Words & Images Andrew Middleton
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As it had been previously described to us as a ‘scenic drive’, our biased opinion of the Meadows 4×4 trail was initially set to a fairly low bar. So, we were delighted when our expectations were blown out of the water by one of the best formal 4×4 trails I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring.
The majestic working farm, ‘Meadows’, which lies on the picturesque Elands River about 60km east of Port Elizabeth, harvests honey from beehives in the fynbos while also milking a herd of 30 cows. Eight years ago, it was these cows that created the ‘4×4’ trail by finding paths of least resistance while looking for food. The cows explored up and down the mountains, along river beds and dense indigenous forests.
The farm’s owner, Donovan Whitehead, noted these tracks and decided that he would carefully clear a wider path behind his cattle to make space for the larger mechanical beast that we are driving today. What is notable is that the Meadows 4×4 trail (for the most part) follows natural contours in the terrain, avoiding the negative environmental impact a dozer would have inflicted.
Keep in mind, that although cows are large, cumbersome brutes, they can be nimbler than expected and this track is far more than just a scenic drive. At 11 kilometres long, the trail encompasses
all manner of terrain − from steep rocky climbs, to sections along sandy rivers, to places where you find yourself sloshing through mud.
Where wet clay has set as hard as concrete in places, it tells a story of vehicles losing their battle with gravity (and traction) during the rainy months. Thanks to the brutal drought this area has been facing in recent months, we were lucky in that the dry ground offered plenty of grip.
Five minutes into the trail, there’s a turn-off towards a viewpoint where a treat lies in store – the spectacular view is perfect for a sundowner. The rest of the trail follows suit, and offers many more spectacular views, although at the same time the route becomes progressively more challenging. In all, it could take three to five hours to complete the trail.
For those keen on an overnight camping session, the sites resting on the bank of the Elands River are as picturesque as the rest of the farm. All sites are grass-covered and there is plenty of space available for a large group of vehicles and their respective accommodations. Of course, swimming in the river is par for the course.
Unfortunately, because we flew in the day before and were travelling light, camping the night before we arrived at the Meadows wasn’t as comfy as it could have been and we opted for the chalet. As it turned out, our minimal camping supply was a blessing in disguise as the chalet is pure luxury; it has a spectacular view of the river valley over your braai fire and is the perfect place to end off a long day’s drive.
If you’re driving a long-wheelbase vehicle like our Isuzu, you’ll need a rear diff-lock to navigate some forest sections slowly. As cows and water have eroded parts of the terrain, severe off-camber
turns test your nerve and driving skill, as wheels dangle half a metre off the ground on occasion.
Most of the ‘red’ routes have an easier chicken-run option, but I feel that if you’re doing a 4×4 trail, you may as well go all out. Thankfully, despite the rocks and steep sections, the trail isn’t a
car breaker – at least in the dry.
Land Rover recently began using the facility for their Land Rover Experience training program, bringing in brand new Range Rovers and Discoveries to teach owners their capabilities, which is a good indication that vehicle damage is not on the agenda.
If you’re in the area to visit the Meadows 4×4 trail, it’s worth taking the Elands River road, 90km beyond the Meadows 4×4 trail, all the way to Patensie. The road is sometimes known as the ‘Klein Baviaans’ due to its proximity to the famous Baviaanskloof Pass and, as such, offers spectacular scenery.
On the way, you should stop at the Boer War museum and farmstall which (apparently) has some of the best homemade cheese you’ll ever taste. Patensie also offers the best farmstall I’ve ever visited, with a fantastic restaurant connected to it. You can also stock up on supplies at the local Spar and butchery.
Do take note that the 90km of gravel from Meadows 4×4 to Patensie is severely degraded in parts, and took us over one-and-a-half hours each way, excluding the time it took to change a tyre punctured by a sharp piece of gravel on the rocky road.
What vehicle were we using?
Isuzu KB300 LX Extended Cab
According to the owner of a nearby 4×4 training facility, the KB performed very well on his track when compared to the other brands he sees at his course. For me, the low-down torque and
forgiving nature of the engine made the steep ascents easy. Also, the ample compression braking from the big four-cylinder diesel ensured that my use of the foot brake when descending steep hills was kept to a minimum.
The only issue was the standard fitment running boards, which (after two trails) were completely scratched and bent − although I’m sure most drivers taking their bakkie off-road will remove theirs. Also notable is the brake-based traction control system introduced on the 2015 models, which applies braking force based on speed sensor information and sends power from the wheel/s with the least grip to the wheel/s with the most.
When stuck, we frequently used the rear diff lock, but the torque vectoring action helped divvy up grip to the wheels on the front axle. This system saved our bacon on a couple of occasions and got us up and out of sections where, without it, we would have been stuck.
Remove running boards if you have them installed.
Minimum ground clearance
What vehicle were we using?
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