Words and pictures by Richard van Ryneveld.
Don’t Pass this Up
Behind the wheel of a powerful BMW X6, contributor Richard van Ryneveld, feathers his way through the Eastern Cape’s high country. It’s a journey through dew-covered valleys, snow-speckled passes and quiet villages (home to friendly country folk and delicious pub grub). The editor’s email grabbed my attention straight away, “I’ve been thinking about running a story about driving the mountain passes of the Eastern Cape in the new BMW X6. Do you think it’s viable?” Well, I’d been up to this area many years ago and had never forgotten my visit. Would the trip be viable? Hell, I didn’t know but it was too good an opportunity to pass up!
I called a good mate, Brendan McGuirk, he and his wife Pam both drive BMWs with Brendan on his third X5. Did he think the X6 would manage it? Yes. Would he and Pam like to join me for the trip? Definitely! I collected the beautiful Beemer at King Shaka airport in Durban and picked up Brendan and Pam along the way. We motored down the N2 towards Port Shepstone, heading for Kokstad, Mount Fletcher and ultimately Vrederus, a farm high up in the mountains near the Naude’s Nek Pass. It was a recommendation from Tom Sutcliffe, a legend in fly fishing circles. Tom knows the Eastern Cape Highlands well and within minutes of my call he’d emailed me a detailed itinerary of all the people I should contact. His routes and contacts were to prove invaluable on our trip.
The turn off to Vrederus was some 10 kilometres outside Mount Fletcher on the R58 to Maclear. It was dark by the time we turned off to head up the lower Pitseng Valley. At first I thought we were entering a war zone. Some of the small round rondavels and the more modern square homesteads were lit up by what looked like raging fires. Luckily it was only the locals burning grass. The narrow gravel road took my full attention – in places rocky bands broke through the road’s surface; here and there deep ruts had formed after recent rainfall. But by now I was becoming confident in the BMW’s abilities, the X6 was showing its pedigree. With its automatic height-setting button glowing green, and some techno help from mate Brendan, I finally relaxed. We wound our way up the Pitseng Pass, the road getting better as we crested the plateau and arrived at the double story stone guest cottage at Vrederus.
There’s something to be said for arriving at a place in the dark – as you have no idea what the landscape is like. Well, what a revelation, Vrederus, at first light revealed a willow-fringed trout dam, long lines of sheep being shepherded out into the fields and the snow-covered Drakensberg in the far distance, it was a landscape photographer’s dream.
The temperature outside was a very chilly – 12° C as I tramped across the frosted grass to get the first photographs of the Beemer. The windscreen was completely frozen over and the boot opened reluctantly, crunching loudly against the icy grip of the cold.
While wandering up to the main farmhouse I met up with Stephanus Naudé, the brother to our host, Donie. Stephanus had come over the mountains from his farm Dunley on the Rhodes side of the Naude’s Neck Pass to help at Vrederus, and was now on his way to collect stock feed maize down in the Pitseng Valley “Would you like to come?” I think you know how I answered.
Stephanus and brother Donie are the great grandsons of one of the three Naudé brothers who originally found the route through these mountains.
Farming on the Rhodes side of the mountains they walked and rode on horseback over these mountains followed by their ox wagon in the 1890s. Later they helped Alfred Bain when he built the Naude’s Neck Pass. They did this by planting wooden pegs along their old horse and wagon trail helping him complete the road through these precipitous slopes. At 2 500 metres this is the highest commercial pass in Africa. One can only imagine what it was to like to build using only picks, shovels and a scotch cart! We were to take many side excursions on the way to tackling the passes.
Each side trip, each pass and each stay delivered beauty, characters and history aplenty. That first day in the mountains was the day of the Sharks vs. Stormers Super Rugby semi-final! There’s no TV at the Naude’s, so a visiting neighbour, Deidre van Straten, invited us to her farm Diepkloof to watch the game. Once again it was the sideshow that proved fascinating. “Why don’t you let my son Willem take you down to Rush Valley Pan? You have time.” So off we went to see a pair of breeding Wattled cranes on the reed-choked pan. Apparently there are only 150 breeding pairs left in SA. Rush Valley Pan up in the Elands Heights has also drawn scientist from all over the world as the sediment has been dated back some 10 000 years! Our first real trial was scheduled to take place the following morning, we were going to attempt Naude’s Nek Pass. Primed to the hilt about the conditions on the pass, our host Donie insisted we take a Kenwood 2 – way radio which we would drop off at brother Stephanus, at his farm Dunley, on the Rhodes side of the mountain.
