Donkey Pass (4x4)

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Concreted section of the pass Concreted section of the pass - Photo: Photo: Magdaleen

East of Harrismith a tall sandstone mountain called Platberg, blocks the view to the east, which plays host to the fabled Donkey Pass. This pass should not be confused with Donkies Pass not too far away in KZN.  In the middle of this mountain is a deep cleft and it is up this gorge that the Donkey Pass climbs very steeply to the summit, making it the 6th highest and second steepest pass in South Africa. The road traverses a nature reserve and permits need to be obtained. Whilst the entire route with sections as steep as 1:3 are concrete stripped to aid traction, this route is not suitable for normal cars. Low range is essential. For those that do get to drive this amazing pass, you will be one of a select few to have done so.

Scroll down to view the map & video. It is recommended to watch this video in HD. (Click on the "quality" button on the lower taskbar of the video screen and select 720HD.) Wait a few seconds for the video to display…..

[Video cover photo of the Gibson Dam from the summit, by Grant Leicester and on-car footage supplied by Mike Leicester]

FULL-SCREEN MODE: Click PLAY, then pass your mouse over the bottom right corner of the video screen. The outline of a square will appear. Clicking on it will toggle Full Screen Mode. Press ESC to return to the original format.

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: There is only one way in and out of the Platberg Reserve. From Harrismith head east towards the obvious big flat topped mountain following the signs to the Platberg Nature Reserve. Once inside the reserve, there are five forks along the approach road to the Donkey Pass. All of these are sign posted, so keep a sharp look out for them as they are quite small and faded. We have provided a separate video covering the approach roads at the bottom of this page.

The locked gate at the foot of the passMake sure you have the key for this locked gate at the foot of the pass / Photo: Grant LeicesterThere is a farm house on the right hand side of the road to use as a landmark. Keep left at the fork and head NW for 250m, crossing a small stream to arrive at the fifth fork which is also the start of the Donkey Pass. Turn right to commence the ascent of the pass.

This pass is for the more serious off-roader and permits need to be obtained from the guard at the entrance to the Platberg Nature Reserve. Only high clearance 4WD vehicles with low range will manage this route, which has extreme gradients and dangerous drop offs. Despite the entire route being concrete stripped, we dont recommend this pass for normal sedan vehicles.

With a summit altitude of 2394m, this is the 6th highest pass in South Africa. The road services the radio masts at the summit of the Platberg mountain [2394,5m] which goes by the name of Ntabazwe. The views from the summit are simply beautiful, especially to the east, where the N3 can be seen snaking its way down the escarpment. Donkey Pass also gives access to the Gibson Dam – a high altitude dam hidden in the folds of the Drakensberg.

The entrance/reception to the Platberg Nature ReserveEntrance gate to the Platberg Nature Reserve / Photo: Grant LeicesterThe pass is only 3,19 km long and gains 356 vertical metres over that distance producing a very steep average gradient of 1:9, making it onto our extreme passes top 10 rankings on two counts – the 6th highest and the 2nd steepest pass in South Africa. More importantly, the steepest sections, which occur over the first kilometre are as steep as 1:2,6 – This one is definitely not for sissies!

The first kilometre has 20 sharp corners and climbs 242 vertical metres in that short distance, producing some eye-popping gradients. Look out for a lovely waterfall on the right (east) at the 900m mark. This first, very steep section has been concrete stripped, which allows for reasonable traction - even in wet weather. Remember to unlock your vehicle’s centre diff to avoid axle wind up, whilst on the concrete sections. At the 1,2 km mark and an altitude of 2280m ASL, the gradients suddenly ease off to a more respectable 1:15 as the track follows the western bank of the headwaters of the stream that bisects the gorge.

A faded sign board but with a clear message!You have been warned / Photo: Grant LeicesterAt the 2,2 km mark, the road bends sharply away to the east, and although the gradients are reasonably easy, the mountain is often wet and it’s a simple matter for a 4x4 to bog down in wet conditions, so be sure to remain on the concrete.

In inclement weather this road will be dangerous and needless to say, the pass receives regular and deep snowfalls in winter, coupled with sub-zero temperatures. Go well prepared for any emergency and take extra rations and warm clothing with in case of a breakdown.

