A group of adventurers set off into the mountains and valleys for an unforgettable 4×4 weekend getaway that promises to be one for the books. ANGELIQUE and NICO DENNER share their fun-filled experience.
“If shortcuts were the best path to take, the main road would have been there.” That is what one of my late mentors taught me a while back. Although this statement was based on professional work, it rings true for just about every aspect of life.
For months, our group of friends have been planning an amazing 4×4 weekend getaway to the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve and Wolkberg Wilderness area… the ideal escape from cell phones, computers, work stress and load shedding! Being back in nature and camping next to rivers with mountains towering in the background is just what your soul needs. Add some great friends, late-night conversation around the campfire and, of course, some 4×4 driving… heaven on earth!
The first day of our adventure starts with the group meeting up on the way to the reserve, with some coming from Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Limpopo. The convoy consists of two Land Rover Defenders, one Discovery 2, a Ford Ranger and two Toyotas (a Hilux and a Fortuner). With all the vehicles packed to the brim, the convoy heads for the R27 route east from Lebokwagomo, and gets onto the gravel road that runs alongside the Olifants River. From here on, the R27 is also known as the Orrie Baragwanath Pass, and this is the route we will traverse and explore for most of the weekend. After passing through Ga Mafefe, we turn away from the pass and follow the gravel road to Modubeng. We stop on the bridge over the Olifants River for a quick bite to eat.
Now the 4×4 adventure truly begins! It’s around 13:00, and we’re looking forward to a relatively easy and comfortable 25km drive to our log cabins located next to the river in the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve. The plan is to get there nice and early, get a campfire going and having a proper kuier. We are well-prepared for the route. Our group leader, Oelof, has tackled this route a few times before, and we have all the necessary recovery equipment available – even hand saws and pruning shears, should we need to cut away a tree branch here and there.
Slow and steady, we make our way up the mountain, and the higher we go, the narrower the road becomes. Every now and then, we need to stop to cut away a branch or two. It is clear that a convoy of vehicles has not crossed this path for a long time. After about 15km on the route, we have our first setback as the water pipe of one of the Defenders comes loose. While we wait for the engine to cool down, we quench our thirst before rolling up our sleeves to fix the pipe and refill the radiator.
After this unplanned delay, the convoy has two options: take the planned longer route around the mountain or a shortcut. Since we all want to be at our overnight spot before dark, the choice is obvious… Or is it? Not long after we decide to take the shortcut, we have to haul out the chainsaw to remove some thick logs from our path. With all our vehicles filled to the brim for the weekend and with a lot of equipment on the roof racks, height is a problem. The DeWalt electric chainsaw that we borrowed from our friends at Adventure Afrika really comes in handy, and we cut through the logs with utter ease.
While admiring the scenery around us – with the Wolkberg (which is also the start of the Drakensberg in the area) towering out to the north of us – we slowly descend into the valley. The further down we go, the rockier the path becomes, so our progress is slow and steady… until we are stopped dead in our tracks as the turn we need to take leads towards some of the largest yellowwood trees in the area. Still filled with hope, we jump out of vehicles to ‘walk’ the route, but it soon becomes clear that there is no way through. Not only is the path overgrown, but after the first river crossing, the area looks like a marsh. We’ll just have to leave the yellowwood trees for another time!
We have a surge of energy when we realise that the reserve is a mere 5km away… however, the valley has different plans. Heavy rain earlier in the year turned this route into one big obstacle. There is nowhere to safely do the first water crossing, so we roll up our sleeves and build a path to get across. And the obstacles continue… we drive over rocks and boulders and must contend with many river crossings. Before long, night is falling and that saying about shortcuts crosses my mind… how far away is it now? Oelof encourages us over the radio: “Just a few more river crossings, then we will be there!”.
With no other choice, we bite the bullet and push through. We can’t turn back. We can’t overtake. But at least we’re moving – well, that is until Stephen falls victim to the rocky water crossings and gets the first flat tire. The road is so narrow, uneven and steep that getting the jack safely under the vehicle is almost impossible. With headlamps, flashlights, two jacks and a lot of teamwork, the wheel is safely changed. We trudge on with our vehicles in low range, using only first and second gear. We regularly have to help each other navigate the obstacles of the once drivable road, and do it in the dark! Bodywork is bumped, fenders are lost, and the wives pop the Rescue Remedies by the dozens!
A while later, Stephen is in trouble again as a rather large rock comes loose and crashes against his wheel. So, he is stranded with no spare wheel, and we have to get him out safely. But how? The rocks are too big to move by hand. Fortunately, Awie comes to our rescue, and we are able to use a high-lift jack to pull the rock safely up the slope so we can all drive through. As if he can read our minds, Oelof pipes up over the radio again: “Just a few more river crossings. Keep moving.”
