Port Elizabeth of Yore: Account of the First Ascent of the Cockscomb

At 1768 m, the Cockscomb is one of the highest peaks in the Eastern Cape. Apart from that, its claim to fame during the age of sail was that the mountain acted as a mariners’ landmark as it was visible from the sea. As the local burghers never showed any inclination to climb it, it fell to an outsider, an adventurer, with time on his hands to become the first to do so. It was to be Lieut. Walter Sherwill who, during 1840 whilst on a visit to Port Elizabeth, would succeed.

Main picture: The Cockscomb peak

Per Wikipedia the Cockscomb derives its name from its resemblance to a fowl’s comb. It is situated in the Baviaanskloof region and the nearest town is Patensie. The Cockscomb is part of the Groot Winterhoek range and its peak is 1,768 metres, making it the 9th highest mountain in the Eastern Cape.

The story related below was written by Walter Sherwill himself who, together with a friend, ascended the Cockscomb Mountain in July 1840. Sherwill’s article on this achievement subsequently appeared in the Grahamstown Journal on the 11th August 1840. This is a verbatim transcript of that article.

To the Editor: Sir. To some of your numerous readers who are fond of mountain scenery or would wish to recall to mind scenes in their own Highlands, the perusal of the following account of an ascent of the highest attainable point of that famous mountain, the “Cock’s Comb,” may be interesting. It is the grand landmark of mariners making the south coast of Africa, when returning from India, or the east. The Cock’s Comb is generally the first land made on nearing the coast, and from the circumstances of its having been the first land seen by me after long voyages on the broad ocean, it has become, in a measure dear to me. And while pacing the deck, I have often wished I could go and climb its craggy sides. My desire has been fulfilled, for I have climbed as far as mortal foot can, or ever will find footing. Having for many days at Port Elizabeth endeavoured in vain to obtain some information concerning the mountain, whether the ascent was practicable? How far was it from Port Elizabeth? Had anyone ever attempted it etc? But alas! Some had never heard of the mountain; others knew nearly as little as never having heard of it. At last I met with an English wagon driver who had been to the base frequently. 

Sherwill’s story

He gave the following information: that it was 80 miles from his place; that there was a farm at the base, but as far as ascending the mountain, that was impossible. However, being determined to try it, the next thing to get was a “compagnon de voyage”, which was no easy affair; everyone at this busy place being engaged in more serious occupations than that of “climbing rocks, picking up crickets, beetles and heaths”, as I was politely told to my question of “will you come”? At last Mr. xxxxx agreed to accompany me. This point being settled, we made preparations for starting by hiring a comfortable wagon lined with nice warm furs, a good tent, and a span of twelve bullocks; not forgetting to line several capacious hampers with the good things of this world.

We started on 29th July [1840] accompanied by two of our friends, who went with us as far as the Great Salt Lake, en route to Uitenhage, through which the picturesque town we had necessarily to pass. Having wished us bon voyage et heureux success, they returned, and we started to prosecute our voyage, first killing a Night Adder, which nearly had hold of me by the foot. Ripping off his pretty spotted skin, I transferred it to my portfolio, from whence it will eventually be transferred to my cabinet of curiosities. As the wagon proceeds, I will inform some of my readers, who may perhaps be numbered amongst those who have never heard of the mountain, where it is situated etc.

A view from Cockscomb mountain peak

Craggy Mountain, or the Cock’s Comb, or the Grenadier’s Cap, or the Four Sisters, as it is variously termed, is situated in the range of sandstone mountains called the Winter Hoek, commencing at Uitenhage, from there running in a westerly direction through the district of Uitenhage, until lost in the Kouga range of hills, and the Groot Zwartberg Mountains in the province of George, a distance of one hundred and twenty miles. Through this range runs the Gamtoos and Kouga Rivers, the latter a tributary stream to the former. This mountain is 80 miles from Port Elizabeth and 60 from Uitenhage.

We inspanned early the next morning, and proceeded from Uitenhage through one of the most uninteresting countries ever beheld; an undulating surface covered with nothing but bush composed of Spec-boom, Euphorbia, Aloes of many kinds, and other succulent trees and plants.  Not an open space the size of a room we could we see, and only now and then passed spots a little clearer than the rest, where wagons generally outspan. On the second day we came upon the spoor of a herd of wild elephants, who had passed many days before us; for recent traces were plentiful for some miles along the road and valley in which we were. The flood gates of heaven having been open all night, were now, to our great satisfaction, closed. The clouds and mist blew away and brought to view the range of the Winter Hoek mountains, with the Cock’s Comb towering proudly pre-eminent above the neighbouring peaks of their brethren and companions of ages untold.

