The carefully selected position of Tiffindell Ski Resort, on the south facing slope, ensures that the snow lasts, extending the time available for snow skiing. Slopes cleared and groomed during summer quickly transform to ski runs after even the lightest of snowfalls.After traversing the high plateau, the Carlisleshoek Pass winds its way down to the farming community of Wartrail. The road is narrow with some precipitous drop-offs, so do pause to check for oncoming vehicles coming up the pass as they have right of way. After the steepest section, the road gives wonderful views of Halstone Krans and the valley farmlands beyond. There are some interesting rock formations along this section, the most notable of which is "Funnystone" which lends its name to the farm opposite.
If it's a taste of the Scottish highlands you're longing for, you'll find it at Loch Ness near the base of Ben Macdhui, at 3001 metres reckoned to be the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape. Fly-fishers hoping to hook their own monsters say this chilly body of water is also the highest in the country. On a windy day, the alpine grasslands look as bleak and forbidding as those in Scotland, but some plants are uniquely South African – if you're lucky, you'll see the fat stems of giant mountain red hot pokers (Kniphofia northiae) blooming beside a tinkling brook.
These two rough and ready narrow routes do not appear on many maps and are normally driven as one loop. They provide access to Tiffindell Ski Resort (still closed due to a legal dispute) at the base of Ben Macdhui and reach altitudes higher than Naudes’ Nek Pass, but are private roads built and maintained by local farmers. You don’t need a 4x4, but high clearance and controlled power are recommended.
Temperatures at these heights can reach -22 degrees centigrade in winter, so enquire about conditions before setting out and be prepared. Allow about 1,5 hours to drive the 23-kilometre Carlislehoek route and about the same for Volunteershoek Pass’s 28 kilometres, plus time for picknicking and fishing (get a permit in Rhodes).
Starting at the turn-off to Carlisleshoek Pass one kilometre east of Rhodes, the route crosses the Bell River over a low causeway bridge and winds through picture-perfect farmlands crisscrossed by streams dotted with small waterfalls. After the last cottage, the road gets progressively steeper and narrower; in places erosion eats away at the edge where it plunges into the valley below.
‘Keep up revs and drive confidently,’ advises a sign instructing drivers to change down to first gear on an even steeper, cement section with tight corners. Two-thirds of the way up, there’s a breathing spot at a stream crossing where you can stop to admire a waterfall opposite and the mountain ridges looming ever closer.
The next section is over concrete strips. ‘You’ve done the worst. Only 10 km to go,’ advises the next sign as you top out onto a high plateau. From here, the road meanders in a more leisurely fashion to the base of Ben Macdhui, the highest peak in the Eastern Cape, also known as the ‘Great Mother’. Just beyond is the turn-off to Tiffindell, once a ski resort.
Continue straight on what is now the Volunteershoek route. Driving over Loch Ness Dam wall, you’re unlikely to see any monsters, but there are plenty of waterbirds at this favourite fly-fishing spot, one of the highest still water venues in the country at 2540 metres. The road continues upward beside a sparkling stream which feeds the dam and meanders across another high plateau, riven in places by small dongas.
From a high point at a shepherd’s stone cottage, the mountains march west into the far distance. Below them you get a peep into the fertile Wartrail valley where farmsteads perch on river banks and fields of fodder are cultivated to keep livestock going through the freezing winters.
Meandering across the mountain highlands, you’ll be tempted to stop for some birding and flower spotting, and may even be lucky enough to see a few mountain reedbuck. The next few kilometres take in a steep descent where first gear is advisable. A sparkling waterfall cascades over a rocky lip just above the first hairpin bend.
The road continues its descent, hugging the hillside along a precipitous drop-off before levelling out and crossing a willow-lined river, which it follows down a green valley. Watch out for the strange rock formation on the left just past Funnystone Farm.
The road joins the R393 to Lundean’s Nek at the Wartrail Sports Club, a gathering place for the local farming community.