The summit views are difficult to describe. The views are a full 360 degrees offering mind blowing views for up to 60 km. Facing south west a long ridge drops away towards the Mountain Shadows Hotel. A white cross is visible at the end of this ridge. It was erected by local farmers, led by Geudeon van Zyl, who owns the nearby farm Mountain Shadows. Each Easter the farmers gather at the foot of the cross to pray. The Mountain Shadows Hotel used to be called the Misty Mountain Hotel. When Geudeon purchased the hotel and surrounding farm, he renamed it after his farm.
Unimog not invincible
We were very fortunate with the weather and reached the summit in a spell of clear, sunny weather. There are some interesting stories that we unearthed from some of the pioneers who were involved in the construction of the tower and supporting infrastructure. One of those involved was a Unimog that experienced brake failure on the descent and ended up on its side as well as a Ford bakkie which rolled all the way down into the kloof. Everyone survived!
One of the chaps had to tow a generator to the top using a 3.0 Diesel Hilux 4 x 2 bakkie (with no low range option). He described the drive up as being harrowing with the motor losing power the higher up he got. He only just made it to the top by slipping the clutch to build more engine revs.
We advised all our drivers to descend in the same gear they used for the climb up. It's vital to use engine compression to slow the vehicle down, as sitting on the foot brake can easily result in the brake pads overheating with rather unpleasant (and sometimes fatal) consequences.
With the convoy safely down and back on the gravel track, we headed back to the hotel in preparation for our excursion to the vulture colony - an event everyone was looking forward to. As we arrived at the turnoff to The Castle, the heavens opened up and it rained heavily. We asked everyone to return to the hotel (only 1 km away) and remain in their vehicles for further instructions to see what the weather would do. Some decided to head for an afternoon sleep and did not hear the radio comms. The rain squall was over in a matter of 15 minutes, as the sun peeped out revealing blue skies and tall cumulous clouds.
That was our cue to head back to The Castle. Only 6 of the 11 vehicles were following and those were the ones that had the best vulture viewing experience of their lives. The drive up the The Castle is tricky in that one really requires a precise route as there is no road so to speak of. The tracks of vehicles on previous visits are soon invisible under the long grass. After a bit of interesting navigation, we found the spot and about 15 of us walked down to the viewpoint after having to climb under a fence.
The vultures were out in force. There were so many of them it was impossible to count, but my reckoning was around 100 birds including those that were on their nests. We were held spellbound for over an hour as the graceful Cape Griffon vultures soared above and below us in the most effortless manner, hardly ever flapping their wings.
Once back at the hotel, some guests were disappointed that they missed out on the vultures, so we took a second group up around 16.30 but when we got to the gate, thick mountain mists enveloped the area. It was another navigational challenge finding our way up with 30m visibility. I had taken the precaution of recording a backtrack on my GPS, so it was fairly easy in the lead vehicle. Up at the Castle it was a total white-out with not a single bird to be seen. The group asked if I would leave them there as they wanted to see if they could find their own way down the mountain. After an initial struggle and getting a bit lost, they managed to figure things out and successfully negotiated the descent. At that stage we promised the group that we would run a third trip up on the mountain on the final day of the tour, weather and time permitting. As things turned out, we were able to fulfill that promise.
Bringing the spare day into the fray was definitely the right decision as the next 3 days all indicated clear, sunny weather in the forecast.
Day 3 - Lundean's Nek, Volunteershoek, Carlisleshoekspruit passes.
This part of the tour is always a very long day, so we opted for an 0800 start and everyone was punctual and raring to go, We took the slow drive to Barkly East as a tyre warm up, then turned right onto gravel just west of the town, heading for Loch Bridge.
History: Instructions were issued for the commencement of the construction of the Loch Bridge during 1889, but a suitable site still had to be found. When a position had been selected, Joseph Newey, the District Inspector at King Williams Town, was instructed to complete designs for both ironwork and stone masonry type bridges. The estimated cost of a stone masonry bridge of £ 14 000 was approved, especially as Newey had found a good quarry site within half a mile of the site. Construction commenced in the middle of November 1891, with the last arch being keyed in on 5 December 1892. The bridge was finally completed about the middle of March 1893, and the approach roads were finished in September 1893. There were 24 stone masons, three carpenters, and about 150 labourers employed on the works, and some 300 more were kept on the work of the approaches on either side.
