High and not so dry in the Eastern Cape

We are truly blessed to live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to weekend (or longer) getaways. For Bernie Williams, the Eastern Cape is a favourite, showing us there is more than what meets the eye in this province.

For me, the Eastern Cape has always been one of the best tourist destinations, offering some of the most diverse getaways, scenery and activities. Usually, when you mention this province, though, the mind goes to the Wild Coast and its beautiful beaches. There is, however, more than meets the eye to the Eastern Cape. In the 1800s, pioneering farmers decided to settle in the more remote areas of the Eastern Cape. Before this, only the San tribe known for their migratory habits inhabited this area. They, like most wild animals, were smart enough to leave the area during its harsh winter months. And harsh it can certainly be, with temperatures plummeting to around -15°C and even colder! Even during South Africa’s start of Spring in September, we were faced with some harsh weather conditions. Probably best known for the Tiffendell Ski Resort situated about 25km from the town, Rhodes offers a lot to see and do.

It truly is an undiscovered gem, filled with history and heritage which make it a must-visit destination for South Africans. The town itself was founded on the farm Tintern that belonged to one Mr Jim Vorster. He agreed to the establishment of a village, on the condition that 100 plots were sold and that the town was to be named after the then Prime Minister of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes. The village lies between some of the highest mountain peaks of the southern Drakensberg Mountain Range in the Eastern Cape and is situated near the border of Lesotho. When visiting, you really do get a feeling of stepping back in time, savouring its history and heritage. And, as it goes with small towns, there are more than enough stories and tales about the village and its residents. Tall tales from the hippy era in the 1970s to draft dodgers seeking refuge from the military police, fleeing into the mountains to their marijuana fields, draws a picture of a not-quite-as-quaint little town.

Heritage & History

With Heritage Day looming, we thought it would be an excellent time to utilise the long weekend and visit Rhodes and surrounds, declared a Conservation area in 1997. Our clients came from as far as Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Bloemfontein and descended upon the area for our first night at the Lord Fraser Guesthouse in Wepener. The history of Lord Fraser is an interesting one. He was a British captain who was blinded during World War II and started the very well-known Frasers Trading Posts in Lesotho. Frasers went on to become a massive multinational company with its head office and warehouses based in Bloemfontein. Even today, you will find Frasers Trading Posts scattered all over Lesotho. Lord Fraser used the house in Wepener as his base and in 1988 the building was donated to the municipality so that it could be converted into a museum. This never materialised and the property was sold to Willem and Wilna Swanepoel in 1993, who converted it into the Lord Fraser Guesthouse. All kinds of historical artefacts can be found in and around the guesthouse, from old typewriters to old business ledgers and ox-wagons – indeed the perfect spot to kick off our Heritage trip.

But we did not come to only learn about the area’s history; we were about to make some amazing memories of our own. After a delicious breakfast, it was time to hand out two-way radios, pack the beasts and start our adventure. We headed out to the historical town of Zastron which is known for its outdoor school, and on towards Sterkspruit and the Tele Bridge Lesotho border post. Just before the border post, there is a sign which indicates the turn-off to Lundean’s Nek Pass cresting at 2 170m, one of the Ben 10 passes that we would be driving in the next few days. The pass offers spectacular views of the valleys below. From here it was a relaxing 50km drive to Rhodes, crossing the Bell River with its steel bridge.

A gem re-opened The Rhodes Hotel has been closed for many years, and it was music to travellers’ ears when it was announced that it would be re-opened during tourism month (September) and that our group would be some of the first guests to be able to stay in it again. The hotel has been bought by a well-known local farmer, Handri Rheeders and his wife Sandra. They are in the process of a complete revamp of all the rooms, and we love what they have done so far, really going the extra mile with luxury and amenities. As head of catering, Sandra certainly knows how to cook up a storm and the well-stocked bar is a trendy and popular hang-out for all and sundry! Rhodes also offers self-catering options for the budget traveller. You can rent some of the local homes as accommodation, offering you a quaint and romantic alternative.

The town provides several great restaurants to enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal or even a pizza. And YES – pineapple goes on pizza as the majority of our group decided. And with this, the debate is put to bed! During the Heritage weekend – the first long weekend since the local travel ban was lifted – Rhodes was a hive of activity with adventure motorcyclists, mountain bikers and other adventure seekers. This paradise offers you a wide range of activities, from just relaxing to off-roading, cycling, hiking, adventure biking and fly fishing. Be sure to enquire when making your booking. But for us, there were passes to conquer! The Ben 10 challenge offers the opportunity to drive 10 specific high-altitude gravel passes in seven days while taking in the spectacular scenery and support eco-tourism in this extremely remote part of the Eastern Cape. As we only had the long weekend (five days), we would be completing six of the 10 passes during our trip.

