From Tarkastad we routed via Queenstown, Lady Frere, Cala and Elliot to our base - the Mountain Shadows Hotel near the summit of the Barkly Pass - arriving there after 5 hours easy driving. It's something of an education driving through the dusty little towns which appear to be totally chaotic, but this is Africa and it's best to view life as the locals do. Even the local traffic officers seem to be immune to the double parking and general roadside frenzy in these towns.
Just before entering Cala, one of Joseph Newey's beautiful old stone arched bridges can be seen very close to the main road. On our tour we located several more of his bridges - all of which appear to be in sound condition, despite the 130 odd years that have passed. Some of the old bridges seem to be in better condition than their modern concrete equivalents. Much the same applies to many of the old buildings in the Eastern Cape Highlands. The local sandstone blocks that were extensively used made for very strong structures.
Mountain Shadows Hotel is a stand-alone complex near the summit of the beautiful Barkly Pass. We have been using this establishment for several years now due to the fact that it can accommodate large groups. The country style food is always first class. Fires are lit each evening in the dining room, pub and lounge areas making for a warm, cosy atmosphere and of course it is located far away from any town, so it's safe and quiet. Our guests sleep well. It does mean that some of the roads leading to the routes of the tour have to be driven more than once, but that's a small price to pay for the overall benefits of this venue.
Most of our guests had arrived by 5 pm, so we had the two way radios fitted and tyres deflated ready for the first day on Thursday 1st April. There was rain in the forecast for the next two days, so we selected the easiest of the four routes for the day. We got the convoy arranged in the correct order and took the tarred R58 to Barkly East as an easy warm up and for drivers to become accustomed to how their vehicles felt with the lower tyre pressures.
Toyotas by the score
In our convoy we had two Toyota Land Cruisers, two Toyota Fortuners, one Toyota Prado, one Toyota Hilux, three Ford Rangers, one Jeep Wrangler, one Land Rover Discovery and one VW Amarok. 12 vehicles in total and a long convoy on the road, which often causes frustration with vehicles driving faster than our group, so we go to some lengths to ensure that we facilitate safe overtaking.
Our oldest driver was 75 and our youngest was 34 - an interesting mix of professions amongst the guests meant lots of fascinating information was dispensed over the radios. A noteworthy guest was Theo Potgieter from Oudtshoorn, who had grown up in the area and kept our group enthralled with useful information on the area which included farming practices, flora and fauna and much more. He turned out to be a valuable source of information and added immense value to the tour.
Driving in sweep position was Barrie Barnardt from Stellenbosch, who has the sharpest wit coupled to a bright personality. He was a great catalyst to the group mood each day with ongoing banter, ragging and good humour. All of these things make the tours really enjoyable.
West of the Kraai River Pass, we turned right onto a gravel farm road which would ultimately get us to Joubert's Pass. This drive of roughly 25 km winds in and out of the valleys and ridges, through farms with interesting Scottish names and river crossings with sign boards labelled "Car Sump Drift" and "Kar Wegspoeldrif" and so on. Each sign relating to real life events.
The "Kar Wegspoeldrif" sign (for example) relates to a local farmer and his wife who had been to Lady Grey for a Saturday social and after being well imbibed, had to drive back to their farm in the dark whilst a severe electrical storm swept over the area. The stream came down in a flash flood arriving at the drift at the exact time their 'bakkie' drove through it. Their vehicle was swept down the stream and they fortunately both survived and had to walk the rest of the way to their farm in the dark, sopping wet, freezing cold and 'bakkieless'
Joubert's Pass loomed ahead, the road snaking up the mountain in the distance. The weather was good and once up at the summit, we halted the convoy for photos and a leg stretch, whilst enjoying the scintillating views over the hills and valleys to the east, whilst the western view is over the town of Lady Grey.
The road condition was reasonable and all our guests were coping fine - a good and gentle introduction for what was still to come later in the day.
