The Ben 10 Eco Challenge was conceived in 2011 whilst on a filming trip in the area as a means to boost local tourism in the Rhodes/Wartrail area by founder of Mountain Passes South Africa – Trygve Roberts.
He wanted to create an event that would last indefinitely, attracting adventure tourists into the area. The owner of Tiffindell Ski Resort, Lew Campbell, contacted MPSA and asked us if we would like to film the zig-zag pass above the ski resort to the top of the highest mountain in the area, called Ben MacDhui.
Mountain Passes South Africa came up with the concept of driving 10 challenge passes in 7 days and creating a special page on their website dedicated to that cause – the Hall of Fame. With 10 passes and the highest pass being named the Ben MacDhui Pass, the challenge title of Ben 10 Eco Challenge came to be.
It was an instant hit and the challenge is going from strength to strength and considered in some circles to be one of the toughest challenges for offroad adventurers. The challenge was opened up to 4x4 drivers, motorcyclists, mountain bikers, runners and walkers.
All the passes first had to be driven and filmed and published on the website. In January 2017 Rudi Peters from Gauteng was the first person (other than the filming crew at MPSA) to complete the challenge. He did it on a BMW 1200 GSA motorcycle.
In just over 2 years 85 people have now completed the challenge, but those that have entered number 166; showing an attrition rate of roughly 50%. This figure is a constant reminder that the challenge is tough and many an entrant retreats from the mountains in defeat.
In this story we take you through an epic four day adventure of our first official tour of the Ben 10 with 14 vehicles and 1 motorcycle. It would turn out to be an adventure of a lifetime – never to be forgotten.
Chapter 2 - Wednesday 20th March 2019 Drivers briefing
The group of 14 4x4’s and 1 motorcyclist arrive at the Mountain Shadows Hotel nestled at over 2000m ASL near the summit of the Barkly Pass. The hotel is ideally suited to our needs with a large lounge and bar area, conference facilities and a big dining area. The rooms are arranged in a horseshoe shape away from the main building which gives everyone quick walking access to all the facilities.
VHF radios are fitted by the guides and tyres are deflated in preparation for an early start the next morning. The group has been split into two groups to be more efficient. Mike Leicester, MPSA’s associate from Johannesburg will lead Team Mike and Trygve Roberts will lead team Romeo – each group comprising 7 vehicles.
The motorcyclist Francois with his wife Eilleen riding pillion will not have radio comms with the group, but will ride out ahead each day. At the drivers briefing there are a few concerned faces and not everyone agrees with the principle of tyre deflation. The acid test will be up in the mountains.
Six months of preparation have gone into the trip. The four days have been split up to cover the 10 challenge passes and in addition another 23 passes have been added into the routes to add some extra pizazz.
Everyone is requested to be in the dining room at 06h00 the next day in order to get Group Mike off by 07h00. Group Romeo would leave at 07h30. Each group would operate on different radio frequencies.
There were 36 people in the group with the youngest being an 8 year old girl and the oldest being the 75 year old Eugene Fourie – a pathologist. In the group there are lawyers, doctors, vets, IT specialists, school teachers, businessmen, farmers and a few retirees.
The convoy vehicles comprised 8 Toyota Land Cruisers and Fortuners, and one each of a Ford Everest, Suzuki Jimny, Isuzu KB250, Nissan Patrol, Mitsubishi Pajero and a Land Rover Discovery G4. The motorcycle was a BMW 1200 GSA.
Let the games begin…..
Team M (Mike)
Mike Leicester & Chantal Nicolaou - Guide - Ford Everest
Casper & Rene Steenkamp - Suzuki Jimny
Eugene and Lalie Fourie & Anne Fraser - Izuzu KB250LE
Hendrik & Ria Verloren van Themaat - Toyota Fortuner
Mark Ilbury - Toyota Land Cruiser 200
Doug & Rose Lyon - Mistubishi Pajero
Richard & Heather Heathcote - Toyota Land Cruiser SC (Sweep Team M)
Francois & Eilleen van der Westhuizen - BMW 1200 GSA (Motorcycle)
Team R (Romeo)
Trygve (Robby) and Charon Roberts - Guide - Toyota Land Cruiser 105
Anwar & Saabira Omar with Nazli & Abdulla - Land Rover Discovery 3 G4
Howard & Amanda Allum with Darrell & Alison Marshall - Nissan Patrol
Trevor & Theresa Hall - Toyota Land Cruiser 200
Graham and Debbie Adie - Toyota Land Cruiser 200
Jacobus & Naomi Smith with sons David, Jonathan and Janu - Toyota Fortuner
Henk & Teresa Rossouw and daughter Tinneke - Toyota Land Cruiser 76 (Sweep Team R)
Chapter 3 - Thursday 21st March. (Day 1) Fetcani Pass to Lundin's Nek.