The hospitality of these tough hardy inhabitants of both village and country were one of the highlights of this trip. Naude’s Nek Pass will also stay in my memory banks for a long time. The Pass founded by Naude brothers, Gabriel and Stephanus was first walked on foot, followed by horseback until these hardy intrepid farmers managed to get their ox-wagon over the steep mountain slopes. They did this to move stock between their farms is the Barkly East district over to their farms on the Maclear side!
While ascending the pass, there’s only one suitable place you can turn around. It’s at the aptly called Mooidraai with its magnificent views looking down at the hills and valley below. It’s at this point where you will see a National Monuments Council plaque as Naude’s Nek Pass has rightly been declared a South African treasure, that hopefully will be preserved for posterity.
The locals tend to say ‘you should see it when it’s all green’ but I loved the golden yellow winter grass, the frozen dewdrops sparkling like diamonds, the snow-capped Drakensberg beckoning on the horizon. Here and there a lonely farmhouse of hand dressed sandstone, usually with a stand of straight poplars and willows. But we were now climbing and had come across the first snowdrifts which reached down towards the narrow gravel road, with adrenaline pumping we started climbing steeply.
Further up towards the well-known Mooidraai lookout point, the snow hemmed in the on both sides. The lowend torque of our diesel X6 handled the short steep pitches with ease. Arriving at the summit we saw a gate with a big sign saying Tenahead Lodge. “Maybe we can get a cuppa?” said Brendan. Eish guys – if you do this route, tell your lady that there’s rough camping involved. Then believe me, when you arrive at this 5-star stone palace in the foothills of the Drakensberg you will have the happiest wife in the world. Over a steaming cup of filter coffee in the glass-fronted lounge we looked down at the curving Upper Bell River. Below us, the remains of an ox-wagon stood as a lone sentry on the old Lehana Pass.
Also known as the Wagon Trail, this pass was used by the early traders and farmers in the 1870s to access Lesotho and later the old Transkei. There’s also a 4×4 track running from Tenahead through the mountains via the Cairn toul Stocktheft Unit, police outpost to Tiffindell.
But a guy in a fully kitted Jeep Wrangler had tried the route; he sat vas just half a kilometre away, bogged down for hours. Locals advised us to have at least two vehicles when attempting this route.
We had to get down the pass and on to our next stopover, Dave Walker’s aptly named Walkerbouts, in the village of Rhodes. It was a difficult journey, filled with many photographic stops as we made our way down to the village. Sitting in Walkerbouts, where the anthracite – fired heaters never go out, this is the pub where it all happens.
Dave Walker is a walking encyclopaedia on this part of the Eastern Cape Highlands. “Look, the San lived here before anyone else…. they were clever enough to follow the winter migration of most of the game when it got too cold.” He went on to tell how the first white settlers in the remote areas lived in caves, before they built any of the farmhouses.
Looking at my 30277 1:50 000 topographical map, so many of the region’s names stem from Scottish and or Irish origins. Dave handed me a small publication he had collated and edited, calling it “Rhodes A Visitors Guide – January 2012”. In this book he explains how two land surveyors, Joseph Orpen and his brother Richard, had laid out farms in the Barkly East district and part of the Herschel area. They immigrated to South Africa in 1864 and although originally from Dublin, the farms were given Scottish names. (Descendants still farm in the New England part of the Barkly area). The village of Rhodes was originally tied up with the local farmers and the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church in the area. It was founded on a farm called Tintern owned by a Mr Jim Vorster. Back to Dave’s visitors guide “Vorster agreed to the establishment of the village on the condition that 100 plots be sold… and it be named after the then Prime Minster of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes (1853 – 1902)”.
A mate of Dave Walker, Tony Kietzman was also in the pub that night. As a fly fishing guide and flower expert, Tony is also a walking encyclopaedia on the area. With some 907 identified species belonging to 419 genera in the prime flowering season – between the end of October to the end of February – the area becomes what was described in 1836 by French missionary explorers Arbousset and Daumas as “A rich botanical garden”.
The next day I have to proceed up the short steep Carlisleshoek Pass to Tiffindell. I’m hoping that I can continue on from the well-known Tiffindell Ski Resort along the Volunteershoek Pass to stay over with Chris and Cathy Isted at Reedsdell. It all looks reasonably easy, but as they say: things aren’t always as they appear. By now I’m travelling alone, my chums, the McGuirks, have gone back to Durban to take care of pressing business.
So now it was just the golden Beemer and me. There’s something about travelling alone up into the snow and ice on a little track, it tends to concentrate the mind. By this stage I was used to the evergreen ouhout bushes (leucosidea servicea) lining the rough gravel road.
I had also grown to love the small crystal clear streams fringed with the bare hanging branches of the weeping willow, crack willow and poplars. These common species disappear as one climbs higher on the winding track. If I met a vehicle coming down I had no idea where I would edge off the road to let them by.
