Spectacular veiw of the 2011 snowfalls experienced in the mountains of the Eastern Cape
Just south of Lesotho, the tail of the Drakensberg chain of mountains curls all the way from Lady Grey in the west past the village of Rhodes to link up with the KwaZulu-Natal Berg north of Mount Fletcher. At 2588 metres, Naude’s Nek between Maclear/Mount Fletcher and Rhodes is the highest public road pass in South Africa, while Jouberts’ Pass outside Lady Grey is the third highest (2349 metres). Lundean’s Nek offers a peep into Lesotho and its jagged peaks next door; Barkly Pass, the country’s highest tarred pass, features fantastical rock formations; the little-used Bastervoetpad Pass has vistas rivaling those of the Valley of a Thousand Hills; and the tricky Carlisleshoek and Volunteershoek Passes to Tiffindell Ski Resort take you to the roof of South Africa.
Spectacular views, big skies and hulking mountains are the order of the day. Adventure lovers will find a range of accommodation to suit all pockets, as well as numerous outdoor activities, from mountain biking and hiking to horse riding and fly-fishing. Birders can look forward to ticking more than 250 species in a range of habitats and wild flowers are at their best in spring.
Sometimes, the area turns into a winter wonderland, with snow turning driving conditions treacherous. While it has been recorded in every month of the year in this area, it usually falls between May and August. With 14 passes in the Eastern Cape Highlands, there are more than can be covered here, leaving great opportunities for those with time to explore further.
You can approach this cluster of passes from the west (Lady Grey), north (via Zastron and the Sterkspruit road, or from Lesotho via Telle Bridge border post), east (Maclear/Mount Fletcher) or south (Elliot). Don’t be deceived by the relatively short distances on the map; allow plenty of time to drive each pass as the going is slow on the winding gravel roads.
The 8 Passes Challenge consists of the following mountain passes being travelled by 4x4 vehicle
NAUDE'S NEK The highest mountain pass in South Africa.
JOUBERT'S PASS The third highest mountain pass in South Africa.
VOLUNTEERSHOEK Up to Tiffindell Ski Resort and the highest point in the Cape.
CARLISLESHOEK ...And down the other side to the historical Rhodes Village.
LUNDEAN'S NEK A scenic route to the Lesotho border post at Telebridge.
BASTERVOETPAD Challenging driving and incredible views of the valleys below.
BARKLY PASS The only tarred pass - but the views are worth it!
OTTO DU PLESSIS A wild and unspoiled pass with excellent birding
Extract of an article from the Drive Out magazine on the 8 Passes Challenge
Southern Drakensberg | The Tail of the Dragon
Riding the Dragon’s Tail
Searching for the notorious Five Pound Bend in the mountain passes of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg got Chris Marais involved in a week of high adventure, mystical encounter – and near-disaster ...
Now listen,” says Andre Conradie, as he hands over the keys to my bakkie,
“I want you to find the Five Pound Bend when you’re up there in the mountains.”
Andre and his team prep our Isuzu bakkie before every long journey.
He used to be a platteland policeman, posted to just about any place you find a windmill.
Because of his past life, Andre is my trip advisor. And he knows the Tail of the Dragon, the southern Drakensberg, very well.
“It’s somewhere at the top entrance to the Barkly Pass,” he says. “Back in the old days, the ox wagons had to go around a hairpin bend, and they almost always broke the front axle.
“There was a farmer living down below. He charged them five pounds an axle for a repair job. Eventually, he gave up farming. But when cars arrived, he went out of business. Anyhow, there’s a ‘Five Pound’ inscription on a rock somewhere out there. I’ve seen it.”
Right then. A mission within the major mission, which is to travel the famous Eight Passes of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg – Joubert’s, Volunteershoek, Carlisleshoek, Naudé’s Nek, Lundean’s Nek, Otto du Plessis, Barkly and Bastervoetpad.
Wagon wheels for buttons
Driving north from our home base of Cradock, my wife, Jules, and I arrive under gunmetal cloud cover at our first stop, Lupela Lodge outside Lady Grey, where we meet our hosts, Kate Nelson and Phil Harrison of Wild Mountain Adventures.
