Drakensberg hike - up Ships down Grays pass

4 of us did a lekker 3 day hike this past week in the berg.

Friday we hiked from Moncs Cowl office up via the Sphinxs, turned left at Blind Mans corner, up Shada ridge, over Cowl fork, through the nightmareish jungle section and eventually arrived in the Ships Prow river valley.

Sanet and myself bivvied while the other 2 guys tented. The stars were amazing but the fresh wind meant we got into our sleeping bags shortly after dark.

Saturday morning treated us with a spectacular sunrise

Nice view from our bivvy spot. A bit low to the ground, obviously :grin:

Going up Ships is a real mission. I just realised again that this route contains the worst bundu bashing in the entire Drakensberg. The torture eventually ended and we got up onto the pass. This one is one of the highest passes in the berg, meaning that you are in for abour 300m ASL more climbing than the average berg pass. The bottom of the pass is covered in long grasses which makes forward progress hard work, but onve you cross the scree section the going gets easier. However, it’s still another 200m ASL to the bottom of the 400m high prow itself, so pase yourself as it is still far to go

We found no water on the pass do the two guys were out of water halfway up the pass. We found some snow on top so could melt it for water and coffee, which helped. From here we went over to Ships Prow North, then Champagne Castle, then to Moncs Cowl, and finally back over the ridges to Nkosazana cave. It was freeeeeeee eeee eeeezing cold on Sat night. The cave was qet but all the water inside froze during the night. Most of the Nkosazana river also froze over. The water in the grooves of my water bottle cap froze in the minute it takes to walk from the river back up to the cave

The next morning we walked down Grays pass, back down to KBC, past VMC and down via Kearlands pass to descend the lower berg. It was a really hot day, the complete contrast from the day before.

Below a couple more pics taken on route


Thanks for this write-up Riaang. We are looking to hike (Mid May) from Monk’s Cowl to Keith’s Bush Camp, overnight there and then make our way up to Nkosazana cave. Was thinking about going down Ship’s Prow but think it may be beyond my technical capabilities.

How wet was the cave and would Ship’s Prow decent be severely technical?

Hi Admoss,

Nkosazana cave is pretty exposed (big front entrance) so wind, water and snow can get in fairly easily. However, in a bivvy or survival bag (cheapies are under R100 at CUM) you’d be fine.

I have no idea of your level of fitness or hiking experience, so my answer will assume you have at least an average level of fitness and experience (else you probably wouldn’t get to KBC from Moncs Cowl in a day).

Day 1 is therefore fairly easy going, about 16km’s or so, the main climb is to get up to the lower berg via the Sphinxs, then it’s fairly level until you eventually drop down to the river for the final 2,5km’s to KBC. This section can be quite tough - you’ve already done a bit of climbing, put some milage on your legs and typically this section, when done later in the day is quite hot as well. However, it is the final stretch for the day and the end is literally in sight - the scree filed at the bottom of Grays pas you can see from here is within about 300m from KBC :slight_smile:

Grays pass itself for the next day: I reccommend starting as early as possible, as the sun will catch you somewhere around the middle section and there is no shade on the pass itself. It is also fairly steep. The initial section is “easy” and not too steep, the middle section is very steep in places but then it tapers off as you approach the cliffs. Awesome views from here. In no time you’ll be ascending the final gully and then about 70m or so from the top of the pass a nice picknick spot awaits you. Not sur eif you want to spend the rest of the day here (you should get to this point before noon if you started early), you can have alook at Vultures retreat on the right, or go over the ridge to your left as you came up the pass to go check out Moncs Cowl itself - highly reccommended.

Nkosazana cave is about another 400m or so to the left as you topped out, but on the right hand side of the valley (i.e. the Lesotho side), in the lower rock bands.

I assume Ships would be your day 3? If you are fit you can make it from here back to Moncs Cowl, but you would then be in for a long tough day of hiking. If you do the return leg over 2 days it is really not too tough. Ships Prow Pass is not technically difficult (Grays pass is probably more technical), but you start from a very high point (on of the highest passes in the berg, on average 300m higher than the rets), so you will feel it in your legs. Also, if you start from Nkosazana cave you are in for about a 3km hike rising about another 300m ASL, so your day 3 will work your legs a bit. The pass itself is mainly grass covered and no real path (although you will see some sort of faint path going down the pass). It’s long and the last time I did it there was no water to be found anywhere until way down below, so make sure you take enough water before you start this pass, as you will be walking in sunlight the whole way.

The biggest difficulty with Ships is not the pass though, but the horrible bushwacking section in the riverbed. It’s only about 2,5km’s long, but your progress here will be slower than the pass itself (we were even slower here than ascending Ships!). Factor this into your time planning. Stay to the left as you descend the riverbed section, there is a path here. You will lose it in places as you go over rocky sections, but just follow th egeneral direction down the riverbed and stay to the left, then you will find it again.

One of the best camping spots I’ve ever been to in the Berg is at the bottom of this river section. I’d make this my overnight spot for night 3 if I were you. It is just to the right of the middle of the river bed about 400m or so before you exit the riverbed. Here’s a couple of terrain markers to find it: On the left you will see a section of smooth rock from fairly high up, black in colour and if there is water forming a couple of waterfalls going down to the river. This is the only waterfall smooth rock section at this point. On your right you will see an arching erosion wall with a couple of broodbome at the top (if the ground gave way they will not be at the top of this erosion wall anymore)… Again, this is the only erosion wall at this point, and if you know what to look for you can even see it from the top of Ships Prow Pass. If you draw an imaginary line between these two markers you should find the camping spot. Watching the sunrise from here the next morning as it shines on the pass is super spectacular.

