Exploring the history of the Drakensberg mountain passes on horseback

Published Oct 14, 2017


Durban - Most people just cruise over the Drakensberg mountain passes on trips between Durban and Johannesburg but many are unaware of the history of these access ways.

Durban-born and bred septuagenarian, Gillis van Schalkwyk, has spent much of his life exploring them and their history, and wrapped his knowledge into a self-published book, Drakensberg Passes, that came out this year, his research funded by the N3TC toll company.

Van Reenen and Lang’s Nek are the most travelled.

Van Schalkwyk challenges some versions of history, such as that “General” Frans van Reenen after whom the pass was named – miserable fellow that he was to steal his son’s fiancée – was neither a general nor did he introduce the apartheid-era law which prohibited Indians from staying overnight in the Orange Free State.

“His great grandson Dirk van Reenen claims Frans introduced the notorious law… Further investigation showed this was incorrect. That proclamation was drawn up and 

implemented in 1888,” writes Van Schalkwyk.

“This law was infamous for Indians in general, but more problematic for the local Indians of Van Reenen, where portions of the village were in Natal and portions in the (Orange) Free State. That meant they had to close up business at 6pm, when the proclamation took effect each night, and retreat back to Natal just a few metres away.”

Then Van Schalkwyk claims that De Beer’s Pass was not named after the little Boer girl, Rachel de Beer, who became a folk heroine for sacrificing her life to save her younger brother from freezing to death in the snow, but after a local farmer with the same name who once accommodated the girl’s family when they travelled past.

Van Schalkwyk also claims there is a lack of evidence regarding the Rachel de Beer story but is convinced that a similar story took place in the United States.

“The Racheltjie de Beer story was one of the most satisfying pieces of research especially when the real heroine, Hazel Miner, was discovered,” said Van Schalkwyk.

“I remember telling the story to a group from a tour party and one of the ladies burst into tears because she had always hero worshipped Rachel for her extreme act of bravery.”

Although Van Schalkwyk followed a technical career, starting out as a turner machinist, after he completed his apprenticeship in Durban, and ending up a beer tank maintenance specialist doing work for breweries, he developed a love of history while at New Forest High School.

His grandmother added fuel to that fire.

“She told us kids how she spent her very early years in the British concentration camps while her father was out fighting against the English troops. She had many kind things to say about the Tommie soldiers who she said would often steal rations and give them to the children.”

The Anglo-Boer War contributed strongly to the history of the Drakensberg passes.

Van Schalkwyk said he was in awe of the perseverance of the Boers and the degree of tolerance shown by both sides, when not fighting against each other.

However, most satisfying was his research into the times before that war when Van Schalkwyk, who is 73, and other older folk mounted horses to follow a Voortrekker route.

“I can honestly say that horseback ride down the original De Beers Pass was probably the highlight of my research. When Martiens Jansen, who is 85, invited Cas Human (both locals) and I to join him on a horseback ride down the original pass, I was rather nervous at first. Although I had frequently ridden horses, I had not been on one for about 25 years but after a few minutes in the saddle I was OK. 

“Riding on the very same route followed by the Voortrekkers, one soon got a unique perspective of what those guys were made of. Their scouts must have been highly skilled and were responsible for finding the safest way down. They always had to ensure that the route they followed was on a flat surface because the wagons did not have springs and could not manoeuvre on a side incline without rolling over. 

“Along this original route, one could clearly see where big rocks had to be dug out to clear a route on level ground and in places where the ground had to be built up to create a level road. 

“Then there was the actual descent, and the skills and courage these trekkers had to have to get these wagons down the mountains. Unlike years later when the transport riders came into being, most of the wagons were driven and guided by the trekker families and not ‘professional drivers’.

“What also fascinated me was the fantastic views one gets from these original passes. Most of them are away from the national highways with no motor vehicles visible.”

Van Schalkwyk’s book also covers the Retief Pass, Bezuidenhout’s Pass, Tintwa Pass, Oliviershoek Pass, Botha’s Pass, Nomandien Pass and Colling’s Pass.

There is also a chapter on the birth of the N3 in Durban, during the days of transport riders.

“The main road that ran out of Durban was known as the Old Dutch Road and went through Congella, Umbilo, then passed Seaview, the estate of Robert Dunn …

“(It) then meandered its way up through the hills past Bellair, the farm of John Hillary, eventually reaching Malvern. By this time the draught animals were quite spent.”

He mentions that, at Sarnia, it was not uncommon during a rest period for an ox or a horse to be taken by a lion or a leopard at night.

After 1849 an alternative route, known as Berea Road, passing the toll gate where today’s Tollgate Bridge stands, became more popular.

Van Schalkwyk notes that, contrary to popular belief, wagons did not travel in single file.

“There were no hard roads, only tracks, and it was not uncommon to ride two or three abreast out over 100 metres or so, especially with the larger convoys.”

This changed dramatically in 1888 with the introduction of barbed wire, allowing farmers to fence off their properties.

Van Schalkwyk said the previous turn of the century (1900) saw the advent of the railways and arrival of the first motor cars in South Africa, both of which spelt the end of the slow and outdated ox wagon. 

“Three of the passes covered in my book – Oliviers Hoek, Van Reenen and Lang’s Nek – carry most of the current day heavy loads from the port of Durban to the Reef. 

“All three of these passes can be termed major routes and have recently been upgraded to deal with the ever increasing heavy transport trucking.”

Land ownership has also changed, which he said has been beneficial to Van Reenen’s Indian community.

“One just has to see the number of trucks that stop off and drivers eat and rest before continuing with their trips.”

And no darting back across the provincial border to obey the apartheid-era restrictions of the old Orange Free State.

The Independent on Saturday

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