Words and image by Steven Cunliffe
The Drakensberg Mountains are a jagged spine of rock formations − punctuated by towering peaks, lofty basalt buttresses and tumbling waterfalls − that stretch 1200km from the Eastern Cape to Mpumalanga. Nowhere is this mountain chain more awe-inspiring than on its passage through KwaZulu-Natal. In search of family-friendly adventure, Stephen Cunliffe took his wife, son and the new Subaru Outback to explore the dusty back roads and scenic bypasses of this magnificent mountain region…
Mention the Drakensberg to any avid 4×4 enthusiast, and the conversation invariably turns to talk of Sani Pass and exploring Lesotho. However, there is considerably more to the Drakensberg massif than perennially tackling this old chestnut, so we opted for a very different type of Drakensberg adventure. Our goal was dead simple: a week-long exploration of the lesser known routes in and around the rugged KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, in a softroader.
But, in order to reconnoitre the region properly, we needed first to define the area of exploration. We took the mountainous international border with Lesotho as our western boundary, the Free State frontier as the northern perimeter, the N3 and Midlands Meander as the eastern margin, and the Sani Pass approach as the southern limit. With our target identified, I packed the vehicle, loaded up my wife and young son, and left Joburg on a sunny Sunday morning.
Middledale Pass to Spioenkop
One of the things that makes the spectacular KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg region so attractive is how easily accessible it is from both Joburg and Durban. After a couple of hours’ cruising down the N3, we left the dual carriageway at tiny Swinburne: an unremarkable hamlet dominated by its roadside Engen garage and KFC takeaway. But, unlike most of the other travellers who were refuelling and hitting the highway once more, our roadside refreshment stop marked the starting point of our quest to explore as many Drakensberg back roads and bypasses as humanly possible.
It felt good to have the windows down, and dirt under our tyres once more. A faded sign informed us that the gravel track we were turning onto was the S800. After hours of flat, Free State grasslands, it was a relief to see the rocky ramparts of Rensburgkop off to our left as we climbed past the Kerkenberg, and turned south-east towards Middlevale Pass. Little did we know, at this early juncture, that this lesser-used mountain route into KwaZulu-Natal would prove to be one of our favourite drives of the entire trip.