Latest News! 31st March, 2022

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Views over the Tsomo Valley from The Castle Views over the Tsomo Valley from The Castle - Photo: Trygve Roberts

The week that was...

* State of Disaster 

* Tours updates

* Ben 10 Eco Challenge (Day 2 & 3)

* Dawid se Kop

* The Castle Vulture Colony

* Jouberts Pass

* Railway History

* Pass of the week

* New videos and passes added

State of Disaster

There are some odd things going on in government circles where the decision is all but fait accompli to end the State of Disaster (an appropriate play on words) on April 15th, but they are also tampering with the National Health Act to change it so that the government will still retain the ability and powers of controlling the population with the same powers as per the state of disaster. So the change is merely smoke and mirrors. More importantly is that discrimination of unvaccinated people should also come to an end and for the economy to return to normality as soon as possible. Covid-19 has dealt a heavy blow to thousands of businesses and seriously affected the economy.

Tourism and hospitality were first in line victims of Covid and now that the pandemic is virtually over, the sector can now finally get back into gear and start rebuilding.

Tours Updates

Tickets are still available for upcoming tours. Details available here:

Ben 10 Eco Challenge V5 Tour - Day 2

We had a heavy rain forecast for the day, so we moved the rest day into place and allowed our guests to sleep in a little later. At breakfast time I noticed that the cloud cover was higher than the Sentech towers on Dawid se Kop (2500m) and thought it was worth the risk of driving up there, before the rain settled in for the day. Despite it being the rest day we had an almost full turnout for the excursion, with the notable absentee being Marco who had the very legitimate excuse of having a new set of tyres fitted at Supa Quick in Elliot. It's worth mentioning the owner of Supa Quick was ready, willing and able to open his shop for Marco on a Sunday. Give that man a Bells and please support his business.

We left Mountain Shadows Hotel at 09.30 and drove the little known Fetcani Pass on the R396 towards Mosheshes Ford. After about 8 km we arrived at the turn-off to Sarel Vorster's lovely farm. We signed the register at the farm (we had made prior arrangements for the visit) and soon got into the swing of opening and closing farm gates, making sure no livestock escaped into the adjacent fields. 

Dawid se Kop

Soon we arrived at the foot of one of the steepest roads in the area. It doesn't have a name other than the service road to the Sentech Towers at Dawid se Kop. The steepest parts are concreted or strip concreted where the gradients get extremely steep, to the point that 2nd gear low range is required to make it up the last bits where it gets as steep as 1:3. The traction is however very good, but even so, drivers have to keep their wits about them as the road is narrow.

(Read more...)

During the construction of the towers and access road, there were a number of accidents of which none were (very fortunately) fatal. One involved a Unimog leaving the road and ending up in the ravine. Another involved a Ford Ranger bakkie experiencing brake failure.

Happy people on top of Dawid se Kop / Photo: MPSA

We got our group up to a small plateau area, where we left our vehicles and took the brisk (steep) walk up the final 200m to the summit. The views from the peak where the towers are located cover an angle of 360 degrees - one of the finest in the entire area, possibly only being exceeded by the views from the summit of Bastervoetpad. The weather was surprisingly kind, with almost no wind and quite warm - certainly warmer than we have experienced there on prior visits.

We managed to get our first group photo done (sans Marco and Lina who were in Elliot getting new tyres fitted) and returned to Mountain Shadows Hotel for a light lunch. We agreed that we would regroup at 2.30 pm and head up to the vulture colony if the rain stayed away. As things turned out, the weather was very kind to us on that day and the heavy rain which was forecast did not become a reality.


The Castle Vulture Colony

The route up to the vulture colony is basically just a bush-whack with the faintest traces of a two spoor track appearing from time to time. The good rains throughout the summer resulted in knee high grass, which made navigation tricky. Fortunately I had a back-track on my GPS from a previous visit, so we were able to find our way, but it's incredibly easy getting lost up there and very important to remain in close visual contact with the vehicle ahead.

Guests enjoying the vultures at Castle Rocks / Photo: MPSA

On arriving at the vulture colony all was quiet with no birds soaring. The heavy rain clouds and absence of wind might have been factors. Those with binoculars were able to view all the nests where the big birds were sitting things out. After about 10 minutes and as if by some silent signal, about 20 birds took to the skies all at the same time, providing us with magnificent aerial displays of skilled flight.

On the way back, one of our guests missed a turn in the long grass and got lost. We brought the convoy to a halt until we had our errant lamb back in the pen and descended the mountain to the warmth of the fire in the pub and some welcome liquid refreshment, followed by another excellent meal.


Day 3: Jouberts Pass

The eastern side of the pass near the endNear the eastern end of the pass / Photo: MPSA

The forecast was for more rain. This is normally an easy day on the Ben 10 Eco Challenge, but the soaking rains were going to make it quite an exciting and eventful day. Everyone was ready for the 08.30 departure and soon the convoy was rumbling northwards towards Barkly East. The rain set in early - varying between light drizzle and steady rain. We had come to expect the weather to be fairly dry in the mornings, but by 12.00 the clouds would suddenly pull over and the rain would settle in for the rest of the day and through the night. The water table in the area is very high at present, where water can be seen lying between furrows on farms and just not soaking away. Much the same happens to the roads. On the passes where there are steeper slopes, the rain drains away fairly quickly, but on the flatter sections, the rain lies in great puddles and quickly turns into very slushy mud.

