A group of 34 people in 4x4s recently set off from Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape on a two-week journey to follow the old ox-wagon trail of Great Trek leader Piet Retief 175 years ago – all the way to Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. Ferdi de Vos joined the trek with a difference.
Text: Ferdi de Vos
Photography: Conrad Bornman, Willem vanden Berg, Elmarie Groenewald
It was the moment of truth. The slightly modified Hilux lined up on the edge of the fast flowing Caledon River to negotiate an embankment more than 10m high. It had to get up and over that loose, sandy wall… because if it couldn’t, our journey would be delayed by at least a couple of hours while we tried to find another place to cross.
In four-wheel drive with second low and difflocks engaged, the Toyota stormed the incline, its turbo-diesel mill thumping at maximum revs. Halfway up, the heavily deflated Goodyear Wrangler MT/Rs sprayed sand as they struggled for grip, and for a heart-stopping moment it seemed as if gravity and mass had overcome momentum and torque.
Then the vehicle edged forward slowly again, its power and inertia restoring the balance, and bounced over the edge, crashing through the undergrowth onto a faint track leading away from the river. Cries of triumph erupted from the convoy members. The Caledon had been conquered! And with a track established for the other vehicles to follow, our “trek” could continue.
Three days earlier, our group, in eight Hilux and Fortuner 4x4s supplied by the Klipbokkop 4×4 Academy close to Worcester in the Western Cape, left from Graaff-Reinet to travel to Post Retief, last residence of the Great Trek leader Piet Retief before he left the Cape Colony in 1837. Our quest? To commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Great Trek by following Retief’s ox-wagon trail in our 4x4s. The route went from Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape, through the Free State to KwaZulu-Natal.
By using contemporary “wagons” and equipment, we would give a modern twist to this great migration, when more than 23 000 people left the Cape to settle in the vast, unknown interior.
Our “trek leader” was Gerhard Groenewald from the Klipbokkop 4×4 Academy, who was conducting the epic journey under the auspices of the Federation of Afrikaner Cultural Organisations (FAK).
After camping inside the thick stone walls of Post Retief (built as a safe haven for farmers and soldiers during the eastern border wars of the early 1800s) the first task of the group, the youngest member being less than a year old and the oldest 65, was to conquer the Winterberg mountains.
During the height of the Great Trek, groups of up to a hundred wagons would follow this route, and some of these tracks, while heavily eroded, were still plainly visible on the slopes. In places we could even drive in them, but the ruts and culverts that had formed over time made it tough going.
The heavily laden vehicles, one also towing a Jurgens XT140 off-road trailer, lumbered their way up the steep incline and low range 4×4 was required to negotiate some of the deeper dongas we encountered. En route to the summit, our progress was halted by a wire fence dating from 1896 running across the track. In order for us to proceed the fence had to be cut (permission was obtained beforehand). Groenewald likened this to a ribbon cutting ceremony, officially launching our trek. The convoy then passed through and a small commemorative plaque was erected before the fence was repaired.
Soon afterwards the summit was reached, but not before a warning light for gearbox overheating briefly flashed on the only automatic Hilux in the group. But, by engaging neutral and keeping the vehicle stationary with the brake engaged, the temperature dropped to acceptable levels again.
Downhill through the winding valleys of the Kat River was plain sailing and soon we reached Aliwal North. However, taking into account the difficulties we faced, we could now picture how hard it must have been for those trekkers trying to coax their oxen to drag the unwieldy wagons all the way to the top.
Close to Aliwal North, and with the sun already casting long shadows, our intrepid leader attempted to cross the Gariep River (called the Great River back then). The modern “wagon”, kitted with dedicated off-road accessories from 4×4 Mega World, used all its available horsepower to negotiate its way through the flowing stream. It waded from one sandy island to the next until it reached the opposite bank.
