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Piet Esterhuysen Pass (OP8062)

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Rough, steep and spectacular Rough, steep and spectacular - Photo: Trygve Roberts

This is without question a bucket list pass and if you're a gravel pass aficionado, then doubly so. After the long flat plains of the Koue Bokkeveld have been traversed, this pass comes as something of an eye opener as the summit is approached and suddenly the whole pass is there winding its way laboriously down the western flank of the big ravine carved out by the perennial Leeurivier in the Southern Cederberg. It ends at a delightful camping spot named Balie's Gat.

This road is not for the faint-hearted as it is single width only and many parts of the road are propped up by some very basic dry packed stone walls. These are more or less in the fashion of Thomas Bain's dry packed walls, but the construction work itself is much more rudimentary.

It takes about 20 minutes to descend the 205 metres over a total of 2,4 km and produces an average gradient of 1:12. The road has serious gradients of up to 1:6, plus it is very bumpy and rocky. Ideally a 4x4 is required and especially the climb back out of the valley is much better in low range. If you're towing a trailer, then low range is a definite requirement. Note that it is a cul-de-sac and the only way out of the valley is the same you enter it.

 

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[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts]

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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: As this pass is a dead-end, there is only one way to get there. Head along the R303 from Ceres via the Gydo Pass and the hamlet of Op die Berg. From Op die Berg continue northwards on the R303 for 30 km and turn right (east) at the sign marked "Tandfontein" at GPS S32.776837 E19.242297. The road is closed by a boom at this intersection. There is a guard hut on the left which is permanently manned.

TandfonteinRead the terms and conditions of entry as this is a partially deproclaimed road / Photo: Trygve Roberts

 

 


As this road is partly deproclaimed, the land owner imposes certain restrictions on vehicles using the road. These are clearly explained on the notice board and include not allowing firearms. The conditions of entry also allow for your vehicle to be searched. You will be required to fill in the logbook and sign it.

Drive directly along a straight gravel road into the north-east for 3,5 km to arrive at the start of the pass at the point where there are some beautifully weathered Cederberg sandstone formations, with some of the huge rocks teetering and appearing as it they could topple over at any second, possibly where the Tandfontein name originates from.

Single width roadThe sign at the first hairpin at the summit / Photo: Trygve Roberts

Pass Description: The road degenerates into a two spoor track and winds its way through the rocks and amongst a stand of bluegum trees. Some outbuildings and construction equipment appear on the left. There are several tracks and it's difficult knowing which is the correct one, but they all rejoin again within a short distance. The track drops through a number of short level areas and suddenly the trees open up revealing a huge, rugged, deep valley that appears directly in front of you, where the lower portion of the pass can be seen winding its way down the mountainside on the left.

The road swings away to the right and follows the rim of the canyon for a short while, before turning through a 180 degree hairpin bend. A small notice board advises drivers to scan the pass for ascending vehicles and to wait at this solitary widening of the road for that vehicle to pass safely.

It is in any case the perfectly level and safe place to stop and take photos. The scene is vast and dramatic with jagged ridges and peaks forming a massive frame over the deep cleft below where the Leeurivier runs placidly into the north. Deep and clear rock pools glisten like pearls as they link the run of the river all the way down the valley. Almost the entire road can be clearly seen from this point, making it the perfect holding point. There is a similar spot near the bottom, for ascending vehicles to wait for those descending. Don't think you'll find a space wide enough for safe passing as the entire road is strictly single width and trying to pass another vehicle will be extremely dangerous as the drop side of the road is completely unguarded.


[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts]

There are a total of 37 bends, corners and curves on this pass, but all of them, with the exception of the hairpin bend near the summit have turning angles less than 90 degrees. It's not the corners on this pass which are a problem, but rather the narrow width and very rough surface of the roadway, which is exacerbated by hundreds of oblique rain water mounds occurring every 50m or so, which by default double as speed bumps.

Steep gradientsThe gradients are steep / Photo: Trygve Roberts

 

Your vehicle's wheels will cross these mounds at four separate times, causing your vehicle to roll uncomfortably. As long as you are descending very slowly, there should be no problems. Vehicles that pack a lot of weight high up on roof carriers are more susceptible to this rolling motion than those without as the centre of gravity is raised considerably.

At this point, it's best to select low range and you should have deflated your vehicles tyres for better traction and a softer ride. The road is rough and rutted and peppered with hundreds of thousands of rocks and stones. Transverse ditches and earth mounds have been dug to remove excess water off the road. In short you are in for a very slow and bumpy ride. Not deflating your tyres might well also cause a puncture and changing a wheel on these steep inclines is going to be a risky affair.

Looking up the pass Almost the entire pass can be seen from this point with the summit being just to the right of the peak / Photo: Trygve Roberts

Engage low range and if you are in a 4x2 vehicle, engage 1st gear high range and remain in that gear till you are down, using engine compression as a natural brake, rather than sitting on the foot brake. Brake failure down this pass would be disastrous.

Take your time, drive slowly (5 to 10 kph) and soak up the stunning scenery. If there are no vehicles waiting to ascend, you can stop anywhere for photos, but please remember to engage the handbrake properly, switch the engine off and leave the vehicle in 1st or reverse gear.

Altitude is lost steadily as the gradients, which range between 1:6 and 1:8, get you slowly towards the valley floor. A secondary, slightly fainter two spoor track can be seen intersecting with the pass and squiggling its way down to one of the rock pools.

