Barkly Pass (R58)

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Barkly Pass Barkly Pass - Photo: Photo: Panoramio

This major 10 km long 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 displays an altitude variance of 572m which converts into an average gradient of 1:17 which is moderately steep. 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 and experience true country style hospitality.


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[Video cover photo by 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:

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 Bastervoetpad 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. The long straight, momentum gathering descents are the number cause for trucking accidents on this pass.

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 8 minutes to drive from the top to the foot of the pass. We have drawn in the old version of the pass (in blue) in the screenshots provided to show how modern engineering methods have eradicated many of the very sharp corners and steep gradients.

Old and new pass linesModern engineering methods show how cuttings have eradicated some very sharp corners with the new road in red and the old road in blue / Imagery: Trygve RobertsThe pass starts at its northern end at an altitude of 2018m where a cluster of signage advises the name of the pass and a number of warning signs about steep descents and sharp corners. The summit is just 1 km south of the Mountain Shadows Hotel.

The descent begins almost immediately via a wide left hand curve as the road drops down a long, straight section with a double set of impressive and almost vertical cuttings. These two cuttings eliminated a doable S-bend of the old road and it can still be seen as you descend through the cuttings. If you look to your right (west) you will notice a prominent rock outcrop which strongly resembles a tortoise. This rock formation is officially named 'Skilpad Rots'

The valley floor almost half a kilometre of altitude lower down appears almost toy-like as the sheer size and scope of the mountains becomes apparent. After the second cutting the road enters a right hand biased S-bend with comfortable radii, then straightens out again into the SSE as the road skirts a double-conical peak on its left hand side. It achieves this through a wide and gently angled 90 degree curve, which changes the heading into the south-west at the 2,2 km mark.

Magnificent scenery on the Barkly PassSuperb scenery on the Barkly Pass / Photo: Trygve RobertsThe road maintains this heading until the 4,1 km point. Along this section, although are a few gentle curves, there is time to enjoy the majestic sandstone scenery. The raw beauty of these mountains forms an amphitheatre around the pass. It is a specific treat to drive this pass at dusk or dawn when the soft pastel shades create magnificent colours on the sandstone buttresses. All along this pass, 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.

At the 4,1 km mark, the road skirts a big flat topped mountain ridge on its right hand side as the road curves gently into the south, as the next long, straight section of 1,2 km appears. If the traffic is light, allow your gaze to settle on the sandstone buttresses on the left, which are achingly beautiful. You will unlikely see such astonishing mountain scenery anywhere in South Africa. Make the moments count.

Approaching the hairpin on the Barkly PassApproaching the 180 degree hairpin / Photo: Trygve RobertsNext comes a full U-shaped curve through a full 170 degrees at the 5,4 km mark. The radius is quite comfortable throughout this beautifully engineered bend and the views open up sequentially to the right more mountains and the distant farmlands in the valley.

As soon as the U-bend has been completed, the gradients ease off to a more comfortable 1:20 for the next kilometre, as the road heads directly towards the NNW. At the 6,4 km point a 70 degree left hand bend requires a reduction in speed, which sees the heading change into the west. A few steep cuttings make an appearance and very soon a sign warns of a hairpin bend at the 7 km point. The turning angle of this hairpin is quite reasonable, but it does require full concentration as the road bends continuously to the left through a full 180 degrees.

Slow moving trucks on the Barkly PassExpect slow moving, heavy vehicles / Photo: Trygve RobertsOnce through the hairpin, the heading changes into the east for 400m, then curves to the right though a wide bend of 110 degrees at the 8 km mark as the road follows the shape of a cleft in the mountainside. There are only two more bends left and the next one is a 95 degree left hander, taking the heading into the south-east.

All that remains is a long, gentle curve to the right and the end of the pass is reached at the 10 km mark, adjacent to an intersection to the right and the crossing of a small stream. This pass forms one of 10 passes in our Ben 10 Eco-Challenge and is also the only one of the ten passes which is tarred. Of interest is that the Barkly Pass is one of the most difficult passes to film in that the road turns through every angle of the compass in its serpentine like path down the mountains.

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.  As you descend and round a bend, the aptly named Castle Rock formation fills your windscreen in a magnificent display of mountain splendour – 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.

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.

Just north of the summit is the entrance to the lovely Mountain Shadows Hotel . We stayed at this hotel and recommend it for its 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 convivial 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 Bastervoetpad Pass; Naudes Nek Pass, Volunteershoek 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.

[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 will 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:


S31.211799 E27.841959


S31.211799 E27.841959


S31.261577 E27.831081














10 km




8 minutes


60 - 80 kph


Tar (R58)






Elliot (12 km)

Route Map:

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||Click to download: Barkly Pass R58   (Note - This is a .kmz file which can be opened in most GPS software systems)


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