Weather forecast - 22C Clear sunny weather. Our route for the day is long, rather than tough. The distance is 382 km and includes the Fetcani Pass, Lundin’s Nek, Dulcie’s Nek, Jouberts Pass, Grondnek Pass, Otto du Plessis Pass and Barkly Pass.
The day starts off at 07h00 with heavy mountain mists in the Fetcani Pass region but soon burns off and we are left with a beautiful, clear blue-sky day. The story of the Fetcani warriors is told over the radios of fierce tribesmen in the late 1800’s who caused havoc in the area, torching huts, stealing cattle and murdering all who came before them.
They were much feared by local tribes and gave the Cape government (British) at the time a headache. The drive from Fetcani to Lundin’s Nek is stunning. The route traverses valleys between mountains of eroded sandstone forming outlandish sculptures, mellowed by lush green pastures and tall Lombardi poplars reaching for the heavens.
The farms have Scottish names – like Reedsdell with the area falling under the name of Wartrail - itself conjuring up images of distant wars and skirmishes between Zulu, Xhosa, Boer and Brit. The distance passes in a maze of perfect scenery, but ahead the Drakensberg looms and the prospect of tackling Lundins Nek Pass (Lundeans Nek) is on everyone's mind. The road begins deteriorating and soon the convoy is instructed to switch to low range. Deep ruts and washaways interspersed with small rivulets and teeth chattering rocks slow the speed down to under 15 kph.
Up ahead the SAPS buildings – an anti-stock theft unit, marks the southern start of Lundins’ Nek Pass – the first of the challenge passes. There is a vehicle parked ahead in the middle of the track. It is stationary. As we get closer, we stare in disbelief. It’s a Toyota Corolla 1.6! How on earth did it make it this far?
We stop. The young German couple ask if we think the road ahead is suitable for them to continue. We quickly established that it is a rental car and many a joke abound that a rental car can go anywhere. Here was the proof of the pudding! We managed to persuade them to turn around and go back.
The views over the Telle River valley from the summit of Lundin’s Nek are superb. Alpine flowers dot the landscape which mostly consists of rolling grassland. There are hardly any trees at this altitude (2170m ASL). One can see into Lesotho from here, as the sound of a cowbell clanks nearby and the thundering hooves of a stallion ridden by a young Sotho man gallops past our convoy.
Chapter 4 - Lundin's Nek summit to Lady Grey
The descent down the northern side of Lundin’s Nek Pass presents one with exceptional views of weathered sandstone, almost black soil, rich green grass, tumbling rapids of crystal clear water, shiny cattle and flocks of sheep around any corner, calmly controlled by the local herdsmen who all wear a sort of uniform of a blanket, gumboots and a stick. Their dogs are well controlled too and are well adapted to the job at hand.
Most of the worst damage to the roadway from 2 months ago has been repaired and the descent presents very few problems. The road has many hairpins and razor sharp corners, so 100% concentration is required.
At last we reach the end of the pass close to the Telle River. From this point our route takes us north. Constantly following the river on it’s western side for a long distance through village after village until at last we get to the tar road near the Telle River border post. From there we connect with the main tar road to Lady Grey and drive over a minor pass called Dulcie’s Nek, where suffragette Olive Schreiner once lived nearby on a farm.
A short while later we drive through the sleepy (but artistic) town of Lady Grey where just a week before riots and civil unrest had residents lock themselves inside their homes. All was quiet as our long convoy rumbled through the town.
Chapter 5 - Jouberts Pass to the R58
At the foot of Jouberts Pass we take a lunch break and then tackle the ascent and a quick break at the summit for drivers to take their “proof” photos at each challenge pass summit (a requirement of the event). We follow the eastern descent of Jouberts Pass and begin a very long, but exceptionally attractive gravel road drive of almost 40 km through several farms, each separated by a small pass. There are verdant fields with shiny black and brown cows and here and there a huge bull stands guard over his harem.
The bird life is stunning too and we are fortunate to have a number of knowledgeable birders in our group, who identify a number of birds as we proceed along our route. There are jackal buzzards, Cape vultures, kestrels and a number of other interesting birds.
Finally we reconnect with the tarred R58 and turn left to drive the minor pass called Grondnek followed by the Kraai River Pass and in a blink we are back on gravel and heading south towards the Otto du Plessis Pass. The condition of the road is reasonable and our group is making good time.
