Elands Pass (N4 - Mpumalanga)

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Elands Falls next to the pass Elands Falls next to the pass - Photo: Wikipedia

The beautiful Elands Pass will always be remembered once driven. It has an abundance of scenic beauty, with waterfalls, a railway line looping under the road, history in abundance and a beautifully engineered tar road to make for a comfortable drive. Perhaps the only detraction is that the N4 is a very busy road with lots of heavy-duty commercial traffic. The pass connects Machadodorp (eNtokozweni) in the west (8km) with Nelspruit in the east (85 km). The historic town of Waterval-Boven (Emgwenya) lies at the western end of the pass. The pass is 9,4 km long and gains 198m in altitude producing a gentle average gradient of 1:47 with the steepest parts near the tunnel being at 1:12


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[On car video footage supplied by Mike Leicester]

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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: From Nelspruit head west on the N4 for 70 km to arrive at the eastern start of the pass adjacent to the Cliffdale Estates and the Sycamore railway siding.

The road disappears around a wide left hand curve into the Elands River valley with the mountains looming ever larger on either side of the road. The gradient along the first 6 km is a very gentle 1:30 as is more in line with gradients of poorts, than passes, but things get a lot steeper towards the second half of the pass. The perennial Elands River feeds a lush valley with dense sub-tropical vegetation with well manicured farms lining the valley, producing crops like avocado pears and nuts.

British grave yardBritish grave sites from the Anglo-Boer War / Photo: Riekert MollThe first left hand curve brings the heading into the south until the 3,1 km mark where the first of five bridges are crossed. Shortly after this bridge, the road swings into a right hand bend of 90 degrees, changing the direction back into the west. Just after this bridge, there is a signboard on the left marking the access road to the small, but fascinating Krugerhof Museum, which is well worth a visit. Close to the museum is a memorial grave site dating back to the Anglo-Boer war of 1899.

The next landmark is the Waterval Onder (Lower Waterfall) station, which is close to the right of the road. Immediately after the station, there is a minor road turning off to the right.

On the opposite side of the N4 there is a gravel road which follows the mountain ridge on the Doornhoek farm into the north. This is known as "Die Ou Koetspad" (The Old Coach Road). After Doornhoek, the road heads west for 5 km via 7 easy bends, faithfully following the valley between towering mountains. It is a very impressive drive through beautiful scenery. It seems like all the farms in this valley are called Doornhoek (But is probably sub-devided these days, as it covers a huge area.

Krugerhof museumThe small, but artefact rich Krugerhof Museum / Photo: Riekert MollTwo kilometers further as the road follows an easy double-S curve, the railway crosses under the road at the third bridge. If you look further up the valley on the opposite bank of the Elands River, you can see the railway making a huge loop through the mountains, almost completing a full circle in its efforts to maintain gradient. This is aptly named "The Horseshoe'

At the 7 km mark there is ample sized parking area on the northern side of the road. From here one can take a short walk to see the old 5 Arches bridge - a beautiful sandstone bridge built with graceful arches, which took traffic over the river in the earlier part of the 1900's. The bridge was built in 1894 and is a national monument.

The railway has many tunnels (by necessity to maintain an acceptable gradient for rail traffic) and the road has a single tunnel which starts at the 9 km mark.  This is a modern tunnel, but fairly short and on the video you will see that an entire township (Emgwenya) has been built on top of the mountain under which the tunnel passes.

5 arch bridge historicThe beautiful 5 Arch Bridge dates back to 1894 and is a national monument / Photo: Gm at nBefore you rush past this historic little town, why not spend some time here and explore it. Just before the tunnel entrance is a smaller road to the right (north) which will take you to the historic Z.A.S.M. tunnel which was built in 1893. Park your car in the designated space and take the short walk to inspect and photograph the historic rail tunnel. The railway tunnel through the Elandsriver mountain was originally surveyed by the engineers 'Bouten and Sissingh' of the Netherlands South African Railway Company.

On 18th October 1892 drilling began at both ends and on 9th September 1893 the mountain was pierced. The tunnel is 200 metres long and the only rack railway in the country ran through it. The tunnel was closed and the line abandoned in 1908. From there you can take a footpath to see the Elands waterfall a few hundred meters further. In the village itself there is plenty to see and do. The locals take great pleasure in telling you about their village and its fascinating history.

The ZASM TunnelThe historic ZASM Tunnel can be accessed via a short footpath / Photo: Rudolph HattinghThe town was essentially a railway junction, with most of the inhabitants being railway employees. It was a dusty, polluted noisy place in it's heyday with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of dozens of steam trains.

