Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Steeped in history – Van Reenen’s Pass

While it holds the dubious record as one of the most dangerous passes in South Africa, Van Reenen’s Pass does provide some beautiful scenery as it descends towards Ladysmith in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands from the Free State. TRYGVE ROBERTS of Mountain Passes South Africa shares some of its hidden gems.

*Route description by MIKE LEICESTER and historic information courtesy of the Green Lantern Inn.

Named after the little town of Van Reenen – which seems to stand guard at the top of this majestic pass as it winds its way through the Drakensberg Mountains

between Ladysmith and Harrismith along the N3 between Durban and Johannesburg – Van Reenen’s Pass lies almost equidistant between Johannesburg and Durban.

To approach from the east, travel along the N3 from Durban towards Johannesburg for approximately 250km. The pass officially starts soon after you have driven through the Tugela Toll Plaza. To approach from the west, travel from Johannesburg

on the N3 for approximately 290km, through Harrismith and eastwards towards Van Reenen. The pass begins just as you enter this small village.

Regardless of weather conditions, this is a perilous pass, and a speed limit of 80km/h applies to the majority of the route for good reason. For most of the pass, the left lane carries a speed limit of 60km/h, while the right lane is 80km/h. Unfortunately,

very few vehicles comply – hence that ‘record’ as the most dangerous pass in South Africa, despite several permanent speed cameras located at regular intervals along the road.

It is often closed in severe weather and when dangerous conditions prevail, such as when heavy snowfalls occur or when there is a major accident on the pass. Traffic volumes are extremely high at all times, with most of the problems being caused by slow-moving heavy-duty vehicles in both the up and down directions. While this can sometimes lead to frustrating delays (especially en route to your beach holiday in KwaZulu-Natal), always exercise extreme caution and stick to the speed limits.

When driving the pass from west to east in descending mode, it begins with a gradual descent through the town of Van Reenen, just as you cross the provincial border from the Free State into KwaZulu-Natal. The road follows a shallow S-bend through the village, then begins a long sweeping right-hand bend through 90 degrees, taking you into a south-westerly heading. This is followed by another S-bend, first turning left and then right, as the descent gradient increases quite sharply and the road passes through an area lined by tall trees.

Baboons are common here and often cross the road – so be on the lookout for them. The road straightens up for a few hundred metres, then makes a long, gradual left-hand turn through 90 degrees, back towards the east. This section of the road is

very exposed and is often quite windy – something to be wary of, especially if driving a higher vehicle. The descent begins in earnest as the road winds through a series of gentle bends. The views on both sides of the road are pretty spectacular, and if you look carefully, you can see the railway line in the distance on the left-hand side following a gentler contour down the mountain over a few carefully constructed bridges.

As you approach the midway point of the pass, a motel with some unusual-looking A-frame chalets appears on your righthand side, and there is a run-off area to your left. The road flattens out for a while through this section, then sweeps to the

right and the descent begins again. The road now curves through a very long turn to the left into a north-easterly heading, passing through an area with a grove of beautiful umbrella thorn trees. A long bend to the right, a short flat section, and a shallow S-bend follow this.

Another 90-degree turn to the left is encountered as the road enters the last section of the pass, and then it straightens up for about a kilometre, still descending quite sharply. The final corner is a long gradual curve to the right, and the pass bottoms out and reaches its endpoint at the Sand River Valley intersection and several padstalletjies on the right-hand side. If you intend to stop here, ensure there is no fast-moving traffic behind you before you turn.

There are alternative and very scenic routes that you can take to avoid Van Reenen’s Pass, although some involve gravel driving. De Beer’s Pass lies to the north, and the Tintwa/Middledale and the Oliviershoek Passes (all tarred), are located on the southern side. If you have the time, it is worth exploring these roads less travelled. If you are feeling adventurous and have a capable off-road vehicle, you could even tackle the Sandspruit Pass or Bezuidenhout’s Pass, which are historic Voortrekker-era passes in this area. However, we strongly suggest you do this only if travelling in a group.