Lady Grey has one major advantage over neighbouring towns in that is plays host to an arts academy. That brings youth and enthusiasm into the formula where concerts, music, dance and art have become part of village life. The setting of the town is quite spectacular with the backdrop of tall mountains. It's no wonder many city dwellers have chosen the village as a place to resettle.
From Lady Grey we were back on the tarred R58, heading back towards Barkly East via Benjaminshoogte - another attractive pass over the Karringmelkspruit, where the 2nd, 3rd & 4th rail reverses and tunnels (that were never used) can be seen. There is also a fine example of one of Newey's stone bridges on the southern side of the road. It's still accessible via a small country inn.
Near the eastern summit of Benjaminshoogte we turned right onto the R392 leaving the Motkop station to the left. This is a different route to what we have used in previous years and turned out to be a wonderful alternative with fabulous scenery. The road was also in good conditon, making for a relaxed drive. Dust levels were low thanks to some rain over the previous week, but up ahead dark thunder-heads were building in the vicinity of the Otto du Plessis Pass - our next goal. The question was, would we get over the pass before the storm?
We drove south as far as Clanville, then took a smaller road to the south-east through beautiful farms. This road had just been graded, providing us with a nice smooth surface. We took an al fresco lunch break on the side of the road in the shade of a large stand of birch trees. A local farmer stopped for a chat and we now have a standing invitation to stop at his farm anytime in the future. Every farmer we encountered during this tour was friendly and accommodating - willing to share knowledge. It's just how farmers are.
This road connected us with the R396, where we turned (left) into the north-east for a while and turned right again at Clifford, heading south on the Saalboom Road towards the Otto du Plessis Pass. The sky ahead was dark with dense thunderclouds whilst great flashes of lightning added a natural light display in the distance. By the time we got to the foot of the pass, the heavens had opened up, drenching the area in heavy rain. Streams were in spate and the rain had left the road surface very slippery. The sun had started peeping out, so we had good visibility.
It wasn't long and the first vehicle (Toyota Fortuner) slid off the road. They managed to extricate themselves from the ditch without a recovery being necessary. By the time the vehicles at the back of the convoy hit the muddy sections, things were - shall we say 'interesting'.
At the summit, a huge rainbow greeted us as the views were enjoyed and many photos taken. The descent towards Elliot was slow and very rough in places. Mud and loose rocks added to the technical side of things, but eventually we had the convoy down safely and without mishap. Black wattle infestations have spoiled the lower reaches of the pass - in some places forming a complete cover over the road. At the rate that wattle trees grow, this pass will soon become very difficult to drive without damaging paintwork. We will contact EC Tourism and see if we can motivate some action from them to clear the wattle.
With two challenge passes under the belt for the day, it was a simple matter of driving east along the Tsomo River valley till we connected with the R58 north of Elliot. However, this was April 1st and we were in for a surprise. With just a few kilometres to go, we arrived at the Tsomo River where the bridge and its approaches had been severely damaged in a recent flash flood. There was no question of trying to get a 12 vehicle convoy through that lot with the tools and time available. That meant having to back-track all the way to Ida and straight into the eye of the next electrical storm.
Deafening thunder, blinding flashes of lightning and heavy rain kept us company all the way to the tarred R56, where we turned left and only reached Elliot 30 km later - a fairly long detour at the end of a long day. All that remained was the easy drive up the Barkly Pass in the semi gloom of a wet dusk to arrive back at our base for happy hour and a warm country meal.
Next week: Day 2 - Dawid se Kop and the vulture colony at the Castle.
Pass of the week:
To make this story come alive, we have opened up the three passes of the first day of the tour for your enjoyment. Feel feel to watch the videos and enjoy the passes as described.
* * * * * J O U B E R T S P A S S * * * * *
* * * * * O T T O D U P L E S S I S P A S S * * * * *
* * * * * B A R K L Y P A S S * * * * *
Tailpiece: "Communist: One who has nothing but is eager to share it with others"