With access to private 4×4 tracks, mountain ranges and secret figures from the past, we cover one of SA’s roughest 4×4 tours with Unlimited 4×4 Adventure, right on our doorstep.
Having worked at SA4x4 for over four years and explored local trails in countless ‘trail reviews’ and travel stories using production test cars, it’s safe to say I’ve been around the block. The Cederberg and Tankwa have long been special places for me to escape hasty Cape Town and its ills. The offer of a camping trip through our own little ‘outback’ comes like a welcome wink from my favourite waitress. Yet I can’t help but think I’ve already explored the region well, and am unconvinced a group of guys in old trucks have anything to show me. As always, I head into the unknown hoping for the best.
As it turns out, this adventure would be tough to conquer, with a total of nine trails over seven days – most of which are closed to the public because they are either too difficult, too dangerous or on private land. Trails range from loose climbs with necessary winching, to conquering sandstone rock formations and long-distance desert miles through unused tracks and rivers. A total of 900km took us a full week, with countless breakdowns and incidents along the way.
Louis Smit – the man behind the Unlimited 4×4 Adventure – has been exploring the Western Cape for over 30 years and has grown bored of the regular 4×4 trails listed in magazines and websites. With his knowledge of the area and personal contact with numerous farm owners, access to private land and specialised hidden trails have been granted to create a truly unique event.
The Unlimited 4×4 Adventure is invite only and caters for people who don’t mind roughing it and are equipped for a full week of Grade 5 trail abuse. Most importantly, it is not a competition, rather a gathering of 4×4-obsessed guys who share a sense of appreciation for nature and taking a machine to its limits.
Men from the boys – Tierkloof 4×4
Though not usually associated with Grade 5 madness, Tierkloof’s rocky lines easily have the potential for mayhem, if you pick the tough routes. The track was chosen on Day 1 to weed the men from the boys and sort out any issues that may potentially arise further into the trip. This was a good call, as several vehicles lost a tyre, including my Ranger, while others had issues ranging from alternators to cracked chassis members and tyres falling off wheels. The fact that Tierkloof was driven at night made it all the more interesting, but served as a wake-up call to those with broken vehicles; if they couldn’t survive this, they stood no chance of completion.
From the rocks of Tierkloof near Rawsonville, we headed out to the Cederberg Oasis. This is a hot spot for adventure bikers, offering cheap tented accommodation and good grub. The gravel road leading to it is one of SA’s finest and epitomises adventure travel. Katbakkies Pass on the Cederberg side offers some small dunes to play in as well, while we wait for the others to get their broken rigs repaired. Late at night the sound of a V8 rumbles in as Andre Taljaard’s Wagoneer arrives with a welded chassis and new alternator on its 1-UZ Lexus mill. Marcel Loubser’s Cherokee also makes it with new 35-inch Mickey Thompson rubber – perhaps not the best choice for this trip as we were to find out later.
Baptism of fire – Johnny’s se Poort (Tra Tra Trail)
About 45km from the Oasis and just a couple of clicks from the old missionary town of Wupperthal, lies Johnny’s se Poort – an old donkey track to the top of a plateau used to farm sheep or rooibos tea. The poort used to have cemented sections to make it easier, but has since degraded to the point of being almost impassable. The old Tra Tra trail around the back of the mountain is now used for farming duties and is much smoother. We wrote a story on the Tra Tra trail in June 2015 but it’s since been closed as a 4×4 trail so can’t be found on any listings.
Back in 2015 we were told Johnny’s was impassable, and looking at it today, I’d still say it is. The track is at least 50 degrees in its steepest parts, consisting of a mix between large, loose boulders and fixed boulders on slippery clay dust. There is little traction, and, if you get it wrong, a very good chance you’ll roll over, as Ian Himan in his Rubicon found out. With 35-inch tyres and a short wheelbase, the modified Wrangler is naturally an unstable platform and struggled to keep its front wheels on the deck, nearly resulting in it turning over backwards. A similar problem occurred with Marcel Loubser’s Cherokee on 35s, but instead of flipping backwards, wheelspin caused bouncing which sheared the rear universal joint with a sharp crack. Marcel would have to retreat back to Cape Town in front-wheel drive to have repairs done, joining us later on. Surprisingly, large vehicles like the Wagoneer and 80 Series Cruiser simply crawled up without fuss – a testament to stability over manoeuvrability.
