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Otto Du Plessis Pass (DR 02862)

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Otto du Plessis Pass southern descent Otto du Plessis Pass southern descent - Photo: Trygve Roberts

The word spectacular describes this pass perfectly. It has all the elements of a classic gravel road pass of intrigue, danger, amazing views and technical driving. This pass ranks in position 31 nationally in the 'most altitude gained' category with a walloping 658 vertical metres! This was one of our favourite passes in the Eastern Cape. The pass is driveable in a normal car in fair weather, but when it rains heavily and the surface gets muddy, you will need a 4x4.  Gravel roads can change overnight, so always take this into consideration before attempting this pass. The rather obscure road is neither a short cut, nor a main route to any specific place, but finally the two tiny settlements of Ida in the south and Clifford in the north get a mention, as they just happen to be at either terminus of this pass over the Drakensberg.

The pass was named after Dr. Otto du Plessis, a popular political figure at the time and one time Minister of Health. He was born in 1905 and passed away in 1983. There is a hospital near Bredasdorp named after him, as well as the road down the Gamkaskloof to Die Hel, which also officially bears his name. One of the main roads in Cape Town's Atlantic suburbs is also named the 'Otto du Plessis Drive'.

Scroll down to view the map & video. 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.....

Part 1 covers the approaches through the farms and foothills below the pass and continues over a few stream crossings to the beginning of the main ascent. Part 2 covers the second half to the summit.



[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts]

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:

[Note: This page is currently under reconstruction as at 27th March, 2017. The reconstruction and new videos will be completed and in place by 30th March, 2017]

Getting there: For those approaching from the south, when driving along the tarred R56 between Indwe and Elliot turn north at GPS S31.411380 E27.550157 onto the gravel road at IDA, where there is a SAPS station. Remain on this road for 12 km till you arrive at a fork at GPS S31.319171 E27.586303. Now take the left hand fork and drive north for 10 km to arrive at the foot and southern start of the pass.

Start of the Otto du Plessis Pass northThe northern start of the pass is at this attractive little river crossing / Photo: Trygve RobertsFor those driving it from the northern side (the direction in which we have filmed it), drive along the R58 between Lady Grey and Barkly East and take the turn-off to the north at GPS S30.964488 E27.511653. This road immediately loops through 270 degrees and overpasses the R58 then settles down into the south. This is the R396. Remain on it for 17 km until you reach the small hamlet of Clifford. Turn sharp left off the R396 at GPS S31.082238 E27.446754. Drive past a few buildings for 300m and take the right hand fork into the south-east. The road bends gradually away into the south. Remain on this road for 17 km. to arrive at the northern starting point of the pass.

We filmed this pass from north to south. The approach roads from either end are exceptionally beautiful, traversing peaceful farms set amongst lush valleys surrounded by towering sandstone mountains. It is interesting to note several attractive sandstone farm-houses that appear to have been abandoned. On the day of filming the road had recently been graded and was in excellent condition. It's not often like this and travellers should expect rockfalls, corrugations, washaways as the norm. 

Obelisk at summot of Otto du Plessis PassThe stone obelisk at the summit / Photo: Trygve Roberts

The total length of the pass is just under 10 km and you will need at least 20 minutes, excluding stops, to complete the drive. The northern start is marked by the crossing of the Saalboomrivier via a low level concrete bridge. From this point the northern ascent begins and continues through many bends, corners and curves for 3 km at an average gradient of a comfortable 1:20, although there are one or two sections where the gradients steepen to 1:12.

The road follows a tributary of the main river for most of the ascent, remaining on its southern side for the first 2 km, where the river splits into two smaller streams. The road crosses the more southern tributary at the 2,1 km mark, where that tributary also splits into another two small streams. This is the third stream crossing, which also marks the end of most of the corners and the road now straightens out into the SSE for a long straight climb of 800m up towards the final bend of the ascent.

At the 2,7 km there is yet another stream crossing, where the road changes direction slightly into the south-east for the final 400m pull up to the summit point, which is reached at the 3,1 km point and marked by a stone obelisk set well away from the roadside on the right (west) in an otherwise treeless and fairly flat little plateau. The obelisk is on private farmland, so if you want to photograph it, please use a zoom lens rather than trespass.

The inscription, which is in Afrikaans and translated reads:  "This memorial is in honour of the Dr. Otto du Plessis, who opened this pass on the 21st March, 1959".  A little lower down on the obelisk, a second plaque reads: "Unveiled by Nico Malan, administrator of the Cape on 1st November, 1961"

The 2115m high summit of the pass is subject to cold weather, strong wind, mountain mists, rain, hail and snow. Try and plan your drive over this pass on a clear weather day for maximum enjoyment. Should you encounter heavy snow on the pass, please retreat and return on another day, for your own safety. Snow on these steep gravel roads can be lethal - even in a 4WD vehicle, unless equipped with snow chains, which very few South African 4x4's are equipped with. There are 28 passes in South Africa that summit above 2000m and this one ranks at number 18.

