photo from a year before at the opposite side of the Perdebergdam. Top right corner of the mountain is where we were set up.

007 – Cape Infanta Trig Beacon (6km / 80m Elev)

For a while I’ve had the idea that it would be cool to do some portable radio stuff from the southern most tip of Africa (Cape Agulhas) – There’s two problems with this: 1. My holiday house is much closer to Cape Infanta, and 2. Cape Agulhas is a bit boring since it’s basically a parking lot that you can drive to.

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I try to get out as early as possible. My current thinking is try and be walking before sunrise to maximise on the cooler hours for hiking and get some great photos.

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As usual I left planning to the last minute, so didn’t have a clear idea of what the route would be. I left home around 5:30 and drove the 40km to the sleepy Village of Cape Infanta around 6am. It was just after new years, peak holiday time, and every second home had a lawn strewn with children’s bicycles left overnight in perfect safety.  It was strangely heartwarming to see that.

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Because I didn’t have a plan, I just drove to the corner of the village that was closest to where I wanted to be hiking and parked. There was no clear path up onto the hill but I’m used to bundu bashing and pushed my way through some reeds, a dry riverbed and up the opposite embankment and started walking towards the part of the map that I thought was most interesting.

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In hindsight I now know that there is an official start to this hiking trail that boringly has a “designated parking area” and actual “walking paths”, but I regret nothing. (really I don’t, I enjoy not knowing what to expect around the next corner).

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Breccia (see Wikipedia)

I clambered up the hill, heading in an easterly direction towards the “Cape” and eventually spotted a gravel road in the distance and headed for that.

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Once on the road the pace picked up and I realised that I was likely following a trail that went right to the spot I’d intended to go to. The walk was lovely and cool. The gravel road eventually petered into a single trail, the sun in my face lens-flaring the hills ahead. Magnificent!

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Eventually you reach the sea, the trig beacon, the magnificent cliffs and the water which seemed to be painted with 5 different shades of blue making you think it couldn’t possibly be as cold as you know it really is.

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I set up my antenna on the trig beacon and ran my antenna cables to the flat rocks overlooking the sea. From here I listened to some Americans chatting and tried to make contact, but I just wasn’t getting out. (I’ll explain this in a future post, but bursts of energy from the sun can take my tiny little signal and boost it along the troposphere and deliver it to someone in America as if I was just down the road, or not, most often not).

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There were plenty of South African’s chatting on other frequencies and I listened in as I scouted out the area trying to figure out how I was going to set up a shelter to avoid getting sunburnt. Eventually I relocated away from the cliffs and set up my little tarp in some small shrubs that I could sit under. It was barely 8am and I could tell it was going to be a stinker of a day. I’ve learnt that it is important to build a shelter before things get hairy, a few hours later when you’re already burnt and dehydrated is not the time to be engaging your cognitive abilities to construct some shelter. (Often because you just couldn’t be assed by that stage and instead get roasted by the sun)

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After speaking to a few people from Africa, I switched to digital modes (JS8Call) and immediately, almost surprisingly, made contact with an Australian station. This was my first time “talking” to Australia and it kind of made sense, since I was on the East cost. This was the start of a few hours of testing one of the cooler features of JS8Call, the ability to relay a message from one station to another. Through the Australian station I was able to talk to a station in the Philippines, and technically we would be able to relay that message further, hopping via ham radio operators on every continent on the planet.

This might seem like a weird thing to do, but as an experiment it highlights how you could be pretty much anywhere on the planet and be in contact with anyone else on the planet with only kit you’re both able to carry on your backs (and not using satellites). Some radio people will tell you this is important in case of a global catastrophe where all the communications satellites are shut down by a foreign superpower. I’ve made peace with the fact that it’s just super nerdy and fun and I don’t need to rationalise my hobbies to anyone.

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As usual, coffee and batteries eventually ran down and spent around 30 minutes packing up and appreciating the view before heading back to the car.

