We had spent two blistering hot days including Christmas in the majestic desolation of the Tankwa Karoo (read about that here) but the time had come to load up our Ford Ranger Wildtrak X again and head to the more temperate climate of the Cederberg Mountains.
We had set the GPS to our final destination at Balie’s Gat and turned onto the R355 again.
It’s the longest gravel road in South Africa and has a reputation for being a bit of a tyre shredder.
I’ve driven the road a couple of times on various car launches and every time we’ve had a puncture in the convoy.
Sure enough a couple of kilometres further we encountered a family that had suffered a sidewall blowout that had completely destroyed it. They were slightly shaken but father and son had already replaced it and they were good to go.
Our General Grabbers AT3 all-terrains though had no issues throughout the trip and I can highly recommend them.
We stopped at a farm stall called Da Doer on recommendation of a youngster and his sister we had met in Sutherland who told us to say that the Blom family sends regards.
We told the owners who immediately sent a message that we had popped in and in true friendly “platteland” hospitality we spent an hour or so chatting to the husband and wife team who own and run the place, after having sold up and left the comfort of Gordons Bay a couple of years ago.
Interestingly, the siblings who we met and told us about the place, work on farms in America and England earning foreign currency they send home so that their father can buy stock (sheep and goat) for the farm they have been on for generations in the Sutherland district.
It’s these kinds of conversations in remote places that you won’t get in cramped holiday resorts, and it serves as a reminder that our country still has a lot going for it with salt of the earth people making a living in the harshest surroundings despite politicians doing their best to destroy our infrastructure and reputation.
We said our goodbyes and a few kilometres later the GPS advised us to take a right. I wasn’t convinced and consulted the Slingsby map to confirm. GPS one Van de Putte nil on this occasion.
The road meandered over the Katbakkies Pass that’s in good condition through some of the most magnificent rock formations of the Cederberg that spit us out at a small town called Op die Berg.
We were a bit early for our check-in so decided to meander to Citrusdal to refuel and resupply through the Hexberg Nature Reserve on a twisty gravel road that had the remnants of what looked like a recent bad accident, a reminder to constantly be on the lookout for people who think their skills belong in the Dakar Rally.
The road to Balie’s Gat is a narrow, winding dirt road cut out of the side of the mountain where signboards ask you to stop and wait for cars coming up.
A couple of days of true relaxing without signal (there’s wifi at reception and you can send an emergency number to loved ones) in river pools and mountain walks before heading out and to Die Hel.
We had figured out mostly how the GPS worked before we left. To use gravel roads and tracks you have to dive deep into the menu and change the settings to allow it to recognise a route off the regular tar roads. A handy feature though is the ability to name your route on the myTrips setting.
I was restless to set up our drive via a couple of iconic passes so we again used the map that had coordinates to the places we wanted to go.
Here’s the thing. When you type in the first destination and you’ve confirmed it as a waypoint and you type in the next destination it keeps your first waypoint as the last and your final destination as the first.
You then have to move them up into the correct sequence using the touchscreen or as we did, plot your route back to front.
It also only allows a limited amount of waypoints before it informs you that you’ve reached the maximum allowed. A second myTrips file needs to be created to continue the route.
The route does show the Tracks4Africa logo on a few of the roads but unlike the previous Sync3 system there isn’t the option to switch exclusively to the Tracks4Africa software.
It’s not a train smash but it’s finicky and a bit frustrating.
So we headed back up the narrow pass towards the N1 - proving again that off the beaten track is a far more pleasant way to explore the country - stopped at Matjiesfontein for coffee, Laingsburg for more lamb chops over the stunning Rooinek Pass and through the majestic and beautiful Seweweekspoort Pass.
From Calitzdorp we followed the Gamka River on another winding gravel passing some stunning lodges and accommodation along the way. I had the Wildtrak X in 4H Normal mode and played around a bit with the various settings. Normal 4A which allows the car to decide where power is needed would have been fine considering the conditions and in fact so would rear wheel drive, but I’m old school when it comes to gravel.
