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Travel: Ongeluksnek Pass


Words & Images Marion Whitehead

On my map, it says that this is a provincial road with a border post into Lesotho. But it’s so rutted and corrugated as we drive up the fertile Ongeluksnek valley from Matatiele that we joke about enjoying an African massage, jiggling and shaking in the seats of the old go-anywhere Land
Cruiser. The early morning shadows stretching over the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains on the horizon beckon us on to adventure.

The fun starts when we enter the 13 000-hectare Ongeluksnek Nature Reserve in the high mountain grasslands, where the ‘Berg foothills start to crowd together and grey rhebok dart off at our approach. Our ‘provincial road’ peters out into a grassy track that makes it seem like we’re trespassing on someone’s farm.

“You don’t want to come up here when it’s wet,” advises my guide for the day, Philip Rawlins, chairman of the local branch of the Maloti Drakensberg Route and owner of Resthaven Guesthouse in nearby Matatiele. He’s being over-dramatic, I think, as we bounce along the track. There are no other tyre tracks visible after rain earlier in the week, but it seems tame enough.

As we pass the entrance to the vulture restaurant that is under construction, I note that the mountain slopes are turning from a russet wintry brown to a soft green, and then the scar of the pass on a nek in the mountains comes into view, barely visible at this distance.

There certainly aren’t any queues at the border post. (The last place with toilets – and they’re nice and clean). The policewoman is amused to see us. “Most people are too scared to go up here. But not him,” she laughs, pointing at Philip who is opening the gates; we’re obviously her first customers for the day. Another drama queen, I think, as she hands over our stamped passports.

Coming round a corner, Philip stops to point out his nemesis looming ahead. “I came down the pass with some tourism officials once and we pulled five vehicles through the mud there. They said, ‘Never again.’”

From a distance, the road looks steep, but green and harmless. However, when we get closer, I see the dongas dividing the track. “When it’s wet, you slide all over and slip into the sloots,” explains Philip as he expertly dodges the dongas. “You end up on your chassis, wheels churning mud uselessly.”

We grind up the pass in first and second gear. The condition of the so called road is appalling and low range is essential for sections of this route.