Xeni Pass/Bell Traverse loop in a day

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For many years Didima Nature Reserve has been my personal favourite region of the Drakensberg. With the Cathedral Peak ridge, the Column and the Pyramid, the Organ Pipes and the Didima Cutback – it is truly a special area. I could list many reasons why Didima is my first choice in terms of beauty, but one small area stands head and shoulders above the rest – the cutback between Cockade Peak and the Elephant.

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Cockade Peak from Xeni Pass.

Having made three different trips that included Cockade Pass, its northern neighbour continued to elude me. Seeing as it stood as the only pass marked on the Geoseries Maps that I had not completed, I knew I needed to head out and bag the notorious Xeni Pass.

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Marco capturing the sunrise from Neptune Hill. Mlambonja Buttress and Pass in the background.

Marco and I left Cathedral Peak Hotel at 5:30am. After briefly having a bit of difficulty finding the correct road to walk on, we found ourselves slogging up the route to Neptune Pools in the dark. We reached the point where the trail starts winding up the hill around sunrise. We continued up the hill, reaching the contour path around 7:15.

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The Pyramid and the Column with Cleft Peak in the background.

We stopped for a break on the contour path. Weather was perfect, but there was a lot of smoke in the air due to fires throughout the region.

As we completed the contour path section and dropped to the Xeni River, we were surprised to see some snow left on the vegetation as low as 2000m.

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The approach to Cockade and Xeni Pass is well known for being overgrown, although I am not entirely sure why – any number of pass approaches that are considerably worse come to mind.

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Xeni Pass as seen from the turn off from the contour path.

The riverbed was very iced up, which made the approach a bit trickier than normal.

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Ice on the rocks.

After reaching the Xeni/Cockade split, it was new ground for both of us. The pass starts with a series of waterfalls which are bypassed by a steep grass side slope.

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Marco scrambling up a steep grass slope.
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Looking up the pass.

Eventually an easy traverse back into the gully is reached, and you can return into the gully. The gully includes various scrambles – some of which are fairly loose.

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The gradient of the pass is definitely rather substantial!

As you get higher, the views become more and more impressive. The cliffs of Elephant and Cockade are visible in the distance, while the mighty Leopard towers above you. Higher up, the gully narrows, making for some dramatic views.

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Pyramid and Column come into view behind Cockade as you get higher.
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Almost at the famous wormhole.

From the wormhole the gully gets considerably easier and is over before you know it. We took a summit selfie before dropping down to the river for some lunch. We reached the river by 13:30, so roughly 7 hours from hotel to summit.

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Summit selfie.
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Marco with a shepherd that came to chat to us during lunch.

We had made good time up but may have overcooked it a bit – the walk to the top of the Bell Traverse took longer than expected.

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Top of the Bell Traverse.

The route started off about as simply as normal. The smoke in the valleys below obscured a lot of the view, but it was still its normal dramatic self. There had been a rock fall near the infamous ledge on the east slopes of the Mitre, which made the step across considerably more difficult.

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The Mitre.

Once the trail crossed over to the Bell, there was a significant amount of ice. Seeing as we had carried them all this way, we both put our crampons on.

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Ice on the trail.
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The Bell

Bell Traverse took considerably longer than planned, and we had our headlamps on shortly before Orange Peel Gap.

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Sunset from Buggers Gully.

We were back at the hotel by 20:30, meaning that we took 15 hours to complete our 31km hike. Not express pace by any means, but also notably not the easiest route around.

Overall, I rate Xeni Pass as one of the toughest passes I have done, but also one of the most worthwhile. I must stress that it should only be attempted by experienced hikers who are comfortable with heights and scrambling. There are also sections of loose rock on the scrambles where great care needs to be taken.

Also, a big thanks to the staff of Albert’s Bar at Cathedral Peak Hotel for arranging food for us after the hike!

For more information on Xeni Pass, check out the route description here.

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About Jonathan Newman 10 Articles
Jonathan is a chartered accountant from Pietermaritzburg. He started hiking in 2009, started hiking seriously in 2012 and started speed hiking in 2015. He has completed 6 Drakensberg Grand Traverses, 173 peaks above 3000m, and 78 different Drakensberg Passes. He also tests gear for Hi-Tec South Africa. Jonathan is currently working towards a large project in the Andes scheduled for 2019 - so watch this space!

1 Comment

  1. I distinctly remember the bar making us milkshakes after our hike. It was late and it had been a very long day on the mountain and those shakes were top notch. Nicely done guys. That hill nearly killed me, time for a rematch. ğŸ˜Ž

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