Like most brilliant holidays, it started with an idle thought. Just how many big highs could an obsessive pass chaser pack into one long weekend? I opened up a topographical map of South Africa and my eye was immediately drawn to the dark-brown patches south of Lesotho.
The cluster of big passes in the Eastern Cape Highlands scattered around the southern tail of the Drakensberg offers the best chance of altitude sickness on four wheels in South Africa. Located in the vicinity of the unfashionably named hamlet of Rhodes, this collection of Victorian-era cottages is a haven for fresh-air freaks such as flyfishers, mountain bikers and extreme trail runners, as well as the plain lazy – even stoep-sitting is considered a sport in this part of the world.
Calculating distances and allowing for winding gravel roads (which probably had not felt the blade of a grader in months if not years), I reckoned I could pack eight big highs into four days.
Friday saw me heading for the biggest first: at 2 590 metres, Naudés’ Nek Pass is the highest pass entirely on a public road in South Africa. Of course, Sani Pass is higher at 2 873 metres, but its summit is in Lesotho.
Approaching from the east, I filled up with fuel in Mount Fletcher, as supplies in Rhodes are not always regular, and hit the dirt, following the twists of the not-so-lazy Luzi River and up the Pitseng Pass. It may be a small pass, but sharp bends and a rough surface mean you’ve got to pay attention to the road, not the scenery – but hey, it was still tick number one for a pass chaser and a pretty prelude to the big tick of Naudés’ Nek.
Once the road plateaued out and joined the R396 from Maclear, the Drakensberg dominated the horizon, but it was difficult to spot a gap in the ramparts that could be Naudés’ Nek. After some serious climbing,
I made out a cutting below a slight dip in the escarpment and was glad I wasn’t driving a team of oxen like the pioneers of old.
Just below the summit, where a high, retaining wall props up the road on an attention-grabbing hairpin bend, I pulled over to gaze back at the winding route it had taken over two hours to drive. The hills heaped upon one another, crowding the foothills of the Berg, broken by gurgling streams in long shadows. The ultra-fresh breeze whipped me back into my borrowed SUV and I topped out into the golden blast of the afternoon sun.
Don’t be fooled by the 31-kilometre descent to Rhodes – it’s not all downhill, or quick. Cyclists I passed were pedalling hard up hills, and multiple loops followed the alluring curves of the Bell River, irresistible to flyfishers.
At the last river crossing, I stopped at a picnic spot with a memorial to the Naudé brothers, Stephanus and Gabriel, the twee stoere boere who pioneered this route on horseback in the 1890s.
Brave and sturdy they certainly were to have envisioned a road in the rough country I’d just traversed with far more horsepower than they’d ever dreamed of.
The centre of the universe
Rhodes village is so quaint it still has a telephone booth Superman would be happy to change in. I booked into Walkerbouts Country Inn and ordered dinner in the cosy pub. Host Dave Walker, whose long white beard often has guests mistaking him for an off-duty Father Christmas, had gone fishing, so his mate Tony Kietzman entertained me with tales of big ones that almost got away from his flyfishing clients. “Rhodes is the centre of the universe, you know,” he mentioned casually after another drink. For a flyfisher, he might have a point.
Saturday I set out for my next highs – Carlisleshoek (2 517 metres) and Volunteershoek (2 381 metres) passes,
a total of 23 kilometres and 28 kilometres respectively. These form a loop on private farm roads that provide access to Tiffindell Ski Resort and deposit you on the high plateau at the foot of Ben Macdhui, reckoned to be the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape at 3 001 metres.
Once past picture-perfect farmlands, Carlisleshoek Pass narrows and climbs sharply. Some sections are so tricky that signs have been erected to encourage motorists to persevere. ‘Keep up revs and drive confidently’ advised one. This is definitely a route where a vehicle with high clearance and controlled power is necessary.
Don’t stray into Lesotho
Up on the high mountain plateau, in scenery reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, I did a double-take when I came across a small lake named Loch Ness, just beyond the turn-off to Tiffendell. Apparently this is where some flyfishers have hooked their own monsters.
Volunteershoek Pass is a steep descent that begins with a sharp hairpin bend just beyond a shepherd’s cottage. I pulled over at a small waterfall to take some photos and yesterday’s cyclists whizzed past, relishing the long downhill all the way into the Wartrail Valley below, getting their adrenaline fix from the treacherously sheer drop-offs – no room for slipups here.
I caught up with them when I booked into the self-catering cottage at Reedsdell Guest Farm. They’d organised a hearty lunch in the garden and were far from young, but a frisky bunch intent on ticking off passes on two wheels. Hostess Kathy Isted reckoned I could still do Lundin’s Nek Pass that afternoon.
“Just don’t go all the way to Lesotho, it’ll take forever,” she warned, so I set off for my third tick of the day.
Driving north past lucerne fields tinged mauve with blossom, I was drawn to a skyline pierced by jagged fingers of rocks. This was the route cattle rustlers used when they raided local farms. From his stronghold in Lesotho, Chief Morosi would send out raiding parties and many skirmishes took place here as angry farmers tried to recover their stolen livestock, hence the aptly named Wartrail Valley.
Wind-sculpted sandstone domes
Near the top is a farm gate, guarded by a police station. “No, it’s not the highest police station in the country,” said a modest constable when I went in to enquire. Seems today he and his colleagues are kept busier by dagga and diamond smugglers.
The 2 162 metre crest of Lundin’s Nek is a magical spot and I lingered, strolling among the wind-sculpted sandstone domes, and peeped across the border at Lesotho’s peaks. It’s just 46 kilometres to the Tele Bridge border post, but the punishing route would take more than the hour I’d already driven, so I turned back to my cosy cottage at Reedsdell.
On Sunday morning, my route lay along a scenic backroad below the Berg foothills to the Kraai River Pass. It’s not as big as the others around here, but the flooding river was enough to hold up an entire column of troops for three weeks in 1881 when this was part of the main route between Barkly East and Lady Grey. Engineering supremo Joseph Newey was commissioned to build the charming stone bridge that is still in use today.
Jouberts’ Pass outside Lady Grey was my next high. Built by the Joubert clan and a couple of mates as a short cut to pastures over the mountains in 1914, it’s a prime example of the boer maak ’n plan mindset. They ended up with the fourth-highest pass in South Africa and the sign at the top says it all – Hemel-op-Aarde (Heaven on Earth). Your vehicle might not agree – the names of muddy-stream crossings on the descent are apt warnings –Kar Wegspoeldrif and Car Sump Drift.
Valley of a thousand hills
My last pass for the day was Bastervoetpad Pass, pioneered by the Griqua in 1862 on their great trek from Philippolis to the wild No Man’s Land, now the district of Maclear and Ugie. “But the pass is in a state,” my host Gideon van Zyl at Mountain Shadows Hotel near Barkly East warned – and insisted on accompanying me.
The approach was not so bad, but then we got to the edge of the escarpment and surveyed a panorama rivalling the Valley of a Thousand Hills. “You’ll need a mountain bike or a scrambler to go down here,” Gideon apologised for the rockfalls on the zigzag route that sees little maintenance. We photographed a plaque commemorating the men who modernised the pass in the 1970s, and turned back reluctantly.
Next morning I had one more treat on my homeward journey – Barkly Pass. At 2020 metres, it’s one of the highest, tarred passes in the country with spectacular scenery as you cruise down the modern road towards Elliot.
My tally for the long weekend was nine passes – two small ones and seven big ones, all gravel except the last. A happy haul for any pass chaser.
This was first published in our July issue of 2018