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A taste of Drakensberg

Following on from Lotheni Pass, the picturesque Bucklands Pass connects the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands’ famous Nottingham Road with Underberg and Himeville in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg. Trygve Roberts of Mountain Passes South Africa explores.

This attractive gravel pass of 11.8km has a classic inverted profile of a pass that drops down into a river valley and rises up the other side. The river in question is the Mkomazi River, a small but powerful river that drains a sizeable portion of the Drakensberg escarpment.

Despite being a gravel pass – which forms part of the long and winding Lotheni Road that connects Nottingham Road in the north-east with Underberg and Himeville in the south-west – the road engineering is sound and the gradients never exceed 1:10. The pass is named after the Bucklands farm over which it traverses and it is worth noting that a small nature reserve is crossed on the south-western side of the pass, called the Vergelegen Nature Reserve.

To approach from the north, head west out of Nottingham Road on the R103 and turn west (left) on the Lotheni Road for 60km, which will bring you to the northern start of the pass. To approach from the south, head north-east out of Underberg on the Lotheni Road for 20km to arrive at the southern start of the pass.

From the northern start, the road descends rapidly into the south at a gradient of 1:10 via a soft S-curve, but at the 1.6km mark, there is an extremely sharp right-hand bend of 100 degrees. The turning angle is very tight, and speed needs to be lowered to 30km/h and even lower in wet weather. This bend also marks the entry of a built-up residential area as well the intersecting Stepmore Road. Keep right and remain on the main road and look out for pedestrians, livestock and slow-moving local vehicles on the road. At the 2km mark, the road curves through another 100-degree left-hand bend, but this one has a wide and easy arc. With the heading now into the southwest, the road begins levelling off briefly. At the 3km mark, there is another very sharp right-hand bend of 90 degrees, followed within 200m by another equally sharp left-hand bend of 90 degrees.

The Bucklands farmstead lies hidden in a smaller ravine slightly to the left behind several streets of local housing. At the 4.5km point, the descent drops into a lop-sided S-bend which gets ever tighter as progress is made down towards the river, which is crossed at the 5.5km mark. The sizeable village on the right is named Mhlongo. As soon as you cross the bridge you enter the Vergelegen Nature Reserve, and the absence of dwellings comes as something of a relief. This might seem like a really tiny reserve, measuring just a few square kilometres, but it consists of a number of isolated pockets scattered about the area, mainly concentrating on the Mkomazi River Valley. The climb gradients on the south-western side are generally much easier and range between 1:14 and 1:20, but the gradients pick up sharply near the far summit point, where things get back up to 1:10. The pass ends at the 11.8km point at an altitude of 1 504m above sea-level. Continue along Lotheni Road for 20km to arrive in Himeville and shortly after that, Underberg, which has full amenities and many attractive guest houses.

Himeville

South-west of the Bucklands Pass, you will find a small village situated in the foothills of the picturesque Southern Drakensberg, Himeville. It is a landmark en route to the world-famous Sani Pass and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the closest town to the Sani Pass which links the town with Mokhotlong in Lesotho.

Himeville was named in 1902 after the then Prime Minister of Natal, Sir Albert Henry Hime, a road engineer elected as Prime Minister of Natal in 1889. The town was first established as a police outpost and a branch of the Border Mounted Rifles in 1890 following a spate of gun running and cattle rustling in the area. The stone buildings which now comprise the Himeville Museum were built from 1896 to 1899 as the last of Natal’s loop-holed forts. It was converted to a prison in 1902 and continued housing prisoners until 1972. An openair exhibition of settler and agricultural history is surrounded by many display rooms housing themed exhibits. The prison warden’s house is decorated in the style of the early 20th century.

The Himeville Museum is one of the top rural museums in the country due to its wide range of exhibits, ranging from fossils and stone-age artifacts to a comprehensive display on the Bushmen, the early settlers as well as African beadwork and artifacts. The display also covers the Anglo Boer War and the two World Wars. There is an old post office and a school room, wildlife display and many farming implements and machinery, including a blacksmith’s forge and a workshop.

The museum is housed in the old stone fort or laager started in 1896 by the Border Mounted Rifles sent to police the area after the LeFleur Rebellion of 1895. Completed in 1899, it was only used once on the strength of a rumour and no fighting took place nearby. It was taken over by the Natal Mounted Police after the Anglo Boer War and turned into a prison with the addition of the warden’s house and magistrates court, along with a number of cells. Abandoned as a prison in 1972 it became a museum in 1976 and was declared a National Monument in 1981. It is now affiliated to the KZN Provincial Museum Service. The Himeville Nature Reserve stretches along the eastern boundary of Himeville Village and was proclaimed to its present size of 104ha in 1973. There are a couple of species of antelope to be seen and birds on the small dams. You can stroll around most of it in about 30 minutes, which makes a pleasant evening walk if you are staying at one of several pleasant accommodation establishments or hotel nearby.

Underberg

Just a few kilometres south of Himeville is the equally charming and larger village of Underberg, situated at the foot of the 1 904m Hlogoma Peak (place of echoes) in the Southern Drakensberg. Underberg was established in 1917 when the railway from Pietermaritzburg reached the area and is an important commercial centre for the region’s farming industry. It is also a trading centre for people who come down the nearby Sani Pass from Lesotho.

As the so-called gateway to the Southern Drakensberg, tourism is the second biggest industry in the area (next to farming) and as such it provides a large variety of tourism offerings. The Southern Drakensberg Community Tourism Organisation was established by the community in 2007 and serves to promote tourism under the Southern Berg Escape brand.

Cautionaries for this pass

  • Be careful of livestock and pedestrians.
  • Watch out for drivers cutting corners – especially on the blind corners.
  • The two bridges on this pass are very narrow and unguarded. Be particularly careful during the lead-on and lead-off.
  • Wattle trees have encroached over sections of the roadway, narrowing it in places.

Fact file

GPS START: S29.575154 E29.599168

GPS SUMMIT: S29.598736 E29.572909

GPS END: S29.638869 E29.541751

AVE GRADIENT: 1:46

MAX GRADIENT: 1:10

ELEVATION START: 1 493m

ELEVATION SUMMIT: 1 250m

ELEVATION END: 1 504m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 254m

DISTANCE: 11.8km

DIRECTION – TRAVEL: South-West

TIME REQUIRED: 11 minutes

SPEED LIMIT: 60km/hour

SURFACE: Gravel (P27-2)

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