Summit view site at Otto du Plessis PassForever views over the Tsomo Valley / Photo: Trygve Roberts

 


The summit area itself is a little bleak and other than the stone obelisk and a few cattle grazing in the adjacent fields, the little plateau is devoid of trees and consists mainly of ploughed fields and rolling grasslands. During winter everything is a dun khaki colour, but in summer the entire region is converted into a blanket of greenery once the rains begin. Although you more likely to encounter rain in summer, this is the best time of year to visit from a scenic perspective.

[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts]

Continue 300m further past the summit point where the views over the Tsomo Valley start opening up. A frame of an old sign appears on the left and right next to it, there is a wonderful view site with a set of concrete tables and benches. You will not find a more scenic picnic spot like this anywhere else in South Africa. 

The views are gigantic and rumour has it, that on a clear day, one can see the Indian Ocean! The southern section traverses farmlands, forests, rivers and sandstone outcrops. It is also a well documented birding hotspot with likely sightings of the Drakensberg Rock-jumper & Siskins as well as the Ground Woodpecker.

Once you've savoured the tranquillity and grand views, it's time to tackle the southern descent. This is the more spectacular part of the pass, where you will descend continuously for 6,7 km, losing 658m in altitude, which converts into a very steep average descent gradient of 1:10. There are some sections which are significantly steeper at 1:6, so take it slowly and make use of engine compression to moderate your speed, rather than the overuse of brakes. Those with automatic vehicles should gear down manually.

Wonderful views along the southern descentPerpetually changing views on the southern descent / Photo: Trygve Roberts

The first part of the descent heads directly into the south at a gradient of 1:10 with some steep cuttings on the right. This is the section most likely to cause rockfalls. On a previous trip in 2013 over this pass, we had to physically move large boulders off the road surface, making use of a tow strap. It's also common to find cattle on the road at any time of the year, even at these high altitudes.

The descent into the south lasts for 1 km offering amazing views to the left, which change continuously as altitude is lost. At the 4,1 km mark there is a slight change of direction into the SSE, as the road drops towards the first major bend of the descent. This is a 120 degree left hand bend, but the radius is fairly wide, so there is no need to slow down more.

As this bend is completed, you are now looking north and facing the towering sides of the mountain. The road can be seen a long way ahead, snaking its way down the spurs, noses and ravines. There is a small view-site here which is well worth stopping at, as the views are stunning, and although they are of the same vista, the perspective is different. It's impossible to capture the views with a normal camera, so if you have a panoramic facility on your camera, you might get a better result, but it does require a steady hand.

The waterfall on the southern side of the Otto du Plessis PassA waterfall about halfway along the southern descent / Photo: Trygve Roberts

For the next kilometre, the heading settles down into the north-east, as the road meanders its way steeply down the south-east face of the mountain towards an obvious ravine, which marks the first of several river crossings. Just before the ravine the gradient levels right off, as the road sweeps through a very sharp right hand bend. There is often water on the road here, so slow right down as you negotiate this corner.

Once over the river crossing, the road heads into the SSE and descends very steeply at 1:6 along the western side of a long spur of the mountainside. Stop about halfway along this descent at the 6,1 km mark, making absolutely sure you have engaged your handbrake properly. Switch off your vehicle's engine and leave it in 1st gear. If you walk over to the drop side of the road and look back up in the direction you have just come from, you will see a waterfall tumbling vertically over a black cliff of some 30m. In summer-time, when the rivers are flowing more swiftly, this is a particularly attractive sight.

At the 6,2 km mark, the road follows a wide U-shaped bend to the left as the contour of the mountain is mimicked, taking the heading directly into the north and towards the second ravine and stream crossing. This one is much narrower than the previous one and requires more driver attention. It's reached at the 6,6 km point and turns sharply through 150 degrees. This bend is very sharp and once again, there is a high probability of finding water on the road. Mostly these are just shallow puddles, but they can be dangerous for bikers and less robust vehicles and for those who have not deflated their tyres.

Tyre deflation on gravel roads is crucial to not only safety, but also ensures a much more comfortable ride for everyone. For normal gravel roads, we recommend a pressure of 1,4 bar. If the vehicle still feels a bit jumpy, deflate as low as 1 bar in increments and find the point where you feel in total control. You will have driven many kilometres to get to this pass, so make the effort to deflate. It makes all the difference in the world. Remember to never drive fast on deflated tyres, so once you have reached the foot of the pass, keep your speed below 80 kph (at 1,4 bar) and slower if pressures are lower, until you reach the next filling station, where you can reinflate.

