At some stage during the course of 2020, I got the idea in my head to tackle the 13 Peaks Challenge. Finding a trail partner wasn’t that easy. My usual victims – The Significant Other, Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend – each gave me a non-negotiable NO.
I had been running/walking/hiking with a generally agreeable and willing friend, though, and the response from her was an immediate, if not naive, yes.
We were going to do this thing over three days, we decided. 13 Peaks, spread over 107 km of Cape mountains in three days on barely any training.
We set aside a long weekend, packed our bags and set off early one hot December morning.
18 December 2020
We tagged the first peak, Signal Hill, within minutes. This was going to be a piece of cake!
This feels like a bit of a cheat, as we simply parked our cars in the parking lot walked towards the beacon and tagged it. Then we headed towards Lion’s Head, a peak we had climbed many times before and posed no threat at all.
Despite it being quite early in the morning, only around 6:30 or so, the sun was already baking down and the trail was jammed with people heading up and coming down. More troubling than the heat and the many hikers, though, were the hot, thirsty dogs on the trail. There were two Weimeranas in particular, both wearing muzzles, and struggling in the heat. There is no water on Lion’s Head, ever, and their owners clearly had not considered bringing water for them.
It wasn’t only the dogs who were suffering, though, my intrepid adventurer was head down, elbows on knees and taking strain by the time we reached the beacon.
We took our time recovering and taking in the view before we headed back down Lion’s Head and onwards towards Platteklip, which was to take us to our next peak, Maclear’s Beacon. We were feeling pretty sprightly after our little rest, and the downhill boosted our confidence.
As soon as we started heading up Kloof Nek towards Tafelberg Road and Platteklip, though, the heat slowed us down again. We decided to detour past the restrooms and snack shop at the Lower Cable Station before taking the trail up towards the Contour Path and then to Platteklip.
As with Lion’s Head, Platteklip was a trail I had done many times before, and didn’t for a moment consider that I might find it a bit of a challenge that morning. How wrong one could be! It was a sufferfest of note! We staggered up, one heavy step after another, and stopped many times along the way. Ah, the humiliation of people passing us, telling us that we’re doing well and that we were almost there! People we would normally have left in our dust – couples with small children scurried past us! One older gentleman hiking up the mountain with his granddaughter looked at me sympathetically as he puffed for breath and mopped the sweat from his face. ‘This is a young person’s game,’ he said to me. ‘Not that I’m saying you’re old, of course!’ And then, before I could muster the air or energy to explain that I hadn’t just started a few hundred metres down the trail, in the parking lot, as he had, he moved along, not to be seen again. I sometimes feel I should carry a sign saying ‘I’m not unfit, I’ve just already done a bunch of other stuff!’ or one that says ‘Yes, I know I can do it,’ or ‘No, I know I’m not almost there!’
We were taking so much strain that we actually sat down a few times on the way up – I even lay down in a patch of shade!
During one of our rest stops we considered the option of just taking the cable car back down and giving up on the day’s planned route.
We eventually got to the top and, before heading to Maclear’s Beacon, made a detour to the restaurant for some refreshment and a little rethink.
A couple with their children spotted us at the restaurant. ‘Aaah! You made it!’ they exclaimed. Will this humiliation never end?! Of course we were going to make it! We were always going to make it!
Sitting at the table under the umbrella and looking out across the mountain range, our final peak for the day looked very, very far away. 30 km along a mountain trail suddenly looked a whole lot more daunting than it had when it was still just an idea.
But neither of us is a quitter. We picked ourselves up and headed towards Maclear’s Beacon. The first few steps away from the restaurant had us rethink our resolve again – the slight incline felt impossibly steep!
We snapped our pics at not-Maclear’s Beacon before arriving at the actual Maclear’s Beacon. It was the first time we had tagged the wrong beacon, but it would not be the last time. In fact, first tagging the wrong beacon became kind of a habit – our trademark move!
