Pass name: Xeni Pass
Region: Didima Nature Reserve, Northern KZN Drakensberg
Distance from the parking to the top: 15km
Difficulty: Extreme (8)*
Route type: ROCK
Risks: Difficult scrambling, exposed in places, no trail
* Most Drakensberg passes fall into the extreme difficulty category. To differentiate the “easy” ones from the harder ones, a rating out of 10 is included after the extreme rating. For more information, check out the Drakensberg Passes Intro article.
Xeni Pass is in the cutback between Leopard Peak and Mlambonja Buttress. It probably gets more traffic than one might expect due to it being in one of the most popular areas of the Drakensberg. But don’t let this route fool you, it is one of the hardest passes in the range and has had at least one fatality in the past.
The hike starts from the Cathedral Peak Hotel parking lot. If you ask Google Maps for directions to the hotel, it should find the exact spot easily enough. You can either park at the boom gate which is the normal hikers parking, and then walk up the hill to the hotel for the start of the trail or pay the entrance fee at the gate (currently R50 per vehicle). The entrance fee at the gate gets you a small discount at the hotel, so as an added bonus, you can get something to eat and drink after the hike.
Make sure you stop at the Ezemvelo Didima Offices to buy your hiking permits and complete the rescue register.
1) Take the N3 South (Durban) to Harrismith. Turn right at Harrismith (towards Bethlehem).
2) Roughly 15km out of the town, turn left for Bergville.
3) Drive through Bergville, and shortly after leaving the town, turn right at the sign for Didima/Cathedral Peak Hotel.
4) After a few kilometers, turn right again at another sign that says Didima/Cathedral Peak Hotel.
5) Don’t turn off again – this road ends at the hotel.
1) Take the N3 North (Johannesburg) till the Winterton/Colenso offramp.
2) Turn right towards Winterton.
3) At Winterton, turn left at the traffic lights.
4) After roughly 1km, turn right at the first turnoff.
5) After about 10km, the road will hit a T-junction. Turn right at this junction.
6) After about 1km, turn left at a sign that says Didima/Cathedral Peak Hotel.
7) Don’t turn off again – this road ends at the hotel.
Follow the road up the hill behind the hotel past the phone tower. When the road becomes dirt, look out for a split, at which you go right. You will soon find yourself on a soccer field. Follow the trail from the far side of the field, and whenever you see a turnoff, pick the side that says Neptune Pools.
The trail will eventually start to zig-zag up a large hill, before reaching the contour path at a particularly scenic spot. Turn left on the contour path and follow it till it hits a large riverbed, which is the Xeni River.
Boulder hop up the river – the riverbed is easier than the overgrown slopes next to it for most of the distance. When the obvious gully to your left breaks off (Cockade Pass), continue straight – which will feel more like turning right.
Initially it is necessary to move left onto the steep grassy slopes to bypass some waterfalls. There is a large rock pinnacle which you walk behind.
Eventually the grass slopes lead you back into the gully. Occasionally it is necessary to break out of the gully to bypass an obstacle, but for the most part, the gully is the easiest option.
Near the top, a large chockstone covers the gully – the famous wormhole, and probably the best part of the pass. Walk under it and follow the obvious line up the spiral staircase till you are on top of it. Walk over the rock bridge in the middle to complete a perfect spiral and continue up the gully, which is easier after this.
To an experienced hiker with a good head for heights and that is competent with scrambling – this route is well worth it. However, if you do not fit those conditions, I would strongly discourage you from using this route.
A hauling rope is a good idea for this route, as you might want to haul your packs up some of the scrambles.
Otherwise standard Drakensberg hiking gear is required – a good raincoat, warm fleece, good shoes, etc.