The Dark Gorge – A Magical Place in the Forest
The Dark Gorge- A Magical Place in the Forest
UPDATED – 17 DECEMBER 2018
Newlands Forest is a firm favourite amongst Capetonians from all walks of life. It plays host to single people out for a stroll, joggers, trail runners, mountain bikers, families and their kids and of course, dog walkers. It truly is a special place where anyone and everyone can get in a few hours of exercise or some peace and quiet away from the rat race.
Newlands Forest, like many other hiking destinations in and around Cape Town, also has its secrets. Special places that are only known to the locals by word of mouth. The Dark Gorge is one of these best-kept secrets. The Dark Gorge is not a recommended safe hiking route and there are signs erected at the beginning and end of the route that strongly discourage hikers from using it rather than the safe option of Newlands Ravine.
Now Belinda and I have our reservations in writing about a hiking route that is not considered safe for use by SANParks. The last thing we would want is for someone reading this blog to get injured while trying to go where we have gone before. For this reason, we have opted to include a disclaimer in this blog right in the beginning to warn you of the possible dangers of taking this route so that you are aware of the risks before choosing to do it.
The Dark Gorge is situated adjacent to the recommended hiking route, Newlands Ravine. It’s potential risk of causing injury does not only come from a fall from height or extreme scrambling sections, but also from loose rocks underfoot. The trail consists of small to medium sized rocks that have spilled down the ravine over time. These rocks can be dislodged quite easily by a hiker’s boot and can cause a mini rock slide that could cause the hiker to loose his or her footing or, more importantly, send a few rocks down on to the feet or legs of the hikers following immediately below.
It is therefore strongly advised that if you choose to do this hike, that you be especially careful with your foot placement and make sure that the hikers in your party are at least 5 meters apart during the ascent to allow enough time to shout a warning of a mini rock slide and enough time for evasive action to be taken by the following hikers below.
If you decide to hike The Dark Gorge after reading this blog, we cannot be held responsible for any injuries that you or your hiking party may sustain.
How to get there
The easiest way to access Newlands Forest is along the M3 highway just before the University of Cape Town Upper Campus (direction Cape Town CBD). Look out for the Wildfire Services and Reservoir turnoff to the left. After turning left off the M3 turn immediately right and park in the large parking area. There is a security guard posted there to look after your car while you are off having fun. Here is a link to the Google Maps pin.
After parking your car, you have to walk up the tar road towards the mountain. There are no entrance fees applicable. If you are walking your dogs in the forest, you will need to have a My Activity card. If you don’t have one, click here for steps on how to get one.
After a short distance you will pass by the right hand side of a sliding gate that is meant to restrict unauthorised vehicle traffic into the forest. The Fire Management Department building and helicopter landing area are slightly further up the road on the right. You are advised to keep your dogs on a leash until you have cleared the helicopter landing area and you have reached the top of the tar road.
On the day of our hike, two Working on Fire helicopters were parked on the helipad ready for action.
Opening Times and contact information:
For more information, the SANParks Mount Pleasant office can be contacted on:
+27 (0) 21 689 4441
The emergency number for the Table Mountain National Park is:
+27 (0) 86 1106 417
The Speedy Review [tl;dr]
The Dark Gorge Trail is situated in the Newlands Forest which falls within the Table Mountain National Park. This is an ‘out and back’ route, with a circular bit at the end, that should ideally be done in the early morning while it is still cool. It should not be attempted if it has been raining at least 5 days before the day you plan to hike it. The moss covered rocks in the gorge will prove very tricky in wet conditions.
Whilst not that long (just over 8.5km), the terrain is tricky, and there are a few areas of scrambling. Make sure you wear shoes with good grip, and keep a safe distance, around 5 metres, between yourself and your fellow hikers. Watch out for loose rocks underfoot. You will need a relatively high level of fitness, and if you are afraid of heights or ledges, we would suggest you pick another trail (you will find heaps on our blog).
That being said, the trail is extremely exhilarating and definitely worth it once you reach the top.
Nina rated this trail 0/5 paw prints, as she did not accompany us on this trail. Although dogs are allowed in Newlands Forest, it is not advisable to take your dog up the Dark Gorge for your own safety and that of your dog.
The Nitty Gritty
We hiked this trail twice before compiling this blog post. The first time was on the 22nd of October 2017 and the second on the 14th of January 2018. The photos included in this post are from both of these hikes, but the route described in this post relates only to the second occasion. We hiked this route again on 17 December 2018 and have added a few tips as a result.
This route should not be attempted on your own and should preferably be done with someone who has done it before. There are sections of the route where the trail is not clear and there is a risk that you will get lost and end up in a section of the forest that is far more dangerous to ascend than even the Dark Gorge.
On the 14th of January 2018, a fellow SAPSTAP hiker and I attempted to ascend through the Dark Gorge. I had done the trail once before, with our friends Devin and Chandra, but Roderick had not done it at all. We started hiking at 07h45.