Having made it up first try without fuss, ‘Tolle’ the ‘Baby Cruiser’ could be used as an anchor point about 400m from the bottom. With six lines connected to its rear recovery point, anyone stuck at the bottom of Johnny’s simply hooked up their winch. Out of all that made it to the top, Ian’s Rubicon needed the most help, while ‘Groenie’ a stock (bar a front locker) Hilux made it up unaided on the second attempt. Dup’s Cruiser 79 lost a tyre, ending its effort.
The long haul – Biedouw 4×4, Old Postal Route to Leeuwenboschfontein
From an early start to our next destination, past 02:00 for some, this was one helluva day. The Biedouw 4×4 track starts innocently enough with promises of this being a ‘rest day’. The track itself isn’t very technical but offers access to a spectacular rushing waterfall called Bushmanskloof which at these times of drought was all the more beautiful.
Of course being a bunch of men without sense or reason we decide to lengthen our trip to head via the Old Poskoets Route in the Cederberg to the western side of the Tankwa Karoo in one go.
The Old Postal Route meanders its way through private farm tracks, down steep shale descents and through ancient rivers. It was one of these descents that had me lose a front left tyre on an off camber descent, blocking most of the convoy. Using a high-lift jack on a modern vehicle is near impossible without damaging it, and the stock Ranger jack simply bent under the vehicle’s weight. By anchoring the Ranger with a winch line from behind and using a hydraulic jack resting on packed rocks, we eventually managed to change the tyre in just over an hour. As you can imagine, I was less than popular.
With diesel running low and not a spare tyre in sight, we crawled along at walking pace, deeper and deeper into the Biedouw Valley towards the Doring River. Its slow going and easy to get lost even for those who know the area.
As we crash through and over round rocks in the dry Doring River, we discover the purpose of our travels. About 50m up on a cliff, 31 large rock figures alter the skyline above. They’re pointed to by another large rock structure at river level with an arrow, as they would otherwise not be noticed. Three to five metres high, they each balance precariously, looming over the river like ancient monuments to past sacrifices. There was once a community living here, as evidenced by the crumbling stone walls scattered around. Clearly the humanoid structures are more than the work of a few Afrika Burn hipsters. No local can tell us what they’re about but they’ve clearly been around for what seems like hundreds of years. A drone flight to the cliff top revealed no roads or tracks leading to the structures so they remain a true Karoo mystery.
Unfortunately from this high point of mystery, the day for some went south as we escaped the valley and found ourselves in the Tankwa on the R355 with very little fuel and even fewer tyres. I think the total tyre count for the day was five lost, but I could be wrong. The Wagoneer’s steering also broke on the R355, necessitating a roadside repair by replacing the broken steering rod with the handle of a high-lift jack and bunch of cable ties. This was some time past midnight, and Andre Taljaard drove another 150km like this. It’s long and tiring days like this that make one frustrated and angry at the time, but in hindsight remind those involved of what an adventure is all about.
Rock on – Hex River 4×4 Trail
The Hex River trail, owned by Theeuns Hugo, utilises the old tracks created by farmers in generations past. As time progresses, the old methods turn into memories of forefathers and the trails that were once used for work are now used for play. Hex River 4×4 is only accessible to groups of five or more as there are no recovery facilities and even the 4×4 farm tractor can’t access the steepest parts. Consisting of extremely steep inclines over large sandstone boulders, the marks left by diffs and body panels are enough to scare away most potential takers. The 35km trail takes an entire day to complete. Don’t expect to escape unscathed if you come with a standard vehicle. Fortunately every vehicle, including the Wagoneer with its high-lift jack bodge job steering completed the trail, arriving back at night once again.