At its highest point the road is concreted, here I came to a strip of ice about 20 metres long. Nervously, I crept over it. The vehicle was as steady as a rock, not an iota of spin. Cresting the final ridge I came across a 4×4 bakkie parked in the snow. Not a soul in sight.
Two deep vehicle tracks were etched in the snow to my left. What the…? All was revealed some 500 m ahead. Here were four guys frantically digging a Telkom double-cab out of the snow. Conducting the operation was Johan Landman of Specialised Training Services. Based in Bloem, Johan does all the specialised winter snow training for Telkom. He immediately said, “Why don’t you meet us up here tomorrow – we are busy with snow survival. We’ll be building igloos!”
Another story for another day I thought as I continued along to the Tiffindel entrance. I came across a large green signboard proclaiming, Wartrail New England. Two deep tracks led into the snow for about five metres. I walked along this path and suddenly sunk to my waist in the white stuff. I definitely wasn’t going to drive the Volunteershoek Pass today, that was for sure. I have to say I wasn’t fazed, as I knew the warm snug Walkerbouts pub was waiting after a careful drive back down the steep Carlisleshoek Pass to Rhodes.
With the Drakensberg Advice Committee in full sitting at Walkerbouts, a decision was made to take the road from Rhodes to Barkley East. Hanging a right at Moshesh’s Ford some 27 kilometres along the Barkley road, just after crossing the Bell River on the steel bridge and heading up to Lundean’s Neck. The drive up from the Bell River, past Eagles Crag and the Joggemspruit River on your left, is roughly 20 clicks, but I found myself stopping every couple of kilometres to just get out and drink in the beauty and the silence. I never met another vehicle on this route. I had arranged to stay over with Chris and Kath Isted at their Reedsdell Guest Farm. A good choice it proved to be.
Chris, a guy who has ridden some eight Roof of Africa rallies, offered to take me up on the Volunteers Nek Pass from their farm Reedsdell, on the Wartrail side. On the way up we passed Cedric Iststed’s farm Halstone. Over many years Cedric Isted has collected an incredible collection of hand-operated machinery and tools, as well as other local artefacts. The items are housed in a beautiful sandstone building which Cedric built by hand. By special arrangement and subject to his availability, it’s possible to view his collection.
Hand-dressed sandstone farmhouses epitomise this part of South Africa for me. I loved the names of the farms as we drove along the tree-lined farm road: Halstone, Funnystone, Bidstone and The Dargle. We started the steep ascent up the rocky Volunteernek Pass. I was asking Chris about the Bearded Vultures or Lammergeyer when he shouted “Quick mate, quick, there’s one overhead.” I nearly fell out of the car, managing to get some photographs in free-fall mode.
Sadly, I also had to get the BMW X6 back to Durban but decided to wring as much out of this return trip as I could. I took the good gravel road from Reedsdell back towards Barkley East. I took the first turn off to the left that leads down the Old Kraai River Pass crossing over the historical Loch Bridge. The bridge, named after Sir Henry Brougham Loch the Governor of the Cape Colony, was completed in 1893. On my next and last pass, the Bottelneck Pass I could find little historic information. But what it lacked in info, this short pass certainly made up for with pure beauty. Mountains, snow, old stone farmhouses, and cattle and sheep even in the freezing early dawn – I kept stopping for photographs. The Bottenek Pass road connects with the road to Moshesh’s Ford. Heading down to the R58, I saw a signboard for Bastervoetpad pointing to the right.
It was a hard to leave it alone. The Bastervoetpad is legendary, known and rated as one of the most spectacular passes in SA. But when a man who has driven eight Roofs (Roof of Africa rallies) says emphatically “Don’t even try it!” you learn to listen. He and some mates had recently ridden the route on off-road bikes.
It’s bad feng shui to tell an off-road man that he cannot drive a particular road, especially when he’s heard over and over again that it’s one of the most beautiful tracks in the country. After that it was a long, return trip to Durban, a lengthy drive which gave me plenty of time to scheme my return…. I will be back! Even on the far flung farms and country villages of the Eastern Cape, this vehicle turns heads and had people asking me if they could climb inside for a closer look. The X6’s driver’s seat feels like the cockpit of a Gripen fighter jet. A head-up display projects vehicle information on the X6’s windscreen.
Set the Beemer’s cruise control, sit back and relax, this vehicle will not only drives for you, it nogal applies the brakes to maintain a pre-programmed following distance between you and the car in front of you.
Snow, slush and mud-covered hills, the X6 handled it all with skill and the utmost dexterity. I didn’t get to test the Beemer’s claimed 0 to 100 km/h time of just 6.5 seconds, but the occasional G-force sprint on the freeway gave me a good indication of what this sporty beast is capable of. Officially, the X6 is the world’s first Sports Activity Coupé, but somehow BMW has managed to design this vehicle with a surprising measure of cabin space, both for its passengers, and with the seats folded flat, in the boot too.
