The rich and sometimes violent history associated with Robbers Pass in Mpumalanga takes us back to the pioneering days of the gold prospectors – of stagecoaches, highwaymen, robberies, drunken brawls, murders and mayhem. Trygve Roberts of Mountain Passes South Africa explores.
Pilgrim’s Rest, a village inextricably linked to the pioneering days of the discovery of gold, and the aptly named Robbers Pass, are historically bound like a set of twins. This long-tarred pass offers diverse scenery through an area steeped in history and, of course, stories of robbers taking from those who found gold in the area. Today this once-flourishing town is a small village offering tourists a glimpse into a bygone era, from where tourists can visit the famous Robbers Grave near the pass at Pilgrim’s Rest.
Robbers Pass is a long pass of 20.6km, which includes a summit height of 1 789m above sea level (ASL) and a total of 68 bends, corners and curves to keep drivers alert. The usual cautionary elements apply – including heavy mountain mists, high rainfall, logging and mining trucks, potholes and impatient drivers who disobey the barrier lines.
To approach the pass from east to west, head north out of Pilgrim’s Rest for 1km and turn left onto the R533 (GPS S24.890101 E30.751649). This is the eastern starting point of Robbers Pass. If you opt to approach from west to east, take the R36 from Lydenburg (heading north-east) or Ohrigstad (heading south-west) and turn eastwards at GPS S24.881069 E30.564441 onto the tarred R533. Drive in an east-south-easterly direction for 5.5km to arrive at the western start of the pass at a small river crossing.
Before you start this scenic pass, take a tour through the quaint Pilgrim’s Rest and marvel at the lovely old stone bridge on the northern end of the village, which straddles the Blyde River. The bridge – named after Mr JS Joubert, the area’s Mine Commissioner in the 1890s – is constructed of local dolerite. Initially, the bridge was to feature three stone arches of 9m each, but it was extended by one to the current four. The foundation stone features GB Giletti as the contractor, but Celso Giri, an Italian contractor who worked for the ZAR PWD, is also mentioned. It suffered storm damage to the eastern buttress in 1909, which was later reconstructed. The bridge was proclaimed a national monument in 1968, and since 1999 it has been a provincial heritage resource in the Mpumalanga Province. Just after the bridge on the righthand side of the road is a memorial plaque honouring the Voortrekker leader, Louis Trichardt.
The pass links Pilgrim’s Rest in the east with Lydenburg/ Ohrigstad in the west, some 40km away. Near the start on the right-hand side of the road, screened by tall trees, is one of South Africa’s most beautifully golf courses – the Pilgrim’s Rest Golf Course.
The following 5km climb towards the summit via a series of sharp bends and hairpins should be tackled slowly as the road first traverses the settlements of Kranskloof and then Phelindtaba, both on the left-hand (west) side. At the 3.7km point, the road bends sharply to the right through a 110-degree bend and climbs steeply at 1:10. Keep a lookout for the turnoff to the right at the 3.9km mark to a large view site. If the weather is clear, you should pull in here to enjoy excellent views of the valley, stretching away into the north-east and a good view of the tight bends directly below, which you have just driven up. At the 4.8km mark, the road swings through a tight right-hand corner of 130 degrees as a side ravine is crossed. It then enters a wide horseshoe bend, where the Morgenzon Forestry Station can be seen on the right. From this point, the road is flanked by dense commercial plantations of mainly Mexican pines.
Take it slow and be safe
This big pass has many inherent dangers, one of them being the length of the pass, which tends to test drivers’ patience, especially when stuck behind slow-moving vehicles. This often results in drivers taking wild risks, overtaking on double barrier lines and blind corners. If you add frequent mountain mists and the large number of potholes on most of the secondary roads in Mpumalanga, you have a recipe for danger. Drive with care!
As you drive up Robbers Pass, keep an eye open for a herd of wild horses on the right-hand side of the road on the Morgenzon plantation. If you do spot them, consider yourself very fortunate, as they are seldom seen. These horses originated from breeding studs near Dullstroom, where horses were bred for the stagecoaches that serviced Pilgrim’s Rest and Natal from Pretoria. During the Anglo-Boer War, these horses were rounded up one day and used by the Boer forces, under Commandant Muller, in a night stampede on the 1st Liverpool Regiment of the British army. After the stampede, the scattered horses, over time, migrated to Kaapsehoop (a village near Nelspruit/Mbombela) and to the Morgenzon area above Pilgrim’s Rest.
You pass your first monument about 6.5km up the pass – a cairn with a plaque that explains how the pass got its name. The Prospector’s Trail, which takes anything from two to five days of hiking, starts up here. Fairly close-by is the second monument – a plaque to commemorate the opening of the tarred pass in 1938 by the local MP who later spent time in prison for fraud.
The first road to the left heads along the spine of the mountain to the Doornhoek Forestry Station, whilst the next one to the right leads to a lookout tower over the valley known as Van der Merwe’s Reef. The second turn-off to the right takes you to the Crystal Springs Mountain Lodge, a mountain retreat in individual thatched self-catering units offering beautiful views in pristine surroundings. The descent follows as the road swings away to the south-west, taking a route down the flank of the mountain, swinging in and out of several ravines. Look out for a turnoff to the left to the Misty Creek Lodge at the fifth ravine, a smaller, more intimate accommodation option. From here, the gradient eases off a bit as the direction changes to westerly and the road passes through various farms and lodges including Doornhoek and South-Fork.
From Doornhoek, there is a minor gravel road to the north of the existing road, which is just over a kilometre long. This small section is officially marked on the government map as “Rowerspas” (Robbers Pass). Through the years, the entire road from Pilgrim’s Rest to the T-junction with the R36 has adopted the title of Robbers Pass. In 1899 two masked and armed highwaymen held up a stagecoach and robbed it of £10 000 worth of gold. They were never brought to justice. The second robbery (in the same spot) happened 13 years later, in 1912. The number 13 must have been an unlucky one for the robber, Tommy Dennison, for not only was his horse recognised, but he also paid off his debts in town with the looted silver. Tommy was arrested and sentenced to jail for five years. He returned to Pilgrim’s Rest as a local celebrity and started the Highwayman’s Garage.
Be on the lookout for the “Jock of the Bushveld” sign on the pass – it testifies to the fact that transport riders like James Percy Fitzpatrick and his now-famous dog used this route. It is marked with a plaque, but you may find it difficult to locate. The pass ends at the 20.6km mark at the bridge crossing of the Ohrigstad River.
GPS START: S24.890058 E30.751648
GPS SUMMIT: S24.871448 E30.693917
GPS END: S24903354 E30.612267
AVE GRADIENT: 1:38
MAX GRADIENT: 1:10
ELEVATION START: 1 243m
ELEVATION SUMMIT: 1 789m
ELEVATION END: 1 285m
HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 546m
DIRECTION – TRAVEL: West
TIME REQUIRED: 30 minutes
SPEED LIMIT: 80-100km/h
SURFACE: Tar (R533)