When you’ve just completed the five highest passes in South Africa, and been bombarded with jaw-dropping views over svelte mountain scenery for three days, your expectations on reaching a relatively unknown 4×4 track venue near the small town of Sterkstroom are understandably tempered. But how wrong assumptions can be.
It was while gazing mindlessly at the rising slopes of the Bamboesberg in front of our converted barn cottage that I caught my first glimpse of the 4×4 track that my co-pilot, Harvey Tyson, and I were to tackle the next day. I only noticed the route when I chanced to see a horseman’s head bobbing up and down through the thick bush on the sharply-angled track.
Deciding to walk the start of the steep 4×4 track later, I continued reading some of the reference material I’d brought with me, and learned how many San (Bushmen) had made both the Bamboesberg above me and the nearby Stormberg their home until the early 1800s, when they were all but exterminated by the commandos that rose up against them. (I later learned from farm owner, Chris Bartlett, that there are several rock-art sites on the farm to which he will lead guests by prior arrangement — a must on my next visit.)
These two magnificent mountain ranges — they rise from the high plateau of 1400 metres ASL to around 2100 metres ASL — apparently also provided the Boers with a refuge from Lieutenant-General Gatacre’s forces which were based in Sterkstroom during the second Anglo-Boer War. And it was from strategically placed ledges in the Stormberge that the Boers sent Gatacre’s march-weary column back to where they’d detrained a day earlier in Molteno. It was another disastrous “reverse” suffered by the Brits, one of an eventual three including Magersfontein and Colenso, which led the English press to dub the period “Black Week”.
Having seen the angle the horseman had taken down the mountain earlier, I was not fooled by the first few hundred metres of almost-level and lush pasture road that led to the river crossing and the start of the 4×4 track’s first steep ascent. As I scaled the slippery dirt track, my calves strained against the gravity tugging at my 90kg frame as I willed it up the 35° slope. How I wished I’d had the BT-50’s 147kW mill powering me up that hill.
After a few “view stops” to help my lungs cope with the exertion of the higher altitude, I came to the first tricky rock and boulder section – one of many, as we were to discover when we did the trail in the bakkie the next day. It was only about 25 metres long, but as I was a little concerned about the Mazda’s side-steps and lowered tow-bar catching in some of the narrower and deeper sections, I decided on a bit of pre-emptive rock packing.
This was a good move, as it got us through that first challenge with relative ease the next day. As we came up to the little cairn of rocks I’d built on my hike, I looked eagerly at the trip meter to see how far I’d walked from the cottage the previous day, and was dismayed when I saw it read only 2km; it had felt like at least 5!
Before setting off that morning, I had deflated the BT-50’s tyres to 1.8 bar in front and 2 bar in the rear. This compromise between the rock and the soft soil (a little muddy after the light rain overnight) that we had to deal with, seemed to work well for us; we churned our way up switchback after switchback and over some seriously steep drainage humps. These, and the bulldozer-work in progress that we observed later, spelt out how seriously farm-owner Chris takes the preservation of this access road around the perimeter of his top farm.
Back on the 4×4 track, Harvey and I wedged ourselves in as we made for what we believed was to be the highest point of our journey, a radio mast on top of a rocky promontory. Like any objective worth reaching, it had a testing piece of angled rock and scree slope preceding it; and, when the bakkie had almost clawed its way to the top, we realised we still had to make it through a very tight two-metre gap in the rock ledge on the summit.
I was particularly thankful at this point that this was the fourteenth 4×4 track/pass that I’d tackled in the BT-50, as I had got to know its girth and other idiosyncrasies quite well; and with both of us unconsciously holding our guts in as we reached the narrowest point, we squeezed through with around a centimetre to spare on either side. Exhilarating stuff!
But the track had fooled us once again. Although the mast is clearly at one of the highest and most visible points on the route, we were still far from the top. We had to wind our way higher and higher up steep slopes, with the views becoming more magnificent with every 100 metres gained. It felt a bit like we’d been transported into a fairy-tale − one in which the prince needs to fulfil a quest by journeying across heady citadels of rock and deep chasms of green which punctuate an unrealistically beautiful landscape which stretches on forever.
After toiling over some freshly-bulldozed drainage humps in the track, we eventually reached the highest point of the route after about two hours − during which we’d covered only 8km. My altimeter app showed just over 2100 metres ASL, which meant that we had climbed 700 metres from our base level of around 1400 metres at the cottage.
Although we were both peckish, it was too cold and windy to set up our chairs for a picnic at the top, so we decided to amble on a bit further before having our brunch. As we started to descend, we noticed a small herd of black wildebeest gambolling about on a hillside in the distance. We delighted in their goofy antics for some time before moving on again.
