Eastern Cape Highlands: Is this South Africa’s toughest route?

Posted by Tyson Jopson on 13 July 2018

Conquer 10 of South Africa’s highest passes in one go and you’ll join a handful of road trippers to ever have done so. It’s challenging, rewarding – and unbelievable fun, writes Tyson Jopson.

Sheldon Davy and Howie Stafford ride abreast. Image by Tyson Jopson.

It all started with a poster: Summit 10 of SA’s highest passes and join an elite list of road trippers, it promised. I love a good list almost as much as I love mountain passes. My interest was piqued. ‘What’s this about then?’ I asked Lee Cronje, the barman at Tiffindell Ski Resort.

‘Is what it says,’ said Lee. You can always count on a barman to keep things short. He handed me a map. On it 10 magnificent squiggles wound up, along and down the Eastern Cape Highlands. I had to ride them… Six months later I’m back. I’ve coaxed Gilbert, my single-cylinder KLR650, up to Lady Grey from Cape Town. I’ve also convinced Andy Biram, founder of The Adventure Academy, to let me join his band of nine riders heading to the highlands from Joburg to conquer those very same squiggles. We all arrive at Mountain View Hotel in Lady Grey in dribs and drabs on a dreary Wednesday afternoon.

‘No okes, I’m serious. My tyre doesn’t feel lekker.’ Veteran bike journalist Howie Stafford is lamenting the state of his rear at the hotel bar. The rest – a motley crew of middle-aged thrill seekers – tell him to relax and drink his wine. He does, grumbling, while Andy tells us what to expect over the next three days. Gravel and good times, in a nutshell. Oh, and some of the toughest driving terrain in the country. ’How tough exactly?’ asks Romeo Giannone. He’s relatively new to adventure biking and his XT1200 isn’t exactly on the light side.

‘Bastervoet’s the big one,’ says Andy. ‘It’s a 4×4 track that’s hella tricky in the dry. If it’s wet, we might not get over it at all.’ Howie slinks even further into his bottle of Cab Sauv, cursing the gods of rubber.

The Ben Masters. Image by Tyson Jopson

The next morning the sky is bright and blue and a gentle breeze pokes its tongue through the windows of the old hotel, tickling the lace curtains until they wriggle with embarrassment. Our first pass, Joubert’s, starts at the town limits and off we go, leaving rooster trails as we gain altitude. At the top, we regroup, take photos (something we’ll do at each summit) and then descend. We’re briefly back on tar before sniffing out a gravel route that takes us to Otto du Plessis Pass and up to a memorial marking its opening in 1959. At the bottom, submarine-grey clouds chase us all the way to Elliot. There, we refuel and then sail up Barkly Pass, arriving at Mountain Shadows Hotel, our overnight stop, just as the heavens open.

That night at the bar, under the gaze of a bewildered giraffe taxidermy emerging from one of the walls, we discuss plans.

‘That was the easy day,’ says Andy. ‘If it carries on raining, we may need to rethink tomorrow.’ The words barely leave his mouth when suddenly there is a damp man standing beneath the giraffe. ‘Oh, this is Kevin [Payne]. He’s joining us for the rest of the ride,’ says Andy. Our posse of 10 becomes 11 and damp Kevin immediately has everyone in stitches with the story of how he left Joburg that morning; like a scalded cat, at half-past-clock, with just his bike and big-screen TV – the spoils of an ill-considered ultimatum issued by his girlfriend. As the beers flow, so do the stories. Everyone’s got one and soon we feel familiar as old friends. Howie’s at the bottom of a bottle of wine bewailing his tyre, Philip has me hooked with the tale of the time he rode a Harley across America, and the rigours of tomorrow are all but forgotten. And, for some reason, nobody asks Kevin what he did with his TV.

Image by Tyson Jopson

The following morning songololos and snails creep up the soaked mountainsides but the sky is clear and so we all head for Bastervoetpad. Except for Romeo. He’s not keen for a morning of mudslinging and takes a detour to our next overnight stop. And what a morning of mudslinging it is. We slip over smooth rocks and slide into mudbaths like drunk elephants, everyone just managing to keep their machines rubber-side down. Except for William Slement. He’s landed his GS1200 in a rut. And himself on his butt. He’s up in no time and I’m laughing inside my helmet – it could just as easily have been me, but my god if this isn’t the most fun I’ve had on a soggy day since I was six years old, building mud forts for my green army men. We reach the top of Bastervoetpad, muddy and delighted, then fly down the logging roads to Ugie between pine trees so high we can’t see the sky.

