Words & Images Marion Whitehead
Most people arrive at Mpumalanga’s spectacular Panorama Route to see the sights via the nicely tarred and very scenic Long Tom or Robbers Passes, whooping it up on the lovely long S-bends.
I was no different, but when overnighting at Misty Mountain Hotel just above the Devil’s Knuckles on Long Tom Pass, I chatted to co-owner Lisa Sheard about lesser-known sights. She made me
promise to detour up the Vaalhoek Valley, a pretty (though dusty) back road that connects Pilgrim’s Rest to Bourke’s Luck Potholes. It takes you along the base of spurs of the Drakensberg mountains and right off the beaten track.
My pass-chasing instincts locked in when I studied a map and found Casper’s Nek Pass looping off it through the mountains, to join the R36 north of Ohrigstad. It’s only 1404m at its highest point (compared to the height of Long Tom Pass, at 2149m, or Robbers Pass, at 1789m.) But that’s the reason for the existence of the oldest pass still in use over this part of the Drakensberg.
Way back in the 1840s, when the independent-minded Voortrekkers had settled at Ohrigstad, their mission was to find a route to the harbour at Delagoa Bay (now Maputo), where they could trade free of British control. One energetic resident, Casper Kruger, went out scouting on horseback and found this route through the mountains which connected to the Blyde River valley. The fact that it was not too high or too steep for ox wagons laden with trade goods to navigate, made it a good route.
Andries Potgieter trekked over Casper’s Nek Pass in the winter of 1844, with 28 men from Potchefstroom, setting up a trade route to Delagoa Bay. The following year, Carolus (or Karl) Trichardt led a
party of wagons loaded with goods to trade in October, but the summer rains had already set in and malaria-carrying mosquitoes were rife. The trip was a disaster; most of their cattle and horses succumbed to disease carried by tsetse flies, and provided a grim echo of the fatal trek of his father, Louis Trichardt, in the previous decade.