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[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts]
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Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.
Digging into the details:
Getting there: The pass can be approached from three directions. The easiest is via the Carlisleshoekspruit Pass in the south. The other two options are via the Volunteershoek Pass in the west or the TTT (Tiffindell-Tenahead-Traverse) in the east. We have provided hyperlinks for all three options. Please study your route preference carefully to ensure you don't get lost.
The pass starts at the intersection of the Volunteershoek/Tiffindell road amidst a cluster of signage at an altitude of 2567m. Stop here for a moment and look up the ski resort chalets nestled in the middle of the mountainside. Above the chalets. you will be able to see the Ben MacDhui Pass zig-zagging its way up the mountain. Look slightly to the right (east) along the skyline, which appears to be serrated. These are a number of stone cairns which have been erected by hikers who have conquered the summit. This is you goal for the day. It's a very steep drive with an average gradient of 1:8,87, but that figure is diluted by a fairly level section along the fence along the high ridge. Most of the time you will be climbing between 1:4 and 1:7.
Proceed up the wide access road to Tiffindell, which is usally in very good condition. On the right hand side, a number of small dams appear, which are used to provide the snow making equipment with sufficient water during the winter months to extend the skiiing season at the resort. The drive at this point is straight-forward but fairly steep. It can usually be driven in 2nd and 3rd gear high range.
At the 0,7 km point there is a cattle grid with a white steel structure on the left hand side of the road. Continue climbing up the hill where the road swings through 90 degrees to the rights adjacent to a green shed and the boom and control point at the chalets lies dead ahead. You need to sign in here and request permission to drive the pass and will be required to sign an indemnity form. At the time of writing, access to the pass is free to the general public. Please support Tiffindell by making use of their pub- called 'Ice Station 2720', and billed as the highest pub in South Africa. Hot meals and refreshments are always available and the chalets can be rented, ranging in both price and quality. If you intend visiting here during winter, it is advisable to book well in advance.
If you haven't already done so, deflate your tyres to 1,2 bar. This will increase your tyre footprint and improve traction, whilst reducing the risk of punctures as well as giving you and your passengers a more comfortable ride. Remember to reinflate tyres once you get back to tar or a higher speed road and dont exceed 60 kph on deflated tyres.
From the boom the road is paved for a short distance. Follow the road as it weaves steeply amongst the chalets for approximately 100m and keep a look out for a cattle grid on the left. Proceed over the cattle grid and past a large Escom electricity pylon. From this point it is best to select low range, which will give you better control over your vehicle.
The road bends through a double apex right hand turn, and climbs steeply from north to ENE, where the gradient eases off to around 1:10. This section is fairly easy and straightforward as the road heads purposefully towards a building set on the ski-slope.
After 100m, the road crosses the ski-slope. During winter the road will be invisible as snow will cover the road completely. This pass should not be driven when there is heavy snow around. Just before the ski-lift building is reached, the track is paved with a plank covered 'middel mannetjie', which hides a rain water channel. Don't place a wheel on these planks, as they will probably break, with possible serious consequences.
Once under the ski-lift cableway, the paving gives way to gravel and the gradient increases immediately to 1:5. The views to the right offer a birds-eye view of the layout of the resort, with the mountains fading away in sets into the south.
The first hairpin is reached at the 2,1 km mark at an altitude of 2815m. All five of the hairpins are extremely sharp and drivers should drive precisely to avoid having to resort to a three point turn, which could prove problematic in wet weather. The hairpins all turn through more than 165 degrees.
The heading is now into the NW as the next leg climbs directly back towards the ski slope for 100m, where the second hairpin is reached. The right hand hairpins appear to be slightly less sharp than the left hand ones, but this is an optical illusion due to the driver position being on the right hand side of the vehicle. With the heading now back nto the NE, the third switchback climbs steadily for 150 to reach the third hairpin at the 2,35 km mark at 2851m.
[Video cover photo by Mike Leicester]
The fourth leg is a repeat of the second with a north-westerly heading, once again turning away from the ski-slope at the 2,5 km mark. The fifth leg is a bit longer than the others and heads NE again to reach the fifth hairpin at the 2,8 km mark at an altitude of 2902m. This is also the sharpest of the five hairpins with a turning angle of 170 degrees.
The final switchback last for 200m where an intersection appears at the 3 km mark. Ignore the left hand option, which leads to a ski-lift pylon, and take the right hand option. The tracks is slow, rutted and bumpy here so drive with care. Within 100m a fence appears dead ahead and another T-junction. The fence unofficially marks the border with Lesotho, although the actual border, according to the map, is about 3 km further north. Again, you should ignore the left hand option, and turn right here, following the fence all the way to the summit, which is still some distance away.