Hmm. Now which Lady Grey are we talking about here?
Sophie Grey the architect who, according to my occasionally muddled friend Martin Rattray, used to “ride around on churchback, designing horses”?
Or was it named after Lucy Grey, wife of Governor Sir George Grey?
Google tells me it was the latter. Ha. Lucy and Sir George had a small falling out on a return sea voyage from England, I recall. Something about a little letter she slipped into the hands of a fellow traveller called Sir Harry Keppel.
Whatever was in the note, it annoyed Sir George so much he dropped her off − handmaidens, baggage and all − at Rio de Janeiro before crossing the Atlantic back to Cape Town. It was that Lady Grey …
But this Lady Grey is looking rather lovely today, as the afternoon sun peeps out golden on the Mother Church and the village snugs into the Witteberg and there are sounds of merriment coming from the local tavern.
Up there, on the heights, lies Joubert’s Pass, which we will attempt tomorrow.
We are staying in a cleverly converted silo at Lupela Lodge, owned by Alf and Denise Ross.
At breakfast the following morning, Alf tells us about the legendary Cloete brothers, who lived nearby on Benjamin Heights.
They were super strong young men.
One of the Cloetes was working in his field one day when he was approached
by a stranger.
“Where is the strong Cloete?” the man wanted to know.
“He lives up there,” said the “other” Cloete, lifting the entire plough off the ground to point at the farmhouse.
Aah, these lovely outdoor mountain tales. Reminds me of the old stories about Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack who appears in tall tales of American folklore.
It took five giant storks, working in relay, to deliver Baby Paul to his folks. By the time he was one week old, he was so big he had to wear his dad’s clobber. At one year, he was using wagon wheels for buttons …
Paul Bunyan and the Cloete brothers would have been a formidable trio. And let’s not even mention the ox …
The Pass without Pity
We follow Kate and Phil in our bakkie up Joubert’s Pass on a crisp day where the soundtrack outside is the constant trickle of clear mountain streams.
The palette of winter is russet, burgundy, copper and lemon cream.
There is the constant promise of snow, which I’m in two minds about − nice to photograph on the day after, with the sun out and the land full of sparklies; really awful to drive in, especially with no snow chains or four-wheel facility.
These mountains are not sere and stony like the rest of the Drakensberg. They’re steep and shaggy and wild and hairy with grass, like the feral-looking Galloway cattle they keep around here.
But there’s an elegance to these high sandstone ridges, pared down by winter.
Here and there, a peak stands dreaming, its head in the clouds.
Which is not where yours necessarily needs to be when attempting the 1:6 gradient of Joubert’s Pass. It’s the third-highest pass in the country, so pay some respect up here.
The scenery is stark and noisy as we ford gurgling little rivers and brush past poplars with bone-white branches, reaching out like groves of bulimic zombies.
And then suddenly the road begins to zigzag like a drunken-goat track.
I cast mine eyes up to the mountains and see it running like a livid scar all the way to the top, at an impossible angle.
“Crikey! It’s the Pass without Pity,” I complain to Jules, who has gone silent on me.
And then, thank goodness, we spot the Wild Mountain Adventures bakkie veering off on a gentler track, over the nek of the mountain.
We find out later that the other road, the manic half-mark of Zorro, was nothing
but a secondary track up to the communications towers on top of the mountain.
At the crest, looking down on Lady Grey in the distance, we celebrate with Sparberry (I’ve left my whisky behind) and dried sausage.
We descend, slide through Lady Grey and head back on the R58 in the direction of Barkly East and our hosts’ hideaway, Rosstrevor Farm.
On the way to Rosstrevor Farm we pass the eight old railway reverses on the side of a hill overlooking the Kraai River.
Apparently there are only three such systems in the world, in which the train managed to ascend a 1:36 gradient by reversing a zig and forwarding a zag, reversing a zig and forwarding a zag – you get the picture.
Legend has it (my favourite catchphrase) that a railway tunnel was supposed to be built through these mountains, but that the ship carrying the building materials from Britain was torpedoed in World War I.