More than just a pass

Van Reenen is one of those unknown tourist gems that you seldom discover, and when you do, you are always surprised, and it will most certainly be one of the highlights of your trip. The village offers gracious splendour to rural simplicity with

many varied and interesting historical places. One of the must-visit spots is the Llandaff Oratory, a quaint little chapel which is reputed to be the smallest Roman Catholic church ever built anywhere in the world.

Previously called the World’s Smallest Church, this Oratory is a memorial to the bravery of 28-year-old Llandaff Mathew, who was killed in a rock fall at a coal mine near Dundee. He died a hero, saving eight other trapped miners, the same number of seats available in the Oratory. The Oratory is a fully consecrated Catholic Church and is the only privately-owned one in the world. It was built by his father, Maynard Mathew in honour of the brave young man’s life and heroic death. In 1960, Charles West-Thomas bought it and declared it a national monument. In 1974 he gave it to his wife, Mims, as a wedding present.

Van Reenen and the pass have always been associated with transport. Originally it was a migratory route for hordes of animals migrating from the Orange Free State to KwaZulu-Natal in winter and back in summer. Frans Van Reenen, after whom the pass is named, farmed at its base and trekked his oxen inland using the  paths worn by the migrating animals. In the mid-1800s, he assisted transport riders by laying out a route for wagons carrying supplies to gold mines. The area traversed by Van Reenen’s Pass was originally known as Underberg, and there was a settlement 9km south of the present village around Wyford, where the border post between the Orange Free State and KwaZulu-Natal was.

In 1891, the railway line was opened, and the present village of Van Reenen came into being as all the services were taken to the top of the pass. The railway line was a massive engineering feat to negotiate the steep incline and involved a series of tunnels and reversing stations. The latter were later replaced by more tunnels,

completing the route as we know it today. A green lantern was hung at the top of the pass to indicate that travellers had reached the summit as it was often very foggy. In fact, no movement was allowed between 18:00 and 06:00!

Van Reenen Hotel was built in 1892 and was renamed The Green Lantern Inn in 1948. At the time of the Siege of Ladysmith in 1899, the hotel was commandeered by the British as their headquarters for the troops stationed on Gun Hill, giving them a commanding view of the Orange Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. They also built a

blockhouse, which has since been demolished. During the Second World War, Van Reenen was a great tourist destination with four hotels in the area.

Another historic highlight is the Kaalvoet Vrou (Barefoot Lady) monument, which tells the beautiful story of the role women played during the Great Trek. This is a full-sized metal statue of a barefoot Voortrekker woman at the top of Voortrekker Pass, looking out over the KwaZulu-Natal escarpment in search of a route down. After the

Voortrekkers entered Natal which – in those days – was a British colony, there were a number of trekkers who wanted to return to the Free State. Susanna Smit, sister of

Gert Maritz, one of the Voortrekker leaders, declared that she would rather trek barefoot back over the Berg than live in Natal under British rule.

Retief’s Klip is where the Piet Retief party of Voortrekkers descended the Drakensberg and entered Natal on 14 December 1837. They had decided not to proceed with the rest of the Voortrekkers to what was to become the

Transvaal Republic. Retief’s group consisted of some 66 wagons, which were the first wheeled vehicles to enter Natal. It is also interesting that snow fell on Christmas day that year – the only white Christmas ever recorded in the Drakensberg. Both these monuments are accessed off the R74 near Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State (around 5km apart) and are well worth a visit.

FACT FILE

GPS START: S28.371667 E29.372729

GPS SUMMIT: S28.371667 E29.372729

GPS END: S28.438925 E29.489935

AVE GRADIENT: 1:29

MAX GRADIENT: 1:11

ELEVATION START: 1 703m

ELEVATION SUMMIT: 1 703m

ELEVATION END: 1 106m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 597m

DISTANCE: 17.2km

DIRECTION – TRAVEL: East

TIME REQUIRED: 12 minutes

SPEED LIMIT: 60 – 80km/h

SURFACE: Tar

NEAREST TOWN: Van Reenen (1km)

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