With a summit of over 2,500m above sea level, Naude's Nek Pass is the highest dirt road in South Africa. Connecting Maclear with historical Rhodes this pass is based on the route taken by the intrepid Naude brothers in the 1890s. Today the road is more usually and recommended to be travelled in the comfort of a 4x4 vehicle, but it still presents a challenge, particularly in winter when heavy snowfalls are common. Local advice regarding weatherand and road conditions should be sort before attempting this spectacular pass. You'd need to be powerful, brave, sturdy -- or all three -- to attempt to make a road over the Drakensberg escarpment here. The Naude brothers took it in their stride, trusting their horses to pick out the best route, then got their men with picks, shovels and scotch carts to build this winding pass. The efforts of these pioneers are commemorated in a family graveyard beside a river at the western base of the route. The route was pioneered by two brothers, Stephanus David Naude and Gabriel Naude, in 1896. According to the plaque at the monument to them, erected by their descendents in 1967, these ‘twee stoere boere’ trailblazed the winding route on horseback. It was marked out and constructed using picks, spades and scotch carts, and completed in 1911. Stephanus Naude’s descendants live nearby on Dunley farm.An old wagon route crosses the Bell River below Tenahead Mountain Lodge and can be hiked for a way by guests at Tenahead.
Naudes’ Nek Pass is a long, slow scenic drive on twisting gravel roads, either from Maclear or Mount Fletcher, over the Drakensberg to the village of Rhodes. You should allow about 4,5 hours for this drive, including photo stops, and more in bad weather.
From Maclear, the R396 cuts through plantations and then farmlands, crossing valleys and climbing the gentle 1:10 ascent to the top of Potrivier Pass. It is joined by the road from Mount Fletcher on a high plateau. This road starts 25 kilometres south of Mount Fletcher, where it branches off the tarred R56 at the Luzi River. It follows a narrow river valley littered with boulders for some way, passing a striking, castle-like mountain popular with hikers, and a tiny police station serving the local farming community. The road twists and winds, never straying far from the Luzi for long as it climbs up into the mountain foothills and plateaus out before descending and rising yet again. Pine plantations spread down the valley to the left shortly before the road joins the R396 from Maclear.
The R396 meanders through farmland, then descends a tricky, rocky section to cross a clear mountain stream, then winds up, down and around over loose stones and bad rocky sections. This sets a pattern for the rest of the pass. Although the peaks dominate the western horizon, it’s difficult to spot a gap that could be Naudes' Nek until you do some serious climbing and can make out the road cutting to the right below a large, dark buttress and towards a slight dip in the escarpment.
As you round a corner near the top, you see a high retaining wall of rock propping up the road ahead. This last hairpin bend just below the summit is where a national monument plaque overlooks a view that seems to go on forever, across green foothills into a blue haze where the curve of the planet steals the panorama away. There’s space to park a couple of vehicles and trudge to the actual top of the pass a few hundred metres further.
Just after the summit is the turnoff to Tenahead Mountain Reserve and one of the highest lodges in the country. From here to Rhodes, it’s just 31 kilometres, but you’ll need about 2,5 hours if you stop for pictures of the magnificent high mountain country. It’s not recommended to drive the route in the late afternoon as you’ll be heading directly into the setting sun much of the time. In the early morning, fingers of mist steal across the montane grasslands and the air is crisp and clear.
The road takes a few hairpin bends as it follows the alluring curves of the Bell River, a clear stream with sparkling pools which are irresistible to fly-fishers. After four kilometres, you curve left up a valley carved by a tributary of the Bell, then climb up the side of a ridge onto a high plateau, almost on a level with the surrounding mountain tops.
A couple of kilometres later, however, you begin a steep descent with sharp curves and high retaining walls for a reunion with the Bell River far below. It’s necessary to change down to second gear as you navigate a series of hairpin bends where rock falls are common. There’s even a heart-shaped loop – someone had fun making this road, just as we now have fun driving it. The last hairpin above the Bell River is round a pimple of a hill called Bobbejaankop.
Beyond it, just before a low causeway crossing a tributary of the Bell, is a monument to the Naude brothers who pioneered this pass. A table and benches under shady willows and cypresses provide a good spot to stop and picnic at the base of the pass.
The next section of the road is more heavily used and its surface deteriorates, with plenty of corrugations, loose gravel and surprise rocks protruding from its bed, making second gear your best friend. Most picturesque is the point where the Bell River loops in a series of horseshoe bends to the right of the road, burbling over gentle rapids and then resting in deeper pools. Even if you’ve never fished before, you’ll be tempted to reach for a rod at this point.
The route continues along the Bell River valley, past a number of pretty guest farms. One kilometre outside the leafy village of Rhodes, you pass the turnoff to Tiffindell Ski Resort via Carlisleshoek Pass.