Chapter 6 - Day 1 - Otto du Plessis Pass
We reach the northern end of Otto du Plessis Pass at about 16h00 with the GPS showing a 17h30 ETA back at base. That’s cutting things fine. The streams are all flowing nicely from all the recent rain in the area. The roads, although muddy in places have not presented any real challenges. (Little did we know what was still to come)
The summit shows large billowing white clouds as is so often the case at the top of these big high altitude passes. This one tops out at 2115m ASL. When we arrive at the summit, we are right in the cloud base and the gorgeous views on offer are not visible at all. What a pity – but the weather is always the one factor we cannot control.
We stop briefly at the summit for the now familiar process of the signboard selfies and move straight on down the descent. About halfway down we pop out of the cloud-base, but the available light does not make for good photography. All the waterfalls are flowing nicely.
We have completed 3 of the 4 challenge passes for the day but the clock is not being kind and the light is fading fast. We head on to the tarred R58 at Ida and connect with Elliot and drive up the Barkly Pass – which most of our guests rated a 10/10 despite it being a tarred pass. We arrive back at base in the dark.
End of a very long day with tired and weary drivers and passengers, but nothing a warm meal and a glass of wine can’t sort out. More is nog n dag....
The video below consists of a slideshow covering the salient features of Day 1:
Chapter 7 / Day 2 – Bottelnek Pass
The previous evening we made the decision to swap days 2 and 3 around as there was a 75% rain forecast for Day 3 and we particularly did not want to drive Bastervoetpad Pass in the rain.
Day 2 also had a shortening option which we decided to activate, in the interests of keeping smiles on the faces of our guests. We also brought the breakfast time 30 minutes later – all designed to make things more comfortable, but these would prove to be minor plusses in what would become an extremely hectic day.
Group Romeo left first and headed north on the R58 towards Barkly East, turning right onto a minor gravel road that would take us north-east all along the Bottelnekspruit river to the foot of the Bottelnek Pass.
Although this pass was not one of the challenge passes it is nonetheless also a high altitude pass (2204m ASL) but it is the valley drive which is so exceptionally charming. Tall mountains increasingly hem the road in with weird sandstone formations and oddly shaped barns, which all look like the same person designed them.
They are universally built from large dressed sandstone blocks with low angled corrugated roofs and a large arched central door. Most of the farms in the valley have been abandoned, their dark interiors hiding the secrets of generations past.
Up the Bottelnek Pass we go without any issues and once over the summit, the mountain is devoid of trees. There is however miles of grassland and the cattle do well here. They can be seen high up the steep slopes as sure footed as goats. The only reason we can come up with why the farmers have failed here financially is the difficulty in getting their produce to the markets. There is certainly no shortage of water or pasturage.
We are making good time, but the weather is looking a little dodgy. Looking towards the east the mountains are covered in cloud. This is not a good sign as our main goal for today is the 5th challenge pass – Bastervoetpad, reputed to be the most technical pass to drive in SA. It’s a long weekend and many people have descended on the area to do the Ben 10. In short order we arrive at the start of the foothills of the pass.
A slower group of 5 vehicles, kindly allow us to get past. From the first bridge, it’s straight into low range, which will be the gear ratios of choice for the next 20 km, which is likely to take us 4 to 5 hours.
Chapter 8 - Day 2 - Bastervoetpad Pass (The first two punctures)
The weather had turned chilly. Thick white clouds were billowing over the distant summit point. In the valley the track was a slushy mess of black mud and protruding rocks. The convoy had been advised about gear ratios, moving their seats forward and choosing their driving lines carefully. A few cows and sheep watched our procession of cars bumping slowly past.
After just 5 minutes Anwar in the Land Rover Discovery spoke on the radio: “I have a puncture!” On closer examination we established that both his right front and rear tyres had serious sidewall cuts of about 30mm length each. Both tyres were down on the rim. The damage had been done by protruding wires from a cracked concrete pipe.
“How many spare wheels do you have?” I asked.
“Just one” came the reply.
In the meantime the group that we had passed earlier caught up with our stationary group and added to the helping hands. Shortly thereafter our second group (Mike) also arrived and another group of bikes and vehicles pulled in behind them - 28 vehicles in total - stretching back almost 1.5 km.
The ground underfoot was soft and soggy and the scissors jack kept on burying itself deeper in the mud. The other three wheels had been chocked and soon the rear wheel was off. But the jack height was just short of getting the fully inflated spare onto the hub. Every turn of the jack, saw it starting to lean precariously towards the rear.