The final kilometre bends steadily into the east and follows the ridge of the mountain towards three radio towers at the summit. This final bit has several sections which are concrete stripped to improve safety and traction.You can now descend the same way you arrived.

A panoramic view of the Gibson DamPanoramic view of the Gibson dam from the summit / Photo: Grant LeicesterOur Johannesburg based film crew got to recently (April, 2016) film this amazing pass in the descending mode and have reported that the entire pass is now concreted. The following points should be noted for prospective drivers of this pass:

• Do not attempt this pass unless you are in a 4x4, preferably with low range.

• Donkey Pass is inside the Platberg Nature Reserve, so there is only one possible entry and exit point, which is the gate to the reserve. It is situated at S28.278808 E29.150419

• You do not need to prearrange a permit, just arrive at the gate, which is open from 0600 to 1800.

• No motorcycles or quads are allowed inside the reserve.

• You have to pay an entrance fee – currently, R25 per vehicle, and R15 per person.

A forest of telecom towers at the summitA forest of towers at the summit / Photo: Grant Leicester • You MUST tell the gate guard that you want to drive Donkey Pass, as he will have to give you a key for the gate, which is at the bottom of the pass. If you are the first person, he will give you the key and tell you to leave the gate unlocked. If you pass anyone else on your way back, and you have locked the gate, remember to hand the key over to them.

• The approach road to the pass involves quite a few turns, but luckily each turn is well signposted. There are small (faded) white signs at each intersection, but you need to read each sign carefully.

• This is a game reserve, and there are also numerous horses – watch out for animals on the road.

• The approach/exit road has a few places that will test your vehicles capability. It is better to use low range on the last section of the approach road. In some ways, the approach road is more difficult that the pass itself (which is paved), so if it has been raining, this road is going to be a struggle.

Looking north from the summitSummit views looking north / Photo: Grant Leicester• Take a saw and/or axe with you. The road is narrow, and it is possible that you will encounter some fallen trees.

• When you reach the gate, unlock it and leave it unlocked, in case another vehicle is coming up behind you. There is only one key.

• If you have not done it already, select low range at this point. This pass is incredibly steep, right from the word go. If your vehicle does not have low range, you will need to stay in first gear for the first half of the pass.

• The entire pass, from the gate to the towers, is paved, so traction is not an issue.

• If you arrive at the gate between 10:00 and 15:00, you will be driving directly into the sun on the way up. Use polarised sunglasses to help you see. The track is narrow, and you do not want to put a wheel off the paving.

Sublime scenerySummit views are vast and beautifully green towards the end of summer / Photo: Grant Leicester• Once you reach the end of the paving, there are a few indistinct tracks, one of which will get you to Gibson Dam, on the eastern side (you will need to scout around on foot for a bit). This track is very rough and bumpy.

• The views from the summit are breathtaking, especially to the north, east and south.

• When descending, stay in low range, and use your engines compression to slow you down. It would be very easy to cook your brakes through overuse.

• If you encounter another vehicle on the way up or down, it is going to be a big problem, as it is impossible for two vehicles to pass each other. One of the vehicles will have to reverse to one of the passing places, of which there are only three. Good luck with that!

• Remember to lock the gate when you get to the bottom, unless there is another vehicle on the pass.

• From the Platberg Nature Reserve gate to the top of the pass takes at least 45 minutes, so factoring in some time spent at the summit, allow an absolute minimum of 2 hours for the whole trip. This is in good weather with dry roads.

[All videography and technical notes by Mike Leicester. Photography by Mike & Grant Leicester]

We filmed the often complex and more technical exit/entrance road to the pass and compiled the video below which is important to watch if you intend driving the pass:

[Cover photo courtesy of Steven Herbert / On-car video footage supplied by Mike Leicester]

Fact File:

GPS START  S28.280544 E29.200483
GPS SUMMIT S28.270521 E29.214347
GPS END  S28.270521 E29.214347
AVE GRADIENT 1:9 (Specific 8,96)
MAX GRADIENT 1:3 (specific 2,60)
TIME REQUIRED 15 minutes
SURFACE Concrete & paving stones
DATE FILMED 10.04.2016
NEAREST TOWN Harrismith (23 km)

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Mountain Passes South Africa

Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.

Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.

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