Did they even have unterseeboots (submarines) in those days, I wonder?
Legend also has it that the engineer’s wife actually came up with the reverse scheme on the railway line linking Barkly East with Lady Grey to the northwest.
We drop our gear at the Rosstrevor farmhouse, a rambling old family spread
that sleeps more than a dozen souls, and repair to the barn restaurant for a beer.
This is where Phil cooks up a storm for us through the week, and there’s always a hot meal waiting when we arrive back from our daily diet of mountain passes.
Land of myths and legends
Today we’re heading in the general direction of Tiffindell Ski Resort via the Volunteershoek Pass.
Kate points out the high mountain ridges, and they’re looking icy and ominous.
That’s where crazy people do the Sky-Run Eco Challenge every November, jogging 100 km along the skyline, often in darkness, carrying all their provisions on their backs.
But we’re deep in Cloete-Paul Bunyan country, right?
Land of myths, legends and big deeds.
So it wouldn’t surprise you that there’s also a thing called the Wartrail Tri-Challenge, where you ridge-run for 65 kilometres, ride a mountain bike for 135 kilometres and paddle for 65 kilometres down the Orange River, ending up in Aliwal North – or a suitable asylum somewhere in the neighbourhood.
Now, hardy drivers, please note this about the Volunteershoek Pass.
Even if you’re dying to go on the piste and hit the slippery slopes of Tiffindell, do not take this road if the boom is down.
That means the road is impassable.
Last year some guests in a highly computerised SUV ignored this warning, got stuck up here in the dark, lost a tyre and phoned Phil for help.
Biting back some choice nautical terms, Phil drove up and found himself on his back in the snow under the vehicle, changing the tyre – while the tourists stood around watching.
The secret to driving along slick, snowy or muddy roads (says Phil) is to keep a steady speed. Any sudden revving may cause wheel spin and consequent problems.
Me, I think one should just stay home, put another log on the fire – and gaze out the window at the falling snow …
Today, I’m a passenger.
A passenger with a bottle of single malt in his camera bag. That’s because I’m determined to drink a bit of whisky and mountain water, even if said mountain water travelled through a thousand floppy cowpats to get to me. What the eye doesn’t see, and all that.
And I do it, on the south side of the mountain range, where melting moisture trickles down under the ice layer like hundreds of tadpoles heading south.
And it tastes just fine.
At the top of the pass, looking across the plateau towards a forlorn Tiffindell pumping manufactured snow down a slope, it feels like Patagonia.
It’s grassy and deserted and windswept and I’m expecting to have a knife fight with a wife-snatching gaucho any minute from now.
Except it doesn’t happen like that.
We find a body of water called Loch Ness, take refuge in a braai hut and read the record book, which implores trouties not to lie about the size of their fish.
And then Jules steps onto a little wooden bridge and something large and slidy goes by under her in the water and she’s going all Nessy on us until Phil identifies the thing as a monster rainbow trout heading for deep waters.
And I snaffle another single malt while no one’s watching. Medicinal …
Carlisleshoek, on the way down, is not too scary at all.
In fact, there are concrete tracks on the potentially rough patches.
A guy who trades in camouflage kilts comes belting past with his mom in the dickey seat, and then we yield to a road grader driven by a very focused man with what looks like a foot-long marijuana carrot in his mouth.
At the bottom of the pass, one would normally do the sensible thing and head off to nearby Rhodes village on the R396 to admire the horns of Wydeman the giant ox at the local hotel and then troop off for beers and pizza at Walkerbouts, while watching Dave Walker’s well-muscled platannas do jumping jacks in his rather weird fish tank. But no, not us.
We’re headed for Naudé’s Nek, at 2 920 m above sea level the highest pass in South Africa.
A word here: it’s a long journey up this pass from the Durban side – leave at least three hours for the drive.
And don’t take it lightly – it is equivalent to Sani Pass.
At the bottom of the pass, on the other side, is the Naudé’s Nek Monument, mainly dedicated to Stefanus and Gabriël Naudé, the entrepid brothers who pioneered this pass on horseback in the 1890’s.