Emboldened by having tagged three peaks so far, we set off in search of Grootkop. It seemed to be always just around the next corner. Every little rise in the distance promised to be Grootkop. For something named Grootkop, it certainly knew how to hide itself!
Marching towards the sunset in silence, we were both so in the zone we almost missed the sneaky little trail leading to Judas Peak. It was a short walk off the trail to get there, and then a scramble to get to the beacon.
By the time we reached Judas Peak, though, a strong wind had come up. The scramble felt a bit precarious, and it felt as if we were going to be blown off the peak. But that was it: the last peak for the day. Homeward bound! Home was via Llandudno Ridge, a long, precariously steep descent that we slipped and slid and scrambled along as the sun set, the temperature dropped and the wind came up.
Not only was there no way that we were going to tag Little Lion’s Head and Suther Peak that day, but murmurings about the sanity of attempting to finish our challenge in three days could be heard above the whistling wind.
There was confusion about the trail until the end, but once we found the correct path, I was so excited to have reached the end of the day, I found the energy to bound down the slope into the parking lot where Firstborn Daughter and Her Boyfriend had been waiting in the car for a few hours. But they had snacks and icy cold drinks and we had beaten down 31 km of trail, and climbed 1 857 m in elevation gain. We were sunburnt and tired but pretty pleased with the day – pleased enough not to spare a thought for the two peaks we had meant to include in the day’s challenge. I glanced at Little Lion’s head as we drove home, a silhouette etched against the evening sky, being saved for another day.
At around 10 pm I texted my fellow challenger: ‘Thoughts about tomorrow/the weekend/the rest of our lives?’
My friend was in bed. She was sunburnt, her feet were sore, she needed a week off before we tackled the trail again. It seemed a sensible thing to do, a decision of which Firstborn Daughter would heartily approve.
6 November 2021
Our week of reflection morphed into someone having an ear infection, then a family member contracting Covid, then a running injury, family issues, weather issues, a stomach bug, studies, work, kids, more Covid, more running injuries, more Covid, and Covid again. We managed some runs and some hikes, but one week turned into another, and the months passed without us picking up the challenge where we left off.
Almost a year after our first excursion we finally got back on the trail to tag the next two peaks: Klein Leeukoppie and Suther Peak, or, as it’s more commonly known, Suffer Peak.
This was meant to be just a quick one: just two peaks, both smaller than Lion’s Head. After all the hikes we had done this year, we’d get these two peaks done in time for lunch!
The scramble at the top was unexpectedly tricky and, when we arrived, a few people were standing there, trying to figure out how it had to be done, and whether they were even at the right place at all. I ploughed ahead, deciding it couldn’t be that hard, and my friend followed close behind. I heard one of the other hikers say ‘We’ll see if she gets up and then we’ll try it …,’ which made me laugh – they were a bunch of fit, brauny guys waiting to see if the little old lady made it up first.
Peak one of the day, peak six of the challenge. We were styling!
Onwards to Suther Peak – we could almost smell the coffee.
Then things started looking a little bit dodgy …
Instead of leading us back down the peak the same way we came up, the map led us down the back of the peak. It didn’t seem right – it was way too wet and slippery, unclear and generally too tricky a path to include in a route for trail runners, some of whom would be speeding through the trail at night. I was sure I had been told to go back the way we came, but getting back up looked way harder than just pushing on.
Then, in the distance, was this rude sign …
We decided it couldn’t possibly apply to us – we were on a mission! We were following the official 13 Peaks map, and there was no way we were being led astray. Whoever owns the land must know that 13 Peaks challengers were coming through here. So we pushed on. Well, after veering off in different directions, trying to find a clear path, we pushed on.
The sign at the bottom was even more aggressive, and yet another sign promised that they would set the dogs on us. Not only were the signs quite adamant that we wouldn’t pass, but some people with an insane amount of money had gone and built mansions right in the way of our trail, blocking our access to Suther Peak.They may as well have had Gandalf standing in front of us, his grey hair blowing in the wind, shouting ‘You will not pass!’
