Words & Images Andrew Middleton
Last month, SA4x4 travelled through Angola for two weeks– and wow, what a trip! The terrain, people and history were enthralling. However, we often fail to realise that you can rustle up a similarly epic adventure just a few clicks from where you live in SA.
This one, which (in the planning) involved five days of exploring the Karoo and Garden Route, and which ended off at the Jaguar Simola Hill Climb in Knysna, promised to be an absolute riot.
Imagine five pimped out 4x4s and five adventure bikes, including me on a largely outpaced old Yamaha XT, blasting our way through a dozen passes. As luck would have it, my dream of joining the bikers was to be smashed by an apparently blind woman in a Clio, a broken foot, and lots of swearing.
The thing is, when invited on an epic adventure, you don’t make excuses; you make a plan. A quick phone call to Isuzu, and we had sorted a bakkie to act as backup vehicle, photo rig and trail warrior. The guys from Ironman told us that they would be using this trip to get photos of their newly modified 4x4s in South African conditions, as all the press images which they had were from Australia. This was a good story, and almost believable… but we all knew the truth: they needed some respite from the Joburg smog. A good excuse, nonetheless; and, as it turned out, an even better adventure.
DAY 1: Victoria bay via Outshoorn (Outeniqua Pass) – Swartberg Pass – Elands pass – Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)
Having assembled at Victoria Bay near George, we wake up early and hit the road over the Outeniqua Pass. The bikers, less than pleased about the cold rain, squirm along the twisting blacktop, dodging white lines like the slippery snakes they are. After a traditional Wimpy egg-and-bacon breakfast in Oudtshoorn, the Swartberg Pass offered up the first dirt of the trip.
The pass itself, built between 1881 and 1888 by Thomas Bain, used convict slave labour in its construction. Climbing to over 1580m above sea level in 12 kilometres, it’s one of the steepest passes in SA, with amazing dry stone walls and bridges supporting the road over deep valleys. The convicts must have done something terrible to deserve this job!
About halfway through the great Swartberg Pass which links Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert, an obscure little turnoff to Gamkaskloof presents itself to the left. Keep alert, or you’ll miss it. From here, the real action starts, as evidenced by a broken-down Suzuki Sx4 escaping on the back of a flatbed.
Unfortunately, the Elands Pass to the valley of Die Hel (a.k.a. Gamkaskloof) has a rather sad history; soon after it was completed in 1962, most of the 120 people living there left the valley for
rosier opportunities in Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert. Past residents were famous for farming sheep, harvesting honey, and producing a blindingly strong version of Witblitz, the sort of moonshine that hillbillies in the US are renowned for.
Originally, the only access in and out of the valley was via a steep hiking trail called ‘Die Leer’ (the ladder), where produce was traded with people from the cities. The new pass itself is extremely
steep, with countless hairpins and cliffs with no run-off area at all – hot brakes and low-range are the order of the day.
As usual, the bikers disappeared into the distance, ramping drainage ditches while our bakkies crawled down on all fours.
At the bottom of the pass, there are quaint old farm cottages converted into self-catering family accommodation. This is a perfect spot to get away from it all, hidden away from civilisation, yet still
accessible to those with a yearning for adventure.
Just remember not to reverse over the water pipes and knock out the entire valley’s water supply, which is what some ginger idiot in a white Isuzu did. Ahem…