The bridge consists of five elliptical arches of 12 metres each, the length of the masonry is 80 metres and the full length of the bridge is 195 metres. The roadway is 5 metres wide and is 13 metres above the riverbed. Wing walls were added to the bridge after floods in January 1898 damaged the abutments. The final total cost of the bridge amounted to £ 14 722, while compensation costs of £ 1 509 were paid out to adjoining landowners after arbitration. When the last stone was laid, there were only two left out of the thousands that were cut.
The official opening of the bridge took place on Wednesday 6 December 1893, the delay being due to a dispute between the local Divisional Council of Barkly East and the Government about the former taking over responsibility for the bridge. The bridge was opened by Mrs Gie, the wife of the Civil Commissioner and Resident Magistrate of Barkly East, Mr J C Gie, amid great festivities attended by almost a thousand people. The bridge was named after the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Henry Brougham Loch. It has been declared a national monument, and is one of the few bridges of this type still in use today.
Tierkrans Pass & rail reverses.
Immediately after crossing the Loch Bridge, a minor gravel pass, known as the Tierkrans Pass offers good views of the old rail bridge as well as the 7th and 8th rail reverses. Along the mountainous border of Lesotho, between Aliwal North and Barkly East, runs what was arguably the most scenic branch railway line in South Africa. The line was constructed in four sections over a period of 28 years, spanning from March 1903 to December 1930. Construction of the final section, from New England to Barkly East, only started in 1928, because of delays caused by serious doubts about the economic viability of branch lines in general, World War I, and the sinking of a ship called Mexico loaded with building materials whilst en route from the UK.
A German woman living in the area came up with the idea of using reverses rather than bridges and tunnels, to negotiate the mountainous terrain. This meant that the trains had to zig-zag by manoeuvering forward and backwards up and down the steep inclines, which was slower, but had the advantage of being much cheaper to construct. A total of eight reverses were built along this line, and two of them (numbers 7 and 8) are clearly visible from vantage points along the Tierkrans Pass. There are only three other examples of these type of reverses remaining in the world today.
Now completed all of the way to Barkly East, the official opening of the line took place on 12 December 1930 – “Barkly’s Day of Days”. Starting at 10:00, the train entered the station and a customary bottle of champagne was broken on the decorated locomotive, followed by joyous festivities. But by the time of the line’s completion in 1930, a new competitor had arrived in the form of motor transport, against which it would steadily lose ground throughout the ensuing 60 years. For economic reasons, regular service was finally discontinued in 1991.
Once over the Tierkrans Pass, we took the right hand fork heading for the beautiful New England area, over the Wintersnek and Ballochs passes. The river crossing at the bottom of Ballochs Pass has the rather incongruous name of 'Vlooikraalspruit' not quite gelling with all the Scottish names in the area.
New England and Wartrail
The Wartrail and New England areas are steeped in history. The region was originally inhabited by the San, who lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer family groups, and their legacy remains today through abundant rock art sites in the district. After the 1820 settlers had arrived in Port Elizabeth, a number of them moved northwards to populate this area; in fact, many of the farms in the region are owned by their 3rd or 4th generation descendants.
The region was first surveyed in 1861 by Joseph Orpen, an Irishman, whose descendants still live in the area today. The names of some of the farms include Ben Nevis, Glen Gyle and Pitlochrie, which indicates that the area was reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. There is even a Loch Ness dam below Tiffindell, and although no living monsters have been spotted there as yet, there are dinosaur fossils in the area dating back over 180 million years ago to the Jurassic Period.
Lundean's Nek Pass
Our first challenge pass for the day and the fourth of the tour, was Lundean's Nek. The drive through the Wartrail valley is magnificent and the R393 is in reasonably good condition, which allowed an average convoy speed of 50 kph. In the far distance the neck is visible and just to the left, on the horizon, is a set of jagged outcrops aptly names 'Tandjiesberg'
Once the (now defunct) SAPS buildings are reached, the ascent up the neck is already well under way. The road, which was rebuilt a year ago and made the ascent quite easy, has deteriorated a bit during the recent rains, but it's still a fairly decent road. We took a break at the summit to enjoy the excellent weather and glorious views over the Witteberge towards the Malotis in Lesotho.
