There are three back to back passes between Tombo and Port St Johns. They are, from west to east Mngazi River Pass, Butyabuse Pass and the Isinuka Poort. At 7 km it's well above the national average and displays a moderate altitude variance of 138m. It connects the valleys of the Mngazi and Umzimvubu Rivers on the R61..
The pass is modern and well designed, but the local authorities have had to install several traffic calmers (speed bumps) to slow the taxis down, as the pass traverses several villages on its way to the coast. It offers good views of the Mngazi River and towards the middle of the pass the road passes through the villages of Mkanzini, Zitshece and Ndwalane.
There are a number of cautionaries for this road - Pedestrians and especially school children, dogs, livestock, slow and fast moving vehicles, speed bumps, school buses and minibus taxis. Drive with care.
* Tours schedule for 2021
* Report back Day 5 Swartberg Tour
* Report back Wild Coast Tour Day 1
* Great South Africans
* Cities of South Africa
* Featured Pass
* Words of Wisdom
During January and February we will be offering a repeat of our two 4x4 novice training days. These will be uploaded within the next week. Tours will all be loaded sequentially over the next 10 days.
March 11th to 14th - Kouga-Baviaans Tour (4 days) Bookings now open.
April 1st to 5th - Ben 10 V4 Tour (5 days incl Easter Weekend) Bookings now open.
May 13th to 22nd - Wild Coast Tour (10 days) Bookings now open.
June 24th to 27th - Bedrogfontein/Addo Tour (4 days)
July 15th to 18th - Tankwa Tour (4 days)
August 7th to 9th - Namaqualand (3 days)
September 22nd to 25th - Swartberg Tour (4 days)
The Karoo heat started early as we enjoyed a breakfast on the stoep of the hotel in that unique and still Karoo atmosphere that folks from the coast rarely experience. We got all our thoroughly laid back guests into convoy formation by 0900 and rumbled out of Prince Albert for our highlight of the day - a full traverse of the timeless Swartberg Pass.
Being a Saturday, there was a steady flow of mainly rental cars on the pass, but we reached the summit in good time and stopped there in wind-free conditions, which I can assure you is a rarity. The wind almost always funnels through the neck at Die Top (the sign which is now completely illegible, thanks to hundreds of stickers about three layers thick already), so it was a nice treat to be able to take photos at the summit in perfect weather.
Further stops ensued at Skelmdraai as well as at the southern end of the pass at Cobus se Gat, where we took a decent break from the hot weather. We chatted to the owner, who explained how hard Covid 19 has hit his business, but fortunately the farm itself was still able to function and produce some income. If you're going to be driving the Swartberg Pass, do make a point of stopping at this facility and support a local business.
Next up was an easy traverse of the beautiful Schoemanspoort, where traffic was light, in contrast to when the Cango caves are open, as it's the main tourist route from Oudtshoorn. The countryside was looking wonderful and green with water levels in the dams looking promising after recent rainfall.
We passed straight through Oudtshoorn and quickly got off the tar and headed west along the back roads towards Calitzdorp and ultimately found ourselves on the patchy concrete road to the south of the R62. This was the first experimental concrete road in South Africa, but it has not aged well, offering a sub-standard drive for motorists. The countryside was however fabulous as our route meandered past old farms and rusty windmills with sheep and goats standing in the shade of any thorn tree available seeking some respite from the sun. The Klein Karoo painted in natural dun colours, reflecting the toil and hardship of farming in this water scarce area was easy on the eye.
Finally, we arrived at the start of the Rooiberg Pass. Being close to lunch time, we stopped in the last bit of shade-generating bush before the pass proper and enjoyed our last lunch al fresco right there on the gravel road. The travel gods were with us, as not a single vehicle came past during the lunch break.
This attractive poort forms the final part of the R61 between Mthatha and Port St. Johns. It is a typical poort following the course of the Umzimvubu River on it's southern bank. Near the western start lies the village of Isinuka after which the poort is named. There is a deep cutting just after the western start as the road slices through the mountain to reach the Umzimubu River Valley.