He takes the lead, and since his headlights are malfunctioning due to numerous bumps on the obstacle-filled road, his wife, Henriëtte, climbs onto the bonnet with a searchlight to show us the way. Another deep and steep river crossing, another path-building session, another dangerous slope to the side of the road… we said we were up for an adventure! I can’t help but wonder what on earth we are going to do if a vehicle breaks down completely… After eight long hours of blood, sweat and tears, we finally arrive – somewhat broken, but never beaten – at the reserve. It is almost 22:00, and everyone is suffering from serious sense of humour failure! Aaron, who is in charge of
Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve (and has been there since 2007), visits us the next morning. He was obviously concerned because they’d been waiting for us at the main gate all night. “How did you get here?” he asks. Proudly we explain that we came from the side and through the back gate. “Impossible,” he replies. “That road hasn’t been in use for over a year!” We know, Aaron, we know! But we drove it! And we drove it in the dark!
The next day we take it easy, assess the damage to the vehicles and lick our wounds. We visit Kerkbos, the graves of Orrie Baragwanath and his family, and enjoy the scenery and picturesque views in the reserve. On Saturday, we are ready for another yet challenge, so we take on the Orrie Baragwanath Pass, which runs through the reserve and The Downs, where Orrie lived and farmed, on our way to the Wolkberg Wilderness area. Although the pass is tarred for most of the way, it is gravel on top of the mountain. Yet again, we choose a route down the valley and take on the path with our vehicles in low-range and moving slow and steady over the rocks.
The pass takes us downhill through a valley. It’s a one-way road, with slopes of probably 200m on the one side. It’s hard to believe that years ago, it was maintained as part the Transvaal Road Agency’s network of roads. We see waterfalls that we didn’t know existed, where the water cascades hundreds of metres over the rocks and down the slopes. Once we reach the bottom of the valley, it’s time for more water crossings. Fortunately, this time it is daylight, and although it is deeper than we expected – with the river still flowing strongly – we all make it through without incident.
We arrive at our bush camp – known as “Krom-ellenboog” among the local community – and we quickly realise that it was definitely worth the difficult route. It’s an oasis next to the river, with orange quartzite cliffs towering above us, illuminated by the sun setting in the west. Since we arrived early at camp today, there is enough time to make a big campfire and enjoy each other’s company until late into the evening.
Let’s do it again!
On Sunday, we decide to further explore the road heading northwest into the Wolkberg, which runs along the Mohlapitse River. Another group of campers, who also spent the night at the bush camp, leave around 08:00 as they were making their way to their next overnight stop in the Wolkberg Nature Reserve. We decide to hit the road around 10:00 and follow in their tracks. A few river crossings and obstacles later, we catch up with them after just 2km.
This time it is the other group’s turn to build a path to cross the river. The river must have come down with some force after to the recent rains. Bridges and crossing routes no longer exist, while rocks and boulders are strewn everywhere along the river. It’s obvious that the water came down through this area metres higher than today and radically changed the landscape. It leaves you in awe of the power of water during a flood.
We do one river crossing after another and every now and then we have to wait for the group ahead of us to clear the way. After a few stops and three hours of driving, we catch up with them again but decide to head back to the camp. Although we know what awaits us on the return route, the river crossings remain a different experience. We still don’t know if the other group reached their camp safely…
Back at camp, Tiaan frantically searches for the keys to his Discovery. They were in the vehicle with us today, and it seems as though they lost the keys on the side of the road when they got out during one of our many stops. Now what? There is only one option and that is to tackle the route again! The lost keys could be anywhere along the 6km we drove, and with light fading quickly, the various water crossings are tackled with more speed this time. With Lady Luck on our side for once, we find the keys at the first place we stopped (at the 2km mark), and it is with great joy and much relief that we return to camp with probably 20 river crossings under our belt for the day!
As the long weekend draws to a close, we take the Orrie Baragwanath pass back home. Tiaan and Karla, along with their seven-year-old daughter, Abigail not only survived but thoroughly enjoyed their first 4×4 adventure with us. Abigail already can’t wait to return to the bush.
Although the ‘shortcut’ is not really accessible to standard 4x4vehicles at the moment, Aaron is looking into clearing the road again. So hopefully, other adventurers can soon tackle it… and arrive at camp before dark!
Who was ORRIE BARAGWANATH?
The Baragwanath name is not an ethnic African one, as most people believe. It is actually an English name dating as far back as 1590, when it was first recorded in Cornwall, England. The name is Gaelic and means “the one who only eats wheat bread”. The surname is known all over South Africa, with perhaps the most famous being the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg.
The Orrie Baragwanath pass, however, is named after Orlando Baragwanath (aka Orrie, as his family called him). He was born on 25 March 1872 in Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape and died at the age of 101 on 13 September 1973. He was a geologist and prospector who, alongside his partner Frank Lewis, discovered and mapped the Zambian copper belt, which was then known as Northern Rhodesia. In 1903 they established The Downs, after which they built the Orrie Baragwanath pass to the west as an access and trade route. In 1911 the pass was opened to the east as far as Leydsdorp. The family farmed in The Downs until 1976, after which it was transferred to the Lebowa homeland.