Mike Leicester, who heads up our Jhb office spent many hours poring over maps and researching routes to ensure we had a reasonable chance of nailing down the 37 passes on our proposed schedule. Most people have no concept of just how much effort goes into planning an extended trip like this, where lighting, direction, time of day and weather all play crucial roles in the final video quality.
On Sunday 15th April we set off from Jhb in two vehicles headed for Graskop, but by the time we reached Belfast, we hit heavy fog, reducing our speed down to 60 kph. Immediately noticeable was that most drivers put their hazards on, which is of course illegal, but it's obviously the 'right thing to do' under the circumstances. The early arrival of heavy fog was a precursor to a week of difficult and tricky weather (for film crews anyway). They have an interesting system along that stretch of the N4 with a big white forward pointing chevron in each lane. The concept is that drivers should be able to see three chevrons ahead. If you can't see three, you're going too fast. There have been many horriffic accidents along that stretch of the N4 due to fog.
At Machadodorp/eNtokozweni the two teams split up headed on different routes, but dense white and grey clouds clouds were building up quickly. The Cape Town team managed to film Watervalsrivier Pass and the nearby Goudvelde Pass (a slow, gravel pass through the Mount Anderson Nature Reserve, where we met a gate guard called 'Different' and his dog named 'Snoopy'. On our way to Robbers Pass, we got pummelled by a heavy rainstorm - one of those with the wipers on double speed but still a blurry, watery view out the windscreen. So we quickly adapted to Mpumalanga style driving and zapped the hazards on.
In the process we missed the turn-off to Robbers Pass and found ourselves near Orighstad with the lady on the GPS advising that we should "turn right in 500m". Obediently (but lacking local knowledge) we followed instructions and 7 km later found ourselves at a fortress of high fences and tall gates with razor wire and cameras. It was marked as 'Silver Springs Nature Reserve'. No way through there, so it meant a U-turn and back to the tar road - still following GPS instructions, we ended up on another gravel road - this time on the long and bumpy Casper's Nek Pass. And the lady calmly kept telling me she was "recalculating". Casper's Nek was interesting after the deluge of rain and the 4x4 was working full-time coping with the slippery conditions. It was a great pity that conditions were not suitable for filming. It would have made for great video.
The rain came back with a vengeance (something a Capetonian is unaccustomed to these days) and soon our loaned Ford Ranger 4x4 was eating mud over the long route down to Pilgrims Rest and from there on to Graskop where we were to base ourselves for the next four nights in a dreamy and well designed self catering cottage set in a natural forest close to the village. It was surprisingly cold there and we quickly put the fireplace to work.
Graskop is an interesting village and has lots of tourist potential (like so many of the Mpumalanga towns). The roads are in a sorry state with potholes on every street. Large mining trucks trundle through the town and are probably the main culprits for the general state of the roads. The municipalities should consider an extra toll tax from the mining companies to help pay for the maintenance of the roads. Things have deriorated to the point where potholes on tar roads are now being filled with gravel. This is not a poor province, so it is peculiar that the roads are left to deteriorate into such a poor state. There is a particularly nasty section just after the half tunnel on Kowyn's Pass, where we came across a small truck completely on the wrong side of the road in his effort to avoid the potholes. (See photo lower down)
Pilgrim's Rest has lost its charm and is a bit overrun with vendors operating from lock-up garages and there are way too many vendors and car guards for the few cars that visit. It all felt a bit fake. But go back one street and visit the cemetry, where it's interesting and quiet and where we tracked down the Robbers Grave - apparently the most visited grave-site in South Africa.
Litter and Potholes versus waterfalls and forests
An equally big problem is that of litter. There were very few towns in the province that looked presentable. The removal of litter is a mindset that should be taught from Grade 1 at all schools. If Mpumalanga could sort out the roads and the litter there would be an upsurge in tourism. This province has such an abundance of natural attractions - from the Blyde/Molatse River canyon to ghost towns to magnificent forests and waterfalls, one gets the impression that the authorities are relying totally on nature to bring the visitors in, but they will soon need to pay attention. It's a fact that tourists avoid bad roads and dirty towns.
It poured on the Sunday night and all the way through till about mid morning on the Monday, which threw our plans out badly. We took one vehicle and filmed Veraaiersnek and Mokobulaan passes successfully - in between breaks in rain showers and dark cloud formations. It was a tough day at the office!
Bushbuckridge - Mariepskop
Tuesday looked dismal with huge clouds forming around the Graskop area, so we amended our plans for the day to get to Mariepskop where the weather might be better. Mariepskop is the second biggest altitude gaining pass in South Africa at 1100m height gain. We drove down Kowyn's Pass (which is well ahead of its time sporting a half-tunnel only recently seen on Chapman's Peak Drive).
From there we turned north towards the sprawling complex of Bushbuckridge and Acornhoek. It's very slow going through this built up area of approximately 36 km in length and about 34 km wide. New shopping malls are popping up everywhere and the towns here sport some very large and expensive homes right next to simple corrugated iron shacks. Cattle on the roadway, lots of taxis and slow moving vehicles are the order of the day. Patience is required. (And don't forget the ever present potholes!)