Burned nerves – Wagon Wheel 4×4
Capitalising on its rich history since 1756, Wagon Wheel offers something for everyone, including a specialised river route that has been known to sweep rigs away during flash floods. There’s also zip lining and clay pigeon shooting, but we were here for one reason; to conquer the Ratel. This rocky off -camber track offers no escapes or turn-around points and drivers must commit with a bit of road building and guiding of others.
Those who reach the top are rewarded with a panoramic view of a deep canyon and the surrounding farm below, but it’s not easy. One incredibly steep off -camber in particular had bystanders hanging off open doors to prevent rollovers, while our guide Louis had some issues of his own. As Louis committed to the section, Tolle’s 4Y engine spluttered to a halt like an old chain smoker in the morning. The cause was fuel starvation as all the petrol from the main tank had drained into the near-empty reserve tank due to the angle of the slope.
One of the guys that had joined us for the day climbed onto the engine, siphoning fuel from a small water bottle directly into the fuel pump as others hung off the right side of the rig to keep it balanced. After an hour of figuring out this mess, everyone else got through smoothly while Tolle had its tank refuelled and fuel pipe plugged with a small stick we cut from a dead branch (the original filler broke).
Acrophobia – Waterval Farm
Owned by famed advocate Albert J Murphy and his neighbour, the Zuurkloof 4×4 trail isn’t open to the public, though with permission a group drive can be arranged, according to Albert. This trail is completely unique compared to any other trail I’ve driven – and possibly scarier too.
Bulldozed into 60 degree slopes at some points, the rock strewn track zig-zags its way to the top of a long mountain ridge, under cliff faces and over a high plateau some 300m above the start. Due to the trail following a mountain’s contour, it’s extremely nerve wracking with large drop-offs and steep descents through switchbacks. If you have a fear of heights, Zuurkloof is not for you.
A view from the top down bears witness to the small English settlement of Matjiesfontein far below and the assuredness that if you walk off track, you’ll have been the first person to put your feet on those stones. Again, this track takes the batter part of a day. It offered up some of the most spectacular views on our trip, and possibly some of the best 4x4ing available anywhere in South Africa.
Special permission only.
The Swansong – Zuurkloof (Tolle se’ Klip)
A few years ago our colleague Patrick Cruywagen coined the term ‘Terror Trail’ when driving up another big rock at Moegatle 4×4 in the North West. These trails are characterised by a true fear of vehicle damage, bodily harm and a sense of accomplishment if you make it to the top. And there’s no doubt Tolle se’ Klip qualifies as one of these types of trail.
Located within the Zuurkloof Private Nature Reserve and only about 45 minutes from the Waterfal Farm trail is this hidden gem for any adventure seeker. Owner Koos Van De Merwe uses this little hole in the wall to escape ‘home duties’ every now and then, and it is also where the idea for the Unlimited 4×4 Adventure arose.
There are three 4×4 trails on the Zuurkloof property but we only did a section of one loop – called ‘Tolle se Klip’. The rock named after Tolle (Louis’ rig) is a 50 degree shale rock face about 35m high with a sharp right turn at the top. Nearly claiming Groenie the green Hilux, Tolle se Klip isn’t for the faint of heart. In fact it’s not even recommended unless you have very little sense of self preservation and nerves of steel.
Having almost rolled Groenie on the way up, it took three guys hanging off the doors to keep to from tumbling once the right-rear tyre was torn from the rim. Using a high-lift jack to maximum extension, Louis managed to take enough weight off the tyre so that a compressor could be used to re-bead it. Whitefaced driver Willem Viljoen wobbled down the exit road after that, exclaiming that he would never do that again, though of course in less savoury terms. Run by Koos, Zuurkloof not only offers visitors a scare, but three trails in total plus rustic and comfortable accommodation.
The final sum
Unlike any other trip I’ve been on in the last four years, the Unlimited 4×4 Adventure specialises in being as tough as possible for those who want to test their limits. Next year, with more camping involved in different locations, it’s likely that the adventure will be even more challenging, with a similar group of adventurous guys keen to explore their limits.