Umzimvubu Pass (R61)

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Pondoland bridge marks the southern end of the pass Pondoland bridge marks the southern end of the pass - Photo: Trygve Roberts

This pass is well above the national average length at 8.7 km and is one of three back to back passes along the R61 between Lusikisiki and Port St.Johns. There are 58 bends, corners and curves compressed into that length and many of them exceed 90 degrees through tight arcs. It is necessary for drivers to have a high level of concentration on this pass, as it's a busy road and the many courier and delivery trucks and minibus taxis have scant regard for barrier lines.

The pass name is of course taken from the Umzimvubu River which is crossed at the foot of the pass near Port St.Johns. Drivers who do this route for the first time will be in for a few nasty surprises in that here you will find some of South Africa's severest speed bumps. These are unfortunately necessary to slow the wild drivers down - especially near villages and schools. There is one specific speed bump designs which consists of 5 sharp speed bumps, spaced about 1m apart. 

Despite all the dangers, the pass offers fabulous scenery and especially towards the middle of the pass where the Gates of St. John start making an appearance. The Xhosa version of the river and pass exclude the U - so "Mzimvubu" For Western tongues having the M and the Z following each other, make it difficult to pronounce. For purposes of indexing we have used the older version of Umzimvubu.

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[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts]

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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:

Getting there: Starting in Lusikisiki, head south on the tarred R61 towards Port. St Johns for 33 km to arrive at the northern end of the pass. 

To approach from the opposite direction, start in Port St.Johns and turn right at the Pondoland bridge at S31.596381 E29.525987

Description: The pass heads into the south-west initially with the village of Gcakeni on the left. The road descends via some tight corners, then sweeps to the right, crossing a small stream at the 0.5 km mark. This is followed a by a gentle climb via multiple S curves, where the summit of 289m is reached at the 2.4 km point.

The road soon swings through U shaped bend of 160 degrees and starts descending along the eastern flank of the Malongwana mountain. The descent eases off at a saddle at the 5.3 km mark, where a large (and unsightly) quarry is visible to the right. The road begins ascending briefly towards the quarry entrance, then eases back into the descent mode as the bends come thick and fast and the gradient reaches its steepest level at 1:8.

Along this final descent there are great views of the Gates of St John, but unfortunately there are very few places to stop safely. Glimpses of the Umzimvubu River appear on the right and a barrage of signs indicate you are reaching a place of holidays and accommodation.

One final right hand bend brings the full length of the Pondoland bridge into view. The river is 160m wide here. Four large concrete pylons support the bridge deck. The pass ends at the T-Junction on the southern side of the bridge. Turn left to go to Port St. Johns or turn right if you're heading towards Mthatha.

Port St. Johns town centre is small and crammed with vendors, taxis and locals going about their daily business. It's lost its holiday village charm to a large extent, as poverty and litter have spoilt the once attractive village. There are two filling  stations and the usual array of chain stores to buy basic goods.

Most of the better accommodation is set along both banks of the river behind electric fences. If you fancy a swim, head off to second beach which is really good, but make sure someone can look after your car. The fishing is excellent and a drive up Mount Thesiger via the old airport road is a must.


Fact File:


S31.547883 E29.531148


S31.557442 E29.514728


S31.596381 E29.525987














8.7 km




12 minutes


60/80 kph


Tar (R61)






Port St Johns (6 km)

Route Map:

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From Address:

Route files:

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


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