“Perhaps we should have done the easier Red Cone Farm route, after all,” I told my fiancée, Annette, as my furrowed brow channelled rivulets of sweat down my temples.
Although Ferndale Farm’s Circle Road North route had already provided us with a fair number of Grade 3 challenges in the form of a large boulder crossing and some axle-twisting ruts, plus the odd 35° ascent and numerous narrow roads riding atop precipitous cliff-faces, we had until then been comfortable that our trusty Mazda BT-50 would not fail us on this route; especially as we’d had the more aggressively-patterned Dunlop AT3 G rubber recently fitted.
But one’s confidence evaporates remarkably quickly when faced with a vehicle sliding sideways towards the edge of a precipice. Annette had the sense to get out of the bakkie before the BT-50 and I went slip-sliding our way up the 30° muddy slope, getting closer to the edge all the time. And this was in low range, with the diff-locked… However, in hindsight, perhaps my anxiety had caused me to be a tad enthusiastic on the accelerator, causing the mud-coated tyres to have about as much traction as a leather-soled pedestrian on an ice-covered pavement.
Of course, our predicament was largely my fault, as I had clearly taken a wrong turn. About half a kilometre earlier, I had been faced with a three-way split in the road and a signboard which showed only two options. After letting the vehicle’s tyres down a little further, I set off up the heavily-overgrown track to find a wide enough turnaround point; but, even after nearly a kilometre, I found nowhere suitable for even a Mini to turn around.
There was nothing for it but to try and defy the black-hole-like gravity pulling the bakkie towards the side of the mountain. By judiciously caressing the accelerator and following Annette’s signals very carefully, I eventually made it over the slippery incline, and, as soon as I could, accelerated hard for a short while to try and rid the tyres of the cloying black mud − tyres that were meant to offer improved traction in wet and muddy conditions. (See information page for more detail.)
With Annette back in the bakkie, we edged our way up the tree-crowded track, which made me grateful that the vehicle had been covered with VPS paint-protection film. In briefing us on the route, farm manager Stuart Pringle had warned us that the track was rough and overgrown in parts; and, although we liked the pioneering feel of it, I was silently hoping that I hadn’t bitten off more than our vehicle or my skill could handle.
But, all went well until we were faced with yet another three-way junction. And again, my directional faculties were tested by two different signboards pointing in the same direction. Now, having skippered a small yacht across the Atlantic many years back, primarily with a handheld compass and a rudimentary knowledge of celestial navigation, I’d always thought I had a fair idea of where I was going − but clearly not in this case.
Having selected the route labelled “4×4”, we were just through slapping ourselves on the back and thinking that we were indeed on the right track at last, when we came across an ugly minefield of big pointy rocks that appeared to be gnashing their collective teeth at the prospect of sucking our sump and diffs dry.
Again, I was faced with the “Should I back out of this route?” conundrum. And, again, I succumbed to a starburst of gung-ho ego and the determination to prove that my mind and abilities hadn’t been entirely lost.
Once again, Annette directed, and I stuck my head far out of the driver’s window to get the best view – a skill (made easier by the Mazda’s auto-box and low-down diesel grunt) which I mastered on this track. I zigzagged my way through, suffering only a few bumps to the underbody and the odd squeal from the side-steps fitted to our vehicle.
“Whew! That was some ride,” I said to Annette, after a large hit of strong coffee from our stainless-steel Thermos.
We had arrived at a place which we vaguely remembered Stuart warning us “…not to try and reach, whatever you do!” It was called “Vulture Viewpoint” (we’d seen a number of magnificent Cape Vultures en route), and we’d somehow crested the range we were meant to be riding beneath. Luckily, I managed to contact Stuart on his cell and was directed away from further trouble. However, that entailed our going down the same hairy way we’d ascended, even though Stuart assured us that it would be much easier going down.
Our quick picnic at the top (rain clouds were threatening and we’d been warned that traction would deteriorate rapidly up there), gave us an opportunity to sum up the highlights of what we’d experienced thus far: rustling through long green grass with aloe- and cycad-studded kranse flanking us; boulder-hopping on the track which runs adjacent to the mocha-coloured waters of the languid Thomas River; crossing lush meadows populated by fat merino sheep; edging through wooded, dry-river valleys carpeted with rusty autumn leaves; negotiating steep inclines over road humps, dongas and ruts; avoiding the turning to the Grade 5 Box-Kloof-Pass (one of the only good navigational decisions I made); rising up onto the beautiful alpine plateau punctuated with long-stemmed wild flowers; making it onto the Underberg Road − and bundu-bashing our way forward up muddy slopes after one of two wrong turns along this road.
