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

Escape to the mountains

Trygve Roberts, of Mountain Passes South Africa, wanted to create a trip of a lifetime, crammed with as many unforgettable experiences as possible. One that could be enjoyed by owners of 4×4 and 4×2 vehicles alike as they explore the unrivalled beauty of the Garden Route and surrounds. Thus, the Garden Route Classic Tour came into being.

When we first planned this tour, we wanted to give our guests an action-packed experience of a lifetime. As such, the route started in the Little Karoo, ended at Storms River Mouth and – avoiding the N2 where possible – criss-crossed the mountains from west to east.

It included both gravel and tar passes, as well as a Grade 2 4×4 trail to add some adrenaline to the mix. We allowed 4×2 vehicles to do the tour, providing them with an escape route option on the 4×4 leg.

The group of 12 vehicles – representing Ford, Toyota, Range Rover, Suzuki, Volkswagen and even Subaru and Honda – converged at Rooiberg Lodge for the start of the tour. Everyone really enjoyed the venue, to the extent that our next Garden Route Tour will include two nights there to allow those who had travelled long distances the opportunity to relax, soak up the tranquillity, do some game viewing or tackle the 4×4 route. Situated about 10km from Van Wyksdorp, the green lawns, neat, thatched buildings and sparkling blue pool serve as an oasis at the foot of the Rooiberg Mountains.

Day 1: Let the fun begin

All neatly lined up in convoy order, we departed from Rooiberg Lodge by 09:00, heading in the direction of Van Wyksdorp. The town was founded in 1838, on the farm Buffelsfontein, which was owned by Gerrit van Wyk. Today the population is about 700, of which a few are direct descendants of Van Wyk.

Throughout history, the inhabitants of the town have depended on the farming of fruit, sheep, cattle, and ostriches. A mountain spring, known as The Eye, provides consistent water output throughout the year. During the years of the ostrich boom, Van Wyksdorp was the centre of education in the Little Karoo. At one stage the school, built in 1912, had well over 200 pupils, who came in from all the surrounding towns. The railway links to Ladysmith and Riversdale caused these towns to grow, whilst Van Wyksdorp slowly shrunk to its present state.

It has character aplenty and a visit to the euphemistically named Van Wyksdorp Mall is a must. Here you can meet salt-of-the-earth locals, buy some proper Little Karoo farm produce or just linger a while to enjoy the wholesome countryside vibe.

Convoy driving on gravel roads produces dust. Sometimes there’s a crosswind that clears it away quickly, but in the Karoo that is usually not the case. The dust hangs in the air for several minutes and causes the gaps between vehicles to stretch, sometimes by up to a kilometre. We usually solve this problem by regrouping the convoy every 30 minutes or so.

We followed a scenic gravel road along the northern side of the Langeberge and arrived at the Gouritz River about an hour later. It’s usually either bone dry or a raging torrent, so we were surprised to find some water flowing. Located on the R327 connecting Van Wyksdorp with Herbertsdale, the Jan Muller Pass crosses the Gouritz River via a low-level concrete bridge. This rugged gravel pass is fairly short at 3.6km and descends very steeply down the western side, then ascends in a series of tight switchbacks after crossing the river at an altitude of just 68m above sea level.

Soon we were on our way to the next pass – Cloete’s Pass near Herbertsdale. Clouds were gathering on the seaward side of the mountains and it started drizzling once we were over the summit of the pass.

Just before Herbertsdale we turned left on a gravel road and headed for Gondwana Game Reserve. We had been granted special permission to enter the reserve and enjoy coffee and muffins in the grand thatched clubhouse overlooking a ravine. By the time we departed it was raining steadily, which – of course – meant no more dust.

Our route took us through the Hagelkraal area over very hilly terrain, where each neck in the mountains offered fresh vistas, until we connected with the tarred R326 close to the rustic Eight Bells Inn.

This wonderful old country hotel has a fascinating history. In 1816 the property on which it stands was granted to a certain Johannes Petrus Marx by the then Governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset. The route taken by travellers and traders between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn passed through the property and a condition of title was that “a place of outspan” be set aside at the foot of the Attakwas Mountain Pass (now known as the Robinson Pass). Today only a small piece of the original outspan adjoins the hotel.

In the 1930s the farm became a popular spot for visitors, particularly seamen from ships of the Royal Navy docked in Mossel Bay, and it was the regular presence of the naval folk that influenced the name. At sea, a bell is rung once for each half hour of a four-hour watch. Eight bells signify the end of the full watch… time to rest. In this context it is a fitting name for a resort offering tranquil relaxation in magnificent mountain surroundings.

The next pass we tackled was the Robinson Pass and with its many sharp bends and steep gradients there wasn’t much time to enjoy the scenery. The rain was also coming down in buckets and halfway up the ascent, we were well into the cloud base, leaving the whole convoy in a complete white-out.

After the summit the clouds and rain vanished, leaving us with good visibility once more. We headed north towards Oudtshoorn, but because we prefer to bypass big towns, we routed through a pleasant farming area south of Oudtshoorn and rejoined the main road between George and Oudtshoorn close to the junction of the N12/N9. The rolling cloud bank over the mountains was a sure sign that we would be descending the Outeniqua Pass – built between 1942 and 1951 to provide an alternative to the narrow and steeper Montagu Pass – in the rain.

The final pass of the day was the dramatic Kaaimans River Pass. Although fairly short in terms of distance, the curves are extremely sharp, and the gradient is steep. It connects George in the west with Wilderness in the east and traverses magnificent scenery with steep mountainsides before crossing the Kaaimans River via the first curved bridge built in South Africa, in 1952. The pass provides great views of the famous railway bridge at the mouth of the estuary and is home to Dolphin Point, which offers one of the best panoramic views of Wilderness beach.

Day 2: More breathtaking views

It rained hard all night, but the morning dawned crisp and clear – perfect weather for driving gravel roads. Our first pass for the day started less than 100m from the hotel in Wilderness where we had spent the night.

White’s Road is a lovely meandering mountain road with a mix of tar and gravel, and offers glimpses of the ocean, beaches, lagoon and the Touws and Serpentine Rivers as it winds gently up to Wilderness Heights. The road is popular with pedestrians, joggers and cyclists as the gradient is a comfortable 1:16 for most of the way.

The road was commissioned and funded around 1909 by Ernst Montagu White, businessman, philanthropist and son of Henry Fancourt White, who was the surveyor and road inspector for the Montagu Pass. White Senior’s house, Fancourt, located at the foot of Wilderness Heights, was lovingly restored by his son and is now a national monument. Both Ernst and his sister died suddenly in 1916 after consuming poisonous mushrooms. We ended the day by driving the Silver River and Kaaimansgat Passes before returning to George for some well-deserved rest and relaxation.

*In Part 2 the group explores the Montagu Pass, the Old Voortrekker Pass, the Seven Passes Road, as well as Knysna and Nature’s Valley, before driving the Grootrivier and Bloukrans Passes on their way to Storms River Mouth in the Tsitsikamma National Park.

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