The roadworks just north of Barkly East involved a 20 minute wait - a time when the two way radios helped to dispense useful information on the route ahead. We traversed the Kraai River Pass and noted how strongly the river was flowing - a sign of the huge amount of rain the area has received almost non-stop since September 2021.

We finally left the tar and took the gravel back road to Jouberts Pass. This must rank of one of the best country roads in South Africa as the road offers magnificent and varied scenery on a fairly good gravel road, traversing many farms, streams and small passes, passing some interesting sign boards like "Car Sump Drift" and "Kar Wegspoel Drif" - the latter name relating to a tale of a local farmer and his wife who had spent a very pleasant say in Lady Grey at the tennis club and having imbibed a little more than normal, found themselves driving home in the dark whilst being caught in a flash flood, where the docile little stream turned into a raging torrent, sweeping their bakkie off the bridge and downstream. They survived and walked back to their farm, somewhat wet and a lot more sober.

Jouberts Pass

Jouberts Pass monumentJouberts Pass monument / Photo: Phil Moser

The roads were wet and muddy, but nothing that a decent 4x4 couldn't handle. After about an hour's driving we arrived at the eastern foot of Jouberts Pass coinciding with noon. The clouds had built up rapidly as we neared the summit, getting darker by the minute and then there was a big bolt of lightning, followed the ominous rumble of thunder as the heavens opened up. Stopping at the summit of Jouberts Pass was out of the question as we were right in the middle of an electrical thunderstorm. 

The rain fell in great torrents, sending streams of running water down the road, whilst the wipers were slapping double time and visibility was poor. We nursed our way very carefully down the pass. The usual chatty radio banter had died down to zero - a sure sign that the group was experiencing some angst.

Near the bottom of the pass, the rain started clearing and soon enough we arrived in Lady Grey for a well-deserved coffee break. The streets were sopping wet as the peaceful pace of life continued despite the recent storm.


Our routing took us back onto the R58 where we traversed the Benjaminshoogte Pass in light rain. At the point where the road crosses over the Karringmelkspruit there are good views of the first and second rail reverses on the northern side and damage to the railway track by the river in flood that turned the tracks from horizontal to vertical directly under the new bridge. Remnants of the old railway siding are also visible on the southern side. We were most fortunate that a stop-go halted our convoy right on the bridge which allowed us ample time to view and discuss these points of interest with time to spare.

Rail reverses, bridges, tunnels and floods

Map reproduced from an article in Civil Engineering Magazine / Credit: Johannes Haarhoff

Further upstream an old arched stone bridge (The De Wet Bridge - circa 1899) is clearly visible and still in good condition, but the real gem is the tunnel constructed high in the mountainside on the right. It is very difficult to spot without binoculars and at least a sound idea of where to look. Engineers decided that a very high bridge should be built (it would have been the highest rail bridge in South Africa had it been built) which would allow the railway to cross the mountains without losing gradient and from there through the tunnel and back onto the plateau to the south of the gorge. Work on the tunnel commenced and was completed but the rail bridge concept had to be abandoned due to lack of funds. Instead the much cheaper option of constructing rail reverses was approved, which meant fewer bridges and tunnels were needed. It is recorded in the history books that the idea came from a German woman that lived in Barkly East at the time.

The old rail tunnelOne of the tunnels on the old rail reverses / Photo: Phil Moser

Eight reverses were constructed between Lady Grey and Barkly East. The downside of the cheaper option was that the trains had to be shorter and it also added considerably longer time spans to complete the journey. A commemorative steam powered rail trip ended in disaster in 1992, when an inebriated guest barged his way into the locomotive and commandeered the power control lever, which resulted in the train derailing and the loss of 5 lives, including children. After that incident the line was permanently closed.

Whilst understandable, the prospect of reinstating a tourist steam train along that line would add major economic benefits to the area. Rovos Rail & Ceres Steam? How about it?

Next week: Otto du Plessis Pass 


Pass of the week

Jouberts Pass is a steep, high altitude gravel road pass located between the towns of Lady Grey and Barkly East in the quiet rural region of the Eastern Cape close to the Lesotho border in the Witteberg Mountains, which is itself a western spur of the mighty Drakensberg. Very few people traverse this pass other than local farmers and avid adventure travellers.


* *   J O U B E R T S   P A S S   * *

New videos added:

Du Toitskloof Pass (N1). We refilmed this pass a few weeks ago and have added the new video to the page.

Sondagsrivier Pass (KZN) - The Sondagsrivier (Sundays River) Pass is a long gravel pass of 14 km with two summit points initiated by a big climb on the northern side. Grand views of the Chelmsford Nature Reserve and Ntshingwayo Dam are on offer from the main summit point. (Refilmed by Murray Cubitt)


Trygve Roberts

Tail piece: "I used to be indecisive. Now I'm not so sure"

COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

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