There are sections of very steep cuttings that tower some 60m above the road, but other than that the road is straight-forward, which is a relative term, as several dangers lurk along this stretch of roadway. Local traffic officers love doing laser speed traps here, where the speed limit jumps several times between 60 and 80 kph. There are also a number of poorly concealed and sharp speed bumps, which require a reduction of speed to 30 kph or lower, Dogs and livestock can appear out of the dense bush without warning and pedestrians tend to wander along the roadway as there is nowhere else for them to walk and of course, last but not least, are the numerous minibus taxis which ply this route and congregate in numbers towards the eastern end of the poort adjacent to the Pondoland Bridge.
The wide and sluggish Umzimvubu River welcomes drivers as it drifts lazily towards the estuary at Port St. Johns' 1st Beach.
* Tours for 2021
* Swartberg Tour - Day 4
* Great South Africans - Natalie du Toit
* South African Cities - Cape Town
* Wild Coast Tour - Prologue
* Pass of the week
* Words of wisdom
We've been inundated with requests to book for our 2021 Wild Coast Tour. We are already working on some improvements to the 2020 version, so it's just a matter of picking dates. The next 8 days will be spent on setting up the major tours for 2021, which will include the Ben 10, Wild Coast, Swartberg, Bedrogfontein and Tankwa Tours. Once we have the dates mapped our for those, we will see how we will slot in the new tours.
The Swartberg Hotel is very much like the Lord Milner in Matjiesfontein. It's a rambling, old double story building with many add-ons at the back and the gracious old building is showing her age somewhat with oddly shaped rooms, creaking passageways, old artefacts and paintings on the walls and staircases that are narrow and steep. Yet all of those things add to the charm. Modern equipment, like airconditioners have been added to keep pace with customer demands.
We were to spend two nights at the hotel and the one feature we have to highlight is the quality of their food. Our meals were excellent and sitting outside on the verandah on the warm summer evenings watching the passing parade of locals, was as relaxing as anything you could find in the Karoo.
We had a number of highlights on this tour and on Day 4 it was the drive down the Gamkaskloof to Die Hel. We left at 08.30 and took a leisurely drive up the Swartberg Pass, stopping here and there at the various points of interest like Eerstewater, Malvadraai, Blikstasie, Mullerskloof and Teeberg as many gigabytes of photos were added to camera memory banks. The weather was warm and clear, making for a special day.
We started the the 37 km westward drive along the Otto du Plessis Road (that's its official name) at 10.30 enjoying the hundreds of sights offered up by the contorted layers of the Swartberg Mountains. There were the usual klipspringers that allow cars to get as close to 2m from them, whilst raptors soared overhead. This road has a magical allure to it that captivates the adventure traveller, regardless of age or mode of transport.
Finally we reached the summit of Elands Pass, where many of our guests got sight of Die Hel for the first time. Camera shutters clicked away for at least 10 minutes. Our convoy snaked its way cautiously down the pass, with its many hairpins and within 15 minutes arrived at the start of Die Hel. We had seen it the day before from the western side, when we did the 4x4 trail at Bosch Luys Kloof Nature Reserve, but this eastern approach is the real McCoy.
The valley was a mangled ashen blur of burnt trees and collapsed buildings - almost like a cataclysmic setting in a Hollywood disaster movie. The fire that swept through the valley on Christmas Day 2019 destroyed about 60% of the cottages. Our destination for our lunch time stop was Fonteinplaas, where Marinette and her mother in law, Annatjie Joubert were a bit taken aback to see 24 guests arriving for lunch. All our attempts to contact them in advance had failed, so we took a chance and pitched.