Safety has always been a major selling point with all BMW products, but the X6 is a cut above the rest and I wouldn’t be surprised if it led the field. There are countless safety features tucked away in the X6’s interior and body panels. If you’re seeking a comfortable off-roader, guaranteed to keep your family safe, the X6 should be at the top of your shopping list.
I was very impressed with the X6’s all round performance. At first, I felt a little apprehensive about tackling the wintery slopes of the Drakensberg, but this vehicle proved more than capable. It’s unlikely that most X6 owners will ever put their treasured Beemers through a similar trial, but it’s great to know that this one-of-a-kind Sport Activity Coupe is up for the challenge.
SA4x4 Route Guide
WHERE WE STAYED
VREDERUS GUEST FARM (Maclear)
S30° 46.960 E28° 16.560
Juan-Marie Naude has two superb stone cottages on their working sheep farm high up in the foothills of the Drakensberg. We stayed in Stonefly, the larger fully self-catering cottage. With a big fireplace downstairs, master bedroom, loft and bunk room with four beds, this is a magic place to stay. Boatman’s Cottage sleeps four and is fully equipped with an outside braai and lapa.
The farm offers both dam and river fishing of the highest order. From the cottages you can almost cast your fly into the trout dam next door. Juan- Marie and Donie Naudé are so typical of the warm-hearted country folk up here in the Drakensberg – not only did they organize a place to watch the rugby but they also fed us till we popped. You see I had forgotten that Vrederus was self-catering! Juan-Marie does serve farm style boerekos at their Shepherd’s Cottage Restaurant.
Contact Juan-Marie Naude on 045 932 1572 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Booking is essential.
TENAHEAD MOUNTAIN LODGE
(Rhodes or Barkly East)
S30° 42.566 E28° 08.222
If 5-star luxury is your thing, then this lodge will tick every box. Situated at 2 500 metres, surrounded by the Witteberg, the Drakensberg and Maloti’s mountains, this lodge / spar offers 5-star accommodation at a reasonable rate. The staff were absolutely first class. You’ll also find brilliant trout fishing, hiking, horse riding, bird watching and a 4×4 track to Tiffindell on offer.
Contact Shauna Stevens on 045 971 8901 / 2 or
WALKERBOUTS INN (Rhodes)
S30° 47.902 E27° 57.697 I loved my stay at Walkerbouts! With its old French style anthracite heaters, this unpretentious, quirky inn felt just like home. Sit in the pub, soak in the ambience and enjoy an endless stream of entertaining stories told by Dave Walker, the pub’s owner. Don’t be surprised if you meet fishing enthusiasts from all over Southern Africa. Walkerbouts serves as the booking office for the Wild Trout Association. This area offers some of the best wild trout fishing in Africa. Contact Dave on 045 974 9290 or email@example.com or www.walkerbouts.co.za
REEDSDELL COUNTRY GUEST FARM
S30° 42.295 E27° 44.575
When Kath Isted first walked me around to the double story stone farmhouse I was gobsmacked. It was so magical I dashed for my camera. Unfortunately, I was only here for one night, it definitely deserve a week or more. Stationed high in the Drakensberg, near Lundean’s Nek, this cottage makes you want to toast your toes in front of the living room fireplace. If you’re feeling stressed out and need a place to refresh your soul, pull in to Reedsdell.
Contact Chris and Kath Isted on 045 974 9900
or 082 457 0909 or 082 837 8066
Fuel can be found at Maclear, Ugie, Elliot and Lady Grey. You can also top up in Rhodes, but this isn’t a guaranteed source. Best to check first.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
Supplies are available in Mount Fletcher, Maclear, Ugie, Elliot and Barkly East. Basic supplies can also be found in Rhodes, but you should rather stock up in one of the larger towns.
CONVOY OR SOLO
All the passes in this article were done solo. But definitely check with the locals about recent snowfall, this can make things dangerous.
Road conditions vary from rough rocky stretches and mud ruts, to slush and ice.
MAPS AND DIRECTIONS
I used a Garmin device loaded with normal Garmap software. I personally love the maps available from the Surveyor Generals Office in Mowbray, Cape Town and had the 1:250 000 topographical maps: 3026 and 3028. An ordinary South African service station road map would also be okay… ish.
A 4×4 with low-range would be ideal for the eight passes in the Eastern Cape’s highland. It would also mean that you could tackle the Bastervoetpad Pass, which is definitely low-range material. Otherwise, just about everything else is doable in a good softroader with respectable ground clearance, like the X6.