The descent through the pointy-rock minefield was indeed a bit easier. However, the reprieve we’d hoped for after joining the Circle Road South proper was long in coming. Having taken just over three hours to cover the first 11km, we were starting to become a little fatigued, and the track continued to challenge: the mud and large rocks were now giving way to steep, loose, scree slopes and glacier-like ruts.
“So, you eventually made it down safely, I see,” quipped our ebullient host, popping in to say hello at our campsite on his return from a stock-buying recce up near Aliwal North.
Butch James, the farm-owner, is distantly related to the Springbok rugby player of the same name (a popular family nickname, apparently) and is descended from the Jameses who immigrated to South Africa in 1828. His forefathers have farmed in the lush-green Henderson Valley for about 150 years, and he has been looking after the family’s successful merino flocks and beef-cattle herds since he returned to the farm full-time in 1972.
He told us that, since his father’s death some years before, he hadn’t worked on the 4×4 tracks much − but said that most of his clientele preferred it that way. And, when he showed me pictures of some of the motorsport veterans who had been to Ferndale to hone their skills over the years, (including Dakar podium finisher and Roof of Africa winner Alfie Cox,) I realised that we hadn’t done too badly in getting up and down the mountain in one piece.
Province: Eastern Cape
GPS: S 32° 18.572 E 27° 19.822
Nearest town: Cathcart – 25 km (110km from East London)
Directions: On the N6 from East London, turn right into Cathcart and travel to the R351. After 3.5km (having passed the township on your right), take the Ferndale 4×4 dirt track to your right and travel another 21.5km. The campsite gate will be on your right.
Nearest fuel & provisions: Cathcart
Opening times: All year, but check with Butch about rainfall and snow in winter.
Terrain: Pretty much every terrain imaginable, except for thick loose sand, on the Ferndale- (4 routes of varying intensity, most of them pretty challenging) and Red-Cone route (2 route options and a play pit). On our circular route on the Ferndale side, we experienced gravel, mud, boulders, loose rock, grassy slopes, deep ruts, and steep inclines and descents (max 35° plus).
Grading: Ferndale 4×4’s Circle Route 2-3+; The Red Cone Route is a Grade 3 and the various side routes off the Ferndale Circle route are 4-5.
Distance: Our circular route, with a few wrong turns, was around 15km.
Time required: Our route took us four and a half hours, but if you intend doing the numerous sub-routes and the Red Cone route as well, allow yourself two days.
Will I get lost? Not if you are GPS savvy, and plot your routes along the GPS points included on the rough map provided.
Recovery facilities: Yes; your host will assist in recovery if advised of your itinerary.
On-site compressor: No
Min/Max number of vehicles: 1 (but I strongly recommend 2) to 20.
Best time of year: August to April
Tyres: Minimum all-terrains with strong sidewalls or more aggressive block patterns for the more radical of the side routes.
Tyre tracks: Yes, especially in winter.
Tyre Pressure: I ran mine at 1.9 bar in front and 2.1 bar at the back, but deflated a little more when we encountered serious mud.
Tyre comments: The Dunlop Grandtrek AT3 G tyres performed well overall, and I was particularly glad of the tough 3-ply sidewalls when tackling the sharp and pointy rock sections. However, I was underwhelmed by their grip in mud; but perhaps I was hoping the ‘self-cleaning’ effect of the bigger block tread pattern would be more effective.
Minimum ground clearance: 230mm for the Red Cone and Ferndale Circle Route, but preferably 250mm on the Grade 5-rated side routes on offer.
Underbody protection: Yes
Softroader-friendly? Definitely not
What vehicle were we driving? Mazda BT-50 4×4, 3.2l turbo-diesel with intercooler.
PRECAUTIONS: This track will challenge most 4x4ers… even the gung-ho veterans. Although there are escape routes on most of the ultra-challenging side routes like Diff-lock Alley and Box Kloof, make sure you have another vehicle accompanying you, and have the necessary recovery- and tyre-repair kits.
BRING YOUR: Wife and kids: Most definitely, as there are many things to do here other than 4x4ing, i.e.: canoeing, fishing, hiking, visiting San rock-art sites, bird watching, game viewing and horse riding.
Pets: Not allowed.
ACCOMMODATION: Three very large campsites with a communal food-prep area (fridges and kettle provided) and illuminated braai facilities galore, plus superb ablution facilities at R100 p.p.pn. The large chalet has two bathrooms, sleeps six in three double bedrooms and has two sleeper couches in the lounge — R250 p.p.p.n
4×4 trail costs: R200 per vehicle per day
SETTING & 4×4 EXPERIENCE RATING: 5/10
By Nick Yell