[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts]

A sharp right hand bend appears at the 1,7 km mark, where a second notice board (like the one near the summit) warns ascending vehicles to wait at an obvious widening in the road. This is a blind corner so drive slowly around it, after which the last few hundred metres of the pass can be seen dropping down into the greenery offered by the river.

The road finally levels off just before an intersection. Keep straight on for 900m to reach the campsites at Balie's Gat or turn right and cross over a very basic low level concrete bridge if you want to get to the farm house.

Leeurivier rock poolOne of the crystal clear rock pools / Photo: Balies Gat Gallery

The camping area is well maintained with well grassed, level sites and clean ablution facilities. At the time of filming there were only two cottages (each sleeping 2 people) available to rent.

Allow at least an hour and a half to complete this pass in both directions. It will be time well spent. 

There is an interesting tale about this pass. The details were supplied by George Scott and relayed to us via Jurie Schuurman of the Land Cruiser Club of South Africa.

About 5 yrs ago after heavy storms, the local authority hired a tracked excavator machine (not a bulldozer) from a plant hire company to help with the repair of a damaged low level crossing at the bottom of the valley. The pass was too steep to drive the truck carrying the excavator down it, so they offloaded it at the top and the foreman gave the machine operator instructions to drive the machine down the pass whilst he went back to town to go and fetch some wors for a lunchtime braai. The machine was very wide and its outer tracks were at times hanging over the edge of the pass. Halfway down the pass the road edge collapsed and the machine tipped sideways hanging at a precarious angle. The operator had time to remove his lunchbox, clothes etc and jump off before the machine started sliding sideways and then rolled all the way down the mountainside where it came to rest in the stream below. By now it had been broken up in pieces, even the engine had been ripped out by the enormous impacts.

The remains of the excavator after rolling down the pass / Photo: George ScottThe machine was beyond recovery or repair and the insurance company paid out. A while later a Cape Town scrap collector offered the insurance company R5000 for the wreck which they accepted. He then went to the farmer (George's father-in law) and asked permission to build a track down to the wreck so he can cut it into smaller pieces and remove it. (The track is the smaller one on the main photo running from right to left down to the stream). The farmer said he is fine with it, but the scrap collector must get permission from Cape Nature which he duly did. They issued a permit allowing him to build a track through the veld on one condition that no machines are used, only manual labour with pick and spade.

This he did and then over a period of months went down to the wreck with his labourers, cut another piece off the wreck, load the Nissan Tracker bakkie until it could take no more and then drive up the rough track (with his labourers sitting on the bonnet to keep the front wheels down) and out via the pass and then to Cape Town where he sold his load to scrap merchants. He would then be absent for weeks before returning and collecting more wreckage (presumably when cash ran low) to cart to Cape Town.

History: The history of Balie’s Gat starts when a surveyor by the name of Bayley came across the deep and remote valley in the southern Cederberg in 1885. Over time the Afrikaans speaking families that settled on this patchwork of fertile farms referred to it as Balie’s Gat. After the Hanekom family originally owned the land, it was sub-divided into two farms in 1915, one for Piet Esterhuysen and the other for Carel Nieuwoudt.

Balies Gat campsiteCampsite at Balies Gat / Photo: Balies Gat Gallery

Around this time, one of Carel Nieuwoudt's daughters married a Bothma. Four generations later his great grandson Marius Bothma still farms here. The farmers have crops and fruit trees that keep them busy throughout the year. In the summer there are the oranges as well as peaches and pears, most of which are dried using traditional methods to retain their sweetness. Various pumpkins and squash are regularly planted, and a flock of dorper sheep roam in the fields.

The road to the valley runs through the farm Tandfontein on the plains of the Koue Bokkeveld and then precariously winds its way down to the valley floor. A track was originally built for ox-wagons in 1945. It took the farmers seven winters to build the road with pick and shovel until they had use of a drilling machine and dynamite. After it was widened, Johannes Kershoff was the first person to drive the road down in December 1950, and in 1951 it was opened to the public and named The Piet Esterhuysen Road.

Dried fruit productionDrying peaches the old fashioned way / Photo: Balies Gat Gallery

Tourists are slowly discovering this epic road and the valley. Marius first started working on the campsite in 2002, and it was used by friends until finally in 2014 he opened it to the public. It is continually being upgraded and the next addition are two small log cabins that will be completed in late 2016. Next to a stream, and under some bluegum trees and in between large rocks, you are intimate with pristine nature.

There are spectacular walks up the many kloofs which few people have ever seen. You can enjoy homemade products made in the valley with passion and love by his mother. A visit to this valley will restore song in your heart and you’ll drive the long bumpy road out the valley with peace in your mind.

[History sourced from the website: BaliesGat.co.za]


Fact File:

GPS START

S32.763210 E19.276049

GPS SUMMIT

S32.762677 E19.276910

GPS END

S32.752872 E19.291138

AVE GRADIENT

1:12

MAX GRADIENT

1:6

ELEVATION START

867m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

871m

ELEVATION END

666m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

205m

DISTANCE

2,4 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

North-East

TIME REQUIRED

20 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

None

SURFACE

Gravel (OP8062)

DATE FILMED

01.01.2019

TEMPERATURE

28C

NEAREST TOWN

Op die Berg (35 km)


Route Map:

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Route files:

||Click to download: Piet Esterhuysen Pass (R33) - (Note - This is a .kmz file which can be opened in Google earth and most GPS software systems)

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