We walked up and down, trying every possible way, retraced our steps, even though that meant walking uphill again – and we definitely didn’t need any extra uphill.
There were cameras everywhere, tracking our every move, and so it wasn’t long before a security guard turned up in his car, and then another in a dune buggy. They were unarmed, we think, and there were no rottweilers. But they did very helpfully send us in the wrong direction.
Instead of a short trip across a bit of beach, we headed down, down, down towards Sandy Bay, which, from what we could see, clearly had no trail of any kind, let alone a trail up to Suther Peak. There wasn’t even sand down there, just rocks. A little break was taken, a narrow, overgrown trail spotted, and off we went. Puffies and poachers be damned. We couldn’t spend the rest of our days on that rocky trail to nowhere, and Suther Peak would be tagged.
Somehow, after a long, hot stomp up and down the dunes, trudging through soft sand, we found our way to the Suther Peak trail. Halfway up we got to look back at the damned gated community, guarded by men with dogs, guns and dune buggies, which had blocked our way and had sent us on a ridiculous detour.
The correct route would have been to follow the same trail back down Little Lion’s head, all the way to the bottom, and then to have turned right onto the jeep track that would have taken us to a boom. Beyond the boom lay the correct route to Suther Peak.
Hands on hips made way for head in hands and thoughts of maybe leaving Suther Peak for another day. Suffer Peak was living up to its name.
We decided to take our coffee break right there, in the middle of the trail while considering our options. Strong, lithe young hikers cheerfully leaped through our breakfast rock and ran up the trail … almost as if they had not just been lost in a desert wasteland, or had risked being shot by armed guards, or devoured by vicious dogs.
With fresh resolve, we set off to conquer Suther Peak … in between a few rest stops.
Once we had tagged Suther Peak, at last, we relaxed a bit and took the time to look at how far we had come, not only on that day, but on our previous mission as well. Despite our detour, we still had plenty of time left in the day to do all those other things we had planned to do in the afternoon.
All we had to do was head down the mountain, walk through Hout Bay and get into our cars. The day was not yet lost.
But do things ever go as planned?
Our map for the day was dodgy as hell, and our Little Lion’s Head descent down the wrong side into private property, and our Sandy Bay detour were not the last of our problems.
Instead of simply strolling into Hout Bay and walking along boring but safe and predictable tarred roads, we ended up bundu bashing for what felt like days. In fact, bundu bashing doesn’t even describe it. We cautiously made our way over piles of dead wattle branches, hoping they wouldn’t give way under our weight and have us sinking up to our knees into their splintered limbs. Every step creaked and crackled precariously. And who knew what was living under there?! Turning around may seem like it would have been a good idea, but while there, retracing our steps looked even harder than just pushing on. And, anyway, the map said we were on the trail – some of the time!
We were hot, tired, dusty, itchy and had got lost so many times on what was supposed to be a simple route – to say we were over it at this stage is an understatement!
At least we didn’t come across any puffadders. Loads of ticks (loads of ticks – I pulled 14 off me when I got home!) but no snakes and no bad guys!
13 November 2021
Do we give up? Absolutely not! The next weekend we were back on the trail and ready to take on peaks eight, nine and ten: Chapman’s Peak, Noordhoek Peak and Muizenberg Peak. According to the map it was all pretty straightforward: climb up a peak, come down, follow the trail, do the same with the next peak.
What could go wrong?
Getting to Chapman’s Peak was quite simple. The weather was mild, the trail fairly easy, the wildflowers were in bloom, and the views rewarding. The day was off to a good start.
Tagging a peak lifts the spirits and fills one with renewed energy, and so off we bounded along the trail to find Muizenberg Peak. The cool, overcast morning gave way to a hot, cloudless afternoon. As we moved further away from Noordhoek Peak towards Silvermine, we came across some disturbing signs warning us of the likelihood of being mugged on the trail. We also came across some red-faced, sweaty, unfit and ill-equipped people (sandals, no hat, no water) walking their hot, tired dogs on the baking hot white dune sand that made up the trail. I was more concerned about the dogs than any potential mugging.