The long and “windy” road

Day three promised to be our most challenging of the trip with two rather technical passes on the agenda: Naude’s Nek and Ben McDhui. And as if the passes don’t offer enough of a challenge, we were woken by a blistering wind which was set to continue for the rest of the day, with extremely strong gusts to boot. The drive up Naude’s Nek was spectacular but pretty uneventful. Tiffendell Ski Resort was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we had to obtain permission to get access to Ben McDhui which runs adjacent to the ski slope. Driving in the new VW V6 Amarok Canyon on the dry and loose terrain, this was undoubtedly going to be a test for both man and machine. Having been here before, I knew of the challenge ahead of us. A testament to German engineering, the Amarok didn’t miss a beat.

However, the terrain held the winning card when I suffered a cut tyre due to sharp rocks. The value of quality all-terrain tyres was never more apparent than at this moment. With the wind gusting and us a few meters short of cresting at 3 001m, it became a challenge to get the spare wheel out. The Amarok has a nifty anti-theft device on the spare wheel and – believe it or not – the men took to reading the manual to figure this one out! This exercise took about 45 minutes but felt like an eternity! With the wheel changed we set off to complete the last few meters, and the reward was immense! The views from up here are mind-blowing – you end up looking down on some the most awe-inspiring scenery… breath-taking! What goes up needs to come down again. Once again the systems on the Amarok really impressed. With the off-road mode selected, the rate of descent was superbly controlled and smooth. With the wind gusting we needed shelter and where better than in a waenhuis, alongside some sheep, their lambs and chickens breeding. Sometimes it really helps when you know people in the area! After a well-deserved break, some refreshments and a homemade burger, it was back to the hotel for our third night.

Naude’s Nek and beyond

 Following a relatively subdued evening, the intrepid explorers arose fresh and rested after the previous day’s excitement. Today would see us driving the wellknown Naude’s Nek pass. Two farmers set out into the mountains in 1896 and dropped the pegs which marked the route the road was to take. The pass was built by hand, using pick and spade and a horse-drawn cart! A testament to the resolve and toughness of the farmers of the time. At the start of the pass you will find a small memorial with the surname Naude spelt out with rocks. Some of the descendants of the original Naude family have found their final resting place here. From here we steadily make our way up to the viewpoint on the crest of the pass with the wind gusts of the day before had turned to icy cold! We quickly made our way to Tenahead Lodge for a warm cup of boeretroos whereafter we drove the TT pass. It runs all along the Lesotho border on your right offering superb views over mountains and seemingly endless valleys. This is a harsh environment, and it was sad to see the mountains and valleys scarred by recent veld fires. This pass is all of 24km long but is absolutely worth it. You exit close to Tiffendell and make your way down to Rhodes via Carlislehoekspruit pass again. Dinner tonight – sadly our final evening in Rhodes – was a delicious lamb curry with desert!

Ice ice baby

Our final morning in Rhodes held an ace up the sleeve, minus 6.5°C – matching the coldness of our hearts at the prospect of greeting new friends after spending a great few days together. Luckily our memories will warm our hearts for months to come, reminding me again of the expression: “Collect memories. Not things.” Our route back would see us climb the Carlislehoekspruit Pass for a final time and head on to the Volunteer’s Pass, also known as the “War Trail”. Urban legend has it that in the early 1800s the farmers found themselves fighting off the Xhosa tribe in the area. Some English farmers were looking for land and some of the farms were given to them so that they could act as a buffer protecting the farmers. That is why in this vicinity many farms have English speaking owners and on both sides of them now are Afrikaans speaking families. We started our drive only to discover that the Amarok had again picked up a slow puncture. No problem. We see a puddle of water, drive into it and soon detect the hole and set about with a quick fix.

It is essential to always make sure that you have the correct equipment no matter what vehicle you are driving. This pass is maintained by the local farmers in the area and there is a little collection box for donations. We stop at the collection box for the obligatory photo opportunity, only to notice that the box was empty. Locals tell us that theft from the donation box is an ongoing problem. Down we go, and at this point, I was rather glad that we were going down and not up as it would have been a challenging up drive, with the pass requiring some maintenance at present. Nevertheless, an uneventful descent and a pleasurable drive to Barkly- East to refuel and pump tyres before heading to our respective homes scattered across the country’s provinces. Having done this trip numerous times, I am still surprised that it offers new memories with every drive. This area provides the proverbial therapy for the soul, giving you time to recharge and experience South Africa’s hidden gems and history. The passes offer challenging and technical driving for any 4×4 enthusiast; while the incredible views and vistas are guaranteed to take your breath away

THE BEN 10 PASSES INCLUDE: Lundean’s Nek (2 170m) Carlisleshoekspruit Pass (2 563m) Ben MacDhui Pass (3 001m) Naude’s Nek Pass (2 590m) TT Pass: Tenahead to Tiffendell (2 720m) Volunteer’s Pass (2 581m) Barkly Pass (2 018m) Otto du Plessis (2 115m) Joubert’s Pass (2 234m) Bastervoetpad Pass (2 240m)

Words and images by: Bernie Williams

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