There is a board at the top of the tar road indicating the start of the Newlands trails. You can either go left and continue on the tar road or turn right and follow the Littlewort Trail. We decided to turn left and follow the main tar road. There are many variations of hiking routes that will take you up to the contour path. This post will not concentrate too much on the trail to take to get to the contour path due to these varied options. It will depend on how much time you have available to do this hike as to what route you will take. This post will concentrate more on the Dark Gorge itself and how to navigate safely through it rather than how to get to it.
We continued along the tar road, passed the ablutions facilities until we reached the river bridge. Just before the bridge we turned right and followed the path adjacent to the river. The distance covered to that point was 150 m.
At 07h51, we joined with a wider track which turned towards the right [400 m]. After a short distance [30 m], we turned left between a few tree logs and continued to follow the river up the hill. At 07h55, we reached a slightly raised pipe in the track and turned left there.
At 07h57, we reached a cement bridge over the trail where two dogs were enjoying the chance to play in the river. We crossed straight over a wide gravel jeep track there and followed the trail as it continued up the mountain.
At 08h02, we came to a t-junction in the path [870 m]. There was a handwritten note made with a black permanent marker on the trail marker saying “Joburg” with an arrow pointing to the left. We turned left there and soon after that walked across a wooden boardwalk.
At 08h08, we arrived at a fork in the trail. We were still walking quite close to the river on our left hand side [1.08 km]. We ended up taking the right hand fork. As I mentioned earlier in the post, there are a lot of options to take that will get you to the contour path so you do not necessarily have to follow this specific route to get to the start of the Dark Gorge.
After about 20 meters, the trail split again and again we chose to take the right hand fork. Shortly thereafter, we walked across a raised wooden boardwalk. At 08h10, we turned left and continued to head up the mountain [1.15 km].
At 08h16, we crossed a dry river bed and turned right [1.43 km]. Shortly after crossing the river bed, we turned left on a trail which eventually ran dead. After making a u-turn and heading back the way we came, we arrived back at the main trail and turned left and continued along the Woodcutter’s path. At 08h22, we crossed another dry river course [1.63 km].
At 08h25, we reached a gravel jeep track and turned left [1.84 km]. That section of the trail was open and unprotected from the elements. At 08h29, the jeep track narrowed into a footpath that led back into the forest [2.13 km].
At 08h31, we had to scramble over a tree that had fallen across the path [2.17 km]. It wasn’t difficult at all to get over/around it. At 08h33, we crossed a river course and headed round the corner were the path split again. The right fork is the correct route as the left fork runs dead after a short distance.
At 08h36, the path led us into a boundary fence. We had covered a distance of 2.26 km to that point. We turned left there and followed the path with the boundary fence on our right hand side. We continued along this very steep path and reached the contour path at 08h47 [2.6 km] where we turned left again. This section of the trail was open to the heavens and after a few minutes of walking we entered the forest again briefly followed by patches of bright sunshine. It was already quite hot at that stage and I was perspiring like a race horse in Durban.
At 08h53, we reached the wooden boardwalk and enjoyed the full protection of the forest again. At 09h02, we arrived at the picnic spot located opposite the start of Newlands Ravine [3.62 km]. This is slightly past the start of the Dark Gorge, but it was a good spot for us to rest up and have a few snacks and water before tackling the potentially dangerous, Dark Gorge. We rested for about 7 minutes and then turned right on the wooden boardwalk again and headed back the way we had come.
When we hiked this route the first time, we arrived at the picnic area from the other direction (ie from the left). It doesn’t really matter which route you take, the main point is to get to the picnic spot as that is your marker that you are in the right place, and near the start of the Dark Gorge ascent. If you are sitting at the picnic spot, facing the mountain, the start of the Dark Gorge is about 60 m to the right along the contour path. It is just after the end of the section of wooden boardwalk leading from the picnic site. There is a fire damaged tree on the mountainside of the path that marks this point. The tree has a ‘v shape’ to it and a rock has been wedged into the bottom of the ‘v’.
ALTERNATE ROUTE TO DARK GORGE
On 17 December 2018, we explored an alternative route to the start of the Dark Gorge. We started from the top parking area of Rhodes Memorial. We followed the trail across two jeep tracks and up to the turnstile leading to the King’s Block House. We did not go through the turnstile, but turned right and headed into Newlands Forest. The trail dipped in and out of shade across a few streams until we reached the start of the Dark Gorge. The distance covered on this route was 2.76 km and took us around 01h07m, slightly shorter and quicker than coming up through Newlands Forest from the Fire Base.
The route up the Dark Gorge turns off the Contour path at that point. The path is not clear there, but you need to proceed up the ravine on the right hand side of the dry river bed and the path will become increasingly easier to see the further you walk. Look out for rock cairns to keep on the correct path.
