History, Scenery and rain: Mountain Passes

The Ben 10 Eco Challenge – comprising ten challenging passes to be completed in five days – continues with more rain, more mud and a whole lot of adventure. Trygve Roberts of Mountain Passes South Africa guides this annual event and regards it as the ultimate experience for explorers who have an appreciation for the natural beauty and technical driving that mountain passes offer.

Towards the end of our 2022 Ben 10 Eco Challenge (dubbed “The Wet Edition”) there was – yes, you guessed it – more rain! The weather conditions continued along the now familiar pattern of being partly cloudy in the morning, with the rain settling in around noon each day. Our route took us from our base at the Mountain Shadows Hotel along the R56 to Barkly East and then on a gravel road down to the Kraai River at Loch Bridge. The river was running strongly and we spent some time discussing the history of the Loch Bridge and the seventh and eighth rail reverses a little further up the Tierkrans Pass. This beautiful pass is cut into the side of a mountain and angles down from a high plateau in the New England area to terminate at the historic Loch Bridge over the Kraai River. This part of the world is famous for its wonderful scenery, and the pass also offers spectacular views of the reverses and the rail bridge that forms part of the now-defunct railway line through this gorge.

Scottish heritage

The region was first surveyed in 1861 by Joseph Orpen, an Irishman, whose descendants still live in the area today. The farms have names like Ben Nevis, Glen Gyle and Pitlochrie, which indicates that the area is reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. There is even a Loch Ness dam below Tiffindell, and although no living monsters have been spotted there as yet, there are dinosaur fossils in the area that date back over 180 million years to the Jurassic Period.

Along the mountainous border of Lesotho, between Aliwal North and Barkly East, runs what was arguably the most scenic branch railway line in South Africa. It was constructed in four sections over a period of almost 28 years, spanning from March 1903 to December 1930. Construction of the final section, from New England to Barkly East, only started in 1928, because of delays caused by serious doubts about the economic viability of branch lines in general, World War I, and the sinking of a ship called Mexico loaded with building materials whilst en route from the United Kingdom.

German woman living in the area came up with the idea of using reverses rather than bridges and tunnels to negotiate the mountainous terrain. This meant that the trains had to zig-zag by manoeuvring forward and backwards up and down the steep inclines. This was slower but had the advantage of being much cheaper to construct. A total of eight reverses were built along this line, and two of them (numbers seven and eight) are clearly visible from vantage points along the Tierkrans Pass.

Eventually completed all of the way to Barkly East, the official opening of the line took place on 12 December 1930 as the train entered the station and a customary bottle of champagne was broken on the decorated locomotive, followed by joyous festivities. However, by the time of the line’s completion in 1930, a new competitor had arrived in the form of motor transport, against which it steadily lost ground throughout the ensuing 60 years. For economic reasons, regular service was finally discontinued in 1991.

Loch Bridge

Instructions for the commencement of the construction of the Loch bridge were issued during 1889, but a suitable site still had to be found. Once a suitable position had been selected, Joseph Newey, the District Inspector at King Williams Town, was instructed to complete designs for both ironwork and stone masonry type bridges. The estimated cost of £14 000 for a stone masonry bridge was approved, especially as Newey had found a good quarry site within half a mile of the site. Construction commenced in the middle of November 1891 and the last arch was keyed in on 5 December 1892. The bridge was finally completed in March 1893, and the approach roads were finished in September 1893. There were 24 stone masons, three carpenters, and about 150 labourers employed on the works, and some 300 more worked on the approaches on either side.

The bridge consists of five elliptical arches of 12 metres each, the length of the masonry is 80 metres and the full length of the bridge is 195 metres. The roadway is five metres wide and 13 metres above the riverbed. Wing walls were added to the bridge after floods in January 1898 damaged the abutments. The final total cost of the bridge amounted to £14 722, while compensation costs of £1 509 were paid out to adjoining landowners after arbitration. When the last stone was laid, there were only two left out of the thousands that were cut. Finally the official opening of the bridge took place on Wednesday 6 December 1893, the delay being due to a dispute between the local Divisional Council of Barkly East and the Government about the former taking over responsibility for the bridge. The bridge was opened by Mrs Gie, the wife of the Civil Commissioner and Resident Magistrate of Barkly East, Mr J C Gie, amid great festivities attended by almost a thousand people.

