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