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The Southern Belle of Ongeluksnek

The Southern Belle of Ongeluksnek

We were, to be honest, smug. It didn’t get much better than this. The tents were up – one on the roof of a car, the other pegged to the ground. The fire was built, the view spectacular, the sunset a natural wonder and the peace balm to city-worn souls. Watched quizzically by a quartet of hardy Basotho ponies, we raised our glasses to toast the majestic Southern Drakensberg – oblivious to the huge, anvil-shaped black cloud behind us.

Ponies, mountains and hail

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At Lake Letsie, the track was rather muddy.

By the time we noticed it, it was too late. The cumulonimbic mammoth was above us. It opened its maw and dumped its cargo – gale-driven rain that turned in an instant to hail. We were drenched. It felt as if the entire annual rainfall of the region – 750mm – had fallen then.

Our smugness washed away, we scrambled into our cars to sit out the rest of the storm. Even the ponies sought shelter from the bruising hail under the meagre eaves of the small thatched hut at the gate. There they stood, staring out at their suddenly white and icy world.

The cold and wet aside, there was a certain charm to the scene once the cloud had dissipated. Ponies, mountains, glistening hail, sandstone huts, grand views . . . they added up to a pretty sight.

Until we saw the tent that had been pegged to the ground floating away on a high tide of melting hail.
We could only laugh.

Later, when the setting sun made bulky silhouettes of the mountains, there came the silver lining to that anvil cloud. The hail having scoured the atmosphere clean, stars without end spattered the heavens. That night, we camped under a silver sky.

Fossils of another era

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Hikers can revel in breathtaking views at Ongeluksnek Nature Reserve.

Ongeluksnek Nature Reserve (ONR) is little known, despite having been proclaimed a protected area as long ago as 1976. We were part of a group invited to test out new facilities and to sample the activities the area offers. Located in steep mountain landscape on the Lesotho border, ONR is an hour’s drive west of Matatiele, the last stop for fuel before you head out into the back of beyond.

Twelve kilometres from ‘Matat’, you turn off the R56 onto a gravel road described as ‘challenging’. Luckily for us, our visit came hard on the heels of recent grading so the 38km drive was easy – the only real challenge being to keep our eyes on the road and not on the splendid mountain views.

It’s a fascinating journey, not least because of the many derelict sandstone farmhouses along the way. Fossils of another era, they stand witness to the politics that created the independent homelands, the farms having been expropriated by the Nationalist government for incorporation into the Transkei. Now, of course, they’re part of South Africa again.

One farmhouse has escaped decay. This is the century-old Gateway Lodge at the entrance to ONR. Recently renovated, it now provides comfortable self-catering accommodation. It can sleep 12 – which was just as well, because after the hail storm several of our group of once-intrepid campers quickly forsook their tents and bagged a place in the lodge.

Rolling valleys and panoramic views

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Halfway up the Ongeluksnek Pass the road was not so boggy.

The morning after the storm we awoke to weather tailor-made for a trip up Ongeluksnek Pass and into Lesotho. By any standard the pass is impressive, rising 1 000 metres (the height of Table Mountain). Originally a track built by hand, in the 1960s it served as a trading route between Matat and Mount Moorosi in Lesotho. In 1991 it was turned it into a proper road, and recently it was renovated. Even so, it is, to borrow a word, challenging.

What then was it like in the 1950s when Matatiele resident Lionel Whittle went up the old track in a Land Rover, becoming the first person to drive over the pass? Camel Trophy stuff? Probably tougher.

The etymology of place names is fascinating (unless you live in Durban, where it’s just plain irritating). In the case of Ongeluksnek, legend has it that a Griqua leader’s son was killed when his ox wagon plummeted over the edge. A more contemporary ongeluk gives further credence to the name. Near the top, a buckled bakkie lies in a ditch halfway down the slope.

Accidents aside, this is a majestic place. The rolling valleys, panoramic views, tight bends and sheer drop-offs are reminiscent of the iconic Sani Pass. Ongeluksnek is shorter, though, and you can go up it in any vehicle with adequate ground clearance. But in wet weather – especially after hail storms when it’s like a skidpan – a 4×4 is advised.

The pass is also not nearly as busy as Sani. Ours were the only vehicles on it that day, and this was not unusual. On average, 30 passports are processed each month at the South African border post, a fact difficult to digest when you see the buildings. Brand-new, expansive and expensive, powered by generators, the diesel for which is trucked in daily, they would be more suited to the busier Sani border post. Or those at Ficksburg, Beit Bridge, OR Thambo Airport . . . For Ongeluksnek, the modest hut at the gate of the reserve could easily do duty as both a border post and shelter for ponies in a hail storm.

The top of the pass

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Two and half thousand metres above sea level, wearing a blanket makes sense even on a late-summer morning

We reached the top of the pass without ongeluk to find ourselves in another world and another time. It was as though we’d been transported back in history to when shepherds and their flocks roamed pristine wildernesses. There are no buildings, save for a few isolated huts resembling piles of stones, no pollution, no litter, no sense of the 21st century. The area is as it must have been when time began.

In this other-worldly alpine place of fynbos and rocky hills, the peace is broken only by the bleating of goats or sheep, the clanking of cowbells or the shouts of blanket-wrapped shepherds connecting with one another.
When you’re 2 536 metres above sea level, wearing a blanket makes sense. It’s chilly up there, even on a late-summer morning. The local donkeys are well adapted, having ‘blankets’ of their own – the shaggiest coats imaginable – and the shepherds’ dogs sport coats in similar style.

We saw little wildlife but the birders among us enjoyed many treats. A Bearded Vulture swooped past us, so low you could see the expression on its face. Cape Vultures are numerous, along with other raptors. The grassland and alpine species included the Cape Longclaw and various pipits, larks and chats, while the distinctive Southern Bald Ibis was everywhere.

About six kilometres from the top of the pass is Lake Letsie – an extensive wetland area of outstanding natural beauty. Rich in biodiversity, it falls within the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation region and is a declared RAMSAR site. That means it’s protected under the International Treaty on Wetlands adopted in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran.

A peaceful Sunday

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Parishioners arriving at Mariazell for Sunday Mass.

Aside from the trip up the pass, ONR offers many other enjoyable activities. The place is a hiker’s dream, and the Mehloding Hiking Trail is based next to the reserve. For cooling off after a tough hike, there is the Jordan River, and horse riding can be arranged through the reserve manager. Mountain bikers can choose from an abundance of footpaths, while for technically skilled cyclists there is the pass itself. A couple in our party conquered it. They’re residents of Matatiele, like Lionel Whittle. They make them tough in that town.

And then there is something quite unexpected in such a far-flung place. We awoke on Sunday morning to a sound more associated with a town than the gramadoelas – the peeling of church bells. Invited thus to church, we drove down the valley to Mariazell Mission. There, Jacob Matabane, the school boarding master, proudly showed us around.

Dating back to 1884, the magnificent sandstone church stands in all its original splendour and as a testament to the skills of the Austrian monks who built it. The school maintains high standards too. One famous ex-student, we learnt, is Patrick Mosiua Lekota.

Self-sufficiency is the key at Mariazell; much of the food is home-grown and a hydroelectric system provides the electric power. No load shedding for Mariazell. No need for daily diesel deliveries either. Indeed, the high tide of melting hail must have boosted the electricity supply considerably that Sunday.

Pictures Janet Hesketh

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