Day 4 is then an “easy” 12km’s or so back to camp. Easy after days 2 and 3, that is.

In summary, Ships isn’t a technically difficult pass, it’s just really long and you will feel it in your legs. And be prepared for the bushwacking section at the bottom, it IS worse than the pass. In fact, if it wasn’t for this section many more hikers would do Ships Prow pass. Still, that camping spot in the riverbed will make all the hard work seem worth the effort.


(PS: Have a look on www.vertical-endevour.com for tracks you can download of this route, as well as other Berg related info)

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Forgot to mention, but if you look at the first pic I posted, you can see a section of the erosion wall behind my wife. Very distinctive, if you can find this you are sure to find the camping spot. Just walk around the area a bit, it’s on one of the higher sections in the middle of the riverbed, and we packed a 60cm high kern at the top of the campsite.

Oh, and one more thing - you need to differentiate between Ship Prow North and South gullies. DON’T go down the north gully (the first one you will find when you approach Ships Prow Pass from Nkosazana cave), lots of loose scree in this one and much steeper. DO go down via the South gully, the “normal” way down the pass. It’s still steep but more grass, easier to walk on than loose scree.

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Amazing help, thanks! Really valuable insight. Will also check out the website link.

Thanks for the assumption we are of reasonable fitness. :slight_smile:
We have managed to get to KBC before but didn’t have time to stay over. Hence why we have planned this trip. That said, I am very new to this overnighting in the berg.

We may need to consider an up and down Grays or perhaps up Ship’s down Grays as we won’t have the luxury of a 4th day.

Noted regarding the North and South gully. Appreciate the advice.

How are the cheap survival bags with down sleeping bags - too much damp? I get that the Bivi would be better but could one make do with the cheapie?

The distance is the same whichever way you choose to go, but up Ships is much harder (the 300m additional descent now becomes an ascent, and you have to tackle the bundu bashing section going up, which is way harder. Rather go down Ships.

I took 2 complete novice hikers on this exact same route a couple of years back, here was our itinary. D1 Moncs Cowl to KBC. D2 up Grays pass (we started early, about 6am) and we slept at the camping spot at the bottom of Ships), and D3 we hiked back to Moncs Cowl campsite.

Both guys made it on D2, BUT they were pretty bushed and we made it with about 15 minutes of daylight left. Granted we wasted an hour on the escarpment as the one guys hydration bladder sprung a leak and we had to put his sleeping bag out in the sun for a while to dry out. Still, D2 will most likely test your reserve.

Here’s what I would advise you to do if you were thinking of going up Grays and down Ships on D2. To start with, you would need to get going at 6am latest. Yes, you will start in the dark and walk with headlights, but with the sun setting earlier you want to ensure you get as far as you can in daylight. Trying to get out of the Ships riverbed at night would NOT be fun! Finding that campsite in the dark will be quite a challenge.

Check how everyone is feeling once you get to the top of Grays pass. Have a break for a late brunch at the stream, and then tackle that 3km stretch up to the top of Ships Prow South. We started going down the pass at 1:30pm, which was a bit late in my opinion. Any slow person in your group at this point will very likely mean a nightmarch in the Ships riverbed. The one guy in our group was so knackered he basically slid down on his bum on sections, his legs were like jelly. Both of them were bushed by the time we got to the campsite and just fell into their tents for a very early night.

I’m saying this so you know what to (possibly) expect. Both were complete novices and they made it, but were completely spent by nightfall. I did advise them to train beforehand… :wink:
It is entirely doable but I would rather return down Grays pass if A) time is running away once you are at the top, and/or the rest of the people in the group are showing signs of wear & tear. That river section is very overgrown so DON’T split your group. We had to do this once and the slower group walked right past us. By chance I heard them speak and could call them over to the campsite. If one person struggles the whole group will be slow.

Lastly, there was a large pine tree on the left about 50m further away from where you exit the riverbed on the morning of D3. The path runs about 5m below this tree. The exit spot out of the riverbedcis very poorly marked, if you can’t find it just bundu bash towards this tree and you will stumble onto the path

Eish, forgot to answer you on the bivvy bag. Weekend is here! :slight_smile:
The survival bag has zero breathablity so condensation could be an issue. However, a hiking buddy has found a way to negate this to an extent. What he does is to:
A) Sleep at an incline. Warm air rises so theoretically the warm vapour will escape before condensing on the bag.
B) Leave the top of the bag wide open and exposed to the wind. This helps to clear the bag from vappour. A bit colder perhaps, but better than wet.

Generally your breath causes more vapour than the rest of your body, so keeping your head out of your survival bag will reduce condensation to a large extent. My buddy did find that the bag around his feet got damp, probably because there was little ventilation at the bottom of the bag. Maybe take some good woolen socks in case of your bag getting wet at the bottom. Wool retains heat even in the wet.
Plan C could also work. Cut a hole or two at the top of the foot section so condensation buildup can be reduced :slight_smile: Just take some ductape along if you need to use the bag in the wet.

A survival bag is not as breathable as a good bivvy, but with the above advise I’m sure it will work just fine, and for much cheaper.

Thanks RiaanG so much for all the amazing advice. You have really helped me map this out in my mind. Will keep you posted.