A second hydraulic jack was produced and a few planks to stabilise the base and at last the spare was on. A decision was made for the Land Rover to return to Elliot to fit two new tyres, but first we had to get the 20 odd vehicles which had tailed back past the Land Rover past it, then fill the front wheel with Tyre Weld.
One of the drivers in Group Mike, Richard Heathcote, had driven up Bastervoetpad the day before (by accident) so already had that pass ticked off and kindly offered to shepherd the Land Rover back to Elliot.
Chapter 9 / Day 2 – Bastervoetpad Pass (The bikers are falling - a lot!)
With the Land Rover (and the Land Cruiser bakkie assisting) on its way back to Elliot, our convoy size was down to 12 vehicles and the solitary motorcycle. The ascent up the western side of the pass was rough with hundreds of thousands of loose rocks and stones, all interspersed with deep ruts and mud.
Our motorcyclist, Francois, was riding without his pillion passenger, who had sensibly taken a lift in the group Mike lead vehicle. After less than 500m Francois had his first fall. A low speed affair and very common amongst the biking fraternity. The problem with a big bike like a BMW 1200 GSA is that it weighs around 270 kg. Lifting it back up requires not only physical strength, but technique and practice.
Mike went to help and soon Francois was mobile and on his way again, but within 100m he went down a second time. The last group of bikers had in the meantime worked their way through the three convoys and passed Mike. They also started falling, which kept Mike very busy, assisting not only Francois, but bikers not in our group as well.
It was a long, painful climb up to the summit point for Group Mike. At that stage Francois had taken about 12 falls. He was getting tired and had pulled a hamstring. The summit was completely under cloud, once again denying us the pleasure of enjoying what is considered by many, to be the finest view in South Africa.
We stopped briefly for the required summit selfies and forged on towards the descent, which was even rougher than the ascent and considerably wetter, as it it is on the eastern side of the mountains. It had rained steadily the whole of the previous 24 hours and the pass was going to be very slippery.
Chapter 10 / Day 2 – Bastervoetpad Pass – Slipping & Sliding
Here and there rockfalls had sent large boulders tumbling onto the road. Most of them could be skirted, but a few required manhandling and a spade for leverage. We progressed steadily along a contour section and at about the 12 km point, the serious part of the descent needed to be driven.
The convoy was requested to stop and wait as I nudged the Land Cruiser around and down a 110 degree right hand bend. All the tyres were coated in thick mud, so traction was poor. The big 3 ton vehicle went into a slide. I kept my foot off the brake and did my best to guide it in as straight a line as I could. It would be the first of many such sections. Everyone in our group made it through the first one without mishap.
I called Mike on the radio who had not reached the top of the pass yet and advised him that conditions for a motorcyclist were not good. Based on the intel Francois at that point decided to abandon his attempt to complete Bastervoetpad. The bike was left on the side of the road and Francois got a ride with Mike.
Chapter 11 / Day 2 – Bastervoetpad Pass – Why running boards are a bad idea...
A little lower down the pass, we were presented with a left hand bend, with a fair amount of inside banking. To the left was an earth embankment (luckliy not rock) and a deep rut at its foot, so the obvious line was to take the bend more to the right at a higher level.
As we started the bend, the rear of the Land Cruiser (despite being in low range with the rear diff lock on) started sliding to the left as graciously as a ballerina in Swan Lake. In three seconds we had slid almost 90 degrees across the road with the rear end up against the embankment – effectively blocking the whole road and no one ahead of me to tow me out.
The 105 series Land Cruiser comes out standard with front and rear diff locks. It is seldom that it is ever necessary to use the front diff lock, but this seemed to be a perfect opportunity. It engaged effortlessly and I turned the steering full lock to the left and drove out of the situation without any further issues.
Those behind me decided not to go as far right as I did and one by one they went sliding into the embankment. Very few vehicles came out of that one without some body damage and several running boards were reduced to twisted and bashed aluminium.
Chapter 12 / Day 2 – Bastervoetpad Pass – Farmers are wonderful people...
Gingerly our convoy worked its way down the pass. We spotted a Verraux Eagle at close range. Another highlight of the Ben 10. At last we slid our way down to a river crossing and a small stone farm house on the left signposted “Valetta”
The farmer was waiting for us there, and astonishingly invited our entire group in for tea and coffee. Bennie and Marjorie hosted about 15 of us, allowed us to use their toilet (which the ladies in our group really appreciated) and we spent the better part of an hour enjoying our lunch break with these wonderful, hospitable people who didnt know us from a bar of soap.