Views from the southern descentSharp corners and steep gradients / Photo: Trygve Roberts

The road swings around another spur, into the north-east and heads towards the third ravine and water crossing, which is reached at the 7 km mark. This bend is also extremely sharp and changes the heading into the south, where it remains till the end of the pass.

Trees start appearing in increasing numbers and size from this point as the road remains on the eastern side of the main stream, all the while descending steadily. The river is crossed again at the 8 km mark via a fairly new low level bridge. The road becomes almost completely enclosed by trees and the river crossing is also a wonderful place to pull over and have a picnic, if the weather at the summit is inclement. There are several nice rock-pools offering crystal clear water for a quick dip in the hot summer months.

The next 1,5 km is a simple straight section, smothered in dense trees, remaining in a southerly heading and descending at an easier gradient of 1:16. In wet weather, this section can become muddy and slippery, making things very uncomfortable for non 4WD vehicles and motorcyclists.

Beware of livestock on the roadBe alert for livestock on the road / Photo: Trygve Roberts

At the 9,4 km mark, the road finally exits the long valley it has been following and another minor track intersects from the right from the Hermanusdraai farm. This is marked by an 80 degree left hand bend. This is the final corner of the pass as the road heads through an easy S-bend and crosses the Xentu River at the second low level bridge at the 9,8 km point.

You now have a long drive back to either Elliot or Ida over a selection of gravel and/or tar - all of which offer beautiful scenery. on your exit route, you will traverse the farms (from north to south) Raasay, Morven, Scalpa, Comrie, Skipnish, Knapdale and Borvabost which is the final farm just before the fork, which offers the right hand option to Ida or the left hand option to Elliot. All of these farms have most unusual names, leaving one wondering about their origins, which are probably Scottish.

The town of Elliot was established in 1885 and named after Sir Henry Elliot, a highly decorated commissioned veteran of the Crimean War, who was Chief Magistrate of Thembuland from 1891 to 1902. Elliot became a municipality in 1911. The town is also known as Ecowa (Xhosa for mushroom) a reference to the fungi growing in the area in summer.

Laid out in a valley of the Slang River, the farming town of Elliot has a wonderful backdrop of mountain grandeur with magnificent sandstone formations, crystal clear streams with trout and bass, waterfalls, towering cliffs and fascinating rock formations with Bushman art. Drakensberg peaks such as Giants Castle and The Pillars are in the area and the majestic 80m high Gillie Cullem Waterfall is 18Km south of the town.

Gatberg near ElliotGatberg north of Elliot / Photo: Panoramio

To the northeast of Elliot, the scenery is dominated by the Gatberg, which rises 440 m above the valley below. This landmark owes its Afrikaans name (meaning ‘hole mountain’) to the hole that has been eroded through the softer strata near its summit. The Xhosa name, uNtunjinkala, means ‘crab’s opening

Perhaps the most underestimated attraction in the Eastern Cape Midlands is the abundance of cultural and heritage sites that exist in the area. This is an area that played a significant role in the liberation of South Africa and the routes not only provide valuable insight into the struggle heroes and places but into the heart and soul of a people who fought tirelessly to free themselves from an unjust system of government. It is here where the great struggle icons Chris Hani, after whom the municipal district in named, Walter Sisulu, Dr AB Xuma and James Calata were born and In almost every town and remote rural area you can find traces of the local heroes and heroines who made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for freedom.

Once you have completed the Otto du Plessis Pass, you will appreciate why we rate this pass so highly.

The Naudes Nek pass is the anchor pass of the Big 8 Challenge Passes of the Eastern Cape 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

Two more passes have been added to the above list which are the Ben Mac Dhui Pass and the Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse (TTT) making a total of 10 adventure passes which form the basis of the Ben 10 Eco Challenge. Details elsewhere on this website.

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!

 


Fact File:

GPS START

S31.208464 E27.500522

GPS SUMMIT

S31.230293 E27.517017

GPS END

S31.257721 E27.537713

AVE GRADIENT

1:15

MAX GRADIENT

1:6

ELEVATION START

1959m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

2115m

ELEVATION END

1457m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

658m

DISTANCE

9,8 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

South

TIME REQUIRED

20 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

60 kph

SURFACE

Gravel (DR 02862)

DATE FILMED

18.12.2016

TEMPERATURE

25C

NEAREST TOWN

Elliot (50 km)


Route Map:

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Route files:

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

 

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