Gwangxu Pass

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A river mighty and strong - the Mzimvubu A river mighty and strong - the Mzimvubu - Photo: Divingwithsharks.co.za

This massive gravel pass is for the more serious pass hunter as it's well off the beaten track, is gravel surfaced and traverses some major climbs as well as crosses the mighty Mzimvubu River. It's a very long pass at 29,8 km and holds a number of challenges with some gradients reaching 1:6, which will mean traction issues in wet weather for non 4WD vehicles.

It displays a big altitude variance of 685m and the 192 bends, corners and curves will require your full attention. Add in slippery surfaces, livestock, children, poultry, slow vehicles and minibus taxis and you can expect a very eventful journey along this big traverse.

We issue our standard cautionary for all Eastern Cape rural roads, and especially those in the old Transkei area: We recommend driving this road in a small convoy of two to three vehicles in case of emergency. Be aware of personal safety at all times and make sure you leave the nearest town with full fuel tanks and that your vehicle is serviced and reliable.


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[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts/MPSA]

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Note: Google earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The vertical profile animation can generate a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide as what to expect in terms of gradients, distances and elevation. The graph may produce some improbable and impossibly sharp spikes, which should be ignored.

Digging into the details

Getting there: For those wanting to approach from the north, (as we have produced it) head west on the N2 from Mount Ayliff for 8 km and turn left (south) at GPS S30.822910 E29.254479 onto the tarred road to Tabankulu. Head south for 17 km remaining on the main road to arrive in Tabankulu (GPS S30.958174 E29.303086). This is a sizable town where most provisions and fuel are available. Continue heading south through the town and as you exit the town there is a prominent fork at S30.968406 E29.301475. Make sure you turn right here onto the smaller road. Drive through two back to back villages along a winding road that heads west amongst the hills for 3,5 km to arrive at the northern start of the Gwangxu Pass.

TabankuluTabankulu near the northern end of the pass / Photo: Panoramio

To approach from the west, head south on the N2 from Mount Frere for 6 km, and turn onto a tar road towards the south-east at GPS S30.960508 E28.959471. This road has many traffic circles, so the going is a bit slow. Remain on this road for 12 km, ignoring all side roads. You will arrive at a Y-junction at GPS S31.010200 E29.042636 At this point the tar ends and the gravel section commences. Keep right here and remain on the bigger road. This might change in the near future as this entire road is currently being upgraded and tarred.

The road meanders in the general direction of south-west-east after leaving Tabankulu through the last village with the difficult to pronounce name of Mngcipongweni. The distance from the northern end of the pass to Tabankulu is 3,3 km. Just after the town there is a fork, where you must keep right.

After this intersection, the road winds its way through a double set of S-curves and crosses through the villages of Matshona and Cola. Stay sharp here and watch out for livestock, children, pedestrians, poultry and slow moving vehicles. The next 1,3 km leg is into the south-west punctuated by several changes in direction as the ravines and gullies are negotiated. The views down the valleys to the left are breathtaking and finally a small fork is reached near the spine of a ridge. Keep right, as the left hand option is a dead end and leads to another isolated mountain top village.


[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts/MPSA]

At the 9 and 9.7 km points another two side ravines are cleared via very sharp hairpins. All the while the descent continues unabated as altitude is lost continuously. After the second ravine the direction heads back into the north-west as another nose in the mountain is skirted via a big right hand curve.

Tribal & Cultural FestivalTribal & Cultural Festival at Matshona village near the northern end of the pass / Photo: Eastern Cape Tourism

The road clings to the side of the north face of a very steep cliff with the Umzimvubu curling away to the left far below in the valley. This section of the road is not good for acrophobia sufferers due to the very steep and unguarded drop-offs, but for everyone else you will see the Umzimvubu like never before. This part of the climb ends at the 10.6 km mark right on the ridge of the mountain and is marked by a severe hairpin bend of 170 degrees. This is also the point where the road heads away from the Umzimvubu valley.

The road now skirts a big nose in the mountainside via a 100 degree right hand bend, but the radius is not tight, so it shouldn't present any problems. With the heading back into the south, yet another side ravine is crossed via a small bridge at the 11.7 km mark.

Things change again at the 12,4 km mark, where another side ravine is skirted via a 90 degree left hand corner which is sharp. This marks the beginning of the second part of the descent down the valley and this is one of the biggest descents you will find anywhere in South Africa involving a non-stop descent of 9 kms where you will lose 445 vertical metres producing an average descent gradient of 1:20

[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts/MPSA]

The road curves gently, but persistently to the right via a series of easy curves, taking the direction once more into the south west. The gradient remains quite flat for the next 2,2 km allowing a break in the intense driving concentration with spectacular views to the left all the way along this traverse, which is to all intents and purposes a contour road.

