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

Ten challenging passes, five gruelling days

Trygve Roberts of Mountain Passes South Africa takes us on the adventurous Ben 10 Eco Challenge which – as the 12 participating vehicles discovered – is much more than just another mountain pass tour.

Our fifth Ben 10 Eco Challenge was simply epic. If you wanted adventure, stunning scenery and technical driving, then this was the tour to be on. It rained every day, which kept the mud factor high and everyone on their toes. It also meant no dust, which is always a bonus! Six punctures, multiple recoveries, deep water crossings and lots of road building kept everyone challenged and busy.

At the first drivers’ briefing of every Ben 10 tour, I remind guests that they have entered a challenge; that it’s going to be tough; that they’re going to get irritable; disgruntled and start complaining. And that’s truly how it always goes. This is much more than a mountain pass tour. There is a huge amount of pressure on everyone to achieve the goal of completing the ten challenging passes in the allotted five days. That said, the 2022 tour was easily the toughest one we’ve done to date.

Managing the emotions and expectations of a diverse group of people from different walks of life, all lumped together for the first time, is something of a challenge in itself. I wear many hats: joker, recovery expert, advisor, tutor, sergeant, captain, psychologist, priest, problem solver, mechanic, radio expert, first aid person, navigator, friend, and guide. Those hats must be switched several times a day, and after every trip I am filled with gratitude for being able to do this for a living.

Our route to the rendezvous point was via some of my very favourite plattelandse dorpies, including Worcester, Robertson, Montagu, Barrydale, Ladysmith, Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn, De Rust, Willowmore and Aberdeen, with an overnight stop at Graaff Reinet. We use this route because of the absence of heavy traffic (especially trucks) and it was good to see the roadworks in and around Ashton being almost complete. Even more impressive is that Cogmanskloof is now also completed, with no more stop-go’s to contend with. The stonework on the embankments is very impressive and we are happy to report that the old tunnel has been left untouched. It will be interesting to see how the new works hold up in the next big flood, but I think it’s a first-class job. Compliments to the new contractors (Haw & Inglis) who had to take all the public flack after the previous contractor became insolvent and the townsfolk of Ashton suffered long delays.

One of our favourite roads is that between De Rust and Willowmore. It’s almost always quiet and the tarred road surface is in excellent condition. The scenery is also something to behold as the road follows the last foothills of the Swartberg range. A sign marked “Toorwater” beckons the adventurous traveller to visit the eastern-most poort of the Swartberg range, where a scenic railway line follows the poort. Unfortunately, there is no road there, so if you want to pay a visit, you will need to board Shank’s Pony.

Between Willowmore and Graaff Reinet the plains are exceptionally green after a summer of excellent rainfall. We passed the Beervlei Dam and savoured the sight of seeing it with such a large volume of water. The only bit of excitement on this 200km-long stretch of mainly straight tarmac was driving into large swarms of locusts. Very soon the windscreen looked like a scene from a horror movie, with locusts jammed in between the braces of the wiper blades. We stopped and pulled hundreds of them out of our radiator and engine bay. The mess on the windscreen could not be cleaned by the washer/wiper system and required manual effort. Messy! It was much the same six months previously when we travelled up to Matatiele for the Wild Coast Tour. The rains bring the locusts.

After a good night’s rest at the lovely Drostdy Hotel, we left for Barkly East the next morning and decided to travel via Middelburg, Steynsburg and Aliwal North as it’s supposed to the faster route, albeit not as attractive as the southern option via Cradock, Tarkastad, Queenstown (Komani), Lady Frere (Cacadu), Cala and Elliot (Khowa). What we weren’t aware of, though, was the large number of stop-go’s between Middelburg and Barkly East. I’m guessing there were at least 25 of them. We lost more than an hour and it dawned on me that we would have to deal with a few more of these on our tour as well. On the bright side, at least the roads are finally being refurbished.

The Mountain Shadows Hotel at the top of the Barkly Pass was our rendezvous point. Ria and her staff welcomed us with open arms and big smiles. We had booked the first four nights of the tour at this lovely venue where the food is always wholesome, the bar is well stocked with a good selection of wine, and the sweeping views over the mountains are breathtaking. But mostly it’s the friendly, personal service that makes this hotel such a gem, and the reason why we keep returning.