It took Marinette about 15 minutes to serve up a delicious lunch for our group. Now that was an impressive effort! Whilst we waited, Annatjie told us the story of the big fire. She's a tough lady, but the tears welled up in her eyes as she spoke. The fire had consumed all their cottages as well as their campsite and its ablutions. Her son was on the roof of the thatched restaurant with a hosepipe as the fire raged all around them. She had called him down.
* Wild Coast Tour
* Swartberg Tour report back - Day 3
* Great South Africans (Series) - Johnny Clegg
* South African cities (Series) - Port Elizabeth
* Pass of the week
* Words of wisdom
As you read this newsletter, we will be at Kob Inn on the Wild Coast, experiencing another great South African adventure. On our return we will provide you with a blow by blow account. A brief summary of our routing is as follows:
Thursday 12th - Meet at the Resthaven Guest House in Matatiele
Friday 13th - Local tour under the expert guidance of Phillip Rawlins (Mariazell Mission & Mountain Lake)
Saturday 14th - Matatiele, Cedarville, Nungi Pass, Colonanek, Tabankulu, Mzintlava Pass, Lusikisiki, Mbotyi River Lodge.
Sunday 15th - Day excursion to Waterfall Bluff and Cathedral Rock.
Monday 16th - Magwa Falls, Magwa Tea Plantation, Umzimvubu Pass, Port St Johns Airport Road, Mngazi Mouth, PSJ River Lodge
Tuesday 17th - Mlengana Pass, Execution Rock, Coffee Bay.
Wednesday 18th - Hole in the Wall 4x4 route & Mapuzi Caves.
Thursday 19th - Coffee Bay to Kob Inn via Three Jumps Falls
Friday 20th - Day excursion to the Collywobbles vulture colony.
Saturday 21st - Kob Inn to Trennerys. Seafood extravaganza and prize-giving.
Sunday 22nd - Trennerys via the vehicle pont over the Kei River to Morgans Bay.
We were blessed with fabulous weather although a bit too warm for most of us by the time we reached Prince Albert, where the temperature was still 35C at 10 pm that night.Even though Bosluiskloof is just 49 km from Prince Albert as the crow flies, our routing followed a languid and pleasant path covering 240 km.
After a sumptuous breakfast, we bade farewell to our excellent hosts at Bosch Luys Kloof, and rumbled up the Bosluiskloof Pass with the sun behind us. It always fascinates me how different a pass can look in the opposite direction of travel, as well as at a different time of day. Seweweekspoort was much more impressive driving it from north to south with the soft morning light making for good photographic opportunities.
Next up was the Huisrivier Pass. This pass took ten years to design and was managed by the late Dr. Graham Ross. The 13,4 km long Huisrivier pass lies on the R62 between two valleys in the Little Karoo between the towns of Ladismith in the west and Calitzdorp in the east. It has 39 bends, corners and curves packed into that distance, which requires vigilant driving. Not only is this a fairly long pass, but it has many sharp corners, steep gradients and exceptionally attractive scenery. Many lovely rest areas have been provided by the road builders.
This pass is unique in that its geology is unusually unstable and several pioneering engineering techniques had to be applied to successfully build a safe all-weather pass. The pass, which includes three river crossings, is not particularly steep, where the engineers have managed to limit the steepest gradients to a fairly comfortable 1:12. The pass is suitable for all vehicles with the only natural dangers being rock-falls, but the substantial catch walls appear to be taking care of that as well.
This pass is well above the national average length at 8.7 km and is one of three back to back passes along the R61 between Lusikisiki and Port St.Johns. There are 58 bends, corners and curves compressed into that length and many of them exceed 90 degrees through tight arcs. It is necessary for drivers to have a high level of concentration on this pass, as it's a busy road and the many courier and delivery trucks and minibus taxis have scant regard for barrier lines.
The pass name is of course taken from the Umzimvubu River which is crossed at the foot of the pass near Port St.Johns. Drivers who do this route for the first time will be in for a few nasty surprises in that here you will find some of South Africa's severest speed bumps. These are unfortunately necessary to slow the wild drivers down - especially near villages and schools. There is one specific speed bump designs which consists of 5 sharp speed bumps, spaced about 1m apart.