The town was essentially a big railway shunting yard and went into decline after the steam era came to an end in 1966. Paul Kruger once lived in the lower vllage of Waterval-Onder. Today the town is a favoured rock-climbing area and is also popular for trout fishing.

For the more energetic, you can hike the Elandskraal Hiking Trail which traverses the Rock Fairies Kloof then heads in a south-easterly direction along the flank of the Joubertspruit (a tributary of the Elands River) and ends at a beautiful waterfall. Higher up in this same ravine there are more waterfalls, including the Horst Windich and Hennie Meyer waterfalls.

Once through the short tunnel (remember to switch your lights on), you might also notice the railway line snaking in and out of the ravines on the northern side of the valley, with the railway line crossing under the road at the Elands River. This powerful little river has cut a deep gorge through the mountains and provides a natural route, wide enough for the road, the railway line and the river.

After crossing the bridge over the Blouboskraalspruit, with the Doornhoek farm on the left, the road swings away to the in a broad curve with the picturesque town of Waterval Boven (Upper Waterfall) on your left. The town's name has been changed to Emgwenya (which means Place of the Crocodile) in keeping with the governments determination to obliterate all names not indigenous.

Steam enthusiasts at Waterval BovenSteam enthusiasts at Waterval Boven / Photo: Gm at nThe final and more serious climb out of the valley commences at the bridge at the 9,4 km mark. The road climbs up the eastern side of the Elands River valley offering some good views to the left of the railway line mimicking the course of the river with the twon of Waterval-Boven tucked into the various loops formed by the river's course.

There are four 90 degree bends on this section, but the road engineers have made use of fairly easy radii and nicely banked corners to make the drive safe. The road ascends via an inverted U shape as it rapidly gains altitude, then straightens out at the 12,4 km mark which brings the heading into the north-west.

A few hundred metres further is an intersection leading off to the left to the town of Waterval-Boven. This is a high accident zone and traffic ascending the pass needs to be particularly aware of the possibility of much slower descending traffic wanting to cross the traffic flow for the their right hand turn into the town.

After the intersection, the road climbs straight and true at a gradient of 1:11, which is the steepest part of the entire pass to summit at 1525m ASL at the 13,3km mark.

Excellent rock climbingExcellent rock climbing / Photo: PanoramioWaterval Boven is a small town situated on the edge of the escarpment on the banks of the Elands River above the 75m high Elands Falls on the railway line from Pretoria to Maputo. It is the sister town of Waterval Onder which is at the base of the escarpment below the waterfall. Both settlements were established in 1895 because of the building of the Pretoria - Delagoa Bay railway line, built by NZASM (Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansch Spoorweg-Maatschappij).

The railway from Komatipoort to Pretoria reached Waterval Boven in March 1894. In order to establish a supply depot, The Transvaal Republic acquired about 78 ha of the farm Doornhoek, lying on either side of the line. Between Waterval Onder and Waterval Boven, the line rises from the Elands River valley and the Lowveld to the eastern edge of the Highveld - 208 metres over a distance of 7.5 km - which necessitated a rack-railway and a steep, curving tunnel over this stretch.

The curved rail bridge at the Elands RiverBeautiful scenery with the curved rail bridge in the foreground / Photo sncdn.comThis route was later changed to a less severe gradient over a 14 km stretch with two tunnels. After this diversion, the old tunnel was used for road traffic until 1936, when the Elands Pass was built. The original tunnel, and also the bridge just below the tunnel, were proclaimed historical monuments.

The area is a major rock climbing attraction, with some 450 sport climbing and 150 traditional routes. A lodge with mountain chalets provides accommodation for climbers and visitors, and a comprehensive guide exists to climbs in the area.

Oosterlijn Steam Company, maintained this dramatic piece of history in operation of SAR Class 15F and SAR Class 25NC steam locomotives, as well as the "JAN WINTERVOGEL" the last remaining NZASM steam locomotive. Vintage rail safaris run through the lush tropical lowveld accompanying the course of the Elands River up through the Mpumalanga highlands through trout country enveloping the most scenic and adventuresome steam locomotive routes in Africa. As of 2012 the train is no longer running.

It was reported that the last remaining steam locomotives,25NC 3476 ,19D 2526 ,GMA/M 4056 ,15F 2909 ,15F 2985 ,GCA 2621 were attacked by scrap thieves over the weekend of November 7/8 2015 and all their copper and brass fittings stolen.

In October 2009 Waterval Boven (along with other Mpumalanga towns) underwent a name change. In Waterval Boven's case, the town was renamed after its township, Emgwenya. [Source: Wikipedia]

Fact File:


S25.618778 E30.404069


S25.627377 E30.314950


S25.627377 E30.314950














13,3 km




10 minutes


100 kph


Tar (N4)






Waterval Boven (1 km)

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