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Do you have what it takes?

All photos © Malcolm Taylor & Derek Nel

Our market is primarily those adventurous souls who get out and explore. When contemplating what the subject for this week’s newsletter should be, I got a call from Cal, telling me about just such a group….

What do you do when you have four friends, two off-road vehicles, and a long weekend? Well, you could “nip” down to the Eastern Cape and do part of an unofficial “Ben 10 Eco Challenge”!

Trygve Roberts (founder of ‘Mountain Passes South Africa’) conceived this challenge, and the concept was to create an event that would be in play for the long term, to attract tourists and boost the economy of the Rhodes/Wartrail area, and it was thus termed a “Challenge” – the goal being to reach the summit of ten passes in seven days. (That said, please note that the “Ben MacDhui Pass” has been temporarily closed to the public.)

It is an open invitation for those who love off-roading to enjoy the stunning mountainous scenery whilst driving these passes (winter, spring, summer or fall). In this way you are supporting eco-tourism and consequently uplifting the local population in a rather remote area of our country. You are also allowed to cycle, run or walk to the top of each pass to participate in the challenge!

Is there anything better than the open road?

To enter the Ben 10 Eco Challenge, you first need to subscribe to the Mountain Passes South Africa website. Once there, fill in the entry form. Then you take a selfie with your vehicle at the summit of each pass (to prove you were there) and submit all ten images via e-mail. Each pass must be completed in its entirety i.e. driven the full length, including the ascent and descent. (You can read about it, or enter, at: ).

This is not as simple as it sounds. In January 2017, Rudi Pieters from Gauteng was the first to complete the challenge on his BMW R1200 GSA motorcycle. Much like the four-minute mile, the challenge was laid down and others followed. There have been more than 300 entrants to date, but only about 65% have completed the challenge…

At Cross Country Insurance Consultants, we live the lifestyle. Our brokers live the lifestyle. Our clients live the lifestyle. And so it came to be that one of our brokers, Malcolm Taylor, and one of our clients, Derek Nel, said “Why not??”.

On the Wednesday evening just before Heritage Day, they hopped in Derek’s Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and headed out. The first night was spent in Bloemfontein, and on Thursday morning they ended up in Zastron at Nell’s Restaurant. Whilst the restaurant usually only opens at 11am, they made a special point of opening up for them at 09h30, providing superb coffee and a delicious breakfast, which they apparently also only serve on Saturdays! In their words they were “treated like kings”, and highly recommend stopping there if you’re ever in the area. There were lots of goodies on sale, and they stocked up on a particularly good spicy chutney!

This is what “long weekend fun” looks like! Can the smiles get any bigger?

Their mates were driving a Toyota Prado, so both vehicles were up for the challenge of these passes, having good clearance and low range. The first pass was the LUNDIN’S/LUNDEAN’S NEK PASS. 14.5 km. 2170 m.

They walked across the river ‘into Lesotho’…because they could!

This is an interesting pass, as it doesn’t really lead anywhere other than the Tele River border post into Lesotho. It is very steep, and (according to Mountain Passes South Africa) is “peppered with 101 bends, corners and curves including four hairpins, several unbridged stream crossings and very steep, unguarded drop-offs. It's also long at 14,5 km and concentration levels need to be maintained throughout.” This is one of the legendary gravel passes of the Eastern Cape, technically much bigger than many others. It is not driven by many people and is very underrated. Whilst you will get away a high 4x2 in good weather, ultimately you’re better off with a proper 4x4 on this pass, particularly as weather can change so quickly! A sedan vehicle is definitely not a good idea…

The scenery is simply breath-taking. It’s hard not to linger longer.

After a great day of off-roading, they chose to spend the night camping at Balloch. This little farm is tucked away deep in the Witteberg mountains and has been in the Frost family for four generations. Bonsmara cattle are farmed for beef, and Dohne merino sheep for mutton and wool. It has towering crags and abundant sandstone formations, and when the sun went down, the cold crept in. The weather was freezing! Malcolm was in a ground tent, with the air continually escaping from his mattress. It was NOT a restful night of sleep! Derek, however, was snug as a bug in his rooftop tent. Ah well, they say that if nothing goes wrong a trip is not worthy of campfire conversation…

Boys and their toys.

After breakfast, they were up for VOLUNTEERSHOEK PASS. 9.6km. 1916m ASL to 2567m. This high-altitude pass connects the Wartrail farming valley with Tiffindell Ski Resort. It is a tough trail, with a somewhat steep average climb gradient of 1:14. In the initial four kilometers, you experience gradients as steep as 1:5! This is definitely a “4x4 ONLY” route – i.e. a vehicle  with low range and ideally one with high ground clearance. This pass is sometimes (incorrectly) called the Bidstone Pass. You will know that you have reached the end of the trail when you pass a small cottage, but you still have just over 8km to drive before reaching Tiffindell.

