Van Reenen's Pass (N3)

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Van Reenen's Pass, Drakensberg Van Reenen's Pass, Drakensberg - Photo: Photo: East Coast Radio

Named after the little town of Van Reenen, which seems to stand guard at the top of this majestic pass which winds its way through the Drakensberg mountains between Ladysmith and Harrismith along the N3 between Durban and Johannesburg. Unfortunately, the only record that the pass can lay claim to is that of the most dangerous pass in South Africa. Despite this, the long pass provides beautiful scenery as it descends towards Ladysmith in the KZN Midlands from the Free State.


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Diggging into the detail:

Getting there: The pass lies almost equidistant between Johannesburg and Durban. To approach from the east, travel along the N3 from Durban towards Johannesburg for approximately 250 kms. The pass begins soon after you have driven through the Tugela Toll Plaza. To approach from the west, travel from Johannesburg on the N3 for approximately 290 kms, through Harrismith and eastwards towards Van Reenen. The pass begins just as you enter this small village.

One of hundreds of fatal accidents on this passOne of hundreds of fatal accidents that have occured on the pass / Photo: Ladysmith GazetteA word of warning. Despite its apparently benign appearance in good weather, this is an extremely dangerous pass, and a speed limit of 80 kph is applied over the majority of the pass for good reason. For most of the pass the left lane carries a speed limit of 60 kph, whilst the right lane is set at 80 kph. Our observation whilst filming the pass was that very few vehicles complied.

There are a number of permanent speed cameras located at intervals along the road, and  average speed monitoring is also in place.

In severe weather, such as when heavy snowfalls occur, or when there is a major accident on the pass, it is often closed. Traffic volumes are extremely high at all times, with most of the problems being caused by slow moving heavy duty vehicles in both the up and down directions. Exercise extreme caution and stick to the speed limits.

We have filmed the pass from west to east in the descending mode. The pass begins with a gradual descent through the town of Van Reenen, just as you cross the provincial border from the Free State into KwaZulu-Natal. The road follows a shallow S-bend through the village, then begins a long sweeping right-hand bend through 90 degrees, taking you into a south-westerly heading. This is followed by another S-bend, first turning left and then right, as the descent gradient increases quite sharply and the road passes through an area lined by tall trees.

Windy Corner view-site on the old passThe Windy Corner viewsite can be accessed on a loop of the old pass / Photo: PanoramioBaboons are common here, and often cross the road, so be on the lookout for them. The road straightens up for a few hundred metres, then makes a long gradual left-hand turn through 90 degrees back towards the east. This section of the road is very exposed and is often quite windy, so be aware of this if you are driving a high profile vehicle.

The descent now begins in earnest, as the road winds its way through a series of gentle bends. The views on both sides of the road are quite spectacular, and if you look carefully, you can see the railroad in the distance on the left-hand side following a gentler contour down the mountain over some carefully constructed bridges. As you approach the midway point of the pass, a motel with some unusual-looking A-frame chalets appears on your right-hand side, and there is a run-off area to your left. The road flattens out for a while through this section, then sweeps to the right and the descent begins again.

Lovely scenery from the passLovely sceenery along the pass / Photo: Panoramio

The road now curves through a very long turn to the left into a north-easterly heading, passing through an area with a grove of beautiful umbrella thorn trees. This is followed by a long bend to the right, a short flat section, and then a shallow S-bend.

Note the bus which passes our camera vehicle at this point, at a speed considerably greater than the allowed limit. Another 90 degree turn to the left is encountered as the road enters the last section of the pass, then it straightens up for about a kilometre, still descending quite sharply. The final corner is a long gradual curve to the right, and the pass bottoms out and reaches its end point at the Sand River Valley intersection and the Zandfontein Padstal, which is on the right-hand side. If you intend stopping here, make sure that there is no fast-moving traffic behind you before you turn.

There are alternative, and very scenic, routes that you can take to avoid Van Reenen’s Pass, although some of these do involve some gravel travel. De Beer’s Pass lies to the north, and the Tintwa/Middledale Passes and the Oliviershoek Pass, which is tarred, are located on the southern side. If you have the time, it is worth exploring these roads less travelled. If you are really adventurous, and you have a capable off-road vehicle, you could even tackle the Sandspruit Pass or Bezuidenhout’s Pass, which are historic Voortrekker-era passes also situated in this area, although we strongly suggest you do this only if in a group.

Van Reenens Pass KZNVan Reenens Pass in summer. Due to heavy traffic volumes, this is statistically the most dangerous pass in South Africa. Brake failure and excessive speed are the most common issues / Photo: RF Experience.comThe often wet, misty weather conditions have given this Anglo-Boer era pass the reputation of being perilously slippery, with decreased visibility. The lookout point, Windy Corner, offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and the Anglo-Boer War Battlefields Route beyond. From this vantage point one can still see the scars of the old road.

Another must-visit Van Reenen spot is the Llandaff Oratary - a quaint little chapel built by a father in tribute to his son, and reputed, world-wide, to be the smallest Roman Catholic church ever built.

