Region: Mnweni area, Northern KZN Drakensberg
Distance from the parking to the top: 21km
Difficulty: Extreme (9/10) *
Route type: ROCK
Risks: Difficult scrambling and boulder hopping, exposed in places, no trail, flash-flooding.
It is recommended that this pass is not attempted during or right after heavy rain.
*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.
Ifidi Pass is the first of the procession of impressive passes in the Mnweni area, arguably the most dramatic part of the Ukahlamba-Drakensberg range. All the passes in the area are of above-average difficulty due to the ruggedness and remoteness of the area, with long walk-ins to the base of the passes.
Ifidi and its neighbouring cousin Icidi have a reputation for being some of the toughest passes to conquer in the Berg. Ifidi is denoted as a ROCK-pass which requires some scrambling and one will probably need assistance in passing backpacks up some of the more difficult scrambles – one however does not have to venture high off the ground, so the pass deserves its “ROCK”-affix probably more due to difficulty than danger. I would however recommend that at least 5m of rope and capable partners are required to do this pass safely.
The hike starts from the Mnweni Cultural Centre. See the article, Introducion to Mnweni, for more information on hiking in the Mnweni area.
Mnweni Cultural Centre to Basecamp (14km)
Looking westwards from the Mnweni Cultural Centre one can see the impressive cliffs and passes lining the Mnweni Cutback. The Devil’s Tooth is a prominent feature at the head of this procession, with the first pass south of it completely visible from base to top – this deeply cloven river valley with two prominent buttresses and a steep gulley rising into Lesotho is Ifidi Pass.
Follow the dirt road running past the centre westwards until it crosses the Mnweni river on one of the newly built bridges (note that the Drakensberg hiking maps are slightly outdated and that there are new roads that have been built in the foothills since publication of the maps). Continue along the path as it climbs on the northern banks of the river, and then take the right fork at the confluence of the Mnweni and Ifidi rivers to continue going up the Ifidi-river valley.
According to the map one should stay on the right-hand banks of this valley (which we did), but there is a newly built dirt road on the left hand (southern) banks that offers an alternative route – either way there are a few options to follow up the valley. At some point one will have to cross a newly built barb wire fence, which seems purposed to divide grazing areas rather than to keep hikers out. Near the base of the pass the main stream climbs south-westwards, where one has to find the trail that breaks north-westwards and heads into the forests that guards the natural gate of Ifidi Pass.
Passing through the forest on a faint trail is a delight (and momentarily one might think you are actually in the old-growth forest of the Amatola mountains), after which Cycad Cave (actually more of an overhang) is found. This is the basecamp used by most hikers, but it is also frequented by cannabis traders with their donkeys, and hence is not the cleanest cave. It also lacks views of the surrounding area.
We preferred to continue along the trail, past some low trees where there are also a few usable campsites, climbing up to a sloping grassy bank with unobstructed views of the mountain where there are a few options for camping. In dry weather one can continue across the grassy bank until the trail drops back down to the river where there are some flat rock banks that offer excellent sleeping under the stars (only in good weather and when the river is not too high).
Basecamp to the Escarpment (7km)
Most of the published route descriptions advises one to boulder-hop along the river bed past Cycad Cave. We however found a clear-enough trail continuing past the cave, up the first long grassy bank, back to the river (our campsite) and then climbing up again onto the steep southern grassy banks above the river. It should be noted that this trail is not frequently used and was clear due to the grass on the banks being relatively short after burning probably in the preceding 18-months.
The trail is steep and slants on the traversing sections, which does not make for easy walking but should allow for decent time savings compared to boulder hopping and provides some nice variety. The trail has one exposed section on a short traverse of a steep bank above a waterfall, where losing one’s footing will result in a serious tumble down the mountainside – it is advised to be very cautious along this section or rather descend back to the river if not confident about traversing safely.
The trail eventually makes its way down the river bed where the final, steep gully is accessed. Initially the gully is overgrown with trees and it will require either some bundu-basing or traversing on very steep grassy banks, but thankfully only for a 100m or so before the vegetation clears and one can continue up the steep and narrowing boulder-strewn gulley with the impressive Ifidi-pinnacles towering overhead.
Below the pinnacles there’s a split in the gully – continue along the right-hand side. The final 400m ascent is on steep boulder hopping with a couple of scrambles where packs may have to be hoisted/passed up; the gully also narrows to only about 4m wide and presents a flooding risk in rainy weather.
Camping on the escarpment
There is plenty of camping on the escarpment and where you sleep will be determined more by the distance you need to cover.
A hauling rope is a good idea for this route, as you might want to haul your packs up some of the scrambles (5m of rope should be sufficient). Otherwise standard Drakensberg hiking gear is required.