In the evening we outspanned near the dry channel of a mountain torrent, which finds its way down from the Winter Hoek. From this spot, looking up the ravine towards the mountains, a view of great beauty presents itself. During the night a commotion took place amongst the cattle, from the unceremonious visit of a lion, who however, behaved handsomely by walking quietly away after displays of burning brands etc. held up to him, in terrorem, by the driver and leader of the wagon.  On the morning of the fourth day we arrived at the farm of the Field Cornet Van Staaden, at the base of the Winter Hoek, and shall long remember the delight with which I hailed the sight of good thick ice on the Vleys, which were completely frozen over, this being the first ice I had seen for many years.

After driving up to the farm we were met by the old man himself. After the usual shake of hands and other salutations, we commenced catechising the Boer concerning the ascent. ‘Come in and sit down’ was his reply. We went in, where we discovered the good Vrouw at breakfast, surrounded by a token of love, in the shape of fine blooming children, miniature Boers, and future Field Cornets.

A fine girl, their daughter, was sweeping the room, scores of dogs running to and fro, fowls perched on the door, the ceiling graced with triple rows up to the very roof, with the heads of the Indian corn; a gun hanging here; an armoire standing there; and a “chauffe-pied” under the table; all helped forcibly to remind me of a Norman peasant’s house. Having expended all the Dutch I could muster in asking questions regarding the road up etc, I managed to glean from the not-over-bright Field Cornet, that there was only one road, and that [was] a terrible round-about one for although the mountain appears to be so near to his house, and a tempting kloof invites you to proceed direct[ly]by that way, he assured me [that] if I did, I shouldbe stopped half way by a steep cliff, inaccessible to the footstep of man.

Necessity therefore obliged us to take the longer road, and away we started, after having first made a light breakfast and procured a guide. We commenced by walking directly away from our point of destination, and after a fatiguing pull of half an hour up hill, and over loose stones, we stopped for want of breath. Obtaining that necessary article, especially required when breasting a hill, we proceeded to drag ourselves up hill after hill, range after range of loose stones, deep grass and heath.

At last we were fairly brought to a standstill by a nearly perpendicular kloof of some hundred feet deep, along whose brow we had to travel, making a circuitous route. When near the end, we had to descend a part of it to mount the opposite side. Both my friend and I experienced many falls in this part of the ascent. I was truly alarmed at one time that Mr. xxxxxx had severely hurt himself, for falling heavily down upon a quantity of loose stones, one of which, received his elbow, another his back, he made an exclamation to the effect that he was dying, and groaned most piteously. Here was a pretty state of affairs! A dying man in a place where a man in health could scarce[ly] keep his footing without grasping the grass or heath above him, some miles to retrace ere any assistance could be procured. What was to be done? I stooped down to ask him whether he very much hurt, but groans, piteous groans, were the only reply to my anxious enquiry.

Suddenly forgetting his pains and troubles, he exclaimed “there go a couple of Bucks!” Sportsman-like he thought of nothing else, whilst game was in view. And so it was. Two Stein Boks were now seen scampering down the kloof with a rapidity and daring, quite astounding, carrying with them loose stones, until they were lost in the depths of the kloof.

The pain of the fall having now subsided, we again started, but such an insecure pathway I never trod before. The least false step threw us down, perhaps to roll some distance, the stones being entirely covered by long and luxuriant grass which clothes these hills rendering our progress painful in the extreme, as not knowing where to place our  feet. Sometimes they would pitch between two sharp stones, and so our ankles would suffer by having the skin torn off, at another time, a loose stone would receive our foot, to reject it in a peremptory manner, by twisting the ankle at an angle, anything but pleasant.

Suddenly emerging from this dangerous kloof, we came in sight of the sea, which we hailed with three cheers. On our right was the bare blue peak of the Cock’s Comb towering above us, and as we had seen it during our two hours ascent, and apparently close upon us, we had hoped on emerging  from the kloof to find ourselves near the end of our journey. Judge of our astonishment upon gaining the spot where we now stood, to see stretch for miles before us an undulating and stony ridge of hills, over which we must go, ere we could reach the base of any of the four peaks. This piece of undulating land is the surface of the Winter Hoek mountains, which we had not calculated upon ever having to travel over. The deep and inaccessible kloof on our right was the cause of our making this circuit of many miles.

We had till now nearly been scorched to death by the sun, but now a refreshing breeze sprang up, much to our delight and comfort; it quite  cheered us on our way, and we proceeded with renewed vigour, after drinking and bathing our throbbing temples in the pure water found in some miniature reservoirs, excavated in the solid rocks by the provident hand of Nature. After a weary drag for a few miles, uphill the whole way, we at last arrived at a narrow neck of land, flanked by a kloof on either side, both from their precipitous descent approaching to precipices. On this ridge my friend sank down exhausted and would proceed no further, so leaving him and the guide, I started to ascend the eastern peak which is the third in height of the four peaks.