We passed a number of interesting spots along the way that I made a mental note about visiting on another occasion, when we weren’t already tired, pressed for time and on a mission. Of course, my mental notes are quickly erased and I can’t remember where the spots are!
As with Grootkop, Muizenberg Peak seemed always just too far away, and the glimpses of the blue water of the Silvermine dam served only to tease us. I was reminded of a comment I had read about someone’s 13 Peaks Challenge: ‘Why did you have to include Muizenberg Peak, Ryan, why?’ I could relate.
Having dodged the poachers and muggers, our next challenge was to dodge the cars speeding from both directions along Ou Kaapseweg. Judging by the open-mouthed looks of alarm on the faces of the people in the cars trying to exit Gate 2 onto Ou Kaapseweg, we must have looked like two deer caught in the headlights and facing certain death.
And then, with the end within reach, with our fingertips almost grazing that beacon on Muizenberg Peak, we got lost. Of course we did. All we had to do was walk in through Gate 2, through the parking lot, turn right, and keep on walking.
My map said no. It sent us straight along a different path before telling us that we were on the wrong path. And so we retraced our steps, wandered around in circles for a while, and then figured the correct way to go.
With the trail extended by various detours, another 30 km was covered on day three of our challenge. We seemed hellbent on making sure that we got full value out of each day. We would be back the next day to conquer Constantiaberg Peak. We were hoping to include Klaasenkop (or Klassenkop) but that might prove to be a bit ambitious.
On Sunday we started where we had finished the day before, walked across the road and entered the Silvermine Reserve along the footpath we had used to leave the reserve and cross the road to get to Muizenberg Peak. We honestly thought we were doing the right thing. As it turns out, we were meant to enter via the main gate, even though we were on foot and just passing through, and pay an entrance fee.
Walking along the tarred road towards the trail isn’t great, and we were keen to get off it and into the mountains. Just when we thought we were close to getting off the hot, boring road, two officious SanParks officials pulled up next to us. Had we paid at the gate, they demanded to know. We were puzzled. No? Why? They told us that if we hadn’t paid we were trespassing and could be fined. We had to go back to the gate and pay our dues. But we’re almost off the road, we reasoned. Couldn’t we just pay them?
No, we could not pay them. We had to walk the 2 km back to the gate, get in line with the cars, and pay. The least they could have done was offer us a lift back to the gate. Actually, no, the least they could have done was be polite. Someone must surely have seen us at the start of the trail if they came looking for us in their car. They could have told us then that we needed to pay. They also said that they had seen us there the day before. We didn’t see any rangers the day before, so it all felt a bit uncomfortable.
There was nothing to be done: we simply had to detour back to the gate to pay our dues. The grumpy SanParks officials sped off in their tan-and-green bakkie and we miserably headed back the way we came.
After the admin was done and potentially legal issues (jail time?) were dodged (again!), our map issues started up again. I couldn’t access the FATMAP app because there was no signal in the reserve. I had downloaded the AllTrails map, though, and the blasted thing led us along the Elephant Eye trail, which I knew to be the wrong trail, and, most frustratingly, did its best to keep us away from Constantiaberg Peak. The AllTrails map said one thing, and when I could access the FATMAP app, it said something completely different. And then, so early in the day, my cellphone battery started to run low. Running two apps at the same time and taking photos had burnt through my battery life.
It was another ridiculous experience of on-route, off-route, where-are-we-supposed-to-be, where-is-the-trail, are-we-there-yet …
We were hot and tired.
But, of course, we made it! We somehow always do.
We were all smiles once we had finally found the beacon, tagged Constantiaberg Peak and could finally sit down and have our coffee and sandwiches.
Onwards to Constantia Nek. It’s one single trail all the way there. A dodgy map, cellphone almost dead, no signal: what could possibly go wrong?
Despite our achievements, we were two disappointed hikers at the end of this day. I managed to record only 12 km of the 22 km that we covered. But we had only two peaks to tag before we were done with the challenge, and we had come a long way from where we had started, not only in terms of distance, but in terms of endurance, fitness, and trail experience.
