Kingsley Holgate and crew developed a newfound appreciation for the 19th-century master road engineer extraordinaire Thomas Bain on their recent adventure
The beauty of the Eastern Cape Highlands section of our homegrown ‘Riding High on Sky’ Land Rover and mountain bike challenge to complete 100 mountain passes in 30 days takes our breath away. Tucked up against the Lesotho border, it’s known as ‘the wild side of the Drakensberg’, curling away from Lady Grey in the west to Rhodes and the hidden valleys and mountains of the close-knit Wartrail farming community.
This area is also known as SA’s Extreme High 5 country and is a favourite with 4×4 enthusiasts, adventure bikers, hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers, who test their skills on the five highest mountain passes in the country. We add them all to our list: boulder-hopping the two Land Rovers in howling winds and thick mist to the summit of Ben McDhui (highest mountain pass in South Africa at 3001m); the Tiffindell to Tenahead Traverse (2666m), Naude’s Nek (2590m), Volunteershoek Pass (2581m) and Carlisleshoek Pass (2563m).
Then there’s Lundin’s Nek (2170m) and the mean, somewhat technical but magnificent Bastervoetpad Pass (2240m) – a route that was first used in 1862 by Adam Kok III, when he led an armed group down this mountainous footpath on his historic trek. Our greatest adversary however is the summer heat, which in this area calls up massive afternoon thunderstorms accompanied by near-continuous lightning, torrential rain and hail that turn the passes into running streams of mud, and swell the river crossings from trickles into powerful torrents in a matter of hours. The Landies don’t miss a beat and ‘Shova Mike’ Nixon, our tough, Absa Cape Epic ‘Last Lion’ mountain biking expedition member cycles them all; he rates the descent of the Bastervoetpad Pass as his fastest and most exhilarating ever.
The historic Zuurberg Pass near Addo provides a fascinating glimpse into South Africa’s past. Hastily built between 1848 and 1850 using 250 convicts, it formed part of the road taken by travellers from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, Somerset East and Colesburg, and by fortune hunters flocking to the diamond fields of Kimberley. Badly constructed however, it was described as ‘almost impassable’ and in 1872, an anonymous correspondent for the Herald wrote, “If anyone wishes to have a model of the road over the Zuurberg range, I would suggest to him to take a corkscrew, dislocate it very slightly and hand it up with the inscription: Model of the Road over the Zuurberg Mountains.”
Even still, it was a well-travelled route and at the base of the pass still stands the frozen-in-time Ann’s Villa. Built in 1864, this lonely outpost provided accommodation, a bakery and blacksmithing services to travellers going into the interior, outspanning for tired and hungry horses and oxen, a well-stocked shop and postal services. We’re fascinated to learn that this mountain pass was one of the first to have a tollbooth; every wagon wheel and everything that moved on two or four legs – humans, horses, oxen, goats and pigs – were taxed; the only exception being animals that had four white feet.
In the Karoo heartland, the remote and heat-hazed Antoinesberg Pass knocks our socks off, with its switchback turns that snake up and down the Groot River canyon – definitely one for 4×4 enthusiasts. We wild camp in a secluded grove with sunset views of Cockscomb Mountain, the highest in the Groot Winterhoek range, and are astonished to receive a surprise visitor; a large leopard tortoise appears, stumping along between the pop-up tents. Seemingly unfazed by our presence, it takes a swig of water out of the washing-up basin, snootily declines a piece of apple and settles down for 40 winks under the Discovery.
Then it’s on through the dramatic, sandstone-sculptured beauty of the Baviaanskloof to number 51 of this Riding High adventure – the Prince Alfred Pass and the longest in South Africa. There’s just enough sunshine amongst the mist and drizzle to appreciate the forested beauty of this 153-year-old pass. We stop at a tranquil spot near the old drift, where we find a memorial plaque in honour of the great road builder Thomas Bain and, as mountain pass expert Trygve Roberts suggests, we doff our hats to one of South Africa’s greatest sons, and allow the birdsong and silence to transport us back in time to when horse and cart and ox-wagons trundled past this spot in 1867.
Into the Western Cape, we slush the Land Rovers through the muddy potholes and dips of the forested twists and turns of another Thomas Bain achievement, the Seven Passes Road between Knysna and George, to meet good mates Charlie and Karin Aaim. They spoil us rotten – hot showers, fluffy towels, clean sheets and a sit-down feast – a welcome treat after so much camping in all weather conditions. Next morning, Charlie leads us up to the summit of the Montagu Pass in his pristine, heritage-collection Land Rover Defender 90.
So much has changed since the days when ox-wagons groaning under heavy loads of stinkwood, yellowwood and other trade goods toiled up the 126 bends of this 1848 pass, which is awash in colourful anecdotes from the past. Like when in 1902, Dr Owen Snow and Donald Macintyre attempted to drive the first motor car (called a Darracq) up the pass, but at the steepest part the vehicle stalled and could go no further. Macintyre said, “Snow, we need extra horsepower!” The next Sunday, with a horse aptly called Snowy in harness and securely tethered to the Darracq – adding a literal one extra horsepower – the two friends eventually succeeded in getting their car to the summit of the Montagu Pass.
We continue to clock up kilometers and a few days later, mountain pass number 65 looms out of the mist. Wrapped in jackets, the Landies lights on bright and lashed by icy winds and rain, we ‘Ride High’ to the shrouded summit of the famed, 27Km Swartberg Pass that’s considered one of the finest in the world. As we descend, the skies clear to reveal the breathtaking scenery surrounding the twists and turns of this grand 132-year-old pass – Thomas Bain’s crowning achievement.
The following morning we ascend the pass again to the Gamaskloof turnoff, the Land Rovers dwarfed by the towering cliffs, marvelling at how much of the original, hand-packed stone walls still survive – no wonder it’s a national monument. We’re looking forward to reaching ‘Die Hel’ – the first of four Hell-named locations on this mountain pass adventure; but that’s a story for another column.