Barkly Pass (R58)

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Barkly Pass Barkly Pass - Photo: Photo: Panoramio

This major tarred pass lies on the R58 between Elliot and Barkly East  in the high mountains of the Eastern Cape at an altitude of 2018m at the summit. The pass starts at 1473m ASL and ascends at an average gradient of 1:20 attaining an altitude gain of 545m which is moderately steep and covers a distance of 11 km. This pass is subject to winter snow closures. Look out for the country style hotel (Mountain Shadows) at the top of the pass where you can catch up with some of the local history.


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Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.

Digging into the details:

The pass was named after Sir Henry Barkly, governor of the Cape Colony from 1870 to 1877. The Barkly Pass is the only tarred pass in the so-called "Big 8 Eastern Cape passes" circuit. It is also the feeder pass to the rough and tough 4x4 only Baster Voetslaan Pass. Despite the impression that it is much safer than a gravel pass, due caution should be exercised on this pass, as there have been many fatal accidents, due to the very cold weather that can be experienced on the pass, where snow and ice on the roadway during winter is common. 

Snow capped mountains at the Barkly PassThe Barkly Pass provides some of the most stunning scenery in the Eastern Cape / Photo: PanoramioThe pass has 25 bends, curves and corners which include one hairpin and one horseshoe bend. This road has gained some notoriety for serious accidents and many lives have been lost on the pass, due mainly to human error, but ice on the road, thick mountain mists and heavy rain, together with reckless overtaking and excessive speed is a recipe for disaster.

Obey the speed limits and you will be OK. It would be best not to drive this pass in snow/ice conditions unless in a suitable 4WD vehicle with appropriate tyres. The Barkly Pass is a modern, well-cambered road with passing lanes on the steeper sections. However, there are no picnic spots provided and unfortunately there are few places where it is safe to pull over and enjoy the magnificent mountain scenery. It takes just 10 minutes to drive from the top to Elliot.

Once over the summit you will be transfixed with the some of the most amazing sandstone buttresses and rock formations. There are many fine examples of original rock art in the area, as this was one of the areas inhabited by the San-Bushmen.

Barkly East is primarily a sheep farming area producing high quality wool and excellent meat. The town has a rather peculiar claim to fame in that it is the only town in South Africa that has recorded snow in every single month of the year (although not in the same year)

Snow in the regionGood snow falls around the area of the pass / Photo: Barkly East TourismScenically the pass is sublime with the scenery changing constantly, providing a feast for travellers. Watch out for Skilpad Rock, an outcrop shaped like a tortoise, near the top of the pass. As you descend and round a bend, the aptly named Castle Rock formation fills your windscreen in a magnificent display of mountain splendor – its natural citadel of sandstone glows warmly in the evening light. In the valley below is Elliot, a small, country town serving the local farming community.

Two attempts at filming this pass ended in failure due to heavy rain and mist on the pass. This pass ranks amongst the top 5 most difficult passes to film, due to the fact that the road turns through every degree of the compass by its convoluted path up the mountain ensuring that at some point the light will be too light or dark - add frequent bad weather, rain and misty conditions and a clear run up this pass is something of a rarity.

Barkly East lies in the mountainous area just south of Lesotho. The town lies at the southern tip of the Drakensberg on the Langkloofspruit, a tributary of the Kraai River which, in turn is a tributary of the Orange River at an elevation of 1 790 metres  above sea level. Barkly East is characterized by rugged mountains and green valleys. Snow falls in winter, and the hamlet of Rhodes is 60 km or an hour's drive from Barkly East on the R396. 

Steam train at the Kraai RiverThe wonderful days of steam It has been one of the few areas in South Africa where winter sports are pursued, and in summer fly fishing for Rainbow trout and indigenous Smallmouth yellowfish, trail running, mountain biking, ancient rock-art, and the magnificent scenery attracts tourists to the district. A more recent development is the mountainous terrain of trails, attracting off-road bikers who revel in traversing the numerous passes in the area. Even more recent is the opening of the winter fly fishing season on Wild Trout Association waters around Barkly East, Lady Grey, Rhodes and Wartrail.

Xhosa and Afrikaans are spoken by most of the people, while English and Sotho are also spoken. The primary economic base of the district is sheep-farming, the pasturage being excellent.

Church on a hillA tiny church near Elliot / Photo by Willem KrugerThe town is named after Sir Henry Barkly, governor of the Cape Colony from 1870-1877. On 14 December 1874 the then-Governor, Sir Henry Barkly proclaimed that a town could split from Wodehouse. Among the first families that settled in Barkly East were the Nels, Bothas, Oliviers, Murrays, Smits, Sephtons, Giddys, Isteds, Orpens, Nortons, Greyvensteins, Stapelbergs, Vorsters and the Jouberts and Cloetes of Constantia. But it was a Mr HS Nel who was the first person that settled in this area.

The area is well known for excellent trout fishing. A variety of caves contain rock paintings by the San that date back hundreds of years, and visitors interested in San art can stay at cottages on local farms.

Once the summit is reached, the road straightens out for 1,5 kms and the entrance to the lovely Mountain Shadows Hotel makes an appearance on the left. When we filmed the pass in May, 2016, we stayed at this hotel and recommend it for it's excellent facilities, beautiful views, fresh air, warm hospitality and scrumptious country food. Open fires in the dining room and pub areas during the colder months ensure a convival atmosphere. It is the only hotel for many miles and has become well known and popular over the years.

Immediately to the right of the entrance to the hotel, a gravel road leads off to the right. This is the R393 which heads northwards towards Rhodes, Tiffindell and some of the Eastern Cape's finest high altitude gravel passes, which include the Baster Voetslaan Pass; Naudes Nek Pass, Volunteershoek (or Bidstone) Pass; Carlisleshoekspruit Pass and Lundin's Nek Pass. We recommend reading up on these passes and watching the videos before attempting to drive them, as some of them are not suitable for non 4WD vehicles.

For travellers choosing to remain on the tarred R58, the road bends gradually into the west and will take you to the small town of Barkly East, some 38 km distant.

[Historical information provided courtesy of Mr. Chris Smit / Points of interest sourced Wikipedia]

Fact File:


S31.269088 E27.825810


S31.211799 E27.841959


S31.211799 E27.841959














11 km




10 minutes


60 - 80 kph


Tar (R58)






Elliot (12 km)

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Mountain Passes South Africa

Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.

Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.

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