Bennie told us about a group of bikers who were beaten by the mountain the previous day – two of them with broken bones and had slept over at the farm. Bastervoetpad is a serious pass and not to be taken lightly. Yet there were some people who had driven (and ridden it) in the ascending mode the previous day.
After Valetta, there is a short section involving another 4 river crossings, after which the road improves a lot and we could switch to high range and pick up our speed to 50 kph, through dense stands of plantations owned by PG Bison. Once on the R58, it was an easy drive on tar via the ever impressive Barkly Pass back to our base.
We had our group back at Mountain Shadows by 4 pm in high spirits. For the less experienced drivers some were still full of adrenaline and the bar sales that night did rather well!
Five challenge passes done - five to go!
The video below consists of a slideshow covering the salient features of Day 2:
Chapter 13 / Day 3 – Five down – Five to go!...
The halfway mark in any challenge is where emotions begin running high and calmness needs to be instilled. The tyre shop (Supa Quick) in Elliot were brilliant. They had sourced the correct sized tyres for the Land Rover in Queenstown and loaned their company bakkie to Anwar, who was back by 4.30 with the new tyres. Fitted, balanced and ready for Day 3.
We needed to recover Francois’ motorcycle, so some major changes had to be made. Mike, Richard, Francois and 2 helpers from the hotel left early in the Land Cruiser bakkie with recovery gear to recover the bike, still marooned at the summit of Bastervoetpad Pass.
Our forecast for the day was 75% rain, so there was a sense of urgency in getting that side of the operation completed.
That meant Group Romeo had to absorb the rest of Group Mike, bringing our convoy size to 12 vehicles. Our route for the day was down Barkly Pass (never boring no matter how many times you drive it), then north-east to Ugie, Maclear, Katkop Pass, Moordenaarsnek Pass (all on tar), then onto gravel up Luzi Poort, Pitseng Pass and on to the 6th challenge pass – the magnificent Naude’s Nek Pass.
Roadworks at the lower end of Naude’s Nek pass weren’t really any problem and the local truck drivers all allowed our big convoy to pass them in a courteous manner. Things are still beautifully old-school in the Eastern Cape.
Naude’s Nek is a magnificent pass with fascinating history. Eventually the entire convoy was parked off at the main view point at 2500m ASL. Selfie time and a good leg stretch before we tackle the second part of the day.
Chapter 14 / Day 3 - Six down - Four to go!...
Naude’s Nek is frequently touted as the highest altitude pass in South Africa at 2590m. It is in fact the 4th highest pass, being pipped by Ben MacDhui, Sani Pass and the TTT in that order. It’s also a very long pass at 32.7 km, but the road is fairly wide and reasonably easy to drive.
The views throughout are lovely and we were fortunate to have a clear day allowing for reasonable photographic opportunities. Our lunch break was taken at the Naude family memorial site, set under shady oak trees near a clear stream.
Next up was Carlisleshoekspruit Pass. This pass involves a lovely drive up a long valley crossing the stream a few times via concrete dips or small bridges. Little did we know that 24 hours later this peaceful valley would turn into a mass of flood water.
The steepest parts of this pass are concreted, which require a specific driving style and 4x4’s cannot use low range without the risk of damaging their differentials. This means selecting 1st gear high range and maintaining some momentum around the hairpin bends to prevent stalling.
Next up is a long, slow drive past Loch Ness and over the mountain plateau to reach the 8th challenge pass – Volunteershoek. This pass is not good for bikers, as they battle with all the loose stones. The road is maintained privately by the Wartrail farmers. Old tyres have been filled with sand and these seem to be effective in keeping the bad sections stable.
Our last point of interest for the day is a visit to Loch Bridge. A beautifully designed Joseph Newey bridge over the Kraai River. From the descent the rail reverses 6, 7 and 8 can be clearly seen. These are apparently only found in South Africa and Canada - a cheaper option than a long tunnel.
Another long and tiring day, but successful and without mishap. Eight done. Two to go.
The video below consists of a slideshow covering the salient features of Day 3:
Chapter 15 / Day 4 – Supposedly the easiest day.
To ensure that everyone in the bike recovery team completes the challenge, Mike leads just the one extra vehicle (Richard in the Land Cruiser bakkie) and has Francois and his wife as passengers in the Everest. They will attempt to do 5 challenge passes in one day. They will need to start early as that is a tall order, but with only two vehicles, the speed will be much faster than the bigger convoy. The plan is to meet up with Group Romeo at Tiffindell and everyone drives back to Mountain Shadows together.