According to Mountain Passes South Africa, you should “expect rapidly changing weather conditions including severe electrical storms, heavy rain, hail, snow and very strong katabatic and anabatic winds”. These weather conditions can make the pass treacherous, and help would only come from Tiffindell or the Valley, neither of which is a short walk, particularly in adverse conditions. Take recovery kit, warm clothing, emergency food rations and (ideally) a satellite phone!

Good vehicle ground clearance and strong tyres are a must.

They went on towards Tiffindell which was completely deserted. By this stage the wind was positively howling. As the Ben MacDhui Pass was closed, they went on to do the TIFFINDELL-TENAHEAD TRAVERSE (TTT). 27km. Four small passes.2600m.

This visually rewarding road connects Tiffindell Ski Resort to the Tenahead Lodge, and the route remains roughly the same height throughout i.e. 2600m, as you are effectively driving a contour route which follows the shapes of the hills and buttresses. Once again, in good weather you could get through in a 4 x 2 with a diff-lock, but when the weather breaks you would need a 4x4, so why take the chance? There are short sections where the route gets a little rough, but the rest is somewhere between a grade one and two. This route is also colloquially known by three other names: the Cairntoul Road (after a farm on the eastern side of the pass); Die Patrollie Pad (The Patrol Road) or Die Grenspad (the Border Road). As can be ascertained from the names, this route was primarily a patrol road to deal with stock theft into Lesotho. As you drive along, you can see a number of patrol huts (which are linked by radio). ‘Young local herdsmen’ maintain a watchful eye and report suspicious activity to the main SAPS base located at Cairntoul. So rough is this area that the police are then despatched either in 4x4s or on horseback!

On reaching Tennerhead Lodge, a very necessary hot coffee and warm environment was enjoyed before getting back in the vehicles to do the CARLISLESHOEKSPRUIT PASS. 14.4KM. Descends/ascends 739 meters. One needs experience to drive a pass of this nature. Some sections have a gradient of 1:3! This road is considered the main access road to Tiffindell Ski Resort, and as such is mostly well maintained. Where there is a particularly steep section, the road has concrete strips or is completely concreted. In good weather, it is possible to do this road in a normal sedan if you’re an experienced driver.

Eventually our adventurers rolled into Rhodes, somewhat weary after a rather full day of navigating passes. They had booked into ‘Rubicon Accommodation’, appropriately named after all the rocky trails done that day (the Rubicon trail is a legendary route in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Lake Tahoe in the USA, known as a testing ground for ‘trail rated’ Jeep vehicles). The food was simply superb, and all managed by one incredibly efficient lady. The menu had great variety; Malcolm chose a lamb burger, and Derek opted for the lamb potjie – both were delicious!

Views for days…

New Day, New Challenge. The BASTERVOET PASS. 20 km. Summit height: 2240m. Descends 830m. (Baster Voetpad, Bastervoetpad Pass and Baster Voetslaan Pass.) In Malcolm’s words, this pass was “quite hectic” and took three hours to drive, with an icy wind howling the entire time.

The real name of this pass is the “Dr. Lapa Munnik Pass” (a former minister of Public Health), but this name has seldom, if ever, been used. A truly challenging, technical pass - only a 4x4 vehicle with low range and high clearance is recommended. It joins the summit of the Barkly Pass to Ugie. You would be forgiven for thinking you were in the Scottish Highlands on this pass, particularly due to the freezing winters and somewhat mild summers of the area. The scenery is spectacular in good weather. In 1862 Adam Kok III led an armed group down what was then a footpath on what he considered a potential route for his trek. He discovered the locals to be too hostile and gave up on this route, rather finding another. Once again, Mountain Passes South Africa warns that this pass can become treacherous in bad weather, and that it is often “subject to electrical storms, violent winds, heavy rain, hail and snow”. Be well prepared, as if you get stuck/break down, it could be days before another vehicle comes along.

Top of the world and not another vehicle in sight.

After the pass they dropped down into Ugie, planning to eventually camp near a river at a spot near Aliwal North. But the weather. Oh, the weather. Winter wasn’t coming, it had arrived! With a vengeance. Conditions were positively Arctic! So they carried on driving. All. The. Way. Home… to Gauteng! Forgetting about the Covid curfew, they had to talk their way out of a roadblock at the Grasmere toll plaza somewhere around two o’clock in the morning! But what’s life without a bit of adventure, right?

Our intrepid adventurers didn’t have a whole heap of time, and so not all 10 passes were completed. But they certainly had a legendary weekend!

Making coffee and tea with rusks and staring wide eyed into the distant mountains…

When our people explore, they do so with confidence. Cross Country’s tagline “Take us with you” is never so apt as when you’re out there, participating in those adventures that make living worthwhile!! Life’s too short not to make the most of every opportunity…

#BeSafe #SAIsTravellingAgain!

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

Cross Country Insurance Consultants

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