Of all the Drakensberg’s freestanding peaks, Monk’s Cowl must be one of the most peculiar. Not only does it rather accurately resemble the vestiges of a gothic brother, but if you take the time to travel to KZN Wildlife’s Monk’s Cowl campgrounds, the summit that lends its name to the reserve is entirely absent from the horizon. Unlike similar Drakensberg peaks such as The Bell and Devil's Tooth, Monk's Cowl is sandwiched between two rocky behemoths, namely, Champagne Castle and Cathkin Peak, and these two giant edifices do a good job of concealing the hooded hill.
In fact, if you wish to make a meaningful attempt at photographing the mountain, one is faced with two choices. Either you accept a strenuous walk up to the contour path from the Monk’s Cowl campsite and then head south until such time that the peak comes into view or, as I prefer doing, you change camps altogether and call in at nearby Injisuthi.
Injisuthi is located a mere 8.5 km south of Monk’s Cowl, separated from its KZN Wildlife cousin by only a single mountain ridge. As close as the two camps are to each other, though, traveling between them is a significantly arduous undertaking. By car, a one-way journey will require about an hour and a half’s drive owing to the fact that the condition of the road leading to Injisuthi varies between poor and damn‑near impassable. Seasonal rains have the annoying habit of tearing up the surface, almost always leaving it laced with wash-ways and crater-sized potholes.
Nonetheless, the rewards for tolerating any tribulations that might accompany a visit to Injisuthi are handsome. Unlike the greater Monk’s Cowl valley, which is peppered with all manner of hotels, lodges and sports resorts, Injisuthi is, quite literally, in the sticks. Visitors to the camp may only be one hill away from a golf course but the effort required to reach anything resembling civilisation is so great that the reserve carries with it a true sense of isolation. There is no cell phone reception to tether guests to home and with a tiny shop that stocks little more than bully beef, a stay at Injisuthi is a vintage Drakensberg experience.
As is often the case with areas in nature that have seen less of mankind’s fettling, the photography at Injisuthi isn’t half bad either. Approaching the reserve might be all about preventing tire damage, but for those not behind the steering wheel, the growing Drakensberg skyline, which is dominated by Monk’s Cowl, is exemplary. I might even go as far as arguing that Injisuthi’s vistas are more impressive than some of its noted contemporaries (Cathedral Peak and the Amphitheatre, for example) simply because the escarpment appears to ascend directly from the valley floor, making it feel unusually close by.
Naturally, with such an imposing mountain range on the horizon, finding photos isn’t difficult at all; finding unique ones, however, well, that’s a different story. One of the best ways to ensure that you return with distinctive photographs of Monk's Cowl is to leave the comfort of the campsite behind and to set about spending a night in one of the nearby caves.
Sleeping in a cave is not a pastime that will appeal to everyone since it demands living in a degree of perpetual discomfort, but, again, the rewards for the effort are handsome. First and foremost, the mere fact that the views are unlike any of those observed by the vast majority of visitors to Injisuthi ensures that the pictures you bring back will be part of a very exclusive club. In addition, many of the caves in the region are located just below the brow of the Little Berg and consequently provide for views of Monk’s Cowl that are unobstructed by valley walls.
An excellent choice of cave for both those in search of photos as well as for individuals who simply wish to cut their teeth on cave accommodation in general, is Grindstone cave*. This well-protected grotto is situated about 3.5 km from the main Injisuthi campsite along a well-trodden footpath. Reaching the cave requires no particular navigational expertise or special equipment, though good general fitness is a must. Despite being a relatively short walk, the route to Grindstone cave follows a distinctly uphill trajectory that offers little in the way of respite for the weak.
For photographers with the resolve to accept a constantly rising path and a night or two as a troglodyte (or prehistoric cave dweller), the location offers a few advantages. The first is that it sits just below the height of the contour path, making the task of finding suitable views of Monk’s Cowl a straightforward affair. Second, the cave lies practically due east of the peak, something that sees the scene being especially well‑lit at sunrise.
While I am sure that Grindstone cave is not the only location in the reserve that offers these advantages, I doubt that any of the others are quite as easy to visit. In a strangely ironic twist, it is the effortlessness with which photographers can move around Injisuthi, gaining altitude and making use of caves such as Grindstone cave, that makes the reserve a potentially bountiful photographic destination. Reaching Injisuthi is, by all accounts, difficult, especially by car, but once you have arrived, everything else is uncharacteristically easy.
So, if you are after a shot of the reclusive Monk’s Cowl or simply looking for a venue to up your commitment to landscape photography to a whole new masochistic level, Injisuthi comes highly recommended.
* Grindstone Cave is, in fact, a pair of caves located a few hundred meters apart from one another. By my reckoning, the westerly cave is the better of the two and the one shown here.
If you enjoyed this article, then please give it a like or leave a comment below!