Do you love driving through dramatic scenery? Does a hint of danger stimulate you? Finally, are you fascinated by the history hidden behind our country’s passes?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then you absolutely must make a date with the four western mountain passes that are easily accessible from any part of KwaZulu-Natal.
They are Sani Pass, Van Reenen’s Pass, Oliviershoek Pass, and Witsieshoek Pass.
While this region boasts many more than these four passes, they are famous and important. Two of them have the distinction of being the highest in our country, while the other two are routes used daily by countless motorists who could never dream of their colourful histories.
SANI PASS: The kingdom of Rafolatsane
Of all our South African passes, Sani is the highest, the steepest, and the most dangerous. It has a romantic history. From the top, the road, such as it is, continues to Mokhotlong and then through Lesotho. But for most motorists, it is a cul-de-sac. The only way down is to turn round and go back again. In any case you will need a passport to cross the border.
Until part of Sani Pass was tarred, it was gravel with steep sections and sharp corners. It was suitable only for 4x4 vehicles driven by people with off-road motoring experience. Now that the road has been improved and tarring has started, it is not quite so dangerous, but 4x4s may still be required by the authorities, especially in conditions of snow and ice.
One should point out that a string of normal, two-wheel drive cars have surmounted the pass, but these have been regarded as “stunts” by the authorities, and the practice not recommended.
Experts on Sani have warned that this upgrading project, difficult as it is, might bring more difficulties when complete. A tar road will allow two-wheel drive vehicles to use the pass. Drivers of these cars will drive much faster than they do now. The danger of accidents will be increased, especially in conditions of snow and ice.
But most motorists will not be worried about the controversy. Provided they have a good car with proven off-road ability, and a good driver with experience of the conditions, they will be able to concentrate on the glorious views and the history of the pass.
How did the pass get its name? Here is the theory of Michael Clark, who was involved with the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company for 22 years, and who knows more about it than most people.
In 1890, Letsie, the paramount chief of the Basotho, sent his son, a chief called Rafolatsane, to be the district chief in Mokhotlong region on the high plateau. All travellers were expected as a courtesy to pay their respects. The rough track became known as Rafolatsane’s Pass, which got shortened to Sane’s Pass, later Sani Pass.
The first man to cross the Drakensberg at the Sani Pass was James Lamont. In 1913, he pioneered the trading route using donkeys, and created his own track, which became a mud slide in summer and an ice slope in winter.
From 1930 to 1932, the region was in the grip of a serious drought. The British government, which administered the then Basutoland, began building a series of bridle paths across the country. These were a standard 2.5m wide, which allowed pack trains of mules and horses to carry goods.
In 1932, Major Harry Smith got permission to extend the bridle path for 16km down into Natal. This was to be the basis of the present-day road.
In 1946, David Alexander rode up the pass on a horse, and said on his return: “If the bridle path were fixed up a bit, I think you could get a jeep up there.”
In 1948, Brian Gray and Godfrey Edmunds drove a Willys Jeep up the pass, but some corners were so sharp the car had to be bounced round by hand.
In 1955, Alexander established the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company. He used six mules to carry goods to the top. From there he used a jeep to carry goods the 32km to Mokhotlong. It was still too difficult to run a jeep up on a regular basis. The gradient was 1:3 in places and there were 37 corners where a vehicle had to reverse to get round.
In 1957, the Basutoland government provided R40000 towards improving the pass, and the Natal Provincial Administration matched this amount. By 1974, the road had been further improved so that 8-ton trucks were able to use it.
Before you go up Sani Pass, try to get hold of two excellent books: Alexander’s Sani Pass - Riding the Dragon, and Clark’s The Saga of the Sani Pass and Mokhotlong. At the top, Sani reaches 2874m above sea level, where the chalet is known as “the highest pub in southern Africa”.
VAN REENEN’S PASS: the long climb to Windy Corner
This is a “step-type” pass, that is, it takes a step up on to a plateau. It is not very steep: its gradient is a moderate 1:16. But it’s a long pass. In years gone by it would routinely sort out the vehicles with faulty cooling systems. Even today, in very hot weather, you will see cars or trucks stopped half way up the pass with bonnets raised.
Near the top it is wise to keep a sharp lookout for a concealed turn-off to the left that leads to a famous view-site called “Windy Corner”. The altitude at the top is 1680m above sea level, and the view over the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal is breathtaking and well worth the stop. In the village of Van Reenen, there is a tiny chapel that seats only eight people at a time.
Van Reenen’s Pass was named after a farmer. Frans van Reenen lived on his farm “Sandspruit” at the foot of the pass.
He pointed out to the surveyors the possibilities of the route, which he had used often for driving his cattle to market.
