Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Challenging, but worth it

The rugged mountains and deep, green valleys of the Bastervoetpad Pass are strongly reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, with icy winters and mild summers and is rated high amongst the top 10 high altitude passes of the Eastern Cape. 

Officially named the Dr Lapa Munnik Pass the Bastervoetpad Pass is located between the summit of the Barkly Pass and Ugie and traverses a southern arm of the Drakensberg along the east-west axis. 

The rough gravel pass was first discovered in 1862 by Adam Kok III, when he led an armed group down the footpath as a possible route for his historical trek. As history have it, he found the locals too hostile and subsequently led the Griquas in their historic trek from Philippolis in the Free State to their new home – called Kokstad, of course – over another route further to the east, named Ongeluksnek.

Viewed as one of the most challenging true mountain passes in the country, the pass boasts a summit height of 2 240m, a length of 20km and it loses 830m of altitude down the Drakensberg escarpment on the eastern side. This pass can be treacherous in bad weather and is subject to electrical storms, violent winds, heavy rain, hail and snow. However, when the weather is good, it offers some of the finest scenery in South Africa. 

We recommend driving this pass from west to east. Head north from Elliot on the tarred R58 over the beautiful Barkly Pass. Near the northern end of this pass, you will find a hotel called ‘Mountain Shadows’ that offers a beautiful place to overnight if you are driving passes in the area. Directly opposite the hotel, take the gravel road to the right (North-East) marked R393. You will first drive over the Fetcani Pass and approximately 8km further, you will get to a fork in the road onto a minor farm road. Here there is a small metal sign marked ‘Bastervoetpad‘ – note, however, that this is not the western start of the pass, but merely the access road. The road traverses three farms (watch out for livestock) and then crosses a small river via a reasonably new, low level, concrete, culvert style bridge, which is where the pass starts in earnest. 

A word of caution: Under no circumstances should you attempt to drive this pass in a conventional vehicle. Even a bakkie with a diff-lock will struggle here – even in dry weather. The eastern slopes are much wetter than the western side, so consider that when attempting this route. This pass is not for the faint-hearted. It is a true adventurer’s pass with some vertigo-inducing drop-offs and very rough sections. Very little maintenance is done to the road, so you’re essentially on your own out here. Proceed with caution and be prepared to do some basic ‘road repair’ work yourself, as and when needed.

There is a fence that parallels the road up this final section, and suddenly the small level plateau is reached at the neck, at an altitude of 2 240m above sea level. There is a major cutting out of the koppie on the right, creating enough space for the road to descend into the south. There aren’t words to describe the summit views, and if you’ve picked the right window of weather to drive this pass, you can stand here and gaze at the panoramic vistas which seem to stretch all the way down the escarpment and on to the Indian Ocean. The views span a wide arc of around 210 degrees as row upon row of steep ravines drop down to the wooded plains below, with waterfalls and streams cascading down the green mountainsides.

At the summit is a stone plaque dedicating the pass to Dr Lapa Munnik and another a little further to the west, in honour of Nic de Bruin who mapped and built the western section. The plaques date back to around 1979, making the current version of the pass approximately 41 years old.

Once you’ve had your fill of the summit views, it’s time to start the marathon descent of 13km of downhill driving, where 830m of altitude will be lost before reaching the eastern foot of the pass. This is certainly not a good place to run into any serious problems as assistance is a very long way from here. Select low range (mostly second and third gear) and leave it there for the entire descent. This helps to retain good traction and more precise control of engine braking against compression.

Patience is the key to success on this pass. Most drivers start getting weary after the long pull over this pass, but now is the time to take your time and deal with each obstacle as they appear. Some of the wash aways are quite severe and more than a metre deep – and as wide!

When first built, the pass was accessible in a standard sedan vehicle. Lack of funds and maintenance, coupled with the opening of the tarred R58 route, led to the pass falling into decline. At present, it has become a real challenge to negotiate this pass, even in a high clearance 4×4. During our traverse of the pass in September 2020, a lot of maintenance work was completed on the lower two-thirds of the eastern descent, which has reduced the drive time from five to just under four hours.

Make use of the grassy verges and place one set of wheels on the verge, which will help lift that side over protruding obstacles. At the same time, however, be aware that each vehicle will have a critical rollover point, where gravity will take over. Those vehicles with heavy loads on roof carriers (like rooftop tents) are more susceptible to a rollover. Up ahead in the distance, some distinctive and stunning sandstone formations appear on the far side of the river. These make excellent subjects for photography, especially at dusk or dawn. These rock formations look like giant mushrooms as they display various shades of brown, yellow, green and orange. A little further back, a tall ridge of serrated crags dominate the skyline.

Adjacent to the mushroom rocks, the road bends gently to the right and into the southeast as the descent continues relentlessly. More and more trees appear as altitude is lost and soon the road is enclosed in an avenue of tall vegetation. A small stream is crossed at the 18km mark via a low-level concrete causeway and immediately after the road rises, there is another farm on the left, called Valetta. Proceed slowly through the farm as horses and sheep are roaming about here.

There are still four river crossings to deal with before your official drive is over. During the rainy summer season, these crossings could be flooded and dangerous. Always walk the crossing first with a stick to ensure it’s not too deep and to check for underwater obstructions, as well as the force of the current. If you’re not prepared to walk it, then don’t drive it.

An easy drive of about 8km through dense plantations will get you to a T-junction with the tarred R56. Pat yourself on the back with the knowledge that you’ve driven one of the most difficult publicly accessible mountain passes in South Africa.

Fact file:

  • GPS START: S31.158265 E27.921057
  • GPS SUMMIT: S31.180292 E27.973974
  • GPS END: S31.182137 E28.054959
  • AVE GRADIENT: 1:24
  • MAX GRADIENT: 1:5
  • ELEVATION START: 1 921m
  • ELEVATION SUMMIT: 2 240m
  • ELEVATION END: 1 410m
  • HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 830m
  • DISTANCE: 20km
  • DIRECTION – TRAVEL: East
  • TIME REQUIRED: 4 hours
  • SPEED LIMIT: N/A (Off road)
  • SURFACE: Gravel (4×4 only)

*For more information on mountain passes near you, visit the Mountain Passes South Africa website:

https://www.mountainpassessouthafrica.co.za/

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