Group Romeo have an easy run as per day 3 as far as Maclear, where we turn off onto gravel and drive the Pot River Pass, Elandshoogte and again climb the southern ascent of Naude’s Nek Pass.
All is going well, but there are tall cumulo-nimbus thunderheads building. Huge billowing masses towering thousands of feet into the sky and getting darker by the minute. Little did we know that this huge storm system had come all the way down the Drakensberg from Bloemfontein causing major damage to roads and infrastructure in its path.
From the viewpoint we keep right and take the road past the attractively sited Tenahead Lodge (expensive, but classy without being ostentatious).
Next up is the 9th challenge pass – The Tenahead-Tiffindell-Traverse. A 27 km long contour road built specifically to combat stock theft into Lesotho. It’s also known as the Cairntoul Road or Die Patrollie Pad or Grenspad.
It’s a slow, bumpy drive that takes us two and a quarter hours. We see a rinkhals on the roadside, which has its hood spread, black eyes focused and it remains in that pose for at least 6 vehicles to photograph it.
By the time we reach the 20 km mark on the TTT the skies are dark and its only 12.30. There is a big storm brewing. It starts raining and those tasked with opening and closing the gates are getting wet.
We get to Tiffindell Ski Resort at 1.30pm and decide to take the convoy straight up to Ben MacDhui as quickly as we can, as if this storm breaks, it’s going to be too dangerous. It’s raining already, but not too hard.
Chapter 16 / Day 4 – Ben MacDhui Pass (3001m ASL)
Ben MacDhui Pass is fairly short, but it is very steep and quickly deteriorates when wet. The whole convoy makes it up without any issues. Graham Adie and Anwar (both runners) have decided to run/walk up. Anwar records his heart rate at 178 bpm. The air is thin.
Near the actual summit point are four obstacles to clear. Everyone clears them without problems, but the final little climb up to the summit plateau is in a bad shape. For the second time I deploy the front locker and the Land Cruiser is up at the summit beacon. Ben 10 done and dusted.
Behind us is the little Suzuki Jimny. Big loose rocks and mud prove to be too much and the Jimny is stuck. In the meantime the skies have begun rumbling and bolts of lightning are crackling down around us. The rain increases and suddenly it starts hailing – right in the process of recovering the Jimny.
We do a reverse recovery of the Jimny and the 2nd vehicle is now up. Ten to go.
Next up is the Land Rover, but the driver decides not to tackle the obstacle and pulls aside. The third vehicle is up is team Whisky Papa in the Patrol which get up with ease. They are followed by the Halls in a 200 series Land Cruiser and they in turn are followed by the Fortuner of Jacobus Smith who also makes it up unassisted. Each climb is making the obstacle progressively worse. We now have 5 up.
Next is a 76 series Land Cruiser and it hooks a big rock under the rear leaf spring. The storm is getting worse. Hail is pelting down. A lightning bolt hits the fence a few metres from where we are, sending sparks flying. The situation is deteriorating rapidly.
Chapter 17 / Day 4 – Ben MacDhui Pass - Safety first.
Trying to do road building with lightning and hail around you is not the easiest of tasks. After some effort we get the 76 Cruiser reversed back down to the bottom of the obstacle.
A safety decision is made not to take the rest of the convoy to the summit. Drivers are requested to quickly walk to the beacon and take their selfies, then get into their vehicles and drive back down to Tiffindell in the reverse order.
Halfway down the switchbacks the Land Rover slides to the left with both its left wheels in a ditch and is unable to drive out. We are directly behind it and attempt to give advice to the driver. It soon becomes apparent, that the Land Rover will need to be recovered.
The 76 Land Cruiser, which is ahead of the Land Rover, is requested to reverse back up the slope and through the hairpin to effect the tow recovery. With some difficulty, we finally have the Land Rover back on the road and the whole convoy makes it back to Tiffindell.
The management of Tiffindell have laid on tea, coffee, cheese and biscuits and cakes for all of us. What a treat. It’s well past lunch time, so the team are hungry. The Ben 10 has been successfully completed. There is a sense of elation.
Mike and his team have also arrived after driving their last pass (the TTT) through heavy storm conditions. Our goal has been achieved. All that remains is the easy drive back to Mountain Shadows Hotel via the Carlisleshoekspruit Pass, Rhodes and the Bokspruit Pass.
Little did we know that our biggest challenge still lay ahead, which would turn the tour on its head.
Chapter 18 / Day 4 – A spectacular storm and a flash flood
We left Tiffindell in high spirits at about 3.30 pm. We put group Mike in the front of the convoy, followed by group Romeo, maintaining the same driving order.
