Much more than “just another mountain pass tour”, the annual Ben 10 Eco Challenge gives adventurers a sense of achievement and bragging rights for those successfully completing it. For Trygve Roberts, of Mountain Passes South Africa, this annual trek is a highlight on his calendar.
Last month we shared the trials and turbulations of the first day of this amazing adventure and thought we had experienced all the mud and rain this route had in store … not quite, it turned out! Since the second day of our adventure had even heavier rains forecasted, we opted to move the planned rest day forward and allowed the fearless explorers to sleep a little later.
At breakfast time, however, I noticed that the cloud cover was higher than the Sentech towers on Dawid se Kop (2 500m) and thought it was worth the risk of driving up there, before the rain settled in for the day. Despite it being the rest day, we had an almost full turnout for the excursion, with the notable absentee being Marco, who had the very legitimate excuse of having a new set of tyres fitted at Supa Quick in Elliot. It’s worth mentioning that the owner of Supa Quick was ready, willing and able to open his shop for Marco on a Sunday. Give that man a Bells and please support his business!
We left our base, Mountain Shadows Hotel, at 09:30 and drove the little known Fetcani Pass on the R396 towards Mosheshes Ford. After about 8km we arrived at the turn-off to Sarel Vorster’s lovely farm. We signed the register at the farm (we had made prior arrangements for the visit) and soon got into the swing of opening and closing farm gates, making sure no livestock escaped into the adjacent fields.
Dawid se Kop
It was not long before we arrived at the foot of one of the steepest roads in the area. It doesn’t have a name other than the “services road” to the Sentech Towers at Dawid se Kop. The steepest parts are concreted or strip concreted where the gradients get extremely steep, to the point that second gear low range is required to make it up the last bits where it gets as steep as 1:3. The traction here is very good, but drivers still have to keep their wits about them. The road is narrow and at times drivers are unable to see it because the view is blocked by the vehicle’s bonnet.
During the construction of the towers and access road, there were a number of accidents, fortunately none of them fatal. One involved a Unimog leaving the road and ending up in the ravine. Another involved a Ford Ranger bakkie experiencing brake failure. We got our group up to a small plateau area, where we left our vehicles and took the brisk (steep) walk up the final 200m to the summit. The views from the peak where the towers are located cover an angle of 360 degrees – one of the finest in the entire area, possibly only being exceeded by the views from the summit of Bastervoetpad. The weather was surprisingly kind, with almost no wind and quite warm – certainly warmer than we have experienced there on our prior visits.
We managed to get our first group photo done (sans Marco and Lina who were in Elliot getting new tyres fitted) and returned to Mountain Shadows Hotel for a light lunch. We agreed that we would regroup at 14:30 and head up to the vulture colony if the rain stayed away. As things turned out, the weather was very kind to us on that day and the heavy rain which was forecast did not materialise.
The Castle Vulture Colony
The route up to the vulture colony is basically just a bushwhack with the faintest traces of a two-spoor track appearing from time to time. The good rains throughout the summer had resulted in knee high grass, which made navigation tricky.
Fortunately, I had a back-track on my GPS from a previous visit, so we were able to find our way, but it’s incredibly easy to get lost up there and very important to remain in close visual contact with the vehicle ahead.
At the vulture colony all was quiet, with no birds soaring. The heavy rain clouds and absence of wind might have been contributing factors. Those with binoculars were able to view the nests where the big birds were sitting things out. After about 10 minutes and as if on some silent signal, about 20 birds took to the skies at the same time, providing us with magnificent aerial displays of skilled flight. On the way back, one of our guests missed a turn in the long grass and got lost. We brought the convoy to a halt until we had our errant lamb back in the pen and descended the mountain to the welcoming warmth of the fire in the pub and some welcome liquid refreshments, followed by another excellent meal.
The next day – with Jouberts Pass awaiting us – we had even more rain forecasted. This is normally an easy day on the Ben 10 Eco Challenge, but the soaking rains were going to make it quite an exciting and eventful affair. Everyone was ready for the 08:30 departure and soon the convoy was rumbling northwards towards Barkly East. The rain set in early, varying between light drizzle and steady rain.
We had come to expect the weather to be fairly dry in the mornings, but by 12:00 the clouds would suddenly pull over and the rain would settle in for the rest of the day and through the night. The water table in the area is very high at present and water can be seen lying between furrows on farms and just not soaking away. Much the same happens to the roads.