Radios were fitted, introductions made and by 18:00 we had the entire squad in the conference room for the opening address of what would turn out to be a very memorable tour. The weather forecast at that stage showed consistent rain for all five days of the tour, with the lowest figure forecast for the first day. Based on that we thought it prudent to deal with the notoriously difficult Bastervoetpad Pass first. There were some furrowed brows around the conference room when this news was shared.

After indemnity forms were signed and route notes and folders handed out it was dinner time. Many of the guests had travelled far and were keen to have an early night as the next day would require high levels of concentration. There was a palpable sense of anticipation, disguised by banter and laughter flushed down with some good Cape wine. Bastervoetpad would be no laughing matter.

A baptism of fire

Day 1 dawned, cloudy but without rain. We had decided to use the best day in terms of rain forecasts to deal with the Bastervoetpad Pass. It would be a baptism of fire. By 08:30 the convoy of 13 vehicles – of which only four were firsttime participants in one of our tours – were lined up and ready to go. We headed out along the R58 towards Barkly East for about 15km, before we turned right onto the Bottelnek Pass. The signboard for northbound traffic has gone missing, making it very easy to miss the turnoff, as we did. Turning the convoy around on the R58 was no easy task!

The Bottelnekspruit Valley road is one of those Eastern Cape roads that is always scenic, regardless of the weather or time of year. It had been raining almost daily in the area since September 2021, to the point where local farmers were actually saying: “We’ve had too much rain.” The cattle get sick in these very wet conditions and many had already died. I never thought I’d hear a South African farmer say that.

We were having our first taste of the mud that was to be our companion for the next five days. Drivers soon got the hang of the sliding and slipping as we headed towards Bottelnek Pass. Conditions up the pass were surprisingly firm and soon we joined the R396 heading towards the Bastervoetpad Pass. To say I was filled with trepidation would be an understatement.

We arrived at the western start of the pass at a new concrete bridge when the radio crackled: “I have a flat tyre.” It was Marco in the big Cruiser. Closer inspection showed no visible sign of a puncture, so we tried to simply inflate it. After some time, we figured out that a thin sidewall cut was releasing air every time it was at the bottom of the rotation cycle. The flexing of the sidewalls had caused the casing to split. Thus, we had to change to one of his two spares.

Bastervoetpad

The second casualty going up the climb was the Suzuki Grand Vitara, which ended up sliding into a ditch. However, with a little assistance and some pushing, we soon got it going again. The second half of the climb was entirely in the cloud base. The drizzle was persistent, but at least there was a lot less mud. Everyone made it up to the summit in one piece, but that’s the easy part of the pass. It’s the eastern descent where things start getting hairy. Up at the summit, Rupert in his Land Cruiser 200 VX reported another puncture. That one was fairly easily resolved with a can of Holts Tyre Weld.

Next up on the puncture list was the Gelandewagen. Another sidewall cut. It was raining harder and steady rivulets ran along the two-spoor track. It took about half an hour to get the Gelandewagen mobile again, with the tricky conditions exacerbating matters. At the summit, where we normally enjoy the best views in South Africa, we were in a white-out of clouds and mist, with about 80m visibility. Conditions were steadily worsening.

There is one specific section on the descent which I was worried about. The road goes through a chicane section of which the second half involves a 160-degree left-hand bend with a serious angle of camber. This obstacle has become progressively worse over the years. Once you make the decision to tackle it, there is no turning back as it would be impossible to get back up the obstacle in those conditions. It was decision time.

climbed out of my vehicle, donned a rain jacket and went walkabout. The mud was about axle deep, with big rocks and some loose ones hidden underneath. The obstacle is about 40m long and I decided to give it a go. If I got stuck, I could send the convoy back to the hotel and arrange a recovery for myself. I eased the Cruiser over the first big rock, doing my best to follow the line I had mapped out on my walk, but with three tons of dead weight, it had a mind of its own. We slid, bumping into rock after rock towards the low side of the road and came to a halt with no traction, halfway through the obstacle. It’s not often Land Cruisers gets stuck, but sometimes they do, and today was my turn. I was in second gear low range with the rear locker engaged, so I deployed the front locker as well. In these situations a solid front axle makes all the difference. That did the trick, and Thirsty Kirsty was soon out of trouble. This did not auger well for the rest of the vehicles, but at least I had a sound concept of the best lines to take. I walked back with a handheld radio and managed to get the remaining vehicles through one by one. We left some metal on those rocks and quite a bit of Tupperware too (a reference to plastic cosmetic parts). To say I was relieved was an understatement. There was mud everywhere. On the floor-mats and the running boards, and on our shoes. There was still plenty more to come.

