“Okay, so which way from here, my lovely,” I asked my fiancé-cum-co-pilot. In truth, without a map between us and little in the way of intelligible signboards en route, this was not a question Annette could’ve been expected to answer. I was merely trying to get a rise out of her as a she was still a little put out from not being able to shower earlier that morning — the donkey boiler water which I’d stoked for ages, and nearly asphyxiated both of us in the process, was deemed not hot enough.
We were on the first of the two trails at “Gonjah Boerdery”, a mixed farming and hospitality enterprise in the beautiful Gamtoos River Valley, just east of the Baviaanskloof. When researching this venue, I had not come across any recent reviews of the 4×4 trails and therefore had little independent information, and had to rely on what the host’s website stated and the conversations I had with them. Knowing we’d probably be alone on the trail, I’d found their comment that the “road is a lot easier since it’s been redone” reassuring.
Province: Eastern Cape
GPS: Latitude: -33.758889 Longitude: 24.814722
Nearest fuel & provisions: Patensie
Opening times: All year, but certain parts of the trail may become pretty slippery in the wet so keep an eye out for heavy rains before going.
Terrain: A combination of reasonably graded mountain roads and twee-spoor tracks over all sorts of surfaces ranging from soft, red clayey type soil and stone conglomerate to slippery grit and rocky sections – very little mud and sand, though.
Grading: Both routes (although we somehow missed half of the first one’s advertised distance) can be graded between 1 and a maximum of 3 — weather dependant.
Distance: Route 1 (east) – 20km and Route 2 (west) – advertised as 12km, but we recorded 17km.
Time required: Our ‘half’ of Route 1 took us around 1 hour and Route 2 took us two and a half hours with a 25-minute lunch stop.
Recovery facilities: No, but a call to your host at Tolbos Restaurant will hopefully send in the cavalry.
On-site compressor: No
Min/Max number of vehicles: 1 (but I strongly recommend 2) to around 10.
Best time of year: May to September.
Diff-lock: Not necessary in dry weather.
Tyre Pressure: We ran our heavy vehicle at 1.9 bars in front and 2.1 bars at the back.
Minimum ground clearance: 200mm
Softroader-friendly? Tough call, but in good weather and accompanied by other 4×4 vehicles, yes.
4×4 trail costs: R200 per vehicle per day
SETTING & 4×4 EXPERIENCE RATING: 7/10
After an I-Ching-like coin toss, we turned left at the T-Junction and hoped for the best. We stuck to what we believed was the main track and meandered down a rocky twee-spoor surrounded by long green grass on both sides. Folded green mountains flanked us on both sides as the track rose and fell on its contour-hugging path, acquainting us with a mixture of fynbos, lush grasses of different hues and even an ancient cycad or two.
As the track rose out of these kloofs, we drove through some lofty pastures, past quizzical-looking Nguni cattle, but were then brought to a halt by a fence and gate after only about 3km. Getting through the folding wire gate was not an issue, but the undefined track running down the opposite side of the fence didn’t look at all promising. And with no signboards to boost our confidence, we decided we’d taken a wrong turn and retraced our tracks.
The Nguni cattle looked at us even more quizzically the second time round as we edged our way slowly down the jeep track, taking in the sweeping views of the impossibly fertile Gamtoos River Valley below. On our way back to the T-Junction, we decided to take a loop I’d noticed on our way in — a steep and stony track leading up a conical hill.
At about 30 degrees up and probably 35 degrees down, this kilometre-long detour injected some early adventure into the trail for us and got us into the swing for any obstacles to come. Retracing our tracks and passing the T-Junction (taking the right-hand option this time) the track dipped sharply down a damp red soil and rocky slope. It was time to engage low-range for the first time and the BT-50 got into its reassuring ratel-like gait down the steep slope.
About a kilometre later — after a number of sharp descents and tight and slippery switchbacks — we came to a tricky rocky bend which needed some surveying before we could continue. On the right-hand side was a metal crunching boulder and on the left a 20-metre drop to the track below. There was just enough space for the bakkie to make it through the sharply downward sloping gap. Annette directed our long wheelbase’s moment of turn and after a little protesting from the ‘rock slider’ side steps, we were through.
Finding ourselves pretty much back where we’d started and only having done about 10km of the stated 20km route, we clearly went wrong somewhere — no doubt a combination of bad planning, lack of talent and a shortage of a good map and directional signboards.
But we weren’t worried in the slightest. It was a beautiful day, we’d had fun and we still had another 4×4 route to do; this time a shorter 12km one, on which we planned to have our picnic lunch. (At the final tally, we somehow ended up doing 17km on this route.)
This time there was no debate about directions; there was one road and we simply followed its course. After the first kilometre of gradual and then more intense incline up a hard sand and grit track, we encountered a series of right-angle switchbacks that saw us having to occasionally reverse to get our longish bakkie around the tight and heavily banked corners.
Not long after this we descended into a wide flat valley and saw our track leading up and over a steep-sided mountain in the distance. From down low it looked quite challenging and it wasn’t to disappoint. When we got closer it was clear that this narrow and sharply cambered track was best attempted with low-range and a steady accelerator foot to keep our Dunlop Grandtrek AT3G’s biting into the loose gravel and rock incline.
We made it over the few hundred metres incline without too much fuss and found ourselves on another verdant grass plateau. As we drove, large butterflies and small grasshoppers (known as Gonjahs in the indigenous language) fluttered by and sprang up all around us; a celebration of life made possible by the profusion of grass, seeds and wild yellow flowers.
The track then descended down a grassy knoll, giving us an excellent view of the Cockscomb Mountain to our left, and then led us along the rocky spine of a mountain. After a few hundred metres the epic view over a steep cliff into a wooded kloof below, and almost to Jeffrey’s Bay on the far horizon, persuaded us it was time for lunch.
Sat atop this view on our comfortable camping chairs, eating leftover venison potjie on hunks of fresh bread, we murmured and mumbled incoherent approvals of the unique experience. Kestrels and martins, on independent missions, followed independent trajectories and mesmerised us until a sentinel baboon barked us out of our reverie.
Replete, we packed up and continued down the track; only to run into a cul-de-sac ‘viewpoint’ we hadn’t expected a few hundred metres on. But our makeshift viewpoint had better views, we thought, and we didn’t bother to stop long there before turning around and making the trip back down the mountain.
As is so often the case on an ‘in-and-out’ route such as this, the return journey seemed like another track, offering completely different views and challenges. Emphasising this was our sighting of a rare Nyala near the end of the trail — we couldn’t really have asked for more.
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By Nick Yell