On the high grounds below Tiffindell it looked like it had been snowing, bit it was hail – vast amounts of it. The convoy, now back to full strength of 14 vehicles, trundled slowly down Carlisleshoekspruit Pass in 1st gear high range.
The rain continued and got heavier. Great bolts of lightening lit up the darkened sky and deafening peals of thunder echoed down the valley.
For those of us from Cape Town, unaccustomed to electrical storms, it was intimidating. Halfway down the pass, a small waterfall can usually be seen on the far side of the valley. It has a vertical drop of around 80m. Now there is a wide torrent of brown water thundering over the lip in a furious cascade of spray. This was the first warning of trouble on the way.
Mike arrived at the first causeway - a concrete low level bridge which was submerged with a strong current running over it. Mike called me on the radio advising of the situation. He felt he could drive safely through. I told him to make his own judgment call. He crossed without any issues, as did the Land Cruiser bakkie. We were next and again a fairly no nonsense crossing, but I was concerned about the little Suzuki Jimny.
I called Casper (the Jimny driver) on the radio and suggested that he think carefully about whether to cross or wait and that the decision would be entirely his own. The Jimny crossed without any problems.
I radio’d the rest of the convoy stating that the Jimny would be the scratch vehicle and if it made it across, all the others would manage as well.
What we didn’t know, was that we were proceeding into a worsening situation where the river levels would rise dramatically within the space of a few minutes.
Chapter 19 / Day 4 – Drama, Drama, Drama!
As we drove down the Carlisleshoekspruit Valley we crossed another two side streams of the main river. Whilst they were flowing swiftly, the crossings were short and relatively easy.
The second one looked nasty as the water was almost black. Again I urged the JImny driver directly behind me to carefully consider his safety, but the Jimny crossed without a problem.
A gap had opened up between the Jimny and the next vehicle – the Land Rover, and in those few minutes the black stream had risen by another half a metre, escalating it into the dangerous level. Those at the back of the convoy were urging the Land Rover driver to proceed, but the crossing went pear shaped, with water rushing up and over the Land Rover’s bonnet up to windscreen level. At that point the engine cut out mid-stream and the 3 ton vehicle started sliding sideways towards a 2 metre drop on the left.
We received an anxious radio call from the vehicles behind. At that stage we were more than 2 km ahead and had to turn around and rush back to the stream. I also called Mike and Richard to turn back to assist. By the time we got back, the Patrol had managed to get a rope onto the Land Rover’s towbar and pulled them back to safety.
The four occupants were visibly shaken. Whilst we were trying to figure out a Plan B, the river just as quickly started dropping and within 15 minutes the 76 Cruiser was able to tow the Land Rover over the crossing. The Land Rover was soaked to the core - all its electronics dead.
But there was yet worse news waiting up ahead.
Chapter 20 / Day 4 – The bridge is gone!
The ebullient mood of our group had changed to one of angst and concern. Two kilometres down the road at the next farm, Mike called us to advise that the bridge was completely submerged and probably had been washed away.
A dead cow came floating down in the raging torrent. Trying to cross the river would have been suicidal. The water levels were still rising and soon the big barn next to the river was completely surrounded by water.
We started moving our vehicles to higher ground. On the far side of the river were two vehicles. These belonged to the owner of the farm. We managed to get the phone number from one of his workers on our side of the river (thanks to the foresight of our IT expert - Jacobus Smith).
Luckily the farm was just within mobile reception range. The farmer told me to relax and wait and that the river would subside within an hour. Moral of the story is – always listen to the farmers!
Fifteen minutes later it was as if a miracle occurred. The river dropped rapidly, revealing the old bridge, which had been damaged in a flood a few months prior and declared unsafe as its foundations and support columns had been swept away .
A temporary bridge had been built alongside and which we had driven over the day before. That temporary bridge was now completely gone. The four concrete pipes were visible some distance downstream.
It was getting dark. We had hungry kids and fearful adults to contend with. A really difficult situation. As always safety has to be the first priority.
Chapter 21 / Day 4 – Decisions, Decisions.
We got our civil engineer, Mark Ilbury, down to the bridge to get his opinion on safety versus risk. Earlier the farmer had fitted metal scaffolding jacks under the bridge to support the middle section. These had now also washed away leaving the bridge weak and unsupported.
To the naked eye, the bridge looked solid. The decision was to sleep in our cars and head back early the next day via the TTT or Volunteershoek. At that stage we were unaware that the same storm had washed the road away at Mosheses Ford. Another alternative was to head back to Tiffindell and get accommodation there for the night. That would mean having to recross all the rivers once more.
