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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Milton

Cracks and Cairns

A rock formation with an arch and the early morning sun shining through it
Sunrise at Wolfberg Arch

When a fellow adventurer and friend, Marno, told me he was coming to the Cape for ten days in order to work on his thesis, visit his brother and hike, I pushed the limits and bombarded him with about five suggestions of different hikes and adventures we could plan. One of these was to hike the Wolfberg Cracks and spend the night at the Wolfberg Arch in the Cederberg.

The hike to the Arch is about 7km, with the first 2.5km up to and through the Cracks a fairly tough ascent, but the last 4.5km mostly flat. We estimated it would take us only 3–4 hours to reach the Arch, so we made a weekend of it and stayed over at Gecko Creek the night before, starting our hike at about midday on the Saturday.

Gecko Creek is a great getaway spot for those who enjoy simplicity and want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. There are huts and safari tents available, as well as places to pitch your own tent should you wish to do so. With its thatched communal kitchen lapa, beautiful semi-open air ablution facilities, swimming pool and bonfire and braai area, you couldn’t ask for a better setting in which to unwind.

Five friends sitting around a fire in a fenced boma
Friday night bonfire at Gecko Creek

We had a lovely Friday night at Gecko Creek, enjoying the night sky, a lekker braai, a bonfire and trying not to make Tim laugh since we were worried that his wonderful belly-laugh might break the no-noise policy of Gecko Creek. He he. 😊 After a relaxed Saturday morning and a little bird watching, we packed our backpacks and set off for Sanddrif.

Two benches with three people seated, one drinking a cup of coffee and looking at the view
Saturday morning coffee and bird watching at Gecko Creek (Photo credit: John Posnett)

The permit situation can be confusing for this hike: You have to purchase overnight permits from Cape Nature AND day permits from Sanddrif to access the hike’s starting point through their land. Our Cape Nature overnight permits cost R200pp (including the overnight conservation fee) and our Sanddrif day permits cost R100pp.

Another important consideration for this hike is that you have to carry enough water for the duration of your hike. There is no drinking water along the route and the standing water we saw was an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence that resulted from recent rainfall. The rule of thumb is three litres of water per hiker per 24-hour period. I carried just over 4L, while others played it even safer and carried a full 5L per person.

A man and a woman holding a backpack on the tailgate of a small utility vehicle
Marj and Craig making final backpack adjustments

Marj and Craig, on the other hand, arrived with only about 5L between them, saying that Craig doesn’t usually drink a lot of water. I hope I didn’t ruin the friendship, but I gently insisted that they purchase another two or three 500ml waters from the Sanddrif office before we set off. Better to be safe than sorry!

(This was Marj and Craig’s first overnight hike and it was so wonderful to be part of the process of their discovering this new form of adventuring.)

Once we’d found parking in the lot at the bottom of the Cracks (a challenge, since this is a popular day hike for those overnighting in the area), we had a bite to eat, performed final backpack rearrangements and set off uphill.

The highlight of our ascent to the Cracks was by far our encounter with the resident Cape Rockjumper:

We’d stopped in the shadow of the mountain for a water and snack break before heading up the wide crack and before I’d so much as opened my pack, I heard a loud cry. I looked up and saw a bird standing poised – wings spread – on the precipice of a rock face high above us. He called out again, as though announcing himself, and took off, flying directly at our group. This beautiful and cheeky little boy (it was a male Cape Rockjumper) kept us company and entertained us for the duration of our water break. What a lovely sighting!

A small bird with overall black plumage but a bright orange breast and vent
'Rocky', our friendly male Cape Rockjumper

We said goodbye to ‘Rocky’ and started up the wide crack, feeling refreshed.

View looking out from between two rock faces
View from the wide Wolfberg Crack

Although uneven and, in places, requiring a bit of scrambling, this ascent is perfectly passable with an overnight backpack; while the narrow crack is not. We came across a couple of rock climbers halfway up the cliff to our left and even did a little bouldering of our own. Marno had by far the best technique, but Craig’s long legs helped propel him into the cave pictured below, from which we demanded he describe the scenery for the benefit of us hobbits.

A man climbing a rough rock face with a small cave above him
Marno climbed anything and everything he could along the way

After another 20 minutes of gentler walking, we found ourselves at the top of the cracks with a 360-degree view of the surreal moonscape scenery for which the Cederberg is known.