On the passes where there are steeper slopes, the rain drains away fairly quickly, but on the flatter sections it lies in great puddles and quickly turns into very slushy mud. The roadworks just north of Barkly East involved a 20-minute wait – a time when the two-way radios helped to dispense useful information regarding the route ahead. We traversed the Kraai River Pass and noted how strongly the river was flowing – a sign of the huge amount of rain the area has received almost non-stop since September 2021.
We finally left the tar and took the gravel back road to Jouberts Pass. This must rank of one of the best country roads in South Africa. It offers magnificent and varied scenery on a fairly good gravel road, traversing many farms, streams and small passes, passing some interesting sign boards like “Car Sump Drift” and “Kar Wegspoel Drif”. The latter name relates to a tale of a local farmer and his wife who had spent a very pleasant day at the tennis club in Lady Grey and having imbibed a little more than normal, found themselves driving home in the dark. They were caught in a flash flood as the docile little stream turned into a raging torrent, sweeping their bakkie off the bridge and downstream. They survived and walked back to their farm, somewhat wet and a lot more sober.
The roads were wet and muddy, but nothing that a decent 4×4 couldn’t handle. After about an hour’s driving we arrived at the eastern foot of Jouberts Pass. The clouds had built up rapidly as we neared the summit, getting darker by the minute and then there was a big bolt of lightning, followed the ominous rumble of thunder as the heavens opened up. Stopping at the summit of Jouberts Pass was out of the question as we were right in the middle of an electric thunderstorm. The rain fell in great torrents, sending streams of running water down the road. The windscreen wipers were working double time and visibility was poor. We nursed our way very carefully down the pass. The usual chatty radio banter had died down completely – a sure sign that the group was experiencing some angst. Near the bottom of the pass, the rain started clearing and soon we arrived in Lady Grey for a well-deserved coffee break. The streets were soaking wet as the peaceful pace of life continued despite the recent storm.
Our routing took us back onto the R58 where we traversed the Benjaminshoogte Pass in light rain. At the point where the road crosses over the Karringmelkspruit there are good views of the first and second rail reverses on the northern side, as well as damage to the railway track caused by the river in flood, directly under the new bridge. Remnants of the old railway siding are also visible on the southern side. We were most fortunate that a stop-go halted our convoy right on the bridge, which allowed us ample time to view and discuss these points of interest.
Further upstream an old arched stone bridge (the De Wet Bridge, circa 1899) is clearly visible and still in good condition, but the real gem is the tunnel constructed high in the mountainside on the right. It is very difficult to spot without binoculars and at least a sound idea of where to look. Engineers had decided that a very high bridge should be built (it would have been the highest rail bridge in South Africa, had it been built) to allow the railway to cross the mountains without losing gradient and from there through the tunnel and back onto the plateau to the south of the gorge.
Work on the tunnel commenced and was completed, but the rail bridge concept had to be abandoned due to a lack of funds. Instead, the much cheaper option of constructing rail reverses was approved, which meant fewer bridges and tunnels were needed. It is recorded in the history books that the idea came from a German woman that had lived in Barkly East at the time.
Eight reverses were constructed between Lady Grey and Barkly East. The downside of the cheaper option was that the trains had to be shorter. It also meant that it took considerably longer to complete the journey. A commemorative steampowered rail trip ended in disaster in 1992, when an inebriated guest barged his way into the locomotive and commandeered the power control lever. This resulted in the train derailing and the loss of five lives, including children. After that incident the line was permanently closed.
*Photographs accompanying the article taken from our image bank as conditions were not conducive to photographs. In the next edition, the group will tick off even more impressive passes on this spectacular adventure.
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:
- Barkly Pass (2 018m)
- Bastervoetpad Pass (2 240m)
- Ben MacDhui Pass (3 001m)*
- Carlisleshoekspruit Pass (2 563m)
- Joubert’s Pass (2 234m)
- Lundin’s Nek Pass (2 170m)
- Naude’s Nek Pass (2 590m)
- Otto du Plessis Pass (2 115m)
- Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse/TTT (2 720m)
- Volunteershoek Pass (2 581m)
*Currently closed – substituted by the Bottelnek Pass (2 204m)