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Naude's Nek Pass (R396 / P0723)

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Naude's Neck Pass Naude's Neck Pass - Photo: Photo courtesy of Michael J. Stone

Due to the 32,7 km length of this mega-pass, we have split it into six parts. We recommend that the pass be driven from west to east for maximum enjoyment. Many sources quote this as being the highest gravel pass in South Africa, but Naude's Nek Pass is actually the fourth highest altitude, publicly accessible pass in South Africa and is a much sought after personal trophy for pass 'hunters' to say: "I've driven it!" 

It is superseded by the Ben MacDhui Pass, the  Sani Pass and the Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse (in that order).  Zig-zagging its way over the Southern Drakensberg, the pass is a long and slow drive with an average gradient of 1:41, but the steeper parts measure out at 1:7. Considering that the builders were not engineers, but humble farmers, the lines chosen and gradients achieved are remarkably good for the time. This is without question a bucket-list pass!

Scroll down to view the map & video. The pass has been filmed in three parts. They appear below in the correct sequence. It is recommended to watch this video in HD. (Click on the "quality" button on the lower taskbar of the video screen and select 720HD.) Wait a few seconds for the video to display.....

 
[Video cover photo - MPSA]

 FULL-SCREEN MODE: Click PLAY, then pass your mouse over the bottom right corner of the video screen. The outline of a square will appear. Clicking on it will toggle Full Screen Mode. Press ESC to return to the original format.

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 convoluted pass intersects the escarpment approximately where the Maloti, Drakensberg and Witteberg mountains meet. Many sources quote the Sani Pass as summiting in Lesotho. This is in fact, incorrect as the SA border control point is at 1968m, but the actual physical border is at the summit, leaving much of the major climb in no-man's land - making the Sani Pass without question, considerably higher, summitting at 2873m - some 283 metres higher than Naudes Nek Pass.

naudes nek Pass western aspect viewsSharp bends, incredible views on Naudes Nek Pass (Western side) / Photo by Trygve RobertsTo get to Naude's Nek Pass you need to allow plenty of time as you will need to start from either Maclear (70 km to the SE) or Barkly East to the west, using the tiny village of Rhodes as a lunchtime or even better, an overnight destination. Stop in at the Walkerbouts Inn and have a chat to Dave Walker who is a very knowledgeable person on the area and can also supply you with a fly-fishing permit.

Allow about 2 hours from Rhodes to the intersection at the Pot River Pass. If the weather is bad, add plenty more time, as your speed will be a lot slower. It is possible to drive this pass in a normal car providing that the weather is fine and dry. It it's been raining or snowing, a 4WD vehicle is mandatory.

 

[Video cover photo - MPSA]

The signage at various points along the pass have created a lot of confusion and some heated debate. Right at the western start there is a sign stating that the Naude's Nek is 6300 ft (1920m). This altitude is considerably lower than the actual altitude where the sign is placed, which is 2000m. From this information, we must assume that the sign was either put in the wrong spot or the measuring instruments used at the time, were not accurate.  Almost immediately after this sign there is another (newer) sign with the Tenahead Lodge logo on it which claims the pass to be 8517 ft (2596m) and a third sign at the eastern view-point states that it is 2500m.

Ice cold in winterFrozen waterfall at Bobbejaankop / Photo: Panoramio

This 3rd sign is in fact correct, as the altitude at the view-site is 2500m, but this is not the true summit point of the pass. The most correct of these signs is the second one, which has a 6m variance with our measurements. There are countless incorrect references in old Atlases and maps showing the altitude to be much higher - all of these are incorrect.

The distance from Rhodes to the start is approximately 10 km., but you’ll need about 1 hour  including stops to complete this section to the summit. Drivers (and passengers) should be prepared for emergencies as traffic volumes on the pass are very low during the week and weather can be extreme. Pack a sleeping bag and warm clothes with spare emergency food during the colder months - note that it can snow here as late as October. The pass is in a remote, underpopulated area. In the event of a breakdown, you might have to tough it out until help arrives. There is also no cell reception on most of the pass. A satphone would be a comforting accessory.