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Cape Infanta looking pretty

 

Summary

Date: 4 January 2019
Distance and Elevation: 6km and 80m Elevation Gain.
Coordinates: My Parking spot -34.424086, 20.8561665  Trig Beacon: -34.429609, 20.8671564   The correct starting point: -34.422157, 20.8524268
Conditions: You are quite exposed at the trig beacon so ensure you take some form of shade or don’t plan to hang around very long.
Radio Stuff: You’ll definitely need a mast, take some straps to attach it to the trig beacon.
Notes: It’s probably a good idea to do a little bit of Google Earth research before setting out on a mission like this so that you don’t end up bashing through riverbanks to get to where you want to be.

 

 

 

 

006 – DuToitskloof, but higher (2km / 200m Elevation)

Ever since 004, the micro-mission to DuToitskloof I’d been wanting to return and climb up the very obvious little “koppie” that was right there. The weekend rolled around and I almost decided not to go out, but at the last minute on Saturday night I started packing my bags for the morning. I’m so glad I did.

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The road was misty, as I ascended up the old pass I was surrounded by thick mist. This had me slightly worried about it all being a miserable slog, but I pushed on. Eventually I popped out the top of the mist and could still kick myself for not stopping to get a photo. A blanket of fog filled the valley but the air above the surface was bright and clear.

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I parked at my usual spot and headed up the hill. My initial plan was just to find a route to the top right hand corner. There are no paths up here but luckily the terrain is relatively easy to traverse as long as you zig and zag enough, and where you need to climb it’s fairly easy to find a route that doesn’t require doing anything too stupid.

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As you scramble up there rocks there are various “false summits”. You see what looks like the top and climb to it, and then when you’re there you see there is a another one a few minutes scramble away. The entire time the view is getting increasingly spectacular.

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Eventually things flatten out into an undulating plateau that seems to go on forever. (This is the Hugenot Ridge, a 3 km spine of mountain in an almost straight line… which has made it onto the list for future adventures)

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Once on the plateau things, err,  flatten out and you can basically just take a stroll with the occasional scramble that requires using a hand to steady yourself. I truly felt like I had found something secret. A little world that was was hidden in plain sight, just off the road, but I was a million miles from everyone.

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I kept walking towards the obvious “highest” point and when I was close enough realised that it was a rock cairn, possibly a minor surveying point but maybe just erected by enthusiastic hikers.

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The cairn offered an obvious spot to erect my mast and with the warmth of the sun baking through the chill, and absolutely no wind I decided to make this place my home for a few hours.

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Getting the mast up was pretty quick. I’m getting good at that. I did notice that it was starting to feel a bit chilly. The mist was rolling in… It made me a little bit nervous, but the route down was relatively straightforward and in a worst case scenario I had a GPS track I could double back on.

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The radio’ing was great. I chatted with all the usual suspects including some Namibian guys on 40m and then decided to switch over to 20m where to my amazement I was hearing foreigners chatting quite clearly (which is sometimes a sign that they might hear you. It worked. In a matter of minutes I had spoken to a guy in Northern Italy, a guy in the Congo and another guy in Brazil. Incredible, and all while surrounded with fog!

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The fog was thick enough that I had to start covering my kit. I hike with a large lightweight waterproof tarp that usually serves as a roof when the sun is baking down, but can also be used as a cover over my kit with a few rocks holding it down and creating an opening so that I can still read the display etc.

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I spent a few hours up there with my coffee and rusks, and a sandwich when I felt hungry. I can easily imagine spending the night up there if I could find a flat enough spot to make a bed. My clothing was damp from the fog, but not enough to be uncomfortable. I now hike with a compact raincoat for such occasions.

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Eventually my coffee ran out, and my battery beeped its low voltage alarm, and I decided to pack up and head back. The weather seemed to be playing along, clearing during my pack up and opening up the view for me on the way back down.

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And this is why I have a new saying: “I’ve never regretted a hike”, and to think, I was contemplating spending the day on the couch!