The first road up the pass was completed in 1856. But it was a gravel road, dusty in the dry season and knee-deep in mud in the rainy season. By the 1930s, it was still in much the same condition (see the historic picture dated 1936).
Van Reenen’s Pass became the main route for traffic crossing the Drakensberg to the Highveld. Today, as motorists sweep up the fine, well-engineered gradients, how many realise what a formidable obstacle it was for travellers of the past?
OLIVIERSHOEK PASS: where difficulty is overcome
Oliviershoek is an important part of South Africa’s history. Long before the white man ever set foot in the area, it was known to the Zulus as Sungubula, “the place where you overcome a difficulty”.
In October 1937, Piet Retief and his Voortrekkers arrived and first looked down on Natal from the edge of the mighty Drakensberg escarpment. Today, a few kilometres from the top, you can see the conical mountain that the Trekkers called “Kerkenberg”. At its foot is still preserved the rock on which Retief’s 22-year-old daughter painted her father’s name to celebrate his 57th birthday and the good news sent from Port Natal, that the Trekkers would be welcomed by the Zulus and by the British living there.
In November 1837, the long line of wagons crawled down the steep slopes into Natal through the area where Adriaan Olivier later farmed. By the early 1870s, riders and wagons were using the track on their way to and from the diamond fields.
In January 1871, the Natal Government Gazette reported that a “Select Committee” had been appointed “to consider the possibility of a hard road being built over Oliviers Hoek Pass”. The civil engineer rather rashly said that it would cost about £1600 to build the road, and a further £3200 to bridge the three “streams” - the Sterkspruit, the Little Tugela, and the Great Tugela.
But there was a problem. Part of the route lay in the Orange Free State. President Brand had said his government would not be able to build a road through “so swampy a locality”. Natal would therefore have to pay for the lot. The select committee decided that the “large outlay” involved in building the pass and maintaining it would not be worth any advantages to Natal.
Finally, the paltry sum of £300 was voted for improving the pass. This was the story of its life. A road of sorts was built and named after the farmer whose land it crossed. It was still a bad road, and not at all suitable for the cars that started to reach the area at the turn of the century.
Twenty years later, it was still dangerous. The Transvaal Automobile Club handbook of 1922 warned motorists earnestly against using the pass to gain access to Natal. Van Reenen’s Pass, it said, was the only safe route.
For many years, Olivershoek Pass remained narrow and dangerous, even after it had been tarred, but during the 1990s it was vastly improved.
From the bottom of the pass the road rises 284m in 10km. The gradient is 1:12 and the highest point is 1740m above sea level.
Red bottlebrush, proteas, and acacias beautify the roadsides in flowering season, and glorious cosmos in autumn.
WITSIESHOEK PASS: the place of the eagle
This is the highest tarred road in South Africa, reaching no less than 2560m above sea level.
Witsieshoek Pass, completed in 1959, but improved and tarred only recently, is a also a cul-de-sac pass.
The climb to Witsieshoek starts at the turn-off to QwaQwa, which is already at an altitude of 1783m. The road winds up the northern slopes of the Drakensberg for 42km past the luxury Witsieshoek resort, until it reaches the parking place below the Sentinel - the massive basalt peak north of Mont-aux-Sources, which the Bushmen called “Qwaqwa”, or “whiter than white”.
From the parking place, there is a walk of only 200m to a stupendous knife-edged ridge, which is the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Free State, and which looks down thousands of metres to the Natal National Park.
A two-hour hike will take you to the famous or notorious chain ladder built by Walter Coventry in 1924.
If you want to visit the high plateau of Mont-aux-Sources itself, and view the mind-boggling Tugela Falls, you will need to set aside a further hour. The return journey takes about six hours.
It was 140 years ago that two French missionaries, Arbousset and Donnas, were the first to reach the summit of this airy tableland, which is 3282m above sea level.
The Sothos called it Phofung, “the place of the eagle”.
This area is said to be named after a chief of the Kglolokwa tribe whom some called Whetse and others Witsie. They decided to become cattle rustlers. Eventually, the rustlers were overcome, but Whetse escaped through a secret tunnel and fled to Lesotho.
Peaceable Kwena and Tlokwa tribes settled in the area. From 1969 to 1994, the area was self-governing as the homeland of the baSotho ba Borwa (Sotho people of the south) and named Qwaqwa.
The views from this pass are almost unrivalled in South Africa.
In his book Discovering Southern Africa, TV Bulpin describes the pass as “one of the most stunning scenic experiences in South Africa”.
Witsieshoek is, indeed, unique. No exploration of our magnificent mountain passes would be complete without it.
Sources: Michael Clark on the history of the Sani Pass. Grateful thanks also to Aldo Berruti for latest information on the tarring of the Sani.