The pick, shovel and Scotch carts followed, and the pass was completed in 1911.
Up, up we drive through a series of challenging hairpin bends and scary drop-offs (another sip of the good stuff to calm the nerves) and when you look down at one point it all looks like the gods’ own Scalectrix track.
Eventually, extreme thirst causes us to turn back down towards Rhodes and those gym-frogs at Walkerbouts.
The ox with no name
I’m Mr Driver the next morning, which means I’m back on Sparberry.
We’re doing Lundean’s Nek via Wartrail on the R393 today and we’re going to stop and visit Chris and Kath Isted of Reedsdell Farm.
Chris does wing-hunting, fishing, mountain guiding, quad- and mountain biking. If he weren’t an Isted, he’d be a Bunyan.
They also own an enormous Black Russian Terrier called Dusky, who accompanies us to the emu pens. You heard me – emus up here in the mountains. Believe it – or not.
The emus sound like a rather keen drumming circle as we approach, and the male tries to eat Julie’s notebook – or read her scribblings, I’m not too sure.
Although you can eat an emu’s flesh, its eggs are a rather startling green.
But the main deal with these birds is the miraculous oil stored in its two fat glands – good for ailments like arthritis.
The thing about emus, according to Kath, is they’re hard to herd; a bit like cats, really. “That’s because they keep moving towards you, not away from you,” she says.
We leave this clan of Isteds and their goony birds and head on up to Lundean’s Nek, which leads to Telle Bridge on the Lesotho border.
Compared to Naudé’s Nek, it’s a gentle drive today.
But they say it gets vicious once the weather turns up there.
On the way back on the R393 we drop in at more Isteds: Cedric and Muriel of Halstone Farm.
The Isteds, with the Sephtons, are prime 1820 Settler stock.
I ask Cedric about Andre Conradie’s Five Pound Bend and he says he’s heard of it, but doesn’t know exactly where it is.
But when we talk about Volunteershoek Pass and the weather, he presents us with a classic big ox story: “We used to take our livestock up to the high ground in that area for summer grazing, and bring them down round about the 18th of June.
“But the snows of 1963 were phenomenal – and they came early. We were caught up there in the hills, helicopters were dropping sheep feed but it was getting trampled in the snows, which were so deep you could walk over the fences. The new landscape was bewildering to us and the animals – we were lost. Except for the ox.
“My Uncle Ivor had an ox he had taken to market the year before. It had proven troublesome, breaking out of its pen and walking all the way from New England Station to a hideout in the Giddy Kloof.
“When it snowed the next year, that ox was up in the mountains with us. He knew the way down, and led more than 3 000 sheep – and us – to safety. The beast took us home.”
Now, as we all know, Paul Bunyan had Babe the Blue Ox. He found Babe one winter when it was so cold the geese flew backwards and all spoken words froze solid.
Apart from being able to suck the Mississippi River dry, Babe also had horns so wide it took a murder of crows all day to fly from tip to tip. And so on. But up here, in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg, there is a real Babe the Blue Ox story – a priceless local legend.
"What happened to your uncle’s ox? And what name did you give it?” we ask Cedric with bated breath.
“Well, the next year that beast led us home again.
And the year after, we sold it … And no, it never had a name.”
The stunning Otto
Five passes down, three to go, and the first one today − via the R396 and Clifford − is the Otto du Plessis Pass on the way down to Elliot. And despite the rather grey-shoe name, it’s a stunner.
The silence on the ascent is broken by the growly arrival of two leather-clad men on scramblers: the farming brothers Thero and Wiaan Wink.
They stop, check us out, chat for a while, pose for a pic and scramble off.
Pretty soon, Kate, Jules and I are on top of the world, looking out over The Tail of the Dragon.
It’s a pass less travelled, potentially “technical” in wet conditions, bouncy in the dry. But the scenery is, how you say, boggling to the mind.
In the wind, even the clothes drying on washing lines outside herdsmen’s huts resemble Tibetan prayer flags.
“The Otto” is a pass of note – it’s possibly my favourite in this area.
Now we’ve whizzed through Elliot and we’re on the tarred and slightly autobahn-ish Barkly Pass.