Starting from the Rhodes side (western side) the road follows the Bell River valley, passing some lovely farms, many of which offer B&B facilities. This is also trout fishing country. Just outside Rhodes you will pass the turn-off to Tiffindell, via the Carlisleshoeksruit Pass, which is featured elsewhere on this website.  A great spot for photographers is where the Bell River curves through several U-shaped bends, whilst tumbling over small rapids. Some of the deeper pools make for excellent fishing spots.

Summer views on the eastern side of the passPropped up walls, tight hairpins and awesome scenery await on the eastern side. This photo was taken in summer when the mountains turn green / Photo - Warren De JagerLook out for the memorial site in honour of the Naude brothers who were involved with the design and construction of the pass. It can be found just after crossing a small causeway. There is a well placed picnic site adjacent to this which makes for a good spot to take a break if the weather is fine. Here you can spend hours poring over the elaborate family tree set out in 5 stone units, with each letter of the name N A U D E marking a separate unit - each being roughly 1,2m high; 2m wide and 3 m in length. The setting is quite beautiful under a copse of shady oak trees with a small burbling stream on one side. It is a good spot to prepare yourself mentally for what is still coming - South Africa's fourth highest pass.

From the start at a concreted culvert the road begins climbing immediately, but the gradient is comfortable at 1:14. The road meanders along the southern side of the Bell River Valley, climbing gently but persistently into the north-east, revealing impressive views of the Bell River as it tumbles over countless rock sills into deep pools as it flows westwards past Rhodes to join the Kraai River at Moshesh's Ford. The climb lasts for 1,6 km where the first hairpin bend is reached. This is a very sharp bend and turns through 160 degrees, taking the heading into the south west.

Winter snow near Naude's NekSnow in October is common / Photo: Trygve RobertsThe road begins climbing steeply through a series of very sharp curves with high retaining walls as you leave the Bell River far below in the valley. Watch out for rockfalls, which are common on the hairpin bends and in mid-winter the water oozing out the rocks along the cuttings freezes into solid ice. The road now remains heading mainly south-west for 300m where the second hairpin is around a small stand-alone conical hill called Bobbejaankop. There is space to pull over and gaze over the vast expanse of mountains, split into hundreds of ravines by the fast flowing streams.


CAUTIONARY: This is off-the-beaten-track kind of driving. Even in a 4X4 the road presents something of a challenge, particularly in winter when, because of its height, snowfalls are common and make the roads slippery. Add to this, it should be factored in that the roads are not in good shape, although there are those who advocate that in an ordinary car with high clearance, you can manage the summit. When we first filmed this pass in October, 2013 there had been heavy snowfalls the previous day. This pass is not for the faint-hearted and even in full 4 WD our vehicles were sliding around on the muddy surfaces. With ice on the road, this pass would be a nightmare in a normal car.

[Video cover photograph by Mike Leicester]

If you consider that the road's existence is thanks to the brothers Naudé, who in the late 1890s made it their task to find a way out of the isolated valley to reach cattle markets, with only a pick and shovel for help, its significance is completely awe-inspiring. Of interest is that the memorial plaque at the start speaks of the Naude brothers building the pass ...."met pik, graaf en skotskar"  That took a little investigation as few people know what a "skotskar" is. An Afrikaans linguist at Stellenbosch University has revealed that the correct definition is "a single axle, unsprung horse cart, with a flip down rear panel". 

