I found the two spoor track about 2 km along the tar road near Trennerys. To my surprise the going was easy and I steered the little Jimny happily over the hills between the huts, dodging cow pats and dongas. I was feeling chuffed with myself and presently passed what appeared to be a retired couple in a Toyota Fortuner coming in the opposite direction. This was confirmation that I was (a) on the correct road and (b) that if they could drive it, so could I.
Filled with a top up of fresh self confidence I drove along a fenced off section with colourful huts on either side, waving at the locals as I bumped my way towards Kei Mouth. Suddenly the easy two spoor track changed into a large donga - shaped like a deep saucer. I stopped briefly to pop the Jimny into low range. This was steep (1:4) and would be close to impossible to ascend in wet weather with the dark brown clay like surface promising lots of excitement.
The Jimny sailed down there effortlessly and then the riverine bush engulfed the track. At the same time the surface changed to rocks and stones. Still confident in my driving skills I nursed the little 4x4 onwards and over some very large rocks being very careful not to hook anything on the undercarriage. The surface quickly got worse and before I could say Jack Robinson, I heard that dreaded sound of metal on rock.
I switched the engine off and the heat in the valley felt oppressive as I got out the car. Not a breath of wind. Just me and a few birds unseen in the bush reminding me of how good life actually is, but the perspiration started immediately - a combination of Wild Coast summer heat and a dollop of adrenaline. A quick look showed the left front suspension cup firmly on a large rock. First I decided to walk further down the gully to see if I was going to proceed or retreat with my tail between my legs. Quick check: Alone, no winch, no satellite phone. Not a good time to try and be a hero.
Further down the gully it immediately became clear that the Jimny would not make it down there without sustaining some damage. The track at that point was barely wide enough for a quad bike and based on the tracks left behind, it looked like only lightweight scramble type motorcycles had been through the route in recent times.
I also then realised that the couple in the Fortuner would never have made it and must have turned back at the top of the donga where the terrain was more level. I also wondered why they had not waved me down and told me turn around? Ah well, I was now in something of a pickle and needed to figure a way to recover myself.
With the decision made to retreat, the first job was to get the Jimny off the rock. I found a large flat stone about 60mm high and placed it directly in front of the LF wheel. I then carefully drove up onto that stone, which successfully got me back onto all four wheels. Reversing back up the rocks would have been bad news without someone guiding me, so I had to turn the car around where it was. The space was extremely confined, so would require a multiple point turn.
The track was hemmed in on either side by dense bush and I knew that the one thing in my favour was the short length of the Jimny. No normal 4x4 would have executed those turns in that confined space. It meant calculating the path that the left wheels would follow on full lock and selecting lots of correctly sized flat stones to build a short road in an arc. That took lots of time and careful measurements.
Once the first reverse had been successfully completed, I already had all the correct sized stones and was able to repeat the exercise four times, until I finally had the Jimny facing back up the hill, without once bottoming out. By that stage I was sopping wet with perspiration, and filthy hands full of mud and grit meant I needed to get some water for a wash, but the most important thing was to first get back up that steep slope.
The Jimny did not disappoint. Second gear low range and she just quietly and efficiently hauled us up to the top without as much as a sign of wheel spinning. By the time I got back to my starting point, I had wasted two hours of my day and it meant my recce trip needed some hasty amendments.
I reached the car ferry at Kei Mouth about 3/4 of an hour later. The ferry was prompt and in short order I was reversing off on the far side and on my way to Morgan's Bay to refuel. My work was done and armed with a lot of new knowledge the Wild Coast Tour will now be crafted to include most of the places I was able to get to.
So why go to so much trouble? Well, when we run tours, we don't want to be stuck in a steep gully with 10 vehicles behind us. We dont want to end up at dodgy hotels or lodges, we want out guests to be safe and we never want to get lost on tour. And besides all of the above, it's a huge amount of fun mixed with some adventure and it also provides the opportunity to do filming work (which is almost impossible to do whilst we're on tour).
Every new tour that we conceive is always driven in recce format well ahead of the tour date. It's one of the things that sets us apart from other tour companies.
Kouga-Baviaans Explorer Tour - Chapter 3
After a hearty brunch at the Baviaans Lodge it was time to tackle the Baviaans-Kouga 4x4 Route which starts close to the lodge. The climb up to the first plateau is a long one, but the gradients are not bad at all - ranging between 1:6 and 1:12. It is rather the condition of the track that forces a lower speed. The weather was fabulous, if not a little on the warm side, as our convoy laboured slowly up the fynbos clad hills.
With each turn a new vista unfolded and soon the proteas starting putting in an appearance. Here and there the odd cycad could be seen against the skyline. All was going along wonderfully when the radio crackled into life. It was Stephen in the new 200 series Land Cruiser who informed us that he had a gearbox temperature warning light come on. Within as many seconds, Trevor (in the other 200 Cruiser) reported the same thing. We immediatey stopped the convoy to allow things to cool down.
Alan Saunders - (a calm, practical man) asked whether both vehicles had done the ascent in high or low range. Both reported doing the ascent in high range. Alan's suggestion was to change to low range in order to have higher engine revs and therefore cooling power. This turned out to be the correct fix and after that neither vehicle had a problem again. The moral of the story is to change down to low range sooner rather than later.
Up at the first summit, we stopped for a 10 minute break to relate the story of how Katot Meyer (a local farmer) lost his Series 1 Land Rover down the gorge by the simple act of not engaging his handbrake. This story is fully covered on the MPSA website.
The route has recently undergone some maintenance and the going was generally very easy, rarely exceeding a Grade 1 level. The mountains were working their magic as the radio banter became more relaxed and the tour guests were having a great time. Then there were gates to open and close. This was handled by the lead and sweep vehicles (driven by Philip Wantling) both without passengers, which meant extra time was required at each gate. I lost count but there must have been at least 15.
A couple of weeks earlier Philip had done a recce drive of the route on his own and had left a geocache for me - a bottle of Corona beer hidden under some rocks. It just coincidentally happens to be his favourite beer. He had sent the GPS coordinates to me as a light hearted bit of fun. And there it still was, but unfortunately a little warm to drink. The irony of this little exercise was that this was the day that the Corona virus shock news hit South Africa, but those of us on the tour had no clue what was happening in the rest of world, having been isolated from the internet and network connections.
The last few steep and tight switchbacks require some proper concentration as we entered the Doringkloof farm border, where the gates started in earnest. It was also on this descent that Philip discovered his brakes had failed. Fortunately he is an experienced driver and switched to low range to use engine compression to keep his speed low, plus the handbrake was still working. At that stage his nickname was switching between 'Snorkel" and "Brake Pad"
Once at Doringkloof we paid for our permits and proceeded on to the Zandvlakte guest farm for our overnight accommodation. Piet and Magriet Kruger are wonderful hosts and once everyone was settled in to their rooms it was a festive group enjoying happy hour on the manicured lawns next to the fountain. The food was sublime - as it always is at Zandvlakte and a weary but contented group hit the sack under a sky obliterated by low clouds, with a promise of rain the next day.
(Next week - Join us for Day 3 through the Eastern Baviaanskloof.)
Pass of the Week
This week we have a brand new pass for you to cyber drive. IT's tricky to find as it's in a remote part of the Wild Coast off the main road between Butterworth and Mazeppa Bay. Make a note of this one and add it to your bucket list. It is GOOD!
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Words of wisdom: "Charity begins at home"