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Ossewakop

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Views from the trail with the Zaaihoek Dam in the background Views from the trail with the Zaaihoek Dam in the background - Photo: Mike Leicester

 Ossewakop (“Ox Wagon Hill”) looms above the small Mpumalanga town of Wakkerstroom on its eastern side, the peak approximately 400 metres higher than the settlement. It is impossible to miss, as some enterprising residents have created the large outline of a Voortrekker wagon and the dates “1838 – 1938” (to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great Trek) with whitewashed rocks on the slopes just below the summit. The route up the mountain is difficult and torturous, so please read the cautionary notes before embarking on this trip. The remarkable views over the town and its surrounds from the beacon on top of the mountain certainly make the effort to get up there worthwhile.

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[Video cover photo by Mike Leicester]

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Digging into the details: 

Getting there: As this is an out-and-back route, we have provided the instructions in one direction only. Start off in Wakkerstroom from the corner of Van Riebeeck Street and Badenhorst Street, at GPS coordinates S27.355976 E30.141644.  Travel in a north-easterly direction along the R543 (Van Riebeeck Street) for 950 metres to S27.349972 E30.148132, then turn right into Slabbert Street. Travel in a south-easterly direction for 5 km to S27.377159 E30.176454. At this point, there is a small sign on the left-hand side of the road, and another small sign fastened to a white pillar on the right-hand side, next to a gate (see photos). Open the gate and drive through, making sure to close it behind you again. 

SignsOne of the route signs / Photo: Mike Leicester

CAUTIONARY NOTES

Do not attempt this route unless you are driving a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance. A low-range gearbox is not required, but a differential lock would be a good idea. Do not be fooled by the video, or by the statistics; this route is a lot steeper and more difficult than it at first appears.

There is a short stretch, which comes immediately after the second concrete-paved section, where it seems that someone has deliberately created a diamond-shaped lattice of holes, evenly spaced on the left and right sides. The effect of these holes is to get your vehicle cross-axled; this means that you will end up with one of your front wheels and the opposite rear wheel off the ground. Older 4x4 vehicles have no answer for this, and you will end up stuck and stationary, as the differentials will always send power along the easiest route i.e. to the free-spinning wheels. A differential lock will solve the problem, provided that your vehicle is fitted with one. Most modern 4x4s don’t have the same issue, as the controlling computer is intelligent enough to overcome this. Why this obstacle exists is a mystery – perhaps it is used for off-road driver training?

Mountain muralEach letter is 27m high! / Photo: Rural Exploration

Before you go, tell someone at your accommodation establishment where you are going, and make sure that you have their telephone number with you in case of a problem. There is cell phone signal and reception along most of the route.

The route along the top of the ridge consists mainly of a rough rocky track. Make sure that you are using proper all-terrain tyres, and deflate them to about 1.4 bar. Not only will this make your ride more comfortable, it will also reduce the risk of getting a puncture.

Check that you have the necessary tools to change a wheel, and ensure that you have a spare which is inflated correctly.

If you have a tow-bar on your vehicle, take it off, especially if it is mounted lower than the rear bumper. There are a few places where there are substantial steps, and the tow-bar will catch on these and get damaged. This applies in particular if you are driving a vehicle with an inadequate departure angle, like a double-cab pickup.

Plaque at summitCommemorative plaque at the summit / Photo: Mike Leicester


 If you are taking passengers with you, warn them in advance that the trip is going to be extremely bumpy, and that they will be bounced around in the vehicle. Drivers sometimes forget that they have the steering wheel to hang onto; passengers don’t.

Stick to the track, and don’t go wandering off over the farmer’s pastures. There are animals everywhere, and lots of birds; you could easily drive over burrows or nests. Try not to disturb the cows too much.

IntersectionWatch the signs / Photo: Mike Leicester

The rule-of-thumb with regards to any gates that you encounter is simple; if it is open when you get there, leave it open. If it is closed, open it, drive through, then close it again.

Respect the environment, and remove any litter that you or anyone else has discarded. If you smoke, take your cigarette butts back with you, and be careful that you don’t start a fire if the grass is dry.

If you see some of the locals standing on the side of the road clapping their hands, you should understand that they are not applauding your driving skills or your expensive vehicle. They are asking for a gift (money if adults, sweets if children) or a lift to the town – usually both.

