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What was your hike like?
"Unpack your backpack here"

Golden Gate National Park
The Ribbok Trail
Submitted by: Leon Bekker
7 January 1998

What better way to obtain respite from the excesses of the festive season than a good, healthy amble in the less frequently trodden paths of nature. One such a path is the Ribbok Hiking Trail in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The fresh air of the high mountains and the smell of soil and vegetation soon cleanse body and mind of the "one to many" and the second helping which is so much part of that time of the year.

We tackled the two-day hike on the 27th and 28th of December 1997 expecting to suffer in the summer heat. We did not. The first day was partly cloudy and there was a cooling breeze throughout the day. The second day was cloudy and cool without being cold. Ideal hiking weather. We were lucky. I am sure the long uphills which is so much part of the second day can be hell with the sun baking down on your neck.

Golden Gate

The first goal on the first day of the hike is the Brandwag - a sandstone buttress which guards over the chalets and hotel near the entrance to the valley which the little Caledon River carved through the Roode Mountains which forms the foothills of the massive Maluti Mountains in Lesotho. Some one kilometre from the starting point at the Glen Reenen camp, a well constructed chain ladder assists the hiker to ascend the most difficult climb.

With surprisingly little effort one reaches the summit of this massive, almost free standing, sandstone rock which dominates the valley below.

The hiker takes the opportunity to look down at the less fortunate lower life forms in the chalets and the hotel far below.


I do not know why one gets this feeling of superiority if one can look down on others from the heights which one managed to ascend through your own effort and sweat. A short descent from the Brandwag leads the hiker through another of the many ouhout (Leocosidea sericea) thickets which dominates the vegetation in these parts. Soon the hotel is out of view as one rounds the corner to the Backside - a valley folding deep into the mountains which run from East to West through the National Park.

The route follows the contour line and makes for a relatively easy hike. The hiker marvels at the eroded sandstone caves which seems to undermine just about every one of the many perpendicular sandstone cliffs which typify the geology in this area. After turning underneath the Spitskop and following the stream out of the valley one starts a sharp descent to the Wilgenhof Environmental Centre, cross the Small Caledon River and the tar road through the Park to complete the last three kilometres along a level stretch to the Ribbok overnight hut.

Well, the theoretical "last three kilometres" did not work out in practice for us. Earlier in the morning from higher up the mountain we saw the roof of what we assumed would be the overnight hut. This assumption was wrong. Thinking that we know exactly where we were going we did not pay much attention to the path and blindly followed the jeep track which led directly to the roof of the structure which we assumed to be the overnight hut. It was not. The house which we found was under repair and it could clearly not house overnight guests. After some confusion (and non deserved curses at the National Parks Board) a bit of fundamental map reading provided the answer - we were in the wrong river valley. A shortcut around a knoll lead to the valley in which the Ribbok stream meandered to its confluence with the Little Caledon River. That is where we should have been and that is where we found the Ribbok Hut - a very neat stone structure with a practical but featureless lapa and fireplace.

Flush toilets, a cold water shower and firm thick sponge mattresses provided luxuries not frequently encountered on a hike. Although the weather was too warm to make use of them we marvelled at the new warm blankets which was neatly folded at the foot of each bunk. Being the ultimate cynic with very little faith in my fellow man (or woman) I could not help but to ponder on whether these blankets would still be available when they will be of more immediate use to cold hikers in a sleety winter evening in July. They will probably have to be satisfied with the well-equipped kitchen and the wood burning stove which, I could see in my minds eye, would provide a cosy setting - even without the warmth of a soft, wrap around blanket.

I slept well under a bright, starry sky. There were only five people at the hut and I felt free to sleep outside next to the fire place.

A cool nook

The next day we tackled the ascent to the upper reaches of the Ribbok stream after an early breakfast. Heeding the warnings that one should be down from the mountains before the frequent summer thunder storms, we made an early start. A slow and steady climb along the meandering stream was punctuated by a pleasant stop at the waterfall some three kilometres from the hut.


The red collared widow birds preceded their burdensome long tails in their mating pursuit of their dull and dowdy brown female lovers. We saw a yellow rumped widow bird with its distinctive yellow puff back. The climb became long and the backpacks heavy. Six kilometres of crossing one contour line after the other - marked on the map with the encouraging names of "Inbreek", "Hartbreek" and "Moedbreek".

At the top the view of Lesotho in the distance was spoiled by the rusty boundary fence between the Golden Gate national Park and the Qua-Qua National Park. Why this fence should remain, or, for that matter, why it was erected in the first place, only the bureaucrats will know. It was really one of the most disappointing features of the whole hike. One does not slog up to 2800 m above sea level to have the panoramic view spoiled and hemmed in by a rusty broken fence.

Lesotho in the distance
View of Ribbokkop

Turning ones back to the ugly fence the magnificent view towards the North, East and South-East provided some reward for the long climb. The Ribbokkop to the East was the only point which was higher than Generaalskop on which we stood. Ribbokkop is reputed to be the highest point in the Freestate as well as the erstwhile Transvaal - if my geography does not fail me that means that it would be the highest point in South Africa North of the Caledon River.


The descent soon started in earnest. One followed a rocky ridge which forms the watershed between the Buffelspruit (the stream which flows into the Langtoon Dam and which provides water to Glen Reenen and the Brandwag Hotel) and the stream which follows into the Little Caledon River further to the West. This stretch of the hike gives the peculiar feeling of walking along the spiky back of a dinosaur. Dinosaurs did occur in the area and the Park is world renowned for one of the first finds of fossilised Dinosaur eggs which contained embryos of the dinosaur.

The rocky ridge along which we walked did not only form the water shed but provided a convenient path of passage for all the air on the Eastern side which showed an urgent need to proceed at great speed to the West. We really had to cling to hats and walk with bracing feet to counter the high winds which screamed over the ridge. Somehow it added to the exhilaration of the experience.This final plunge is a steep descent over eroded ground which provides a less than secure foothold when one has to apply brakes to stop your ever increasing speed.

The "one who names things" had a sense of humour in naming this part of the trail "Knee brake". I could think of a number of other things which could break if the knee brake did not brake as it should.The last few meters before the Langtoon Dam saw the first heavy drops falling from a leaden sky. Soon the ponchos had to be extracted to avoid water damage to cameras and books. The rain persuaded us to push on and not to spend what could have been a pleasant respite at the dam. By the time we reached the short cutting downstream from the dam the rain had reduced to a few scattered drops and the end point at the Van Reenen campsite was in view.

Leon Bekker:
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Date of entry: 1 July 1996
Updated: 2 January 2004