Summary

Date: 23 December 2018
Distance and Elevation: 2km and 200m Elevation Gain.
Coordinates: Parking spot -33.696697, 19.074741  Rock Cairn: -33.700637, 19.071358
Conditions: Heavy fog rolled in, make sure you take a waterproof shell. I imagine it could also be blisteringly hot with gale force winds, possibly on the same day. Be prepared.
Radio Stuff: You’ll definitely need a mast, great location for radio.
RouteKML File (approximate)
Notes: Don’t ever debate hiking.

005 – Bottelary – (4km / 230m Elev)

Botterlary is one of those “mountains” that is used extensively as a commercial RF high-site. It was my first time up here and because I’m a  huge nerd it was interesting to see how it was all laid out, but predictably it is not a great location for sensitive radio experimentation.

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Pretty walk up the hill

I met up with a few friends at Koopmanskloof Winery (who had kindly given us permission for the day). We drove Brian’s Landy a few hundred meters up the hill until we reached a boom across the road and parked out of the way. We then trekked the rest of the 2km up to the top of the hill. You should eat breakfast before you do these kinds of things. I of course hadn’t eaten breakfast and felt like dying a few times on the way up. It’s an unforgiving slog.

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There’s probably 50 of these towers

It is however still a pretty walk, and once you reach the top you’re surrounded by antennas and small buildings humming away ominously.

We set up in the shade of one of the small buildings and I did actually manage to make contact with one person who was only a few km away. There was an S9+ noise floor, which for non-radio people basically means so much interference that any signal that wasn’t absolutely booming in would not be heard over the noise.

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Original location

I made the executive decision that we should move downhill, away from the towers and set up again to see how thing fared a short distance away.

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The new location with all the trappings of civilisation

The new location was much better noise wise; down to S3 and we immediately started making contacts with people all over the country.  The surroundings were a bit spartan though, and a recent fire had made it even more so. My lack of breakfast continued to diminish my enthusiasm and we packed up as soon as we’d made enough contacts to consider the SOTA summit activated.

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Overall a fun outing, but there’s definitely other hikes to do before this one.

Summary

Date: 16 December 2018
Distance and Elevation: 4km and 230m Elevation Gain.
Coordinates: Parking spot Koopmanskloof Winery (get permission!)  Setup Spot: -33.9079654, 18.7720508
Conditions: Quite hot on the day, very little wind. Take lots of water.
Radio Stuff: Obviously the actual summit is noisy. There are some tall bluegum trees on the way up that would be great for an end-fed or possibly even stringing up a dipole.
RouteKML File
Notes: Your mom was right, breakfast is important.

004 – Dutoitskloof One (MicroMission) <1km

I am really only including this as a blog post so that I can highlight how great a location this is for radio amateurs who want to test their setup in the great outdoors without committing to a crazy hike. From where you park your car to a large, relatively flat open space, is a 300m walk uphill. Just enough to get your heart pumping but still close enough that you might carry something stupid like a table or camping chairs. (I did neither)

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What is great about these micro-missions is that they give you an opportunity to look around and think about what might be a great hike, what mountains are around you etc.

For the non-radio-nerd readers, check out hike number 006 where we return to these mountains but climbing up to the top for amazing views.

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Soon I will come for you too.

Summary

Date: 9 December 2018
Distance and Elevation: <1km and 30m Elevation Gain.
Coordinates: Parking spot -33.696682, 19.074776  Setup Spot: -33.697215, 19.073074
Conditions: Cool with a fresh breeze bordering on “windy” earlier on, but then later hot and very calm.
Radio Stuff: You’ll need a self supporting mast as there are no trees. While technically you’ve got mountains on most sides, you still have great elevation which should give you some great takeoff North and South. There are big power lines running through the valley to the east, but I didn’t pick up any noise.
Notes: The parking spot is quite exposed but with lots of traffic I think it’s pretty safe.