In half an hour I got as high as is possible to go and that with great difficulty, climbing from rock to rock, with a yawning precipice on either side of me, but when I got to that height, I saw a sight that can never be effaced from the tablets of my memory. Grasping hold, firmly hold, of the rocks for support, I turned round to admire the view, but how can I ever describe the gorgeous scene! High above me, nearly 400 feet, frowned the mighty peak where man has never placed his foot, not a sound was heard, the silence was awful and painful, and only occasionally broken by the scream of an eagle which hovered above me.

To the South, at a distance of 60 miles, the sea lay stretched in one unbroken line, from Plattemberg Bay to Algoa Bay, a distance of three degrees or 180 miles. Opposite to me, Cape St Francis was seen, running far out to sea. Cape Recife, with its tremendous breakers, appeared like a sparkling bar of silver. The extensive Zitzikamma Forest, with its sombre tinted foliage, lay along the coast near Plettenberg Bay, till lost to view in the distance, the forest resembling low brush wood from the distance from which it is viewed. Immediately behind the forest rose the peaks of the lofty Outeniqua mountains in the District of George. The view to the weastward was closed in by a faint outline of the Groot Zwarte Bergen or Black Mountains and the Kouga Hills, also in the District of George. To the N.W. it is closed in by continual ranges of low hills, running N.W. and S.E. To the north, the view is bounded by the range of Sneeuwbergen or Snowy Mountains, distance 120 miles, which were clothed in their pure and sparkling mantle of winter snow. At the base of these stupendous mountains is situated the pretty town of Graaff Reinet, the road to which place wound along the valleys like a golden thread. To the N.E. the view is bounded by the range of the Zuure Berg; to the east by the sea and snad banks of Port Elizabeth.

The country all around, as far as seen, presents one continued series of range after range of hills and mountains, thrown together in apparent confusion and wildness. Not a river or stream presents itself in this immense extent of country. But this does not detract from this glorius scene. I have seen grand and beautiful scenery in Europe, Asia and Africa, but I have never seen any sight so grand, or approaching the view obtained from the Cock’s Comb. Whilst clinging to the rocks for support, my heart beating so violently that every pulsation was distinctly heard, whether from excitement or from the rariefied state of the air at this height (about 4000 feet) I know not.

Cut off from all mankind, my thoughts wandered far away to distint lands, and many a dear face rose to my fancy, as I inwardly wished some one of them were here to enjoy the scene with me. My former wish to ascend the mountain was now in a measure fulfilled, but I was not satisfied, for ther towered the peroendicular massy head above me. I gazed in despair and sorrow, and wished I had wings or other means to surmount my difficulty. How much higher my thoughts would have wandered I cannot say, but at that moment the sharp ring of a gun reached my ear as it echoed from crag to crag. This recalled me to myself. Catching up my wandering thoughts, I began to contemplate the descent, as it was fast verging to the time of day “when shadows lengthen and tints more yellow grow”.  

Before commencing my descent, I drew forth my white handkerchief and waved it on a stock to show my companion how far I had ascended. He saw the signal and answered by another discharge of the gun, the smoke of which I saw, and from that discovered where he was, for I had lost all trace of hom during my ascent. He looked a “Pygmy small” indeed on the neck of land where I left him. In waving my handkerchief it became detached from the stick and dropped down a great depth. Not wishing to lose it, as it contained a rare specimen of insect caught that morning on the mountain, I regained it, but at the expense of several falls and many bruises. Taking a last look of the view, I descended.

On arriving at my friends post, he told me the gun had been fired as a recall, the guide having expressed some uneasiness at my protracted abscnce, as a return to the farm by night would have been utterly impossible, and to sleep on the mountain would not have been pleasant, especially after the ice we had seen in the morning. This made us step out manfully, and after many falls and bruises, we at last got down to the farm with our shoes and clothes torn to pieces, feet sore, limbs bruised and fatigued, but our hearts were cheered by seeing two capacious bowls of food.

 Subsequent ascents

It would take some 21 years before yet another attempt was made to climb the Cockscomb. It was Capt. Bailey’s survey party which did so. Some 9 years would elapse before the third attempt would be made. Between April 13th to 18th in 1870, a party from Port Elizabeth which included Robert Pinchin, F.S. Fairbridge, W. Armstrong, George Chase and W. Wormald, ascended the Cockscomb. Pinchin wrote an account of the trip for the Herald. His party claimed to be the second to have reached the summit, the first being but it was in fact the third.



The Sherwill Journals, 1840-1843. Voyages and Encounters in the Eastern Cape of Southern Africa, Edited by June Harvey, (2020, Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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