Thursday, 25 August 2011

Cracking in the Cederberg cracks

On our way to Sanddrif
I am in pain.  I am in so much pain.  Each step produces pain.  It starts with the shock to my foot, and then affects the ankle, jolt up my shins to my aching knees, and then the pain stabs me in my hips before petering out in my lower back.  Each step is utter agony.  And the car way below me is smaller than the nail of my thumb.  But I am getting ahead of myself.
Sanddrif accommodation
Cracks visible top centre
It’s weekend and we are in the Cederberg.  Sanddrif to be more accurate.  We are going to attempt the Cederberg cracks hike today, customarily a 3-4 hour hike.  I set my aim at the Cracks and the Wolfberg Arch, which is an 8 hour trip, but Hennie kindly, and cleverly, persuaded me otherwise.  The cracks are in the cliffs at the top of the berg, probably about a tenth of the height of the total mountain.
Cracks - top centre
The hike starts out easy.  It is quite a climb that lies ahead of us, but luckily the road zig-zags to reduce the slope significantly.  We soon start to gain height and breathe a little harder, but we have decided from the beginning to take it slow, as we had the whole day in which to do it.  The weather was beautiful.  The air was quite crisp, but very clear, and we could see for miles around us.  It took us an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the cliffs.  It was really not that bad a hike to get there, and I am starting to think we may complete this in three hours instead of four.  I also realised that the batteries in the camera is running low, so we are not taking pictures of the hike, preferring to wait until we are in the cracks to take pictures.  So I am thinking by myself I may hike up again this afternoon with the other camera to take some pictures.
The first chock stone
We were given vague instructions on how to find the entrance to the narrow crack, as apparently you can only go up in that crack, not come down.  We will then come down in one of the wider cracks. 
We understood we had to crawl underneath a big chock stone, and then exit towards the right onto a narrow ledge.  You have to negotiate the ledge around a large rock and then we will find the entrance to the crack.  From there you cannot go wrong.  Ha-ha. 
Well firstly, the chock stone was my first big hurdle.  I am claustrophobic.  Severely claustrophobic.  And if you crawl underneath the rock into a cave-like structure, you cannot see daylight.  Hennie is the guinea pig and goes in first.  He inadvertently goes left, and exits about 5 metres later.  All he can see is a ledge that peters out after 5 metres.  Once I have convinced him he must go right, he returns and see the exit but cannot negotiate the cliff out.  It is pitch black in the cave and he cannot see anywhere where he can get a foothold to get up approximately 2 metres.  In the end we admitted defeat and decided to see if we can find the wider crack to go up and down in.  Just as we were on our way, we saw two hikers coming up.  The guy has done it before, and feels he will find the way.  He confirms that we need to go to the right and onto that ledge.  I can see the ledge from where I stand at the bottom, and does not feel totally comfortable about it. But once the guy starts walking I see that it is easier than it looks.  He walks around the rock and confirms it is the correct route.  Now we have to try again.  I know that once we are up on that ledge, there is no return.  After some mad scrambling, knee bashing and hand scraping (and some pushing from Hennie from behind), I am up on top and Hennie follows ably.  Hennie has a fear of heights and clings to the cliff like a monkey whilst walking on the ledge.  I am quite OK with it and can walk the ledge.  Once we round the corner we stop and gawk.  What a sight.  It is indescribable.  I am so happy that the other hikers appeared when they did, as we might have missed all this.  I want to run ahead and kiss the guy.
the ledge

