We discuss the charms of the R396 route in the Eastern Cape and visit one of the 5 passes in its length - the Barker’s Nek Pass.
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Elandshoogte is a long rambling pass on the R396, which connects Maclear with Rhodes. The pass traverses the majestic forested intermediate area between the lower escarpment and the high mountains of the Drakensberg range. The road is usually in a reasonable condition and in fair weather can be driven in most vehicles, but in heavy rain or snow, a 4WD vehicle will be mandatory.
The pass contains 61 bends, corners and curves within its 10.7 km length and of those 16 are greater than 90 degrees and one is a full hairpin of 180 degrees. The road presents as an undulating road with no less than 3 false summits and routes through a commercial forestry zone, so please drive with your headlights on at all times to make your vehicle more visible to forestry vehicles that commonly use this road.
The road precedes the Naude's Nek Pass when driving from south to north and is itself preceded by the Pot River Pass. Cautionaries include dense mountain mists with poor visibility, slippery surfaces in wet weather, forestry vehicles, ruts, wash-aways and corrugations.
The Perdenek Pass is a moderate length pass on the winding R396 gravel route between Barkly East and Indwe. It is one of several passes along this road and the first one when approaching from the north. The others (listed from N - S) are: Greylings Pass, Killians Pass and Barkers Nek Pass. The Perdenek is named after the farm on the southern side of the summit, originally carrying the Dutch version of Paardenek. The pass is 3,9 km long and has an altitude variance of 130m, with the steepest sections reaching a gradient of 1:7.
The Indwe Poort was formed by the powerful Indwe River and forms a steep sided poort through the mountains south of the town of Indwe. The road, whch carries the route label of R396 connects the town of Indwe with the main tarred road, the R410 just south of the poort, where the Indwe River continues flowing southwards to feed into the large irrigation dam - the Lubisi Dam. The Indwe River provides a lifeline of water to this region as just north of the poort it feeds another large dam - the Doringrivier Dam.
The road follows the course of the poort along it's western side for almost 10 km and is generally an easy drive with gentle gradients. There are two very sharp corners in excess of 110 degrees that need to be approached with caution, but the biggest dangers on this road are corrugations and livestock. Be aware of this before you tackle this poort. The road has a minor summit towards its northern end, followed by no less than 5 smaller false summits along its length.
MacKay's Nek Pass on the tarred R410 route between Queenstown in the west and Lady Frere in the east, is a fairly short, but dramatic pass that can surprise unwary drivers with its steep gradients and very sharp bends. It's only 3,8 km long, but crammed into the first 2,5 km are two full horseshoe bends and one ninety degree right hand curve. The gradients are steep on the western side of the pass, reaching 1:7 and when added to an already high altitude of over 1200m ASL, many vehicles will experience a sensation of feeling underpowered.
This is a fairly safe, high altitude gravel pass located about 15 km north-east of Indwe in the Eastern Cape. It is located on the R396 which connects with the R56 in the south and the tiny village of Rossouw in the north. The pass is of average length (4,9 km) but it does descend incessantly, producing a stiff average gradient of 1:14. Some of the steeper sections present at 1:6. With an altitude of 1786m the pass is subject to regular winter snowfalls. In snow conditions, it is best avoided entirely. In fair weather the pass can be driven in a normal car. There's a strong similarity between this pass and the nearby Greylings Pass, except this one is on a much grander scale. The pass is also known as the Nepgen Pass or the Waschbank Pass. (More history on this lower down this page).
The Pot River sources in the Drakensberg, where the pass of the same name traverses its western flank. It's asurprisingly long pass, initially crossing over the Pot River about 22 km north-west of Maclear. This is a reasonable, gravel road and can be driven by normal cars in fair weather. In wet weather you are best off in a 4x4 or a 'bakkie' with decent ground clearance.
Most of the pass consists of a fairly straightforward ascent along the main spur of the mountain, with the only set of sharp corners, consisting of a set of double hairpins, being near the southern end of the pass. From the summit point at 1783m ASL the road displays an altitude variance of 461m over a distance of 8.9 km, producing an average gradient of 1:19 with the steepest parts measuring in at 1:6.
If you're driving between Rhodes and Maclear this is one of three passes you will traverse along the R396 - the other two being Elands Heights and the major pass is of course, the Naude's Nek Pass.
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!
Greylings Pass is a 10 km long high altitude, gravel pass between the towns of Dordrecht in the south west and Barkly East in the north east and also serves as the main access road to the hamlet of Rossouw which lies at the foot of the pass in the south. The pass displays an altitude variance of 431m of altitude with a summit height of 1956m ASL, which is well above the snow line. It's frequently covered in snow during the winter months. In snow or very wet weather, we recommend a 4WD vehicle to drive this pass. In fair weather it is suitable for all vehicles. Although the pass has a big altitude variance, the average gradient of 1:23 is fairly easy going.
Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.
Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.
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