Report and photos by Keith Ashton

[CLICK ON PHOTOS TO VIEW FULLSIZE - or view pics in accompanying SIMPLEVIEWER Presentation]

Our group of 10 hikers arrived at Bushmans Nek KZN Wildlife Office about 08h00 on 30 Dec & this year our participants were Zanele Jele, Anna Kapp, Linda Bruss, Eric Essenwein, Katy Hart, Margret Kirsten, Anita Cohen, Vladimir Dobreff, Margaret & Keith Ashton. After the formalities including signing the Mountain Register (as I intended to lead hikes to different caves on each of the 4-days), we were on our way with heavy backpacks (& daypacks) to Bushmans Nek Hut, but as the distance is only about 1.4km we were able to carry extra goodies & drinks for New Years Eve etc.

After arrival at the hut, then dropping our backpacks in the various dorm rooms, sorting our daypacks out & ensuring we had lunch & water plus day gear, we were soon climbing from the hut to reach the Giants Cup Track, but our route was in the reverse direction to the trail. The route to Painters cave is virtually all uphill with very few level areas & our first rest to take in the beautiful views towards the Devils Knuckles & Thaba Ngwangwe was near some flat rocks & a big cairn - we had already travelled past many different wild flowers with blooms covering the colours of a rainbow, but eyes have to be kept mostly on the ground or tripping-up is inevitable. At this stage the weather was kind to us, partly cloudy with some blue sky, but rain forecast later in the day & we soon crossed the old Jeep track which winds its way high-up to the now derelict look-out hut which was in use many years ago when the land belong to the Department of Forestry.The old Jeep track itself has been defunct for many years.

Continuous climbing continued to a small tarn, now full due to recent heavy rains & normally good photo mirror images van be taken on the water surface but not today due the wind-ruffled surface.

More climbing led us past the big "Twin Rocks" for good photo opportunities & then it was contouring high above a beautiful valley with more colourful wild flowers adorning the slopes. Once at Painters Cave we were ready for a rest & a good lunch, with plenty of clear fresh water available in the lovely stream below the cave.

After lunch & a good look at the many Bushmans paintings hidden away in a sheltered area, we returned to the hut via the same route, but soon encountered a thunderstorm & heavy rain all the way back, so we were wet through on arrival at the hut but spirits not dampened. After hot drinks, supper & chatter whilst partaking our favourite tipples it was time for bed.

1. Starting off from Bushmans Nek office
2. Heavy backpacks to be carried to the hut
3. Making our way from the hut towards the Giants Cup Trail track
4. At the junction with the Giants Cup track
5. On our way up the Giants Cup track but in reverse direction
6. Still plenty more climbing to do to Painters Cave
7. A short break, with the Devil's Knuckles on the horizon with Thaba Ngwangwe to the right
8. Rest nearly over as we still admire the views
9. Thumbs up from Anita on her first 3-night Berg trip with the club

10. Time to re-assemble on the first flattish section
11. Climbing again, now off the beaten track
12. Still climbing
13. On our approach to Painters Cave as black clouds loom
14. Our happy group at Painters Cave after a rest & lunch
15. Storm clouds gather on our return from Painters Cave
16. Having a last chat before the storm hits us
17. Lets keep moving as lightning strikes around us
18. This is where we started to get drenched with rain at several km from the hut
19. Back at the hut its still raining as the mist also descends

SECOND DAY - 31 DEC 17 - NEW YEARS EVE - 16 KM HIKE TO THAMATHU CAVE (With an easier option for half our group).
It was decided to leave the hut at 07h15 for our hike to Thamathu Cave for five of our group (Zanele, Anna, Margret K, Margaret A & me of course), the other 5 choosing an easier hike to Cedrics Pool for a swim & some relaxation. Our Thamathu group did start at 07h15 on a really beautiful day, firstly straight down from the hut to cross the Bushmans River where it was boots off as the river was flowing swiftly (if fact all the rivers in the area & even the small streams were flowing well which was good to see). Then it was boots back on & soon we were on the first steep climb towards the cave in full sun as temperatures started to rise causing sweaty bodies & some heavy breathing. Our first stop was a the "Balancing Rock" for a photo opportunity & to look back to the hut in the distance on the other side of the valley. More climbing ensued but our minds were on the lovely scenery & wild flowers etc & we eventually reached less steep areas for easy hiking before we encountered more climbing & views of the spectacular rock formations.

