Saturday, June 25, 2011

Champagne Castle Mountains

Champagne Castle is a mountain in the central Drakensberg range, and is the second highest peak in South Africa. It contains a series of subsidiary peaks, amongst them, Cathkin Peak (3149 m), Sterkhorn, Mount Memory, Monk's Cowl and Dragon's Back.

It is said that when two intrepid mountaineers, David Gray and Major Grantham, climbed the peaks directly in front of Cathkin, they were about to celebrate their long haul by popping a bottle of champagne. But as fate would have it, the guide dropped the bottle on a rock – and in that moment Champagne Castle in the heart of uKaHlamba (Barrier of Spears) was christened.

Champagne Castle is situated in the central area of the majestic Drakensberg Range in Kwazulu/Natal in South Africa. This peak can be climbed over a weekend or even 1 night for the extremely fit, however I would recommend four nights and five days in order to take your time and take in the magnificent scenery that this area of South Africa has to offer. Too often tourists go straight to Cape Town and forget the beauty of this unique and wonderful mountain range, with many peaks towering above 3500 meters. The climbing in the "berg" ranges from the easy day walks to highly technical climbs, some of them so difficult that one experienced international climber, when asked why he didn't climb in the Drakensberg replied, "Because I have too much respect for my neck!"

You begin your climb at the Monks Cowl Forestry Station and make your way up a scenic valley. After a tough couple of hours you reach the top of the "little berg" where you proceed to Blind Man's Corner. Here is a good place to rest. You turn right and follow the contour path around Hlatikulu Neck and enter the breathtaking Mhlwazini Valley where I suggest you camp your first night at Keith Bush campsite. Keith Bush is situated in an amphitheatre of massive granite peaks next to the crystal clear Mhlwazini River. The camp site is named after Keith Bush who fell to his death off Champagne's neighboring peak, Monk's Cowl. Although there used to be an old hut, this has been demolished, and all that remains is some flat land excellent for tents.

Next day takes you steeply up the side of the mountain following a narrow, rocky path (which requires scrambling at one point although the correct way is clearly marked with cairns) to Grey's Pass, a steep and spectacular pass strewn with boulders. After you summit, head down the valley a little and camp next to the little stream. Head to the right and you get to Vulture's Retreat which offers, in my opinion, the best view of the Drakensberg Mountains as you sit at the top of a huge waterfall.

I enjoy climbing in the summer, but I have experienced a freak blizzard in January this year, so always take something warm. Take it slow and take lots of photos. Look out for baboon and jackal and wonderful fauna and flora as well as birdlife. Take plenty of water during the day as the only water available is when you get to your camp sites. Always take your passport as when you summit you may pass over into Lesotho.


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