Allow yourself enough time. You will need about an hour-and-a-half to complete the route, factoring in some time spent at the summit. To be on top of the mountain to watch the sunset would be an incredible experience, but make sure that you get back down again before it gets dark.

We have described the route in the ascending mode, as this is the direction that first-time users will have to drive it, but we did film the descending route as well. The trail begins at the gate described in our “Getting There” instructions above. The first section of the route consists of a bumpy “twee-spoor” track which undulates across the grasslands towards the rural dwellings in the distance. There is nothing particularly difficult about this section, although it would definitely be a problem in wet weather. If that is the case, you probably wouldn’t be driving up here anyway. 

At the 700-metre mark, the trail turns towards the west, then follows a fence for a couple of hundred metres before dipping down towards the first concrete-paved section. The track becomes a lot more rocky as you approach the paving; there is a significant step up onto the concrete, so be cautious. The paving only lasts for 70 metres, then the surface changes to two lines of brick paving. This is followed quite soon by a very rough and rocky section and then another, this time even higher, step up onto a concrete platform. 

Steep concrete sectionApproaching one of the concrete sections / Photo: Mike Leicester

More brick paving now follows as the track climbs steeply up the mountainside. This leads straight onto the second and last concrete-paved section, which is 200 metres in length. At the end of this paving comes the “cross-axle” section that we described fully in our cautionary notes above. Negotiate this slowly and carefully, but try to maintain some momentum. If you have gotten to this point and cannot continue, it is going to be very difficult to try and go back to find a place to turn. 

After about 50 meters of see-saw action, the brick paving starts again, and the gradient kicks up once more. The track curls through an S-bend, then sweeps slowly through a series of shallow curves. The paving ends, and the surface degenerates back to a rocky track. It is fairly flat here, so it shouldn’t present any problems. 

NB: READ THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH CAREFULLY 

Trail viewWide views over Wakkerstroom and the wetlands / Photo: Mike Leicester

At just after the 1.9 km mark, there is a short concrete platform laid between two gate posts. Directly in front of you at this point is a very steep brick-paved section. It is easy to become fixated on the upcoming climb, but YOU NEED TO TURN RIGHT AT THIS POINT.

The turn is not easy to spot, and there is no signage. As you can see on the video, we missed the turn completely and continued on up over the hill. When descending, we did in fact take the right route, so you can gain an idea of what this section is like by watching that video. It consists primarily of a narrow gravel track hemmed in by thick bushes, with a very steep drop-off on the eastern side. 

If you miss the turn like us, it’s not a problem. Continue straight on over the paved climb and back onto a grassy track. The road tops out over the crest of a hill, the descends into a small valley. Directly in front of you will be a concertina gate flanked by two tall gateposts. Drive almost up to the gate, then swing sharply to the right through about 120 degrees. In front of you will now be a very faint track leading in a north-easterly direction. Follow this path, which will bounce you across some very rocky terrain and into another little valley. 

Ossewakop viewed from the townOssewakop view from Wakkerstroom / Photo: Mike Leicester

A sort-of cross-roads appears, marked very clearly on the video by a large congregation of cows and horses. It is at this point where the route that you have been on now meets up again with the correct route, so remember this when descending. The track becomes far more clearly defined, so negotiate the livestock (this appears to a popular resting place) and continue onwards and upwards in a northerly direction. 

The last section of the pass is a long rocky track of about 1.2 km which meanders through the grasslands along the spine of the mountain. In winter, there is a very good chance that you could get snow up here; although not common, it does sometimes snow in Wakkerstroom itself.

[Video cover photo by Mike Leicester]

You will need to drive slowly and attentively to avoid hitting the numerous sharp rocks which could take chunks out of your tyres. As you approach the end of this section, you will see a small black and white beacon silhouetted against the skyline, with a concrete bench erected next to it. Find a level spot to park, get out of your vehicle, breathe a sigh of relief, and admire the views! 

Swart Dirk UysSwart Dirk Uys / Photo: Geni

In 2012, a granite memorial stone was set on the summit of Ossewakop to commemorate the construction of the two giant whitewashed rock murals that have been laid out on the mountainside. The first of these is a knot, the emblem of the North Staffordshire Regiment, which was built in 1901 by the troops stationed in the area during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. It is located just below the oxwagon mural. The second is the depiction of a Voortrekker wagon, constructed mainly by schoolboys from the local high school in 1938. 