Mark advised that the bridge was designed to carry 30 tons. Our heaviest vehicle was 3 tons. Therefore the chances of the bridge collapsing was actually very small. If it did, it would crack and subside but not break catastrophically.
We made a decision that the risk was worth taking and Mike volunteered to cross first. One by one and with bated breath we got everyone across safely, except the Land Rover, which had well and truly drowned.
Mark, who was driving solo in a 200 series Land Cruiser, was able to take all 4 the Land Rover passengers and so we headed towards Rhodes minus one vehicle.
Chapter 22 / Day 4 – A night to remember
Once we got the convoy moving and said farewell to the orange Land Rover, it was almost fully dark. Just before we got to Rhodes, the radio squawked: “Robby – This is Eugene. My battery charging light is on”
It looked like we were getting the Ben 12 rather than the Ben 10!!!
I tasked Eugene with driving with his lights off to conserve battery energy to power the fuel pump. To add to his dilemma it was also raining quite hard, which meant without wipers he would be struggling to see.
The vehicle behind (Hendrik) volunteered to drive close behind him (offset to the right) with his lights on bright to light the way. The vehicle ahead of him would keep a constant distance ahead of him to help him gauge which way the road was bending and the same distance ahead of them, we were able to mark the way by putting on our rooftop orange emergency strobe lights.
The farmer called to advise that the road at Mosheses Ford had washed away and advised to return via Bokspruit.
The storm was still raging with more hail and rain making the night exceptionally dark and the roads were dangerously slippery.
It limited our speed to 40 kph. And so we limped back towards Mountain Shadows Hotel almost 80 km away via the Bokspruit Pass. The 2 way radios helped enormously in keeping communications open and ensuring everyone’s safety.
I had been able to make telephonic contact with the owner of the hotel – the ever bright and helpful Ria, who promised to wait for us and keep the bar and kitchen open (in that order!) We arrived at 10 pm.
What an adventure!
The video below consists of a slideshow covering the salient features of Day 4:
Chapter 23 / Epilogue
The last supper was good. Casper ordered medicine for the team – a round of Jagermeisters. An impromptu final speech praised all of the challengers from the youngest (Tinneke - who by the way celebrated her birthday where the entire group and hotel staff serenaded her Happy Birthday song in English and Xhosa) to our driving champ Eugene, who had nursed his Isuzu all the way from Rhodes under the most arduous conditions.
Everyone received their Ben 10 badges. Earned the hard and honest way.
What was interesting about this group of 36 people (of whom two were on holiday in SA from Plymouth in the UK) was that they started the tour as strangers, but it was the hardships and drama, that brought out the best in everyone, which ensured each person was able to complete the Ben 10 Eco Challenge.
To have the privilege of leading this tour was a complete restoration of my faith in the human race and the purity and good values which are still out there in abundance.
The Isuzu made it to Aliwal North the next day where the agents were unable to supply an alternator. Eugene bought a second battery as a back up to ensure he would make it home to Pretoria. As things turned out, the battery light suddenly went out once he was able to drive at a higher speed on a tarred road. Problem solved and now he is the proud owner of a spare battery.
The Land Rover was collected by low-bed the following day and transported to Aliwal North. Fortunately Anwar is covered by insurance. The estimate so far is R130,000 so the insurance company have written it off.
You only have one life – Live it! Or as a well known saying goes - If you’re not living life on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.
- Mike Leicester - group leader of Team M for major involvement in the planning of this tour and especially for the route planning; for supporting all the downed bikers on Bastervoetpad (even those not in our group); for managing the recovery of the BMW; for ensuring all those involved in the recovery completed the Ben 10.
- Richard Heathcote - for ensuring the safety of the Land Rover on Day 2 after the punctures; for loaning his Land Cruiser to recover the BMW; for being an absolute old school gentleman throughout the tour.
- Mark Ilbury - for assisting anyone who needed help from puncture repairs to helping out with lifts - always cool, calm and measured; for transporting Anwar and his family all the way back to Cape Town.
- Charon Roberts - for always being there to support me.
- All tour participants - for anyone who contributed even in the smallest way to assist others during the tour.
- Supa Quick in Elliot - for excellent service and going the extra mile.
- Bennie and Marjorie Venter of the Valletta farm for their spontaneous hospitality and kindness.
- Natie from the Isuzu group - for classic Afrikaans courtesy, respect for elders and for being a true South African gentleman.
- Tiffindell Ski Resort - for the welcoming party and lunch treats.
- Mountain Shadows Hotel - for bending over backwards to meet our every need. Ria and her team are champs!