Blog by Quintin Honey
Compassberg has intrigued me for many years.
Perhaps it's that this seemingly uncelebrated mountain is the highest peak outside of the Drakensberg-Stormberg massif at an elevation of 2504 meters.
Or that, during the Anglo-Boer War, English soldiers apparently managed to transmit the longest recorded message flashed by heliograph (using a mirror to flash sunlight) to soldiers positioned on top of another mountain, Cockscomb, near the coast some 200km away.
Its intrigue could also arise from the aloof fang-like appearance of what has been referred to as the "Matterhorn of the Karoo" after a heavy snowfall and which serves as the backdrop to the isolated town of Nieu-Bethesda.
This little town, which bakes deep in the heart of the Karoo, is home to the Owl House where the reclusive and troubled Helen Martins lived among her beautifully crafted owl figurines, and where she would eventually die by ingesting a cocktail of caustic soda to quench her misery.
It may also simply be the scant information available on the mountain's accessibility and scalability that draws one closer to the challenge of ascending this desert monolith, which has resided unchanged in a vast and often inhospitable area where dicynodonts and other strange prehistoric creatures used to roam.
Ag well, I guess it's all of the above!
We left our base at Ganora Guest Farm early on a cold and dark August morning in my bakkie to drive to the base of the mountain. The drive was beautiful, still, and at times eerie, as the meandering farm road lead us through a few haunting patches of tall silvery poplar trees dotted randomly over the arid and otherwise treeless landscape.
Access to the north eastern side of Compassberg, from where we planned our ascent, was through a private farm with the same name. Here the friendly Brenda, who graciously permitted us to access her farm, met us briefly outside the farmhouse in the cold pointing the way to the mountain with an enthusiastic "enjoy"!
An arduous undulating 6km of 4x4 track guided us to the eventual spot from where we would commence our ascent.
Kitted out in fleety Altra Lone Peak 5's and grippy Altra Olympus 4's respectively, Tasmin and I set off, armed only, for direction, with seemingly an early 1900's photograph of the mountain and what looked like wild horses in the foreground.
This depiction of the route, which crudely mapped the general direction in which to advance, was the only "map" we had managed to extort from local townsfolk together with an instruction to follow the cairns. Those cairns ultimately proved as easy to spot as a puffadder lying motionless in his hood.
It's easy to be fooled into a sense of complacency by the mere 1.5km climb to the top and one soon realises the worthy challenge posed by the dolerite terrain intruded by dykes and sills. It required adopting the classic "moer & soek" approach to find the best navigable route via the cairns.
The ascent would repeatedly be interrupted by insanely picturesque views of desolate Karoo valleys as they emerged with every inch clambered. Days' old snow, preserved in the form of ice patches, also became more prevalent as the icy wind started to bite.
With a few beads of sweat dripping from the brow the summit eventually presented itself as a spiny rock edifice. From here we had to boulder-hop our way to the trig beacon, sometimes employing all fours to evade the ripping gusts that spiked the adrenalin, as the potential of being swept off the mountain began to feel real.
Reaching the wind-skewed trig beacon was a scintillating experience. Although the urge to explore and hang around was cut short by the deafening wind and gripping chill, we still managed to plant ourselves precariously on a rocky outcrop to savour the moment before deciding to make a move.
As we clawed our way through the wind towards the summit exit, I stumbled, literally, upon a dark brown crate nestled neatly in a rock crevice, the first sign (other than the trig beacon) that other humans had been here.
Curious, and trembling from the cold, I fumbled open the box to discover a mountain registry with pen 'n all amongst a first aid kit, a roll of toilet paper and a few other bits and bobs. This unexpected discovery made the summit all the more rewarding. Taking the time to pen our feat in the blustery conditions became a "rite of descent" to which we proudly obliged.
Our descent commenced with a scramble and a clamber, eventually easing into a more comfortable trek as the drop in altitude welcomed a rise in temperature and abatement of the wind.
Sheltered rocky outcrops showered with sunlight along the way down provided scenic moments of respite to refuel with our mountain snacks, before hotfooting the rest of the way down to where the bakkie was parked.
While sitting around the fireplace that evening, we reflected on this adventure of intrigue, challenge and accomplishment which left us with musings of what the next one could be….