The idea to construct the wagon came from a Mr Vercuil, the headmaster of the school. He was not a young man, so he sent one of his teachers, Mr P.E. Reid, up the mountain with a large roll of paper to get some idea of the scale that would be required. He monitored Mr Reid from below with binoculars to determine the approximate shape, size and positioning of the wagon, as well as the lettering. He then sketched the proposed final product on graph paper. 

His aim was to make the wagon “presentable” when viewed from a distance. After this preliminary task had been completed, the real work began. First of all, hundreds of steel pins had to be made and numbered. The boys from Grades 8, 9 and 10 were instructed to assist with the exercise. The task facing them was huge, since it was impossible to lay out the finished product all at once. It had to be done in stages. 

To understand the magnitude of the task, one needs to comprehend the size of the mural. For example, the number “1” which makes up the first digit of the dates is 27 metres long and 1.2 metres wide. Every afternoon after school the boys climbed the mountain, and using the plan drawn on the graph paper packed the stones accordingly. The boys quickly became fit and could jog from the base of the mountain to their working position. 

The farmers in the area had heard about the task, and realised that the project was not going to be completed on time. They decided to lend a hand, and helped by supplying some farm labour. On the Saturday when the stones were ready for painting, there was great excitement in the town. The lime and water had to be transported from the base of the mountain, and the farmers provided oxen to assist with this task. The townsfolk watched from below as the picture unfolded, and it said that there was no work done in the town or the surrounds on that day! 

If you don’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle but still wish to summit Ossewakop, there are a number of hiking trails which wind their way up the mountain. Alternatively, a ride up the trail described on this webpage in a 4x4 with one of the locals can be arranged. Inquire at the Information Centre in the town about either of these options.

Sir Henry Rider HaggardSir Henry Rider Haggard / Photo: WikipediaThe history of Wakkerstroom is inexorably linked with Dirk Cornelius Uys, most often known by his nickname, “Swart Dirk”, so called because of his swarthy complexion. In 1859, Swart Dirk and two companions were instructed to search for a suitable place in this remote part of what was then the Transvaal to establish a new town and congregation. They travelled inland from Potchefstroom until, after a week or two, they stopped to overnight at a place that made a most favourable impression on them the following morning. 

Swart Dirk shot an eland bull, slaughtered it and dressed the skin, and cut from it a thong about 150 yards long which he used to demarcate the town. He did a really good job; in 1941, when the town was properly surveyed, there was very little difference between the new markings and those laid out by Uys. Even the stand numbers and street names have remained largely unchanged. 

Swart Dirk proposed that the town should be called Uysenburg (Uys en Burg), but the executive committee of the ZAR decided that the town should be named after the president, so it became Marthinus Wesselstroom. The district became known as Wakkerstroom, but the locals, with typical disregard for the authorities, started to refer to the town itself by this name. Even today, in official documents the town is referred to as “Marthinus Wesselstroom in the district of Wakkerstroom”. 

The famous English author, Sir Henry Rider Haggard, better known as H. Rider Haggard, spent a lot of time in Wakkerstroom in the 1870’s, and the town features prominently in many of his books. A local legend states that the twin peaks of Ossewakop and Scotch Hill were the inspiration for the description in his best-selling adventure novel “King Solomon’s Mines” of two enormous lava-covered volcanic mountains called Sheba’s Breasts. Another of his novels, “She”, contains a phrase that has morphed into an acronym widely used today to describe a wife or girlfriend, although a word has been added; “She who must be obeyed” has been changed to “She Who ALWAYS Must Be Obeyed”, or “SWAMBO”. 

[Text & video footage by Mike Leicester] 


Fact File:

GPS   START

S27.377165 E30.176479

GPS   SUMMIT

S27.373758 E30.158717

GPS   END

S27.373758 E30.158717

AVE   GRADIENT

1:20

MAX   GRADIENT

1:4

ELEVATION   START

1968m

ELEVATION   SUMMIT

2146m

ELEVATION   END

2146m

HEIGHT   GAIN/LOSS

178m

DISTANCE

3,6 km (each way)

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

West

TIME   REQUIRED

20 minutes (each way)

SPEED   LIMIT

None (Self limiting)

SURFACE

Gravel/Concrete/Paved

DATE FILMED

03.03.2018

TEMPERATURE

25C 

NEAREST   TOWN

Wakkerstroom (10 km)


Route Map:

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Route files:

||Click to download: Ossewakop (Note - This is a .kmz file which can be opened in Google earth and most GPS software)

 

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