“Hey, Nick! Stop quickly − I think I’m seeing things; but there’s a white hartebeest there on that hilltop!” exclaimed Harvey, pointing at a shape on the near horizon.
After much to-ing and fro-ing about this possible spectre of a legendary hartebeest bull of yore, it turned out to be a white blesbuck; but we were no less enchanted with it and continued to populate our fantasies when we later came across a gathering of Orwellian-minded cows that seemed determined not to let us pass through a gate. The thin air, combined with a little overindulgence the night before, was clearly taking its toll.
We had done only about 12km of the expected 19km route (we realised later that the actual distance to and from our cottage was nearer 15.5km) and were no closer to finding shade under which to place our picnic chairs. But, right then, I had more things to worry about than a grumbling stomach.
For the last kilometre or so, the soft-soil track had given way to steep-angled rocky slopes and I was wrestling the BT-50 down a particularly challenging boulder slope (Grade 3+ in places). But, with low-range and diff-lock engaged, and my head stuck far out of the window, I followed some astute directing from Harvey over and around some of the more dangerous bits, and made it through with no more than a few touches on the bakkie’s plate-protected under-body.
Real shade was still in short supply, but we found an almost level piece of ground overlooking the kloof we were travelling down, and set up the chairs for our belated picnic. Entertained by the vistas down the valley and the highly varied calls of a resident Bokmakierie, we washed down slices of cold steak and boerewors from the previous night’s braai with cool drinks from the on-board ice-box. It was a feast well worth waiting for.
By my reckoning at the time, we still had 7km to go; but, after a few more tricky descents, we emerged on a contour line that was almost above the track’s starting point, and made our way over only another few kilometres of reasonable gravel track before we had sight of the farm road that would lead us back to the cottage.
Just then, three white blesbok and a throng of brown ones crested a rise in front of us. Seemingly snorting their approval at our completion of the challenging journey, these fantastic antelope soon turned tail and disappeared into the thick bush surrounding us.
Province: Eastern Cape
GPS: S 31.606075° E 26.375722°
Nearest town: Sterkstroom — 24km
Directions: Take the Molteno road out of Sterkstroom, and after crossing the railway line, turn left after 300 metres onto the Tarkastad road. After almost 10km, turn right at the Bamboeshoek sign-posted road and continue for another 10km until you reach a face-brick house with a red roof. Book in here before continuing to the cottage 4km up the road.
Nearest fuel & provisions: Sterkstroom
Opening times: All year, but check with Chris about snowfalls in the winter.
Terrain: All mountainous with soft soil, mud, rock, clay, boulders − and even a chance of snow in winter. There are several steep inclines (max 35°+) and steep descents with some tight switchbacks and narrow rock gaps to contend with.
Time required: 4 hours at a leisurely pace.
Will I get lost? Although no map is provided, the route is generally easy to follow. The track is indistinct only over a few pastures, and it’s not too hard to work out where to go – just look for the gates in the distance.
Recovery facilities: Yes; provided you make sure that Chris is home when you do the trail. There is cell-phone reception much of the way.
On-site compressor: Yes.
Min/Max number of vehicles: 1 to 5.
Best time of year: September to May.
Diff-lock: Definitely required.
Tyres: All-terrains with good mud-shedding capabilities.
Tyre tracks: Suggest you take these along, especially if you are a single vehicle.
Tyre pressure: We ran ours at 1.8 bars in front and 2.0 bars at the back because of the variable terrain and the weight of our rig — it worked well for us.
Minimum ground clearance: 225mm
Underbody protection: Yes
What vehicle were we driving? Mazda BT-50 4×4, 3.2l turbo-diesel with intercooler.
This 4×4 track is not for the faint-hearted, and requires Grade 3 + experience in places. If in doubt, assess the difficult sections carefully before tackling them, pack rocks where necessary, and take it slowly in low-range with the diff locked.
Wife and kids: For your spouse and family to get the most out of this mountain venue, they will either have to travel the 4×4 track with you, or hike it, as it’s up in the heights that the secrets of this magnificent location reveal themselves. Although there is no TV or Eskom electricity (a generator is available), the cottage has gas appliances and oil lamps, and is comfortable enough for those who just want to chill.
Pets: By prior arrangement only.
ACCOMMODATION: The converted-barn accommodation has two sections, each with a double bedroom and one with two single beds (it sleeps eight in total), which are joined by a communal bar. While fairly rustic, we found it comfortable, clean, and everything worked perfectly. We were just sorry we didn’t get to light the bonfire. Rates are R150 p.p.p.n for adults and R100 for children under 12 years old.
Bamboeshoek 4×4 trail costs: R180 per vehicle — self-guided only.
- OVERALL VENUE & 4×4 EXPERIENCE RATING: 9/10