Naudes Nek Memorial PlaqueNaudes Nek Memorial Plaque at the eastern viewsite / PanoramioFor all of the above reasons, Naudé's Nek Pass is regarded as one of the top iconic gravel road passes. It is full of hairpin bends, with a very good chance of mist, snow or thunderstorms in summer. The Maclear side of the pass and the Pot River descent is particularly rough and there are sharp stones that in an ordinary vehicle could prove daunting. History books show that the Naude brothers did not complete the whole pass, but that the government took over the final part which was completed a few years later. There is no confirmation of exactly where this spot is, but it is assumed that the Naude's completed the bulk of the western side.

The second video features the set of multiple hairpins which form the most interesting part of the ascent. When you reach the fourth switchback, there is a specific spot where you can get almost all of the switchbacks into a single photo frame. It's not normally a problem stopping along most of the pass, as the traffic volumes are so low, it will be unlikely that you will inconvenience anyone and even if you did, most people are there for the same reasons you are and the rest of the traffic is made up by local farmers - all of whom are friendly and encourage tourism - so go for it!

Tenahead LodgeTenahead Lodge - the only inhabited point on the pass and a must-visit destination

Once you've cleared the big switchback section, the gradients remain fairly steep at 1:9 but the number of curves and tightness of the bends ease off a lot as progress is made towards the summit. Arriving at the summit is something of an anti-climax and unless you have put the waypoint into your GPS, you might not even notice it as the mountain top is large and flattish with a few straggly fences on one side of the road and a jeep track disappearing off towards the right. This locked gate is right at the true summit and is the only indicator of that fact. 

The main viewsite several kilometres further to the east, is where all the action takes place and it is the reason why so many people incorrectly assume that is the summit.

The road immediately starts descending towards the north-east as the road follows a small ravine towards the north. To the right a small stream (which is one of many tributaries of the Bell River), gathers strength as distance is gained northwards.

[Video cover photograph by Mike Leicester]

The road continues in a gentle descent for three kilometres, where the lowest point on the middle plateau is reached (2389m) before turning abruptly away back towards the east again, and then starts climbing once again along the right hand side of another small ravine to reach the main view-site at the 18,1 km mark at an elevation of 2500m.

After about 8 kilometres from the true summit, one arrives at the official viewsite and this is where a sign proclaims the spot to be Naude's Nek and the altitude to be 2500m. This is where the confusion comes in as many folk believe this point to be the summit, which is incorrect. If the weather is clear, consider yourself fortunate as the view site is more often than not, covered in cloud, mist, rain or snow, making photography almost impossible.

This sign is not located at the real summitThis sign is not located at the true summit. It creates a false impression that this is the maximum altitude. The true summit is a few kilometres further west at 2590m ASL / Photo: Warren De JagerFrom the viewsite, a track leads off in a north westerly direction towards the mysterious and unusual Tenahead Lodge - reputed to be the highest dedicated guest lodge in South Africa. The lodge has a fascinating history and was built on an eco-friendly basis utilising mostly natural resources. The setting is quite magnificent and the lodge is just a few kilometres from the Lesotho border. It's 4 km away and also marks the eastern start of the TTT (Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse). If you're fortunate enough to reach the view-site in clear weather, spend some time enjoying the amazing views down into the Eastern Cape forests and grass covered hills. The road enjoys the full protection of the National Monuments Council. At MPSA we completely discourage graffiti in any form, regardless of whether a road enjoys protective status or not.

After the view site, the road drops rapidly down two double hairpin bends with 180 degree corners. The views are breath-taking along this section and as you will probably be the only vehicle on the road, stop and take photographs of the endless green clad mountains that unfold in layer upon layer towards the East and KZN.

We found the eastern descent to be a lot wetter than the Western side and even in full 4WD, our vehicles were still sliding around on the muddy roads. A normal car would have experienced major traction issues either ascending or descending. For those who are not fortunate enough to own a 4x4 and want to drive this incredible pass, we urge you to be very sensible about choosing a safe weather window. (We need you back here!)