At the turn-off to Prince Albert towards the Swartberg Pass, the GPS which had worked fine till then, inexplicably ignored our route plan and sent us on a different, much longer route.
A few kilometres further we turned back, ignoring the “make a U-turn” instructions, cancelled the route, punched in Die Hel and we were back on track.
The Swartberg Pass, opened in January 1888, is Thomas Bain’s magnum opus. It’s almost 24km long and provides some of the most spectacular scenery and road-building skills with rocks packed so securely that it boggles the mind how they don’t collapse with the weight and traffic.
Halfway up, there’s a turn-off to Gamkaskloof and a sign that informs you the road is 37km and will take you two hours to complete.
They weren’t joking, but it’s almost a right of passage for any self-respecting off-roader.
It’s a relentlessly jarring road with twists, turns, hairpins and switchbacks that constantly keeps you on your toes and the Bilstein shocks on the Wildtrak X working overtime.
In some places, mostly in tight corners, it’s too narrow for two cars to pass so you have to keep a lookout down the mountain for specs of dust to see if there is anyone else bonkers enough to drive it and wait for them to pass.
The gearbox switched between second and third gear and the speedo hardly moved above 30km/h.
I had switched to 4H Mud/Ruts Mode where the Ranger keeps its gears for longer and is ideal for the treacherous downhill stretches.
When it sets up it automatically locks the rear differential which is hardly ideal when the steering wheel is everywhere but centred, but it’s easily disabled though with a finger touch on the offroad screen.
The Wildtrak X is also fitted with Trail Turn Assist and Trail Control.
Trail Turn Assist applies the brake on the inside rear wheel reducing the turning circle while Trail Control keeps a constant slow speed under 32km/h with the vehicle managing acceleration and braking.
I tried both and found Turn Assist was sometimes a bit aggressive and needed more throttle to ease the car forward so I switched it off deciding that discretion was the better part of valour with a cliff on one side and 400 metres of steep mountain on the other.
Trial Control worked on the straight less tricky parts but I wasn’t going to see how effective it was when things became hairy. You know… old school.
I’ll try them out again at a later stage when the stakes aren’t as high.
Finally after reaching the bottom we could relax and breathe easily again and check into Oupa Piet Mostert’s restored house.
We were never in a precarious position or in any real danger but the constant pounding and vigilance does take its toll.
Die Hel has a fascinating history dating back to the 1830s with the first permanent resident Peter Swanepoel followed later by the Marais, Cordier, Joubert, Nel and Mostert families.
The road was only completed in 1962 so before then residents travelled by donkey and on foot using the Gamtoos River valley to cross the Swartberg mountains to get to Prince Albert and Calitzdorp.
No quick bread and milk runs to be sure.
Annetjie Joubert (neé Mostert) the only original remaining born and bred inhabitant and her Husband Ben (with their son and daughter) retain part of the original farm now called Mooifontein having moved back permanently in 1988.
They’ve restored the original houses for accommodation adding solar power (no Eskom, no blackouts) and provide camping areas as well.
Visit www.diehel.com for more information.
There’s one other privately owned farm and the rest belongs to Cape Nature.
Cape Nature decided a few years ago to shut their Gamtoos Valley operation so now the original old houses are left unattended and unmaintained.
There has apparently been talk of reopening but there's no urgency, or interest and the R4-million allocated seems to be needed elsewhere.
The route back provided a magnificent backdrop of the valley and the long stretches of road carved out of the mountain before we came down and completed Swartberg Pass and into Prince Albert heading back home.
When we stopped we had done 3,591.6 kilometres at an average speed of 57km/h, averaging 11.7 l/100km.
Throughout our adventure the Ranger Wildtrak X hadn’t skipped a beat and we had used it exactly for what Ford had in mind when they designed it.