I can’t find this damned Five Pound Bend, but I suspect it’s on an ancient route.
Near the top, we turn off on the Bastervoetpad. This is the final pass, and it starts off well with a photo session of an old farm graveyard in a prairie setting, but then gets silly as very sharp stones begin to prey on my chunky yet strangely stone-sensitive Conti Tracs.
I try to phone the Drive Out editor from the pass to get coverage on my tyres, but there’s no cell reception.
So, halfway down the Bastervoetpad, which has obscure Griqua origins, I wimp out and return to the top of the Barkly Pass.
Where I see a great sunset farmstead image down below, rush across the busy road, get my shot and jump back in the bakkie.
Somewhere just outside Barkly East, our cellphone rings.
It’s someone called Siza Mzuzu on the line: “I have found a wallet belonging to Chris Marais at the top of the Barkly Pass. I live in Elliot.”
Jules chats to Siza, we turn the bakkie around and do the Barkly Pass for the third time en route to the Spar parking lot in Elliot.
Where, at the arranged time, an Eskom Land Cruiser pulls up and out jump two young jollers: Siza and his colleague Khanya Nqutse.
They hand over a wallet containing R1 200 in cash, a firearm licence, a driver’s licence and all manner of cash- and credit cards.
“You’re a darling!” I yell with relief at Siza, and he says, “I know!”
“And you’re an honest man!” I shout at Khanya, and he says, “I know!”
Jules takes over the driving on the way back to the farm.
I am sitting at the back in shock.
A delightful week, ending with a story as marvellous as anything those American lumberjacks could ever dream of …
A week later, once we’re back in Cradock, the heavy snows begin to fall up in the Highlands.
Kate e-mails us: “It’s a good job we’re not trying to drive around the area now. The Eight Passes are now the Eight Impassables.
Even the Rhodes road to Tiffindell is closed and apparently there are six cars abandoned on Carlisleshoek somewhere.
“Tiffindell’s staff have made a communal bed for 50 as there’s no heating in their accommodation. It was -22°C up there last night – that’s the best excuse for a love-in I’ve heard in a long time …”
*Drive Out was hosted by Wild Mountain Adventures (www.wildmountainadventures.co.za) and paid its own way.
Summer, as winters can be challenging.
Stay at least: 3 nights, 4 days
The highest dirt pass and third-highest pass in the country, a ski resort with guaranteed all-winter snow and a trout-fishing dam called Loch Ness.
Cape Town-Lady Grey: ± 1 100 km;
Jo’burg-Lady Grey: ± 820 km
Featuring many Victorian buildings, Rhodes is the only complete village in the country that is a National Monument from one end to the other.
What vehicle were you in?
A 2003 Isuzu 2.5 double-cab
How far did you travel?
About 1 200 km from Cradock, around the passes and back home
Fuel consumption? About 12 km/litre
Fair during good, sunny weather.
Tricky and slippery during foul weather.
Best take care and always accept local advice – they know best.
Did you use diff lock or 4x4?
No, but you’ll need either in bad conditions.
Getting to the top of a pass, looking down; listening to the legends as told by farmers of the area.
Seeing all the abandoned sandstone farmhouses in the district.
Best things to do?
Walking, fishing for trout and yellowfish, hanging out at Rosstrevor Farm drinking Phil’s (Dom) Pedro’s, driving around with Kate and her sense of humour, followed by another Phil’s Pedro …
Best place to stop en route?
Mountain View Hotel in Lady Grey and Walkerbouts in Rhodes
And the worst?
Anywhere along the Barkly Pass
Best meal en route?
Road snacks: pies from the Spar in Elliot, biltong from Lady Grey’s butchery, polony-and-cheese sandwiches beside Loch Ness
Contact Kate Nelson 045 971 9064 and she will send you a detailed map.
The Wartrail Cookbook, compiled by a number of women in the area, is the only bit of literature to emerge so far from this fascinating place.
Where can I stay over?
Rosstrevor Farm and other farm cottages near Barkley East.
Contact person Kate Nelson
Tel 045 971 9064 ;
Cell 079 536 3996;