Despite all the dangers, the pass offers fabulous scenery and especially towards the middle of the pass where the Gates of St. John start making an appearance. The Xhosa version of the river and pass exclude the U - so "Mzimvubu" For Western tongues having the M and the Z following each other, make it difficult to pronounce. For purposes of indexing we have used the older version of Umzimvubu.
* Wild Coast Tour begins
* Swartberg Tour report back - Day 2
* Great South Africans (Series) - Andrew Bain
* South African cities (Series) - Soweto
* Podcast (Day 2 Swartberg Tour)
* Pass of the week
* Words of wisdom
As you read this newsletter our tour group will be on their way - or arriving at our tour starting point, which is at Phillip and Elrita Rawlins lovely guesthouse 'Resthaven' in the sleepy village of Matatiele. Tomorrow Phillip, who is one of the most knowledgeable people in the area, will join us in the lead vehicle as he takes us to a range of secret, off-the-beaten-track points of interest which will include the Mariazell Mission church with its very own hydro-electric plant as well as a visit to the mountain top lake.
Once dominated by wetlands and marshes, Matatiele derives its name from the Sotho language words “matata”, meaning wild ducks, and “ile”, meaning gone. When taken together, Matatiele conveys a message that “ducks have flown”. In Phuthi language, the town name is pronounced “Madadiyela”. The common informal name for the town in any of the languages mentioned, including English, is “Matat”. And those that are born here call it “Sweet Matat”.
Today, its area is predominately farmland, where 100% organic red meat is on offer, and tourism is a primary source of income. As one of the top 12 towns among South Africa’s popular tourist attractions along Route 56, Matatiele provides many activities for fishermen, hikers, bikers, cyclists, bird watchers and landscape photographers. Moreover, the Matatiele Museum (a former Dutch Reformed Church) – displays dinosaur fossils, San people, missionaries, and the town's history from its 19th century gun runners and smugglers to a quaint town filled with friendly locals serving authentic Xhosa cuisine.
Evidence of Stone Age inhabitants in the form of art adorning rocks is found throughout the area. In the early 1860s, the Griquas settled here after migrating across the Drakensberg from Philippolis. The town was the centre of cattle rustling and gun-running, and order was only restored in 1874 by the Cape Mounted Riflemen. The town became a municipality in 1904.
* Tours updates
* Swartberg Tour report back
* Old Postal Route closed
* Great South Africans
* South African cities
* Pass of the Week
* Words of wisdom
Atlantis Sand Training Day - 13th December (4 tickets available).
We have a wonderful tour programme lined up for 2021. Some of our popular tours will be repeated and some news ones are being created. We've listened to YOUR suggestions. The new tours will be published soon.
Day Zero: 19th October. Our rendezvous point for the start of the tour was the lovely Rotterdam Boutique Hotel. This old establishment has been lovingly restored and is located on a working cattle farm just outside the hamlet of Buffeljagsrivier, near Swellendam. A museum 'Die Waenhuis' is in close proximity to the Fraser-Jones suites with its burbling fountains and enormous rooms. We travel a lot, but those rooms were the size of a small house.
We had 10 vehicles on the tour, including two non 4WD vehicles. We held our drivers briefing promptly at 1800 on the stoep of the old thatched restaurant to the sound of sprinklers and frogs, nicely topped off with the fragrance of lavender and freshly mowed grass.
After the driver's briefing, Andrew Fraser-Jones (the proprietor) took us over to the museum for a fascinating 20 minute talk covering the history of the area. Dinner was excellent and a strong northerly wind ensured everyone was tucked in nice and early ready for the first day of passes.
Day 1: 20th October. After a hearty farm breakfast, we managed to get the show on the road by 0900. Our first stop was at the so-called Sugar Bridge, just a few kilometres from the hotel.