Amazing views along this mega pass / Photo: Trygve Roberts/MPSA

At the 14.4 km point, the road reaches a small side ravine and changes heading directly into the north-west. At this point, the road levels off onto another hilltop plateau and the village of Gwangxu is traversed. This village is even more attractive than the previous one and presents indescribably magnificent views to the west and the east as the mighty river carves its never ending path through these stunning mountains.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: At the time of filming in February in February, 2020 the road was barricaded with large rocks at this point. Adventure motorcycles could get through the gaps at a push, but no vehicles. Based on the vehicle tracks and general debris on the road beyond the barricade, it has been closed for a very long time. We are assuming that either the road itself on the final descent or the bridge has been damaged and been declared unsafe. If you have descended the pass from the north, as described here, you will need to do a U turn and retrace your route back to Tabankulu - at least until such time as the road/bridge has been repaired. Those approaching from the south-west will also have to turn around and retreat at the bridge.

The final descent of the valley is a major one which covers a distance of 2,8 km and you will descend 230 vertical metres. This presents as an average descent gradient of 1:12 which means your vehicle will be working hard, running against compression. The descent is peppered with sharp corners and crams two 130 degree hairpins and one extremely tight horseshoe bend within that length. If it's raining when you do this descent, drive with a great deal of care. Once your vehicle starts sliding here, there will be nothing to stop it.

Mzimvubu River viewed from the pass / Photo: Trygve Roberts/MPSA

There is one final sharp left hand bend which aligns the road to cross the river and bridge at right angles. This is also the lowest altitude on the entire pass at 533m. You can stop before or after the bridge to enjoy the spectacle of the powerful Umzimvubu up close and personal.

You now have a much easier climb up the far side of the Umzimvubu valley where the altitude gain is only 252m. Much of this section is along a north-west running ridge which allows spectacular views over several bends of the river.

Stop at the 22.9 km point, where the road gets quite close to the edge of a huge drop down to the river. Here you will get a perfect view of the river where it has formed a huge horseshoe bend. The road remains close to the cliff edge and then turns onto a large flat plateau for the next 3 km where the gradient is almost level. The village of KuNkumba straddles the little plateau and most be one of the most perfectly sited rural villages on South Africa surrounded on three sides by the Umzimvubu.

Looking south from the northern start of the pass / Photo: Trygve Roberts/MPSA

At the 25.8 km mark at the 5th side ravine, the road bends sharply to the right through a 90 degree corner, taking the heading into the north. A long flattish section of 3 km follows via series of S-curves revealing wonderful views of the Umzimvubu as it coils its way around the mountains like a giant snake. Another village makes it's appearanc on the left, which is Ngwalala.

The road passes the village of Sipetu where there is also a large hospital. On the left is the mountain known as Makelekete which rises to a peak called Talani [1094,5m]. The views down to the right show the Umzimvubu River following a twisted route into the north-east, which have dominated the vistas for the second half of this huge pass. The last section is into the south-west.

Cattle herder on horsebackCattle herder on horseback / Photo: Google Images

Shortly after this the road sweeps towards the west following the northern ridge of a small valley past the village of Sidakeni, where the tar starts at GPS S31.100042 E29.188705. The first traffic island at KwaNodali village is at GPS S31.129742 E29.138576. 

The exit road heads north-west through the villages of Tsolo, Notanaza and Bheja  where the tar starts again after 12,5 km. The heading remains into the north-west for the next 6 km where the tar makes an appearance once more and the multitude of traffic islands start appearing again as endless villages spread out along both sides of the road. 

The Mzimvubu River has its source in the northern region of the Eastern Cape, in the area of Matatiele and Mount Fletcher near the Lesotho border. The Mzimvubu flows with twists and turns generally in a south-easterly direction and flows into the Indian Ocean through an impressive gorge known as the "Gates of St John" into an estuary located at Port St. Johns. It is approximately 400 km long with a catchment area of 19,853 km². Although it is one of South Africa's major rivers, the Mzimvubu and its basin are largely undeveloped.

Umzimvubu MouthUmzimvubu Mouth at Port St. Johns / Photo: Open Source Africa

In 1635 Portuguese ship 'Nossa Senhora de Belem' ran aground at the mouth of the Mzimvubu River. The Mzimvubu River divides Pondoland into an Eastern and Western Pondoland. Formerly the river mouth was used as a harbor, but this activity was abandoned in the 1940s when the estuary became too shallow for large vessels owing to siltation and the fact that the entrance is sometimes obstructed by sand. Presently the estuary is navigable only for small craft for about 10 km upriver. 


 Fact File:


S31.091397 E29.199321


S31.048500 E29.226105


S30.981772 E29.287780














29,8 km




50 minutes 


60 kph








Tabankulu (4 km)

Route Map:

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Route files:

||Click to download: Gwangxu Pass (Note - This is a .kmz file which can be opened in Google earth and most GPS software)


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