[Video cover photograph by Mike Leicester]

As the road continues to descend steadily the vegetation becomes more lush with trees making an appearance as the farmlands spread out on either side of the road. This is primarily a sheep and cattle farming district. You might also be lucky to spot some of the large flocks of Crowned Cranes that frequent this part of the Eastern Cape. As the road levels out along a secondary escarpment, you have a choice of descending to the tarred R58 either via the Pitseng pass (a better road in terms of surface and gradient) or the Pot River Pass (a bit trickier and rougher, but with beautiful scenery.)

Green mountains and gravel roadsView eastwards from the first hairpin on the descent / Photo: Warren De JagerDriving Tip: On these long gravel roads, it is always sensible to consider tyre deflation. The benefits are greatly improved traction and a more comfortable ride. However, you should always remember never to exceed 80 kph. A 'normal' deflated pressure for gravel is around 1,4 bar, but if the corrugations and ruts are severe, pressures may be lowered right down to 1 bar. Remember to reinflate tyres as soon as you get back on tar. If you drive on tar with deflated tyres, they can quickly overheat and may result in a blowout.


This signboard at the eastern view-site causes plenty of confusion, as although the spot "feels" like it's the summit, it is far from the summit. The true summit is several kilometres further west at a bleak and ordinary section of the pass, which is another 90m higher at 2590m ASL. So from a tourism perspective, placing the signboard at the Tenahead turn-off, does add some flavour.

[Video cover photograph by Mike Leicester]

The Naudes Nek Pass is a testament to the character and determination of these enterprising farmers who built an outstanding mountain pass on a paltry budget using very basic equipment.

It's a very long pass in the greater scheme of things and logs in at position number 6 on the national listings, but it is the exceptionally high summit which scores it a 4th overall place in that category. The final two kilometres remain in a generally southerly direction as the road continues descending at a gradient between 1:10 and 1:16 via a concurrent set of 4 S-bends, remaining on the northern side of the valley and mimicking the shape of the mountainside. The views remain impressive, where the left hand perspective offers constant glimpses of the river some distance below the road.

The pass ends at the 32,8 km point at a sharp left hand bend marked by a large tree on the left hand side of the road. There's a small stream that diverts under the road at this point. Continue along the R396 for a further 50 km via the Elands Heights Pass and a bit later down the much rougher Pot River Pass, to reach Maclear. Prepare yourself mentally for the hustle and bustle of a main street in Maclear which borders on organised chaos as local traders occupy the sidewalks, peddling everything from beads to food. If you want to overnight in Maclear, rather opt for one of the quieter side roads or local farm stays to get away from the noise and loud music.


Mad dogs and EnglishmenWarren de Jager sent us this photo of his Suzuku Vitara near the summit doing a tandem tow with caravan and boat.The Naudes Nek pass is the anchor pass of the Ben 10 Eco Challenge and the one most visitors like to tackle first. The passes are as follows:

1. Naude's Nek Pass
2. Bastervoetpad Pass
3. Otto du Plessis Pass
4. Barkly Pass
5. Volunteershoek Pass
6. Carlisleshoekspruit Pass
7. Lundins Nek Pass
8. Jouberts Pass
9. Ben Mac Dhui Pass
10.Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse

Make your plans. Book a cottage, B&B or hotel in Rhodes, Tiffindell or any one of a number of amazing farm stays and country lodges and get this incredible pass ticked off your bucket list!

[Video cover photograph by Mike Leicester]


Fact File:

GPS START 

S30.763855 E28.056647

GPS SUMMIT

S30.764752 E28.105529

GPS END 

S30.759042 E28.206911

AVE GRADIENT

1:41

MAX GRADIENT

1:5

ELEVATION START

2000m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

2590m

ELEVATION END

1795m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

795m

DISTANCE

32,7 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

East

TIME REQUIRED

120 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

60 kph

SURFACE

Gravel (P0723 / R396)

DATE FILMED

29.04.2017

TEMPERATURE

18C

NEAREST TOWN

Rhodes (25km)


Route Map:

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From Address:


Route files:

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

 

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

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