Mr Skirrow designed the bridge but died soon after, leaving the actual construction to Mr Atmore. Huge sandstone blocks were used for the piers and the bridge deck was solid teak salvaged from the shipwreck of the 'Robert' at the mouth of the Lourens River in 1847.
Portland cement was not available at that time in South Africa. Traditional local mortar was made from sand and lime but it took a long time to set to full strength, leaving the builders with concerns that the Buffeljagsrivier might flood during the construction phase and wash the new bridge away. So they imported gypsum from France but this set too quickly to allow the accurate placement of the sandstone blocks. To retard the setting time, household sugar was added as an admixture. Hence the bridge earned the nickname of the Sugar Bridge and opened to traffic in 1852. It did its job perfectly well for 101 years when the new road was opened in 1953.
After a 1 km stint on the busy N2, we detoured off to visit the missionary village of Suurbraak. Our routing then took us up Moodies Pass (named after a magistrate in Heidelberg), then along a magnificent stretch of gravel road all along the foothills of the Langeberg which included the Boosmansbos Pass, Doringkraal Pass, Seekoeigat Pass and Wadrift Pass. The flowers were amazing along the route and we had just one slightly deep water crossing to contend with.
That was just the entree. We had another three major passes to drive. Next up was Gysmanshoek Pass. This pass has very comfortable gradients with only one steep section of about 2 km. The route follows a river valley and the fragrance of proteas and fynbos greets those who drive with their windows open. We took a break at the summit for some photos and tackled the descent.
Our first town stop was Ladismith and like so many places in South Africa, the closures of busineses due to the lockdown was a stark reminder of what our country still has to work through, before things can return to some semblance of normality. Instead of driving along the R62, we drove a picturesque gravel route around the northern end of Ladismith, known as the Hoekoe Valley. One of the interesting points of interest is Stanley's Light. A local gentleman walked up the mountain armed with plastic pipes, a bicycle wheel and dynamo. At the source of the spring near the summit, Oom Stanley built his little water mill which powers the dynamo which in turn lights the bulb in the bicycle lamp. It can be seen from the town at night and its brightness (or lack thereof) is a sure indicator of how much water is flowing down the mountain.
We also stopped in at the old Lutheran Mission Church at Amalienstein for photos and then arrived at the start of one of the main attractions for the day - Seweweekspoort. Just as one enters the poort from the southern side, a small road leads away to the right. It terminates 2 km later at the Tierkloof Dam, which is the main water supply to Zoar and Amalienstein. Its a narrow, deep dam that holds back 45,000 cu.m of fresh water with wall height of 17m.
We normally stop under the dam wall and enjoy a lunch break, but the authorities have since decided to padlock the gate. This is no doubt due to bad behaviour by certain individuals. What a pity. There is a large flat area just before the gate, which can accommodate ten or more vehicles, so we made good use of that.
Seweweekspoort never disappoints, but driving it after 1500 on a sunny day provides lots of glare from the front and does not show off its beauty to maximum effect. We always make provision for this and ensure that we when we drive back through the poort, it is in the morning with the light from behind.
Our last pass of the day was Bosluiskloof. Every time we take guests down this pass, there is always a sense of disbelief at the raw and rugged nature of this road and the achingly dry valley it provides access to.
We arrived right on schedule, ready to enjoy the excellent hospitality at Bosch Luys Kloof lodge. A magnificent Karoo sunset provided a perfect setting for happy hour on the pool deck with a warm and windless evening. The food at the lodge is very good and our band of travellers hit the sack tired and happy, looking forward to the next day, which was a 'free' day to be spent as they wished inside the reserve. More on that next week.
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.
We are as passionate about maps as we are about mountain passes. A good map is a thing of beauty that can transport you into the mists of time or get your sense of adventure churning. It is a place to make discoveries about deserts and seas, mountains and lakes; of roads leading into places you have not been before; a place to pore over holiday destinations or weekend camping trips. A map is your window to the world.