The trail to the Wolfberg Arch is meant to be well-marked with cairns, which many blogs and articles tell you to simply follow, but we found that we were led astray by many, many unnecessary additional rogue cairns. Whether the work of bored kids hiking with their parents, or of people who’d wandered off track and then marked their way back to the path, we didn’t know, but the additional cairns were unnecessary and led not only our group, but another couple astray too.

Three hikers with backpacks making their way through a rocky landscape
The trail to the arch (Photo credit: John Posnett)

After my trusty little Suunto watch alerted me to the fact that we were off course, we boulder-hopped a little and found the better-worn sandy trail to the north of where we’d been walking. As we rejoined the true trail, we met a couple walking in the opposite direction. They stopped us and asked us if this was the way to the arch. We said yes, but in THAT direction… They’d been so badly led astray by the cairns that they’d actually come full circle and were heading back towards the cracks while thinking they were still heading towards the arch!

Moral of the story: don’t build a cairn without purpose and the knowledge of how these structures are used in the wilderness!

We reached the arch late afternoon and while enjoying the views, we watched nervously as a bank of rain clouds passed by. Thankfully, it looked like we wouldn’t get wet that night, which was a relief as none of us had brought tents! We were looking forward to falling asleep with the beautiful starry Cederberg night sky watching over us.

Landscape with the Wolfberg Arch rock formation on the left and the moonscape below it to the right
Taking a moment to enjoy the arch and watch the rain clouds

Before setting up the camping stove to make supper, I went to find a secluded spot for an Epic Wipe ‘bath’ (a wipedown?) and to change into my sleeping gear. Being in the middle of nowhere and with no other people in sight, all I really needed was to be out of view of my fellow hikers. I found a spot on the north-western side of the arch where I had a rock face at my back and the Cederberg moonscape stretching out in front of me. I’ve heard the phrase ‘the silence was deafening’ used a number of times, but before this trip, I’d never really experienced the phenomenon myself. It was so quiet up there in the mountains, the absence of any sound at all felt like an inescapable pressure on my eardrums. Incredible!

While enjoying the sunset, we made supper. Thank you, Back Country Cuisine for feeding me and my friends, as well as our unexpected guest:

Rocky surface with a shrew catching the light of the setting sun
Our friend, the shrew

We turned in fairly early because after sunset, the temperature dropped pretty quickly. I was breaking in my brand-new First Ascent Ice Nino sleeping bag. I’d been wanting to invest in a down sleeping bag for a while and this trip was the catalyst that kicked me into action. I did my research during the week, comparing temperature ratings, weight, packed size and price and bought the Ice Nino just in time for our weekend away.

When assessing temperature ratings of sleeping bags, remember that the extreme rating refers to your ability to survive at that temperature. You will NOT be comfortable at that temperature; you will simply not die of hypothermia. Make your choice based on the comfort zone rating or, if you are more resilient, the transition zone rating.

Snug in our sleeping bags, we passed an hour or two enjoying the starry night sky while trying to decipher Marno’s ghost-story riddles before falling asleep. My only regret was not having a tripod and decent camera with which to capture the celestial splendour of that night sky.

The following morning, we made breakfast on the rocks right under the arch, soaking up the warmth of the sun like a group of dassies, a.k.a. a beatdown of dassies. (This collective noun for a group of dassies was coined by Tim on one of our other hiking adventures. Love it!)

A group of people sitting on the rocks in the morning sun, under an arched rock formation, making breakfast with camping stoves
Breakfast time under the Wolfberg Arch (Photo credit: John Posnett)

I was relieved to see a smile on Marj’s face, despite a bit of a cold and hard first night sleeping outside.

A smiling woman sitting on a rock in front of a rock face with a camping stove in the foreground
Good morning, Marj!

We played around under the arch while waiting for our sleeping bags to dry (the early morning dew had gotten hold of them), before packing up and setting off for the cracks.

A woman posing with one leg held in the air, under an arched rock formation
Obligatory dancer's pose under the arch

We didn’t want to miss the excitement of the narrow crack, so after descending via the wide crack, we left our backpacks at the bottom with Tasha and John and made our way both up and down the narrow crack. It was so worth it: exciting, challenging and adventurous!

A woman standing stretching towards the ceiling of a large rock chamber
A 'cavern' in the middle of the narrow crack
A woman climbing the crack between two large rocks with the help of hand ropes
There was of course some climbing, some squeezing and some shimmying

As I drove home the following afternoon, having spent an extra night a Gecko Creek, I noted how refreshed and content I felt after my weekend in the wilderness. Leaving the rat race behind and roughing it for a couple of days is so good for the soul! I hope to do it regularly this coming year.

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