One would not expect the world’s tastiest toasted chicken mayo to come from a small town in the Eastern Cape. But at the Cock and the Cat in Ugie, Sheldon, Howie and I tuck into a trio of buttery toasteds that taste like a warrior’s reward.

From Ugie we skip across tar to Maclear and then negotiate the nasty calcrete mess that takes us over Potrivier Pass and then up the magnificent Naude’s Nek Pass to Tenahead Mountain Lodge. Up here it’s lush and green and the berg flora is putting on a show – red-hot pokers lift their necks above the wild grasses and everlastings dance in the alpine breeze. We stop for a quick cup of coffee and don our rain gear – it’s a wet dash along the Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse, which tracks the high-altitude fence line between South Africa and Lesotho all the way to Tiffindell Ski Resort. There we learn that Romeo had some navigation issues (rubbish at reading Google Maps, basically) and ended up riding the last two tricky passes anyway. It’s cause for celebration. And so that is exactly what we do.

Philip Marsh tackles Naude’s Nek; Ray and Kevin can’t fix a puncture. Images by Tyson Jopson

The next morning great yolks of gold seep through a plate of egg-white clouds dangling above the resort. Real food is not far behind, bacon, two types of sausages, hash browns. It’s an almighty feast, and we’re going to need it. Above us a formidable 4×4 track zigzags alongside the ski slope and then climbs to the highest motorable summit in South Africa – Ben MacDhui. At 3001 metres, it’s higher than Sani Pass.

For some, the idea of hauling a big adventure bike to the top after breakfast is too much, so they ride the traverses and walk the rest of the way. The rest of us have more pride than brains and nobble our steeds to the summit, with varying states of grace. Most graceful of all is Philip, who executes a spectacular dismount on the last climb and barrel rolls back down. He’s fine. So is his 690 Enduro. We right him and send him up again. Success!

Two days in Tiffindel Ray leads Andy up Ben MacDhui Pass. Image by Tyson Jospon

With a fresh sense of achievement strapped to our bike racks, we all descend Carlisleshoekspruit Pass to Rhodes and then follow the Bell River along the valley before heading back into the mountains. We stop for lunch and a luggage drop at Reedsdell Country Guest Farm in Wartrail before taking on the final two passes. Volunteershoek first, a crafty little climb that catches some off guard. Not Chris Isted, owner of Reedsdell, who’s hauled out his 990 Adventure to join the last blast. He sails up the pass and I give chase and together we race, Dakar-style, to the top. It’s wild fun. At the summit we turn around and head back through Wartrail and up the final pass, Lundin’s Nek, just in time to see the sun disappear into Lesotho.

We spend our last night around a braai at Reedsdell, tired and happy. It’s been an unbelievable three days. These passes demand guts and grit. But for those who dare, what they give back is a road trip that will live longer in memory than any other. Oh, and as it turns out, Howie’s tyre was just fine. But we all knew that anyway.

 

Goats wonder what sort of goats we’re riding; Ray O’Neill summits Ben MacDhui (higher than Sani Pass). Images by Tyson Jopson.

 

Day by day

This is a 4×4 or adventure-bike route only. Passes range from tar to easy gravel to super-tricky Jeep track. Off road experience (for both 4x4ers and bike riders) is essential. Consider alternative routes if there is rain – some of the passes (such as Baservoetpad) can become totally impassable.

 

Day 1: Mountain View Country Inn to Mountain Shadows Hotel

DISTANCE 192km ALLOW 5 hours

From Mountain View Country Inn (1), follow Walton Street out of town and take the gravel road up Joubert’s Pass. The dam (2) is at the end of a small single-track just before the pass starts in earnest. After the pass, follow the gravel all the way to the tar R58 and turn left to Barkly East. Cross the Kraai River bridge and then take the gravel R396 towards Dordrecht. After 17km, turn left and keep right to reach Otto du Plessis Pass. At the bottom, cross the Kwavoyizana River bridge and take a sharp left to stay on gravel to Elliot. From Elliot take the R58 up Barkly Pass to Mountain Shadows Hotel (3).