From this point, the gradients are much easier, but the surface of the track is poor. This final section is not really a road, but rather a vague two spoor track. The track traverses flat sections of hard rock, interspersed with loose stones and gravel. Most of this upper section, which heads directly into the east, is marked by stone cairns, which can be very useful in terms of remaining on the track in cloudy or misty conditions. If you do get lost, look for the fence, which will always be on your left (whilst ascending) and it's never more than 100m from the track.
The gradients are generally around 1:20 along this section, but there are three distinct sections, where the track steps up to a higher level. Each of these short climbs presents its own technical difficulties. The main issue is that the driver cannot see the road or know where to turn next. If you have a passenger, ask someone to guide you up and over these obstacles. Whilst the stone cairns are a bit of a help, they cannot replace a person guiding you. If you are alone, rather get out of your vehicle and examine the obstacle on foot, before proceeding.
The first of these obstacles occurs at the 3,1 km mark at 2938m altitude and consists of a short, steep climb of about 15m length, followed by a quick turn to the left. After this the track heads back towards the fence and ascends gently over several rocky ledges.
[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts]
The second and easily the most difficult obstacle is a prominent rocky koppie which blocks the path, forcing the road to skirt around its right hand side. This occurs at the 3,5 km mark at 2966m altitude. The road has been 'constructed' here with some excavation having been removed from the rock face and back filled on the drop-side. (See photo above). This is actually one of the more serious danger spots on this pass and it should be treated with respect, sobriety and caution.
The track approaches the buttress and it can be seen disappearing around a sharp left hand curve, whilst climbing very steeply at the same time. The road is very narrow here and those in bigger 4x4's will find it a bit of a squeeze. The drop-offs to the right are very steep and a misplaced wheel here, could result in a roll down the mountain. Get your passenger to guide you as far left as possible, without damaging a tyre against the rock face. Take this obstacle in 1st gear low range, as the gradient is 1:4, even though the obstacle is only about 40m long.
The final of the three summit obstacles is a short, blind climb up a rocky section. This obstacle makes its appeareance at the 3,7 km mark at 2986m altiude. The track once more paralells the fence and the top of the mountain is reached via a long, flat ledge, which is often peppered with shallow pools of water. A radio mast is clearly visible ahead and soon you will see the trig beacon, which has a small sign attached to it, which proclaims this to be "Ben MacDhui - 3001m - The highest point in the Cape Province.
The weather is mostly unkind up here with strong winds, rain, thunderstorms or snowfalls ocurring regularly. During our filming expedition on this pass during mid December, it was surprisingly cool at the summit (about 16C) and fairly windy - compared with 20C at Tiffindell and hardly any wind.
From the summit there are 360 views. You can look down at Tiffindell which appears as a tiny cluster of green roofs and you can see most of the pass that you have just driven up. There are a number of lakes far below in the valley. The biggest of these is Loch Ness, which is the furthest to your right (west) and is fed by the unusually named 'Upper Knoppieshoekspruit'.
The horison seemes curved from this altitude, as the views to the south-east look over ridge upon ridge of mountains changing hue from green to soft grey. To the north you can see the even bigger mountains of Lesotho.
Take your photos and leave only footprints and a special request for smokers not to leave any cigarette butts behind (dead or alve).
It is a very special privilege to be able to drive to this exclusive point. This is a revered mountain by the locals and is called Makholo in Xhosa, which means "The Great Mother". The local farmers simply call it "BenMac"
So, you've just driven the highest mountain pass in South Africa! Now it's time to tackle the descent. The rules for descending are simple. Slow and deliberate. Use the same gears that you did for the ascent and remember that descending is always the more dangerous of the two. Remain sharp and focused on the task of driving.
When you get back to Tiffindell, advise the duty manager that you have completed the route. Tiffindell is not just about snow-skiing. They also offer grass skiing in summer, as well as MTB routes, hiking trails and fresh-water fishing.
[Video cover photo by Mike Leicester]
Some golden rules to remember whilst descending:
1. Use the same gears that you used for the ascent
2. Proceed slowly and deliberately
3. Descending is more dangerous than ascending
4. Place your hands at 10 and 2 o' clock on the steering wheel
5. Dont hook your thumbs into the steering wheel spokes
6. Use your diff-lock(s) down axle twisters and uneven surfaces to aid traction
7. Never depress your clutch down difficult sections
8. If you cannot see ahead, get someone to guide you or go and walk the obstacle.
9. Dont be in a hurry.
10. Think about your vehicles centre of gravity and remove heavy objects from the roof, which could induce a rollover.
11. Sit further forward than you normally do which will give you a better view ahead.
[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts]
For bookings and inquiries visit: www.tiffindell.co.za
|GPS START||S30.660892 E27.936651|
|GPS SUMMIT||S30.647906 E27.935273|
|GPS END||S30.647906 E27.935273|
|DISTANCE||3,8 km (each way)|
|DIRECTION - TRAVEL||North / South|
|TIME REQUIRED||80 minutes|
|SPEED LIMIT||None - Self limiting|
|NEAREST TOWN||Rhodes (22 km)|
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