New England

Once we had crested the summit of the Tierkrans Pass, we turned right onto the plateau road that provides access to the New England area. The mud was slushy and deep and driving was much more of a waltz than a straight line. Everyone was having fun, but soon a radio call came through announcing that Marco’s 79 Series Land Cruiser had left the road.

He managed to extract the vehicle out of the ditch but had debeaded the left rear tyre in the process. It took just under an hour to change the wheel under very difficult conditions. The base of the high-lift jack would sink ever deeper into the mud, regardless of the size of base plate we put under it. It became apparent that using it was too dangerous, so Marco unveiled a really nifty gadget – a low slung electrically operated (12V) hydraulic jack. After some digging and a decent slab of wood being placed under this jack, we finally got the big Cruiser high enough to change the wheel. The long delay would impact the future timeline in several ways, but we’ll get to that later.

Our route took us over Wintersnek and then through a stunning area where we descended Ballochs Pass (at the foot is the well-known Ballochs farm where there is accommodation and camping on offer) and climbed up the far side through fabulous sandstone formations to connect with the R396. This is the main road through the Wartrail Valley to our next challenge, Lundean’s Nek Pass.

Lundean’s Nek Pass

The R396 is a much better road in terms of construction, so there was a lot less mud as we headed northwards towards the tall mountains marking the last geographical hurdle before reaching Lesotho. Surprisingly the road was in fair condition, despite all the recent rainfall. This allowed us the opportunity to enjoy the amazing scenery as we wound our way down the countless switchbacks amidst exposed sandstone and green slopes, with small waterfalls around every corner.

Towards the bottom of the pass we arrived at the village of Upper Telle and we continued all the way down to the Telle River, which marks the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Here we took a right turn at a sign marked as Dangershoek and followed the narrow, but beautifully scenic road up the southern bank of the river. This little road is in trouble, as floodwaters have eroded the banks up to and in some instances under the road itself. It’s only a matter of time before the road falls into the river. There were at least half a dozen spots like that and it’s going to require some concrete work to reinforce the riverbanks and prevent further erosion.

Dangershoek

We took a lunch break along the banks of the river near a small, picturesque church. After lunch we drove up a short, steep, partially concreted pass to enjoy one of the best views of the trip at the northern-most turnaround point of the tour. Retracing our route back over Lundean’s Nek Pass might sound boring, but any pass looks very different when driving it in the opposite direction as one sees views and points of interest not visible from the other side. Everything was going well, with no more punctures as we stopped in at the Wartrail Country Club for a comfort break.

We still had the Volunteershoek and Carlisleshoekspruit passes to complete for the day, but time was not being kind to us, so we decided to rather head straight back to Rhodes via Moshesh’s Ford and arrive in daylight. We decided it would be better to tackle Volunteershoek the following morning, when it was less likely to be raining. We had taken a call from one of the farmers in the Funnystone Valley to please not damage their road, which they had just spent R40 000 on repairing. That put us in quite a quandary, as the entire purpose of the tour was to complete the 10 challenge passes. We promised the farmer that we would minimise wheel spinning where possible, by ascending in low range with diff lock engaged.

Rhodes Village

We arrived in Rhodes Village around 17:00 after driving one of the worst roads of the entire tour. Rain had caused potholes and wash-aways, leaving the surface in an awful state. Even with 4WD engaged and deflated tyres, it was a nightmare for the convoy – especially the last 8km west of Rhodes. We had booked accommodation at the Rhodes Hotel and our group was welcomed with warm hospitality. The hotel dates back to 1883 and much of it is still original. It’s a lot like being inside a museum with endless items of historic interest on display, from paintings to old photographs, furniture and much more. The floors creak and the ceilings are lower than normal, while the pub is totally from another era. Light floods in through the windows to reveal the fascinating items adorning the walls and a big fireplace creates a cosy vibe for those ice-cold winter nights or wet-weather days.

*The end is in sight! Next month we share the final tales from this epic challenge. – Ed.

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