At 09h16, we came across a sign for the Dark Gorge in amongst the trees [3.76 km]. It warns hikers that it is an extremely dangerous route and that one should not attempt the ascent. The sign continues by advising that the safer recommended route is via Newlands Ravine. Fortunately, the path from there on out is marked with rock cairns by considerate hikers who had gone before. Keep a look out for small rock cairns along this route. They are sometimes not easy to see. They will guide you and keep you on the ‘safer’ route, notwithstanding the above cautionary notice by SANParks.
The early part of the Dark Gorge route will take you up the right hand side of the ravine. The path later crosses over to the left further up and leads hikers away from the Dark Gully which is too dangerous to attempt without climbing ropes and safety equipment. At 09h36, we reached the stage where the trail moved across to the left and away from the Dark Gully [4.26 km]. You will see a green strip of vegetation that runs up the center of the Dark Gorge. The path runs up on the right hand side of this green strip of ground foliage.
At 09h47, we continued to follow the rock cairns up the Dark Gorge and noticed that, after a while, the path moved toward the right of the gorge again [4.46 km]. Sometimes it will be necessary for you to stop and look up ahead of you to see where the rock cairns are. There are sections of the trail where the rock cairns are not visible until you are right on top of them so be careful that you don’t wander off this ‘recommended’ route.
At 09h51, the path crossed the gorge again to the left and the trail consisted of exposed tree roots that provided good hand holds and foot placements to scramble up the gorge. The route up the right hand side of the gorge consisted of loose rocks and is not a safe way to go. It is not recommended to do this hike after rain or in wet weather as these tree roots become very slippery and are a hazard instead of a helping hand.
The last section of the Dark Gorge is exposed to sunlight. The path also gets quite unclear towards the top so try and keep to the left and use the tree roots to make your way up slowly. The final few meters involved scrambling up vertical rocks. You shouldn’t be in a rush when doing this trail as you will need to concentrate on each step you take for your own safety and for the safety of your fellow hikers below you. Remember to keep a safe distance between you and your fellow hikers.
At 10h08, we climbed out of the Dark Gorge after an exhilarating experience. We were met on top by stunning views of Devil’s Peak and the City below below us.
At 10h20, we arrived at Pulpit Rock and had a snack and water break. We were grateful for the shade cast by the individual bolders. Pulpit Rock is positioned between the Dark Gorge on the right (standing facing the pulpit and the City below] and the Dark Gully on the left. It is visible from the top of the Dark Gorge and there are various paths that will take you there.
It is not advised that you go back down the Dark Gorge to get to back to your car. Rather use the easier and safer Newlands Ravine trail.
We left Pulpit Rock and reached the start of Newlands Ravine at 10h45 [5.63 km]. To get to the start, you need to go straight and then left after exiting the Dark Gorge and follow the path to the top of the next ridge.
We descended Newlands Ravine and followed the path as it zigzagged reasonably gently down the ravine, well compared to the Dark Gorge anyway. At 11h08, we entered the protection of the forest cover again [6.0 km].
At 11h19, the path split left and right and we chose to go left [6.24 km]. At 11h30 , we reached the bottom of Newlands Ravine after covering a distance of 6.57 km and a total hiking time of 03h45m. We stopped at the picnic spot for a short break.
At 11h38, we left the picnic spot and turned left on to the wooden boardwalk and after a few meters turned left on to the forest path leading down to the car park.
At 11h58, while walking along the path, we had an encounter with a Boomslang that slithered across the path in front of us [7.0 km]. It came in my direction and turned off at the last second allowing me to get a photo of it as it slithered quickly passed me. After this fortuitous encounter, we decided to write a hiker’s guide to snake encounters and snakebites which is really worth a read. After sighting the snake, we reached a split in the path, left and right. The correct path was to the right.
We continued along the path and at 12h10, we turned left and headed further down toward the car park [7.55 km]. At 12h17, we stopped at the river and refilled our water bottles [7.65 km].
At 12h22, we walked across the wooden boardwalk and turned right at the ‘Joburg’ trail marker [7.86 km].
At 12h25, we crossed the wide gravel road and proceeded along the path with the cement bridge on our right hand side. That was where we had seen the two dogs playing in the river earlier [8.0 km]. At 12h35, we reached the main tar road and turned left toward the start of the trail [8.52 km]. We passed the ablution facilities on our right hand side and reached the start / finish point of the hike at 12h37, with a total hiking distance of 8.65 km.
Although not as long as some of the other routes in the Table Mountain National Park, this is an intensive hike and needs about 4-5 hours to complete safely. If you rush, you put yourself and your fellow hikers at risk of injury.
Here are the hiking stats for this trail:
|Trip Odometer||8.65 km|
|Elevation Min||127 m|
|Elevation Max||785 m|
|Elevation Gain||734 m|