Entrance to the narrow crack on right
We allow the other couple to go ahead, as they seem in a hurry and we want to enjoy ourselves.  The sights are unbelievable.  The rocks are different colours of red and yellow and glows.  After some serious scrambling over house size rocks we get to the first narrow passage.  It is quite narrow, and my claustrophobia wants to kick in, but not too long and I can see the “light at the end of the tunnel”.  I am so happy that we ran into the other hikers and that we are finally in the narrow crack.  The passage is just wider than I am and is about 7 metres long, and has a sandy floor.  We are barely out of the first passage, then we enter the next one.  Here are some boulders inside that we have to negotiate, and it is getting a bit more difficult.  Some of my stick-like girlfriends may find this a walk in the park, but I love spaghetti carbonara and butter chicken and have somewhat more flesh to push through the openings.   
After climbing over some very large boulders, and scraping the skin of our hands on the course sandstone, we get to the next passage.  Now it is getting less and less fun.  It is exciting, and quite an adrenaline rush, but my claustrophobia is kicking in and hampering my fun.  At one stage we reach quite a short passage (about 5 metres), but it is very narrow.  It has rocks that has wedged in from the top, making it dark inside.  The floor is also littered with rocks that we cannot see, and some rocks are head height.  You have to go sideways, and then still manage to climb over rocks, thus lifting your legs in very weird positions, and scramble under others.  I feel like I am getting stuck, the rocks are narrowing down, and I cannot move fast enough.  Then I strike my head very hard against a rock.  The very loud whack reverberates through the rocks and sadly confirms my notion some days that there is not much up there anyway.  By the time I get out I have an egg on the side of my face, and feel there is no way I will manage another one of those.  Hennie can see I am close to losing it. 
We exit in a huge amphitheatre like structure, with rock bridges within the crack.  It is AMAZING.  But right ahead of us is another narrow crack.  It is very narrow.  And dark.  It is open to the top, but the rocks meander and does not go up straight ahead, thus no direct sunlight.  And I can see rocks inside that blocks the path and will require of you to go either over or under.  And then, impossibly, it seems to narrow even further and the slope increases tenfold.  Hennie tries to wedge himself inside, and it is a tight squeeze.  I start but have to abandon.  I tell Hennie I cannot make it.  I KNOW I have to, but I can’t.  I told him I want to go back a bit, where the crack split in two, and see what the other crack does.  I cannot go far enough down to see around the wall, but it looks much wider.  But it seems we have to go back through that other crack, and that I also cannot do.  In the end, through some miracle and going down cliffs and rocks higher than myself, we find ourselves in the other crack and I want to laugh out loud.  This is going to be a picnic from here on.
What do they say?  Don’t count your chickens?  Soon the crack starts to narrow and we are in another passage.  It is OK, because it is about 50cm-70cm wide and you can walk in looking straight ahead.  There is also enough light coming through from the top.  But we are barely 10 metres in when smack bang in our way is a big boulder.  Its top is about 2 metres high, and it reaches almost to the bottom.  After confirming that we cannot crawl underneath, we realised the only way is over.  Hennie pulled his mountaineering moves, and wedged himself to the top by keeping his back to the one wall, and his feet on the other, until he can reach a ledge to hold onto and move one of his feet to the other wall.  Then he “falls” sideways to get his torso onto the rock and crawls like a lizard until he is on top.  I just know I can’t do it.  He tells me it is much easier than it looks.  But I cannot manage.  The sidewalls are slippery with no footholds.  Once I am high enough to grab the ledge, I am too short to keep my back to the other wall. I am not strong enough to try and “walk” up whilst hanging and secondly there are no higher handholds.  I tried twice and then want to cry.  I am not sure how, but I will have to go back all the way.  I cannot get up there.  Poor Hennie is at a lost.  He knows I can do it, but I have lost all confidence.  One way or the other he manages to come down (next to impossible).  Then he tries to support my feet as I climb up.  I reach a point where I cannot get further, but still Hennie encourages me.  In the end I am standing with both feet on Hennie’s shoulders, but is just too short to get enough of a grip on the rock to start pulling me up.  Somewhere Hennie finds another 10cm and I am up.  My legs are shaking and my heart is pounding 180 beats a minute. 
By this time I am cursing the other hiker and wishing them the wrath of hell for leading us onto this path.
We reach our final obstacle before the crack will release us onto the top.  It is a rock in the way, and you have to crawl under.  Luckily we were told about a rock that you have to crawl under on your back, and we realises this is it.  If you are not on your back, you cannot manage the sharp upturn right after you passed underneath, as another rock blocks the passage. It is less than a metre, but places me in panic mode again.  To try and describe the hold of claustrophobia is impossible.  It renders you helpless like a little baby.  I become short of breath and my knees turn to jelly.  But once again Hennie acts as cheerleeder, and helps me out on the other side. 
The final obstacle

Hooray, we are on top!  It is already 12h00, thus beyond my three hour estimate going bothways. 
On the map the left side of the wider passage is marked as a “wandel pad”.  It is not.  It is someone’s cruel little joke.  The “road” down is one big waterfall of rocks.  We climb up, down, under, over and sometimes slide down on our bums.  Sometimes we have to backtrack, because we get to dead-ends.  Hennie and I reminisce about the old days when we always got lost when we hiked anywhere, and never took the most direct route.  Seems this leopard has not changed its spots.  It takes us forever to get down the “easy” crack.  Once we are out of the cliffs and finds the footpath down the mountain, it is one o-clock already.  The walk down is pure agony and takes exactly the same time it took us to walk up, even though we do not take any rest stops.  The only thing that dulls the pain of walking down is the most spectacular scenery.  By the time we get to the lower slopes there is sun on the slope and the field flowers have opened.  These yellow flowers are head height and you don’t even have to look down to see them.  There are a myriad of scrubs with small blossoms of pink, purple and white.  When we reach our car I cannot physically take another step.
It was the best day of my life.  It was the worst day of my life.  Never again.
Cederberg wine farm

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