After this successful assault, Groenewald was asked to repeat the feat for the TV crew, but his next attempt did not go according to plan. Close to the opposite bank the vehicle beached itself, and recovery ropes were needed to get it free.
The next day revealed another tough challenge – crossing the Caledon River in convoy. This turned out to be even more spectacular than the first river crossing, and again justified the modifications (a purpose-built bull-bar, bigger tyres and elevated suspension, courtesy of 4×4 Mega World) on the lead vehicles.
“To conquer the Winterberg mountain is one thing,” said Groenewald, “but the river crossings highlighted the challenges faced by Retief and other Voortrekker parties even more. If it is so difficult to cross a river with modern technology, you can only imagine how hard it must have been for them.
“While it took us a couple of hours to get across, it took the trekkers days, sometimes weeks, to get their wagons, families and livestock across, piece by piece.
“It’s actually amazing they managed to do it. Taking into account the sheer energy, effort and willpower they had to muster, it is hardly surprising that they called a temporary halt to the journey in the Free State.”
Our group then set off for Smithfield, and from there on to Bloemfontein. While in the City of Roses, we visited Maroka’s Hoek near Thaba Nchu and attended the official centenary celebrations for the Women’s Monument, where an imprint of the tread pattern of one of the Goodyear tyres was “immortalised” in cement to commemorate our 4×4 trek.
A dust storm in Bloemfontein, which turned the sky blood red, and an icy wind sweeping across the veld, set the tone for the next part of the journey – past Winburg to the Vegkop site near Heilbron.
This was a period of bloodshed and great uncertainty for the original Trekkers, until the Battle of Vegkop and Retief’s arrival. He quickly exerted his leadership and influence and then set a new course – over the formidable natural barrier of the Drakensberg.
After a chilly night at the Vegkop Monument, the 4x4s tackled the undulating and dusty gravel roads of the eastern Free State. The route meandered close to the Wilge and Eland rivers, past small towns such as Petrus Steyn, Reitz and Kestell, en route to the “barricade of spears” – as the Drakensberg was known in Zulu.
We skirted the Sterkfontein Dam (the original trail actually went through the area now under water) entering KwaZulu-Natal via the Oliviershoek Pass. Here we visited Kerkenberg and the Retiefsklip, laying a commemorative plaque before taking on the challenging Retief’s Pass.
We obtained special permission to use this route, which conforms to all the specifications for a grade-three 4×4 track. It was a spectacular descent, which made us wonder: how on earth did Retief’s people manage to get down this narrow, rutted route? The original trail is sometimes still visible – full of boulders, trees and shrubs, and at times with a sheer drop on one side. Traversing it must have required a lot of guts.
With this descent completed, the toughest part of the journey was over. Our group now visited sites of historical importance such as the Church of the Vow in Pietermaritzburg (the town was named after Retief and Gerrit Maritz, another Trek leader), the monument commemorating the Blaauwkrantz massacre, and Retief’s grave at Umgungundluvo, close to Ulundi.
After more than 3000km on Retief’s trail, our commemorative 4×4 trek ended at the Blood River heritage site near Dundee, where most of the group was allowed to overnight in the copper wagons.
According to Groenewald, state-of-theart equipment, such as the latest camping gear, portable fridges and lighting, made the journey so much easier, but it was still difficult at times.
“The logistics were tricky to figure out. We served 1500 meals during this adventure and set up eight campsites with amenities.
“The river crossings were quite challenging and so, too, the mountain descents. We were fortunate not to have suffered a single puncture or encountered any technical problems.
“The vehicles – some of them with more than 80 000 hard kilometres behind them – performed admirably, as did our Jurgens trailer. “It was a sobering thought that the Trekker groups of yesteryear had to rely heavily on their own ingenuity and resourcefulness to overcome obstacles. Having experienced some of the difficulties they faced, one can only respect them for their endurance and single-minded persistence.
“Overall, the commemoration trek was a great adventure and achieved its main objective – to make history tangible.”