Finally we hit the dirt road to the Mariepskop Nature Reserve. This road is definitely only suitable for 4x4 vehicles. The climb up to Mariepskop is an amazing drive with mind boggling views and lush indigenous vegetation around every corner. About 3/4 way up the pass there is a control boom, where permits have to be obtained at R30 per person.
Soon the road becomes concrete and with that we were into the cloud base and driving in thick mist with a visibility of less than 30m. Disappointed with not being able to film the views from the summit of the Blyderivierspoort canyon, we tackled the descent and as a consolation, detoured along a side track to film the beautiful Klaserie waterfall.
No clivias on Clivia Pass but there are wild horses at Kaapschehoop
The clouds over Mariepskop mists were soon forgotten the following day when we filmed the whole of the Clivia Pass near Ngodwana in clear weather - a rare occurrence as this dangerous pass, which is almost always shrouded in dense mist or heavy rain is very tricky to film the whole way. Up over the Kaapsehoop Pass and a quick visit to the very abstract mountain-top village of Kaapschehoop with its wild horses and then down the other side to Nelspruit.
A town that did impress us was Nelspruit, where the main road that we took on our way to Barberton was clean and the many new buildings show that things are happening in this big and obviously prosperous town. Our final night was spent in Barberton, where we were treated to a spectacular display of lightning and thunder followed by torrential rain for most of the night, which was bound to clip our filming wings the next day.
The most scenic pass in South Africa?
One of the highlights of the trip was to film the Bulembu Pass, described by the travel writer T.V.Bulpin as 'the most scenic mountain pass in South Africa'. I was somewhat sceptical about that claim, but I kept an open mind. Up the Saddleback Pass we headed east from Barberton towards Piggs Peak in Swaziland and there it was in all its magnificent glory - a 26 km long pass winding it's way through dense forests with huge views down both sides..
On the Saddleback pass and the Bulembu Pass - which essentially form a stunning back to back pass of some 37 km - a tourism project has been slowly developing over the past 13 years - and here we will give Mpumalanga Tourism a huge pat on the back. Fourteen attractive rest stops have been created along the route; each featuring a geological showcase in the form of toposcopes, which help you identify the names of mountains, valleys and rock types and match them to the pictures in front of you. Not only is everything spotlessly clean (not a snippet of litter to be seen anywhere), but each of the 14 view sites have been carefully designed to maximise on the incredible scenery. It is both an educational and scenically impressive experience. One could easily spend an entire day on this pass combo.
Tucked away in the most ancient corner of our land, hard against South Africa’s border with the kingdom of Swaziland, lies a hidden and spectacularly scenic wilderness of immense geological importance. The Makhonjwa Mountains in Mpumalanga are not well known by their original name, maybe that’s because Swazi folklore has it, that pointing at them brings bad luck.
A major drive for international recognition, started 13 years ago, is finally bearing fruit. The Barberton Makhonjwa mountains of the Barberton Greenstone Belt are now on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site programme. The geotrail uses richly-illustrated panels that draw aside the curtains of arcane geological communication, and reveal the significance of the Barberton Greenstone Belt in every-day language and concepts. This geotrail is a bucketlist candidate, and something for everyone from families on leisure breaks to geology students to enjoy. The Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail takes you on a journey into the mists of an impossibly distant past –– more than 3 billion years ago.
Our views of the Bulembu Pass were limited to the odd glimpse through misty clouds and light drizzle as we zig-zagged our way to the Swaziland border post of Josephsdal. So, is Bulpin right about this being the most scenic pass in South Africa? How does one compare this one to say, the Swartberg Pass or Prince Alfred's Pass? Our point of view is that each pass has its own particular beauty, but maybe we can run a poll and see what all the pass lovers in South Africa have to say? Unfortunately conditions were totally unsuitable to filming. We shall return.
Rain, Rain and more Rain....
We then headed towards Badplaas via the gravel surfaced Diepgezet Pass and once we dropped through the cloud-base, we were able to film this very interesting pass and explore the abandoned mining village at the foot of the pass. We were barely back on the tar again, when the sky clouded over and we headed back to the Reef in heavy rain (with our hazards on!)
On final analysis we only managed to film 22 of the 37 passes on our schedule and it certainly wasn't for lack of trying. It's an expensive exercise setting up a filming expedition and things don't always pan out the way we want them to. Each trip that we undertake, we learn new tricks to become more efficient. Mike Leicester will return to Mpumalanga in the near future to wrap up all the passes we were unable to get to.
Over the next few months, the passes of Mpumalanga will start appearing on the website and for starters, this week we feature the very first pass we managed to film, which is the Watervalsrivier Pass between Lydenburg and Burgersfort. The two part video set covers the history of the area as well as tourism highlights.
The page is open to everyone until Sunday. Enjoy.
* * * * * W A T E R V A L S R I V I E R P A S S * * * * *
Thought for the day: "With a powerful desire, with a strong determination, and with a commitment to yourself, you can find ways to achieve your goals, and overcome challenges." ~ Catherine Pulsifer
Visit - www.MountainPassesSouthAfrica.co.za - For more information