The pass is steep and peppered with 101 bends, corners and curves including four hairpins, several unbridged stream crossings and very steep, unguarded drop-offs. It's also long at 14,5 km and concentration levels need to be maintained throughout. The pass is not suitable for normal sedan vehicles. Whilst we recommend a 4x4 for this road, it is possible to complete it in a high clearance 4x2 vehicle in fair weather. It connects the small farming community of Wartrail with the Tele River border post at Lesotho.
The descent into the north is one of the most beautiful scenic drives in South Africa. Whilst the road is a bit rough in places, the gradients are easy and the grand views make it all worthwhile. Cattle lie on the roadway and seem very reluctant to move out of the way. These always provided photo opportunities and time for a quick break.
Once we reached the village of Upper Telle, we did a U-turn (no mean feat with 12 vehicles) and retraced our route to the Wartrail Country Club where we stopped for lunch.
Ahead the daunting Volunteershoek Pass lay in wait. After lunch, we turned onto the Funnystone road, which meanders all along the banks of the Funnystone River and just before the Bidstone farm, we crossed the (you guessed it) Funnystone bridge. Notices give ample warning about the dangers ahead and the requirement to have a high clearance 4x4.
The road is rough, but then again, it's been rough ever since I've known it. It climbs relentlessly up a narrow valley with steep, unguarded drop-offs, but it's those tyre sections that give most drivers and bikers the heebie-jeebies. To combat further erosion, local farmers have embedded clusters of old car tyres into the road surface and back filled them with gravel. These sections form steps and it's very easy to stall your vehicle on those steps. Getting started again along the steep gradients can be quite challenging - especially for motorcycle riders.
Most of the climbing is done in the first 3,8 km, where after the gradient eases right off to around 1:20 until the 7,7 km point after which the road steepens again to 1:7 till the summit. The road levels off near a small solitary cottage, which marks the end of the pass at the 9,6 km point, but there is still a fairly long pull of 8,2 km before you will arrive at Tiffindell.
Most of the drive from the summit to Tiffindell is at an altitude of roughly 2650m ASL. It's wild and remote up there and no trees are to be seen. Some sheep and goat farming takes place. We took another break at Loch Ness, where millions of 'miggies' swarmed over our vehicles. That shortened the photo-break somewhat!
The final challenge pass for the day lay just a few kilometres away - the very steep Carlisleshoekspruit Pass, where the gradients get right down to 1:3 in places. There isn't a lot of time for drivers to look around as 100% concentration is required and as is always the case with long, steep descents, it's best to gear right down (like the trucks do) and run against engine compression, saving your brakes for when you really need them.
It descends 739 meters over 14,4 km producing some exceptionally steep gradients, This pass is the main access road to the Tiffindell Ski Resort and is generally well maintained with the steepest sections either having been strip concreted or fully concreted. Driving up or down is equally challenging.
The drive out through the valley towards Rhodes is an enchanting drive in fair weather, crossing the river several times and crossing several farms, the last one being Newstead, before reaching the confluence of the Carlisleshoekspruit and the Bell River. We stopped briefly in Rhodes for a comfort break at the recently opened Rhodes Hotel, where a large wedding reception was underway. It's great news that this lovely old hotel is back in business.
Our return leg from Rhodes to Mountain Shadows via the Bokspruit Pass is another scenically beautiful drive, but after all the challenge passes, everyone was looking forward to a few cold beers and a hot meal back at the hotel.
[Next week: Naude's Nek Pass and the TTT]
Passes of the week
* * * * * L U N D E A N S N E K P A S S * * * * *
* * * * * V O L U N T E E R S H O E K P A S S * * * * *
* * * * * C A R L I S L E S H O E K S P R U I T P A S S * * * * *
Tail Piece: "To succeed in life you need 3 things - a wishbone, a backbone and a funnybone"