Later we chose the higher route to the cave which passes just below beautifully shaped but rugged rock formations & curved overhangs & the view below into the valley & up the opposite side is also so impressive - what a joy to be in these mountains on such a beautiful day. We were ready for a nice rest & lunch at the cave where we could choose to sit on the lovely grass in the sun just below the cave or on the rocks in the shade of the cave, with its several rough-walled sleeping areas. Some water was available at the cave from a very small pool fed by dripping water from the rocks above the cave - Margret K & Anna chose to refill their bottles from this source, but I prefer running water & Zanele followed me to Thamathu Pass nearby where we drank & re-filled our water bottles as well as Margaret A's bottle from the small stream which was flowing well.

After a good relax we returned to the hut - Margret K & Margaret A choosing to have a skinny dip in Bushmans River just before returning to the hut. As we reached the hut our other group of 5 were also returning from Cedrics Pool & they also had a great time which included a nice swim in the pool - they also treated themselves to ice-creams from Silver Streams store before making their way to Cedrics Pool. In the evening we celebrated New Years Eve in great style - besides our evening meal we had a good selection of drinks & goodies, including but not limited to, Beer, Flying Fish, Sherry, Whisky, a full bottle of Vodka (courtesy of Vladimir) & Drambuie(my favourite drink for caves & mountain huts). We continued with good humoured banter, singing & dancing & our usual cavorting with sparklers (courtesy of Margret K), finishing off with "Auld Lang Syne" before retiring to bed (some much earlier than others).

20. Zanele under balancing rock, on our way to Thamathu Cave
21. Margret under the same rock
22. Only 5 of us en-route to Thamathu Cave - hut can be seen in the distance
23. A steep climb on a very hot day
24. Anna getting water from a small pool at the cave
25. Zanele sitting near one of the sleeping spots at Thamatu Cave

26. Margret & Margaret having a chat on the grass in front of the cave
27. Anna near the cave pool - I prefer running water from the stream in Thamathu Pass nearby
28. Well on our way back to the hut - see centre of photo
29. A telephoto image of the hut from the same position
30. Linda & Eric enjoying a cuppa in the hut - after return from Cedrics Pool
31. Katy & Vladimir doing the same after their return from Cedrics Pool
32. Anita also enjoying a rest after her return from Cedrics Pool

THIRD DAY - 1 JAN 18 - NEW YEARS DAY - 16 KM HIKE TO MYSTERY CAVE (With option to below Vast Cave + Option up to Vast Cave)
All members of our group decided to join this hike & we are off again at 07h15, crossing Bushmans River first, then crossing the Ngwangwane River with boots off as both rivers flowing strongly & definitely no possibility of boulder hopping. We took the same route to Cedrics Pool initially (about 5km) & had a short break there as we caught a couple from Mountain Backpackers skinny dipping in the pool - I nipped down to have a chat with them whilst our other group members took the normal route around Cedrics Pool & we meet up again just beyond the pool.

Further along we branch right off the main track (which eventually leads towards Tarn Cave & Sehlabathebe) as we took a quite indistinct route towards "The Gap", first having to cross a small stream which some of us managed to cross without removing boots but for others it was boots off again - we all refilled our water bottles.Then its the climb up to "The Gap" which gets us quite hot again in the full sun & heat, but soon we have a bit of a rest at "The Gap" to take in the scenery & look across the valley where we can spot Vast Cave. But first we continue on our route to Mystery Cave along a roughish indistinct track with a few ups & downs along the side of a beautiful valley with a lovely stream with pools below. After a while we reach Mystery Cave with its welcome shade & very good interesting Bushmans Paintings - its relaxation & time for lunch.After lunch some of the ladies (namely Margaret A, Linda & Katy had a partial or full skinny dip in the stream below the cave.