Epicureans will be delighted by cordon bleu chef, Kathy Romer-Lee's Oaklands Country Manor restaurant, with a menu inspired by her adventurous spirit and world travels.

Van Reenen is a spectacular tourist region - one of those unknown gems that you seldom discover and when you, do you say to yourself "that was a highlight of my trip". Van Reenen offers gracious splendour to rural simplicity with many varied and interesting historical places.

Llandaff oratoryThe Llandaff Oratory - the smallest RC Church in SA? / Photo: Wikipedia

Van Reenen and the Pass have always been associated with transport. First it was a migratory route for hordes of animals migrating from the Orange Free State to KwaZulu Natal in winter and back again in summer. Frans Van Reenen, after whom the Pass is named, farmed at the base of Van Reenen Pass and trekked his oxen inland using the paths worn by the migrating animals. In the mid 1800’s he assisted the transport riders with laying out a route for the wagons carrying supplies to the gold mines. The area traversed by Van Reenen Pass was originally known as Underberg and there was a settlement 9 km south of the present village around Wyford where the border post was between the Orange Free State and KwaZulu Natal. This was manned by Customs officials, a Dipping Officer and a Police station. There was also The Good Hope Hotel, a boarding house and two blacksmith shops.

In 1891 the railway line was opened and the present village of Van Reenen came into being as all the services were taken to the top of the Pass. The railway line was a massive engineering feat to negotiate the steep incline and involved a series of tunnels and reversing stations. The latter were later replaced by more tunnels which is the route today.

The Green Lantern InnThe Green Lantern Inn dates back to 1892 / Photo: Panoramio

A green lantern was hung at the top of the pass to signify that travellers had reached the summit as it was often very foggy. At this time near to where the Caltex garage is to day, a guard from 6 a.m. manned the border post until 6 p.m. No movement was allowed between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Van Reenen Hotel was built in 1892 which in 1948 was renamed The Green Lantern Inn. At the time of the Siege of Ladysmith in 1899 the Van Reenen Hotel was commandeered by the British as their headquarters for the troops stationed on Gun Hill which gave then a commanding view of both the Orange Free State and KwaZulu Natal. They also built a blockhouse, which has since been demolished. During the 2nd World war Van Reenen was a great tourist destination with some 4 hotels in the area. Guests arrived by train and many activities were organized such as tennis and cricket matches. An interesting feature in the main lounge with its beautiful Oregon Pine dance floor, is the original wooden projection room, from which silent movies were first shown in the early 1930's.

Moorddraai MonumentThe Monument at Moorddraai / Photo: WikimediaThe Moorddraai monument near Van Reenen was erected in memory of 9 Boers murdered in 1865 who were transporting merchandise from Durban to Pretoria.

The Llandaff Oratory - The Little Church is the smallest in the Southern hemisphere, and is opposite the hotel. It is visited by thousands of people every year, no matter what your faith, this Little Church has become a spiritual centre point for many people whilst on their travels. Weddings at the Little Church are also common, from a small intimate wedding or renewal of vows.

History - Previously called the "World's Smallest Church", the Little Church is a memorial to the bravery of 28 Year Old Llandaff Mathew who was killed in a rock fall at a coal mine near Dundee. He died a hero saving eight other trapped miners, the same number of seats available in the oratory. The Oratory is a fully consecrated Catholic Church, seats eight and is the only privately-owned Catholic Church in the World. It was built by his father, Maynard Mathew in honour of the brave young man's life and heroic death. In 1960 Mr Charles West-Thomas bought it and had it declared a National Monument. In 1974, as a wedding present, he gave it to his wife Mrs Mims West-Thomas.

The “Barefoot Lady” monument tells a beautiful story about the role of women during the Great Trek. The "Kaalvoet Vrou" is a full sized metal statue of a barefoot Voortrekker woman looking out over the KwaZulu Natal escarpment in search of a route down. At the top of Voortrekker Pass stands a monument to a woman walking barefoot over the Drakensberg. After the Voortrekkers entered Natal, which was a British Colony in those days, in 1847, there was a number of trekkers who wanted to return to the Free State. Susanna Smit, sister of Gert Maritz, one of the Voortrekker leaders, declared that she would rather trek barefoot back over the Berg than live in Natal under British rule.

Retief's Klip (Retief's Stone) is where the Piet Retief party of Voortrekkers descended the Drakensberg and entered Natal on 14th December 1837. They had decided not to proceed with the rest of the Voortrekkers to what was to become the Transvaal republic. Retief's group consisted of some 66 wagons and these were the first wheeled vehicles to enter Natal. It is also interesting that there was a snowfall on Christmas day of this year - the only white Christmas that has been had in the Drakensberg.

Retief's Klip
and the Kaalvoet Vrou are accessed of the R74 near Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State.
They are approximately 5km apart. Both are monuments so you can visit at your leisure.

[Sources: History courtesy of the Green Lantern Inn. Route description by Mike Leicester.]

Fact File:


S28.371667 E29.372729


S28.371667 E29.372729


S28.438925 E29.489935














17,2 km




12 minutes


60 to 80 kph


Tar (N3)






Van Reenen (1 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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