The beautiful coastline of KwaZulu-Natal often steals the limelight from inland destinations like Oribi Gorge – much as the rough and tough Jeep 4×4 line-up overshadows its compact SUV sibling, the Compass
Throughout last year, in our soft-roader series, we highlighted places that may not be your typical getaway but that are very much part of SA’s beautiful diversity. During the summer holidays, when everyone seemed to be “off to the beach”, we again decided on something different. So we headed for the southern end of KwaZulu-Natal in a Jeep Compass, turned slightly inland, and found ourselves in Oribi Gorge.
This region is often overlooked or relegated to a simple day visit by holidaymakers because of its proximity to the many attractive beaches only a few kilometres away. Little do people realise that there’s enough hidden in the magnificent gorge to warrant a holiday itinerary all on its own – from the photographer’s dream drive through the gorge itself to blasting down Africa’s longest zip line.
Similarly, Jeep’s compact SUV, the Compass, is often overlooked in their line-up. Just as the phrase “December holidays” evokes images of long warm days of sand and sun, the brand name “Jeep” brings to mind big 4x4s with their sway bars disconnected and axles locked solidly in place on the live axle suspension system.
The Compass is the Jeep range’s quiet sibling. It doesn’t have air suspension or diff locks and the new styling is more suited to urban settings than the great outdoors.
The ride itself is comfortable and the interior very welcoming, with the hardy Jeep steering wheel paired to a spacious interior.
Our two-litre Compass produces 115kW and 190Nm of torque – more than adequate for the long open road.
From Johannesburg, we took the N3 towards Durban, turning off near Pietermaritzburg to take refuge from a heavy storm. From there it’s an easy two-hour drive to Port Shepstone. At the coastal town, continue on the N2 inland towards Izingolweni. After 10km, take the Oribi Gorge turn-off on the right.
This section of the N2 is being resurfaced, on top of which it is extremely busy, so drive carefully. Once you are off the main road you’ve entered the Oribi Gorge loop, which curls around the gorge and back to the N2 at Izingolweni.
Apart from a small service station in Paddock, just outside Izingolweni, there is no fuel available in the loop, so it’s best to fill up in Port Shepstone before heading out on the N2.
Shortly after the turn-off, you’ll find the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Tourism Centre on the right – a large building which looks more like a cultural centre than a humble information office.
It’s worthwhile stopping to pick up a copy of the Southern Explorer – the official route guide for the South Coast. The Explorer has laid out various routes in the area, providing plenty of information on accommodation and leisure activities. The Oribi Gorge is Route 3. Note, however, that the maps aren’t always to scale and distances can be deceptive.
Information Centre: Make sure the centre is open by calling 039-687-7591
Southern Explorer: Check the team’s website before heading to Oribi Gorge to find out what’s happening in the area while you’re there. Attractions include the market at Leopard Rock once a month. Go to www.southcoaststyle.co.za
The drive to the top of the gorge is breathtaking, and in the thick mist that welcomed us after the storm, it was particularly beautiful.
For about 5km the road winds up into the hills. There are tight bends and big drops to the side – the kind of road one wants to drive over and over again. The Jeep Compass handled very well. The steering is light but not loose, and the small SUV managed the tight turns with relative ease and little body roll.
Once at the top of the pass, the road straightens out and almost immediately you’ll see a large sign detailing many of the attractions and businesses in the area. These include Beechwood Cottage, Lake Eland Reserve, the Leopard Rock restaurant and chalets and Wild 5 Adventures at Oribi Gorge Hotel.
Beechwood Cottage, Fairacres Farm
Run by the lovely host, Brigitte Bunga, Beechwood Cottage is a single, self-catering cottage on the Fairacres sugarcane farm. The cottage has a beautifully furnished open plan kitchen and lounge and a large main bedroom with a queen-size bed and plenty of cupboard space. The main bathroom has both a large bath and shower, and a separate toilet.
Attached to the patio – which has a dining table and fireplace for afternoon braais – is a separate room with two single beds and an en suite bathroom with shower.
One of the lounge couches is also a sleeper couch, so the cottage can accommodate six people – at a squeeze.
This is a working farm, with stables near the cottage. It’s a great place for animal and nature lovers and ideal for longer stays.
