The snake caught my eye late and startled me. The creature is directly in front and my momentum prevents a sudden stop. I make an effort to step to the side, and am relieved when it slivers away in a hurry and disappears between scrubby bush and rock. I don’t know who got the bigger fright and I stop to gather my thoughts. My fiance and I are descending Haelkop (a.k.a. Guardian Peak) and we find ourselves in an exquisite setting. Remote mountain scenery, unspoiled nature and inspiring rock faces across the valley. Quite a romantic location if that’s your thing, but we have other things on our minds. A short while ago we shared our last apple and to complicate matters further we are out of water during a long hot October day in the mountains. Then, further down the slope, I see some green reeds with the promise of much needed water.
It is early morning as we ascend via Sosyskloof, further to the south, the most accessible route onto the mountain. This NE-facing slope of the Jonkershoek valley is exposed to sun very early and without a draft in the air we are sweating profusely, feeling the full force of the “oven” effect. There is no guarantee of water on this route with the last possible source close to the start and depends on recent rainfall. When we arrive, the river is dry. We proceed hoping that our 3.5 litre will be sufficient.
Above Sosyskloof on the ridge we look out over farmland, False Bay and the curve of the long Hottentots Holland mountains with Gordon’s Bay at the far end. There is no clear trail and we follow the ridge towards Haelkop, rock hopping, then through a few dense trees (I assume yellow wood) and eventually we are faced with a massive rock step and are forced again onto the Jonkershoek-side slope. Every now and then we see a cairn, but these are not very dependable route markers, especially now against this steep face we find ourselves on. As the sun beats down, we take a short break in the shelter of a huge rock. We manage to find the route and higher still, climb up a short steep gully and onto the ridge again. Massive, characteristic light grey boulders with grey/green/yellow/orange lichen stains lay strewn all over the mountain with restios, bulbs, erica’s and other flowers interspersed.
We reach the summit around 12:00 and enjoy something to eat. The view of Helderberg from here is very different to the classic Dome-face seen so prominently from the R44. Closer still, Suurberg lies right in front, to the west of Haelkop, with the white-sandy coastline of False Bay forming a massive arc around the blue water.
I eat another rusk and comment that no other soul will visit Haelkop today. Was I proven wrong! To my surprise 45 minutes later 2 hikers came up from Stellenbosch mountain’s side. They slept on the mountain and confidently inform us that on their approach, just before the final Haelkop summit ridge, they saw a clear hiking trail going down into Jonkershoek valley. It starts at the remains of an old metal structure and we can’t miss it. We barely finished our conversation when another group of 3 arrived from Lourensford’s side. It was getting crowded on top and we started preparations to go down.
Having ascended from Sosyskloof (S of the summit) we decide it will be great to traverse the peak via the trail referenced so confidently (N of the summit).
We climb down some boulders onto the lower ridge. After following this for a short while we clearly see the rusted metal structure and sure enough the trail-head. We start on the trail, but no more than 15m in it vanishes between bush and rock. We can either climb back to the summit and return the way we came or try and figure out a way down this face without a trail. We decide to continue. The slope carries on gently down into the valley, but from time to time we have to push through thickets of protea. The surface is mostly uneven, unstable stones and grass and tiring us out. We drink our last water and save the apple for later.
I now approach the reeds, mouth dry with a sticky tongue. I imagine I hear the faint sound of running water. Closer still I’m sure there is water, this is no trick of the mind, however I cannot see any stream. I move a little downstream and then I find it, a thin trickle of water! Almost instinctively I want to fall down and lick it like an animal, but I take out my water bottle fill it and gulp down this life sustaining fluid. I feel a massive relief and know we will be fine. I fill the bottle and run to my fiance, shouting from far with the awesome news. Then I return getting more.
As we leave Jonkershoek around 17:00 we feel greatful with a complete new respect for nature, happy to be on our way to an ice cold drink and with lessons hard learned – do not go down an unknown route and take enough water, especially in summer. *
* The above is about Haelkop in Oct 2012. Not all photographs are from that date and I include pictures of a more recent hike of the same peak. Yes, she did still marry me afterwards.