A Backpacker's Guide To The



Maps Caves Huts Passes Peaks

Northern 'Berg Passes
Central 'Berg Passes
Southern 'Berg Passes



  • The passes listed here are those which gain you entry to the escarpment and Lesotho, where the average altitude above sea level usually exceeds 3 000 metres.  Because of the height climbed (which may exceed 1 km), the thin air, the distances involved, their steepness and even their remoteness, passes are among the greatest physical and mental challenges that a hiker can face in South Africa.  None of the so-called lower berg "passes" qualify for this list!

  • The passes have been listed in north to south order to facilitate their location on a map.  Recommended maps are the Peter Slingsby series consisting of 3 double-sided fold-out sheets giving a total of 6 maps (2 maps each for the north, central and southern berg regions).  These maps are still available at almost give-away prices from most of the reception offices.  The newer series of government maps will consist of 6 fold-out sheets when completed.  To date only the northern 3 sections of the berg have been completed.  At R25 to R30 each, they are very expensive and in many respects no better and no more up-to-date than Slingsby's 30 year-old maps!

  • The condition of the passes varies considerably.  Some can be easily negotiated by beginners, while others will require the use of ropes in some sections.  Conditions are also affected by the time of year - in winter some of the passes may be iced up and too dangerous to use, and in summer they may be too wet.

  • Some passes are steep - often nearly vertical in places - and may have narrow ledges or require some clambering with both hands and feet.  Hikers may feel exposed, vulnerable and apprehensive at times.  Rather gain experience on the easier passes first before attempting one that may be beyond your present mental and physical capacity to cope with.  The more difficult passes should only be attempted by the advanced hiker with above-average stamina and sure-footedness, and are unsuitable for the unfit, the very young or those who suffer from vertigo.  On the other hand, the reward for climbing a pass is a sense of considerable achievement, camaraderie and magnificent views.

  • Plan your hike so that you can spend a full day climbing or descending the pass of your choice.  It is also a good idea to spend one or two days in the lower berg before attempting a pass, because this will allow some acclimatisation and perhaps prevent or reduce altitude sickness.  When climbing a pass, always carry ample water with you, and never pass a stream without filling your water bottle unless you are sure of the availability of water further on.  The combination of heavy exertion and high altitude can lead to dehydration, muscle cramps and altitude sickness.

  • When descending a pass you will usually find that plump people, females and older hikers are the less sure-footed members of your group!  This has more to do with centre-of-gravity, foot size and joint strain than anything else.  Don't always expect to take less time descending a pass than you would spend going up it!  There is always a far greater danger of a fall going down a pass than climbing up one.  Make sure that everyone stays focused and concentrates on where they place their feet.

  • Take special care when crossing scree and loose boulders. When the risks of starting a rock avalanche are high, the leader should supervise the individual negotiation of difficult sections while the rest of the group remains stationary. The stationary members should be positioned so that if any rocks are loosened by the person who is moving, these will by-pass them.

  • Anyone who accidentally loosens a single rock should shout "Rock! Rock! Rock!" very loudly so that hikers below can take cover. Those below should quickly try to judge the probable path of the rock and crouch behind a suitable, large boulder with their backpacks facing towards the top of the pass, keeping their heads down and using their arms to protect their heads and necks. Obviously, the bigger the gap between hikers the more time those below will have to take cover, but the rock is likely to be moving faster when it reaches them.

  • Many of the more difficult passes have a crux point which may present a special challenge to the less confident hikers in the group. Here a short climbing rope can be used to lift or lower their packs past the obstacle. If you are going to rely on rope-work to get hikers up or down a pass, you will also need proper climbing harnesses, helmets and anchors - and an experienced climber to supervise their use.

  • Treat passes with the greatest respect.  It is usually best to do a pass in the company of someone who knows it well before attempting it on your own.  If you are the more adventurous type and would like to try a pass on your own for the first time, make sure you do your homework thoroughly and get advice from the experts.  Rather ascend an unknown pass than try to descend it, and preferably do it without a backpack.


Last modified on 2011/11/10