Beechwood is close to Oribi Gorge Hotel and the Wild 5 activities. The turn-off to the farm is 11,5km from the N2, on the same road as the Oribi Gorge hotel. Take the dirt road – which is slightly bumpy but suitable for most cars – and immediately turn sharp left towards the cottage.
Brigitte is a wonderful host, with a calm demeanour and endless knowledge about the area, which she dispenses with pleasure.
This is definitely Leisure Wheels recommended accommodation. Contact Brigitte for prices and availability on 083 409-9855 or [email protected].
The first stop for adventure junkies should be Wild 5 Adventures, just down the road from Beechwood Cottage. Situated on the hotel site, the Wild 5 activities consist of white water rafting – either a one- or two-day trip – a jump on the 165m wild swing, a guided “fall” down the 110m abseil into the gorge, the 165m slide above the gorge floor and paintball. There are also hiking trails and a suspension bridge that spans 83m.
Wild 5 Adventures: Open from 08h30 to 16h30 (17h00 in season). All activities except white water rafting and paintball can be done without bookings. Go to www.wild5adventures.co.za or call 082-566-7424 for more information.
Oribi Gorge Hotel: The hotel has two restaurants, a swimming pool and curio shop, and rooms ranging from single to family size. Go to www.oribigorge.co.za or phone 039-687-0253 for rates.
The hotel is a great dining spot, with two restaurants offering a variety of cuisine. You can eat outdoors on a fine evening, with a cool breeze wafting through the valley. The steaks are great, and the service is quick and friendly.
Back on the main road, one last stop before heading down into Oribi Gorge itself is Leopard Rock. The restaurant patio, looking out over the valley and river below, offers one of the most beautiful views in Africa. Leopard Rock – named for a tame leopard that lived in the area and lounged on the rock, surprising unsuspecting holidaymakers – provides a photo opportunity not to be missed.
The rock juts out over the valley, and if you feel uneasy about it being firm enough to support your weight, head into the restaurant for photos of entire wedding parties perched on the overhang!
Leopard Rock has four luxury chalets with outdoor showers taking in the imposing surroundings.
Discover Oribi Gorge
Of course, the highlight of a visit is the Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve. Proclaimed in 1950, the reserve spans 1850ha, almost entirely nestled in the Umzimkulwana River gorge.
The gorge is 27km long and up to a kilometre wide in places. It was first mapped in 1893. German immigrants settled in the area in 1907, and the Umzimkulwana state forest – with a road through reserve – was in place by 1932.
Elephants once roamed here, but today there are mostly small mammals such as duiker, oribi, monkeys, baboons, bushbabies, otters and genets. You might even see a leopard.
There are more than 250 bird species, so the valley is a popular haunt for bird watchers. A checklist is included in the information booklet supplied when you pay your entry fee.
The reception area is on the Izingolweni side of the road that winds through the reserve, so if you’re coming from Beechwood Cottage and surrounds, make sure to stop and pay when you exit the premises.
The best way to experience the reserve is to take one or more of the beautiful walks. The Baboon View walk, right at reception, is the shortest. The 1km route runs along the side of the gorge. It isn’t taxing, and the views are fantastic.
The Samango Falls walk is a 1,5km round trip that crosses the river, while the Nkonka walk – which continues from Samango – is a stiff 5km.
For serious walkers in the right shoes, the Hoopoe Falls and Mziki walks are 7km and 9km respectively. They cover large parts of the reserve along the river.
If you have time for only one walk, drive through the reserve to the picnic spot, which has a large map of the reserve and its walks to help you decide.
While the Umzimkulwane River that runs through the gorge is beautiful, it is not safe for drinking, so take bottled water with you.
Another warning: Watch out for snakes – there are about 30 species in the area, so walking alone isn’t advisable.
Even for those who don’t intend to go walking, a drive through the gorge is a must. The winding road opens up to great views and is an enjoyable drive. Just remember to stick to the 40km/h speed limit, for the sake of the creatures that live there and your own safety.
Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve
Oribi Gorge is not a SANpark, but part of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. There is accommodation in the reserve. Six chalets and five campsites are nestled in the forest close to the reception area. There is a swimming pool and picnic spots.