 

Day 2: Mountain Shadows Hotelto Tiffindell Ski Resort

DISTANCE 177km ALLOW 8 hours

Hop straight over the R58 and onto the gravel R393. After about 8km, turn right and follow the road to Bastervoetpad Pass. After the pass, continue all the way along the gravel logging roads to the tar R56, where you need to take a left to Ugie. Stop at the Cock and the Cat (4) for a bite and then continue on the R56 to Maclear. Take the R396 out of Maclear (the start of this road is calcrete and in poor condition) and then keep left at Elandshoogte to the start of Naude’s Nek Pass. At the top, it’s a short stretch to Tenahead Mountain Lodge for tea or coff ee (5). The last stretch is the Tiffi ndell-Tenahead Traverse (TTT), which takes you directly along the Lesotho border from Tenahead to Tiff endell Ski Resort (6).

 

Day 3: Tiffindell Ski Resort to Reedsdell Guest Farm

DISTANCE 125km ALLOW 7 hours

After tackling the out-and-back Ben MacDhui, take Carlisleshoekspruit Pass down to the gravel R396 and then turn right to Rhodes and have a quick pit stop at the park (7) alongside the Bell River. Continue on the R396 towards Barkly East but then take the R393 to Wartrail and onto Reedsdell Guest Farm (8) just after crossing the Bell River. The last two passes of the trip (Volunteershoek Pass and Lundin’s Nek Pass) are there-and-back rides from Reedsdell. For Volunteershoek take the R393 back the way you came and then turn left just after the Wartrail Country Club and follow the Funny Stone Stream to the bottom of the pass. For Lundin’s Nek, take the R393 north from Reedsdell

 

Directory

Mountain View Country Inn. Image by Tyson Jopson

1. Mountain View Country Inn, Lady Grey. Expect warm hospitality, classic decor and good food. From R510 per person sharing B&B. 0829621999

2. Lady Grey Dam. Take a small detour at the start of Joubert’s Pass to see the 25-metre-high dam wall. You can even take the stairs to the top if you’re that way inclined. Entrance is free.

3. Mountain Shadows Hotel, Elliot. Set at the top of Barkly Pass, the views from this hotel are spectacular. If you can look past the weird taxidermy, you’ll find an old-world stay with lots of character, a stately bar and comfortable beds. From R730 per person. 0459312233

4. The Cock and the Cat, Ugie. This fine surprise is tucked away in a modest house on the town’s main road. Don’t expect snappy service, but the toasted sandwiches (from R23) are worth the wait. 0824461980

5. Tenahead Mountain Lodge. This splendid stone lodge does an à la carte menu from 12pm to 2.30pm (burgers from R85). If you’re not in time for that, grab a coffee and a rusk (R20). 0459718901

6. Tiffindell Ski Resort. There’s much more to this spot than snow and skiing. Summer activities include grass skiing, mountain biking and wildflower tours (go early February for the best blooms). Rooms are cosy with great views. Accommodation may be scarce during ski season (1 June to 31 August). Chalets from R395 per person sharing. 0117812620

7. Rhodes River Park. This is a delightful spot to stop and relax. Sit on the deck or throw a frisbee. There’s a market here in December. Entrance free. 0459719003

8. Reedsdell Country Guest Farm, Wartrail. With great hospitality, good country fare (Kath Isted’s lasagne is a knockout) and genuine friendliness, this gorgeous farmstay was easily the best overnight stop on the trip. From R470 per person sharing B&B. 0459749900

Tiffendell Ski Resort; Mountain Shadows Hotel. Image by Tyson Jopson

 

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Getaway magazine.

Get this issue →

Our April issue features 13 campsites in Kruger National Park, a visit to Vietnam’s capital, Welcome Lishivha returns to Knysna one year after the fires and Melanie Van Zyl finds the best of both worlds in Mauritius, plus lots more.

 

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