It wasn’t long before Marco announced his second puncture. Another sidewall cut and once again it was a case of getting the wheel changed in an awkward, steep, muddy spot, but many hands make light work… one of the reasons why people go on a group tour. Theo Hammond is known as the Puncture Man, always first to lend a hand and quietly getting on with the task with no concern about getting wet and dirty. Theo earned his title on our Wild Coast Tour in November 2021 and was repeating the effort, but on a much bigger scale. So, at that stage Marco had used both his spare wheels (neither of which were in good condition). It was Saturday, so getting replacement tyres over a weekend was going to be difficult. After we popped out of the cloud base, we were treated to fabulous views of the green slopes, tipped off with glistening sandstone cliffs and tumbling waterfalls. We stopped at the Valetta farm, owned by Bennie and Marjorie Venter. This wonderfully hospitable couple always welcome us with open arms, but this time they weren’t home. They had, however, sent us an SMS advising that we were welcome to make use of their toilet facilities (for which the ladies in our group were most grateful).

A river runs through it

Bastervoetpad still had surprises waiting for us in the form of four river crossings. The current was swift but not too deep and all the vehicles made it through without incident. Once onto the forestry road, we could change back to high range and pick up the speed a bit. Despite the four punctures and hold-ups, we had made good time, so we took a different road back to Elliot, which turned out to be a very good choice. It runs more or less parallel to the R56 on its northern side and allows good views of Gatsberg – a historic mountain with a hole through the summit point, where the early Voortrekkers camped at its foot on their long journey from the Cape to Natal. This new section added value to the tour and will become a permanent feature in future tours.

In Elliot most vehicles refuelled, and Marco got the emergency number of the owner of the local Supa Quick, who offered to come in on the Sunday to fit a set of new tyres. I was again impressed with the special service you get in these rural dorpies. We were all back at the Mountain Shadows Hotel by 17:00, ready for happy hour and the daily debriefing. Everyone was really chuffed with their achievements for the day and very happy to hear that the worst of the tour was under the belt. Or so they hoped!

*In the next edition, the group will tackle Dawid se Kop and The Castle Vulture Colony. – Ed.

Participants & vehicles

  • Toyota Land Cruiser 105 GX: Trygve Roberts (guide)
  • Toyota Fortuner: Hans Matter & Irene Matzdorf
  • Colt Rodeo V6 LDV: Bob Selman & Pieter Pienaar
  • Ford Ranger Wildtrak: Theo Hammond & Charon Vorgers
  • Suzuki Jimny 1.3: Tom & Jeanne Hemsted
  • Mitsubishi Pajero Sport: Bernhard Klodwig
  • Suzuki Grand Vitara: Ian McMurray
  • Toyota Land Cruiser 200 VX: Bruce & Jill Meyer
  • Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen: Colin & Ann Meyer
  • Toyota Land Cruiser 79 Series: Marco & Lina van der Merwe
  • Volkswagen Touareg: Ian & Betty van Heerden
  • Toyota Land Cruiser 200: Rupert & Lizzie Worsdale
  • Toyota Prado: Sam Alim & Birgitte Madlener

The Ben 10 Passes include:

  • Ben MacDhui Pass (3 001m)*
  • Carlisleshoekspruit Pass (2 563m)
  • Volunteershoek Pass (2 581m)
  • Naudes Nek Pass (2 590m)
  • Lundin’s Nek Pass (2 170m)
  • Joubert’s Pass (2 234m)
  • Bastervoetpad Pass (2 240m]
  • Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse/TTT (2 720m)
  • Otto du Plessis Pass (2 115m)
  • Barkly Pass (2 018m)

*Currently closed – substituted by the Bottelnek Pass (2 204m)

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