17 December 2021
Only one day short of a full year since we first set off to conquer the 13 Peaks we arrived at Constantia Nek to take on almost 30 km of trail and tag our last two peaks. We expected a shady meander along the Contour Path for most of the way. We were very quickly cured of that little misconception. It was up … and up … and there was no shade.
My shiny new Garmin’s navigation sent us up one trail, the AllTrails app disagreed and sent us back the way we came. Which one to trust? The one I’ve just met, or the one that has given me dodgy advice in the past? I went with the AllTrails app. Of course the thing added about 5 km to the trail, leading us up ladders and scrambles via Eagle’s Nest towards Camel Rock.
We found Klassenkop. Kind of. More or less. We got right to the point and retraced our steps, retraced them again, went around the other side, and tackled the peak from entirely the wrong side. The useful little cairns dotting the trail were obviously intended for some other route. Or not.
Both Garmin and AllPeaks kept shouting out Off-Course alerts, no matter which direction we walked. The red line on our recorded AllTrails route makes from some interesting, possibly frameable, artwork.
The peak is obscured by a gnarly old tree covered in old man’s beard and lichen. The tree, in fact, offers its limbs up to those seeking the peak and provides easy access across the awkward space that yawns between the peak and the space where one is standing. This is the case, of course, if you approach the beacon from the correct angle.
If you approach from the wrong angle, you risk your life either on the brittle limbs of a spindly old tree that really has neither the strength nor the inclination to hold your weight, or you face a dodgy scramble up some rocks pretty much devoid of footholds and grips to the correct tree. Neither option is recommended!
What goes down inevitably goes up. And what goes down, down and down, will go up, up and up.
Newlands Ravine, the recommended route, is a challenging climb that takes you up to the Saddle.
It was about halfway up Newlands Ravine that my friend came to the realisation that we should probably have trained a bit more! Yes. We most certainly should have! Maybe we should have thought about that option earlier than on the last 10 km of the last day of our challenge!
AllTrails wanted to send us up Dark Gorge. Just the name should be enough to tell you it’s not the best idea. If you do a bit of research, or know a bit about the mountain, you’d know that Dark Gorge is known for its loose rocks that tend to be dislodged as one clambers up towards the light. The AllTrails map certainly did its damnedest to challenge us beyond the challenge we had signed up for.
Reaching the top of Newlands Ravine feels like an achievement, which it is. However, it’s not a peak. It’s simply the Saddle. Devil’s Peak still looms up ahead.
The wind was gusting and the day was drawing to a close – there was no time for hanging about basking in our great achievement. A few snaps, a sip of water, and we were off – as was my friend’s cap, which the wind whipped off and tossed across to Robben Island before she could snatch it back.
Next, it was just a simple matter of making it off Devil’s Peak to Tafelberg Road and then to Signal Hill. Well, a simple route, maybe, and long. Very long. It was time to wrap this thing up!
And, just like that, it was done!
We were tired, sweaty, sunburt, windswept, overjoyed, and a tiny bit bewildered.
It had been a long day. We had spent 12 hours on the trail, had trudged 30 km, and, after a year, we had finally closed the circle to arrive back where we started, on Signal Hill, at the end of our 13 Peaks adventure.
We did so many detours, and retraced our steps so many times, that instead of covering 107 km, we ended up doing 127 km.
It took us 48 hours to do – over the course of a year – and we never gave up on our goal.
Looking back at some of our peaks, we were amazed at what we had done.
We hadn’t done any real training for this thing, and neither of us had been on any of these trails before. We had naively stepped into the big unknown, confident that we would be able to cover the distances and tag the peaks.
Taking it one step at a time, it didn’t always seem like much, but panning back and looking at the big picture, looking at the trail in its entirety, well, that’s quite something!
We did this big thing, just the two of us, on our own, and we’re ready to do it again – just with fewer detours and encounters with potentially armed guards!