Anything but a lazy Sunday afternoon drive, the Antoniesberg Pass in the Eastern Cape offers exquisite views and some tough terrain. Trygve Roberts of Mountain Passes South Africa explores.
This rough, steep gravel pass crosses the Grootrivier (also called Groot River) on the northern side of the Baviaanskloof Mountains via a river crossing just below a weir, without a bridge. While the pass itself is a mere 5km long, it is the access roads that make driving this pass something of an adventure.
You will not be able to drive this pass without being in a 4×4 vehicle with good ground clearance, and adventure bikers will need to be experienced to handle this road, as it is long, rough, steep and dangerous in parts, including the entire eastern section between the pass and Patensie.
Located 21km north-west of Patensie (as the crow flies), and involving about 2.5 hours of real-time driving, this remote pass will knock your socks off. Getting there is a major effort, though and you will need to dedicate the whole day (6 to 8 hours) to complete the journey from Patensie to Willowmore. The road is essentially a northern version of the Baviaanskloof traverse (known on some maps as the T1 route) and provides a scintillating alternative.
The Grootrivier has formed a canyon high up in the mountains, which continues all the way into the Baviaanskloof. This is the same river you cross at the Grootrivier Poort as you enter or exit the Baviaanskloof conservation area on the R331. It forms a confluence at the end of the poort with the Gamtoos River. Some maps show the Antoniesberg Pass as being called the Grootrivier Poort as well, causing plenty of confusion. To add fuel to the fire, a sign near the bottom of the Antoniesberg Pass proclaims it to be the Grootrivier Poort. Most local people will still refer to it as the Grootrivierpoort T3 and the more southerly one as the Grootrivierpoort T2. The locals will mostly never have heard of the Antoniesberg Pass.
When heading out, be sure to fill up at Patensie as you will not see a filling station again until you get to either Steytlerville or Willowmore. Head in a westerly direction out of Patensie on the tarred R331 towards the Baviaanskloof. The turn-off you need to take is easy to miss, so best note the GPS coordinates (S33.739303 E24.779037). Turn right and follow this gravel road up the foothills.The road climbs steadily over Stuurmanskop, then loops into a double S-bend for the climb up to Kraaibosch, Geelhoutboom and Grasnek farms. From the summit of this climb the vistas are so big, they are impossible to photograph. The quality of this gravel road is moderate. It is 15.4km from the start to the jeep track turn-off and climbs 739m in altitude with an average gradient of 1:21. This first part of the access road is a substantial mountain pass in itself, but it has no official listing on any maps.
Immediately after the summit there is a track heading off to the left (S33.647546 E24.802691). It turns through 160 degrees and heads along the summit ridge into the west. The deterioration in road quality is major as the jeep track is rocky and badly rutted in many places. We found it more manageable to drive these sections with the vehicle in low range third and fourth gear. The road follows the ridge for 15km, initially climbing to an altitude of 854m, then descending progressively to 329m at the eastern start of the Antoniesberg Pass.
Being able to drive along the summit ridge provides fabulous views on both sides of the road, alternating between meadows, mountains, rivers and gorges. The views to the right are of the Groot Winterhoek Mountains, with the jagged ridge of peaks, known as The Cockscomb (ranging between 1 640m and 1 758m) dominating the skyline. In places the road improves enough to pick up speed, but these sections are the exception. Mostly the road descends at a gentle gradient towards the start of the pass, but there are a couple of tricky sections where flood waters have eroded the track so badly that vehicles have been forced to make parallel tracks alongside. There are also one or two short sections with steep climbs and descents. The road passes a small house on the right, which appears to be a Cape Nature cottage and is probably available to rent.
This is also the point where the road enters the control area of the Baviaanskloof Wilderness. After another 3km, you will arrive at a second house, which is the Antoniesberg farmstead. Here the road turns away to the right and the major descent begins. The pass begins at the signboard with the “Steep descent ahead” message. The road hugs the side of the mountain and swings through a sharp S-bend, and suddenly a vast panorama opens up to the right. You can stop anywhere you like (as there won’t be any traffic) and get out to enjoy the views of the Grootrivier Poort some 220m below the vertical drop at your feet. From here, you can see most of the pass as it meanders down the hillside, and the steep path the road takes up the other side of the gorge.
Heading down, slowly
The descent is steep and rocky. The maximum gradient in places is 1:3 with an average descent gradient of 1:11. The road will drop 292m over the next 2.5km. The road continues heading west and only starts curling into the north near the bottom, through a number of turns and farm gates, to arrive at a fairly large and well-run farm on the banks of the Grootrivier. The road heads briefly east, then swings north and drops down to the river for the actual crossing. Just upstream is a weir and the crossing of the river is usually not much of a problem if the river levels are low.
Once through the river crossing, the road ambles along a flat section for a few hundred metres then crosses the Doring Rivier, a tributary of the Groot River. The road bears away to the right and enters a 160 degree hairpin bend, after which the road straightens out and the serious climbing begins. The gradient here varies between 1:3 to 1:6. About three quarters of the way up the ascent, you can enjoy a nice reverse view of the poort, with the farm below nestled amongst the green fields and the brown ribbon of descending road the section you have just traversed – all of this spectacular scenery locked in by the walls of the poort.
The ascent continues steeply and after a kilometre, the road edges along the right hand side of the mountain along a steep cutting. There is a spot where the road levels off and widens. The road then heads more into the west and the vegetation becomes markedly drier just as the road goes into a full horseshoe bend as it gains altitude towards the east to reveal a final glance into the poort. The final long climb in marks the end of the Antoniesberg Pass. Your drive is far from over, however, as it is another 200km to Uniondale, the majority of which is on gravel.
GPS START: S33.596574 E24.675279
GPS SUMMIT S33.579825 E24.666236
GPS END S33.579230 E24.626474
AVE GRADIENT 1:11
MAX GRADIENT 1:3
ELEVATION START 511m
ELEVATION RIVER 233m
ELEVATION END 459m
HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS 278m
DIRECTION – TRAVEL West
TIME REQUIRED 30 minutes*
SPEED LIMIT Self-limiting
*For the actual pass – getting there takes a full day!