Day visitors: R10 per person
GPS: E 30 16′ 24.35″ S 30 43′ 54.92″
Roads are generally well maintained and accessible, but to test how much of the Jeep adventure ethos remains in the Compass, we headed out further onto the loop towards the gravel stretch.
While maps show this road as having an easy-going surface, as luck would have it, we were there during one of the heaviest storms for many years. In fact, with most of SA on high alert and parts of KwaZulu-Natal badly flooded, we weren’t surprised to find the clay surface quite precarious. On top of it all, there had been quite a bit of traffic on this stretch, obviously involving vehicles with far more capable drive trains that ours.
Being bullied off a narrow, slippery track wasn’t on our holiday to-do list, so we put our faith in our little Jeep and stuck to the middle of the road.
At low speeds the Compass, despite being front-wheel drive, tracks quite well in the mud. It has 206mm of ground clearance – far more than most vehicles in this class – and electronic stability control for situations just like this. These features, with a calm driver, go a long way in a 4×2 vehicle. The 30km stretch of dirt, with steep inclines and slopes, and passing trucks showering the Compass in mud, was a serious test, but the Compass held its own and thoroughly impressed its slightly terrified occupants.
Lake Eland Game Reserve
This reserve, apart from abundant game, is a great activity spot and not to be missed. There are various levels of 4×4 trails at R150 per vehicle – but these are unguided and unsupported. There are also trails for quads and mountain bikes, as well as horse riding, paintball, guided game drives, fishing, and a walk through some imposing caves.
The longest zip line in Africa, at 4.5km, is the major attraction, and the suspension bridge is another “must see”. The zip line adventure can take up to three hours and is closed in bad weather.
Lake Eland offers self-catering, B&B or camping accommodation. There are also fishermen’s cottages – basic, without electricity, and the “Pipe Dream”. This is actually a refurbished pipe, turned into a small cabin with a double bed.
For more information, phone 039-687-0395 or go to www.lakeeland.co.za
GPS co-ordinates: S30 41 32.6 E30 10 47.9
If you’re travelling from Johannesburg and looking for somewhere to stay before heading out to Oribi Gorge, a wonderfully welcoming spot is Royston Hall in Umtentweni, just outside Port Shepstone.
Royston Hall is run by the gracious Ria and Roderick Hackland. The house was built around 1897 and was recently restored to its former glory.
Ria and Roderick, along with two beautiful Great Danes, make their guests feel quite at home. Ria’s stylish touch can be felt throughout the house – and in every meal – as well as in the vast garden, or perhaps that should be “forest”. If you are planning to lose yourself in the beauty of the South Coast, this is certainly not a bad place to do it!
You can stroll in the marvellous garden, and relax by the pool or on the cool, colonial-style porch. It’s a great spot for honeymooners as well. There is even a honeymoon suite in a private area of the beautiful old home.
To get in touch, go to www.roystonhall.co.za or contact Ria on 039-695-0083 or 086-664-4456, or email [email protected]. You can find the house at the GPS co-ordinates (down a single, almost surreal forest path): S30 42 43.71 E30 26 52.59
Jeep Compass – overlooked sibling
The Compass may not be rough in capabilities and tough in appearance, but it lives up to the Jeep adventure ethos when the situation requires for it. It’s a safe and most especially comfortable road trip vehicle, with loads of space in both the cabin and luggage area.
It’s perfect for drivers who love the Jeep brand but don’t need – and perhaps can’t afford – the 4×4 drive trains. It’s great for long distances – offering all the key ingredients such as an easy to use multimedia system, comfortable seats, responsive steering, decent legroom and smooth ride quality.
If you love the Jeep brand and want a compact SUV, it’s worth giving the much overlooked Compass a test drive (preferably a long one).
JEEP COMPASS 2.0 CVT 4X2 PETROL
Engine: Four-cylinder in-line
Power: 151kW @ 6400 r/min
Torque: 190Nm @5000 r/min
Fuel tank capacity: 51 litres
Drive system: Front-wheel drive
Assist systems: ABS, Electronic Stability Control
Ground clearance: 206mm
Price: R297 990
Oribi Gorge Guest Farm
Beaver Creek Coffee Estate
www.beavercreek.co.za or Beaver Creek Coffee on Facebook
The Gorgez View restaurant
039-679-1345 or [email protected]