We then retraced our route back to "The Gap" & I gave the group the option to return the same route to the hut or have more of an adventure down into the next valley below Vast Cave for some off-the-beaten track hiking - the vote was down into the next valley, so that's what we did passing interesting rock formations for some fun photos (see the face-framed rock photos).At the stream well below Vast Cave I gave the group another option to climb up & into Vast Cave or to have a rest & swim in the stream. Only Zanele, Katy & Eric joined me for the Vast Cave option so up we went whilst the others had a break. It was still a very hot climb to the cave & we were happy to find shade inside the relatively cool cave. Having been in bright sunlight it seems very dark in the cave which stretches about 50 metres into the mountain (hence the name "Vast"). On reaching the far end of the cave I took some flash photos of Zanele, Katy & Eric crouched in the darkness. After more looking around the cave we returned quickly downhill to join the others.

Then it was "off the beaten track" for a while before we crossed the fast flowing Ngwangwane River again to re-join the main return route from Cedrics Pool to the hut with two more rivers to cross before reaching the hut - again three of our ladies opting to skinny dip in the Bushmans River before returning to the hut. So all in all it was another good hiking day & we were ready for supper & drinks & then bed was calling as thick mist descended around the hut but we were nice & cosy.

33. On our way to Mystery Cave
34. A brief stop near Cedrics Pool on our way to Mystery Cave - Devils Knuckles in the distance
35. Gazing down on a nice swimming spot in the gully below
36. Assembling for the climb up to the gap en-route to Mystery Cave
37. Linda nearly at The Gap as others make their way up
38. But still more climbing before we reach Mystery Cave
39. Vladimir collects water the slow way in the cave, but there is a stream close by
40. Getting ready to leave Mystery Cave after a rest & lunch - some had a swim in the stream nearby
41. Just a few of the many Bushmans Paintings found in Mystery Cave
42. On our way back towards The Gap
43. Still on our way back to The Gap
44. Zanele in good spirits as we descend from The Gap towards the stream below Vast Cave

45. Katy's face framed by an unusual rock formation
46. Zanele's face framed by an unusual rock formation
47. Continuing down to the stream well below Vast Cave
48. Only Zanele, Katy & Eric accompany me on the climb to Vast Cave
49. Zanele, Katy & Eric at Vast Cave entrance
50. At 50 metres into the cave, flash has to be used for this photo
51. The view from the back of Vast Cave - hence the name VAST
52. Zanele sat in the only decent sleeping area of Vast Cave
53. The view down to the stream below Vast Cave as we make our descent - spot the rest of our group below
54. The steep but quick way down from Vast Cave
55. We meet up with the rest of our group who had a rest or swim in the stream
56. Making our way back to eventually re-join the return route from Cedrics Pool to the hut
57. A strange insect noticed on the track back towards the hut

It was still misty & the grass was sodden but I intended to hike to " Half-Way Cave" (named as it is about half way to Bushmans Cave) on our last morning, but most of our group decided they wanted either a lay-in or a rest after 3-days of hiking, so just Zanele & Anna joined Margaret A & myself on this route. Firstly it was down to Bushmans River through the drizzle/mist wet grass, boots off to cross the river & then boots on again whist sitting in dripping grass, then following the river upstream in the not too thick mist before having to remove boots to cross the river again after about another 2 km. Our first stop was at "Overhang Cave Pool" but the day was not conducive for swimming, so we continued through the wet grass as the mist started to clear & it was nice & cool for walking. Soon we had to cross the river again before eventually reaching the cave where I took photos of Zanele & Anna below the cave. We climbed up & into the for a couple more photos - the sleeping area in the cave can accommodate about 4 adults single file behind a large slab of rock (hence another name for this cave is "Slab Cave".

It was then a brisk hike back to the hut still with several river crossings & by this time Anna's boots were so wet she just walked through the rivers with boots still on & I did the next best thing by keeping my boots on but balancing on half-submerged rocks using my trekking poles for assistance.It was a pleasant hike back & the grass had dried out a bit.

A great time was had by all - thanks to our group for your participation & companionship, it was a pleasure to share these precious moments with you all in the mountains - here's to the next time.
Keith & Margaret

58. First river crossing in very damp weather as just 4 of us hike to Half Way Cave
59. Second river crossing
60. Anna & Zanele put boots back on as Margaret approaches
61. Margaret, Anna & Zanele ready for any weather at Overhang Pool
62. Still on our way to Half Way Cave
63. Third river crossing as we approach the cave
64. After fourth river crossing Anna & Zanele below Half Way Cave
65. Zanele just above the sleeping area in Half Way Cave
66. Zanele poses at the far end of Half Way Cave
67. On our way back to the hut.