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Witsieshoek Pass

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Witsieshoek snow views Witsieshoek snow views - Photo: Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge

This impressive pass has a lot to offer. It edges along a ridge of the Drakensberg range and requires a fairly big detour to drive it. The pass consists of a mix of tar/ paving and gravel and is 12 km long and falls mostly within the boundaries of the Witsieshoek Transfrontier Park. It's an out and back pass which ends at the Witsieshoek viewpoint, which is the springboard for a number of hiking and climbing routes. Parts of the road cross into the Royal Natal National Park World Heritage Site.

The pass is peppered with bends - 59 of them in total, of which 12 exceed 90 degrees radius. This is a big ascent of 658m, but the fairly long distance takes the sting out of the average gradient which measures in at 1:20, but be aware that some of the steeper sections are very steep at 1:5. An overnight stay at the well run Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is the main reason most people drive this road, and for hikers and climbers the end of the road is Sentinel peak car park which gives access to the Amphitheatre - a springboard to the raw beauty of the Drakensberg.

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.....

[Video cover photo: Mike Leicester]

FULL-SCREEN MODEMODE: 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:

Getting there: As this is an out-and-back pass, there is only one possible access route that can be used. Start off near the intersection of the R57 and the R712, at GPS coordinates S28.481373 E28.819500. Travel in a southerly direction along the R57 (Mota Road) for 23.5 km, ignoring all intersections and side roads, until you get to S28.643597 E28.870481. At this point the road changes to brick paving; continue straight onwards for another 800 metres until you reach the Witsieshoek entrance gate. Stop here and pay the entrance fee. This is also the northern start point of the pass.

Witsieshoek Mountain LodgeWitsieshoek Mountain Lodge / Photo: Bookings.com

Please be aware that almost the entire distance from the R712 to the start of the pass is through densely populated tribal trust land. Apply common sense in terms of your personal safety and preferably drive or ride in a group or convoy. Keep your speed low and be acutely aware of pedestrians and livestock. Most locals are friendly and will enthusiastically return a greeting. 

Cautionary: This approach road traverses a densely populated township area, so be constantly aware of minibus taxis, pedestrians, erratic local driver behaviour and livestock on the roads. There is a police station at Phutaditjaba on the eastern side of the R57.

Pass Description: From the northern start at an elevation of 1953m at the control gate, the road climbs immediately at a gradient of 1:16 for the first 500m as the first ridge is cleared.The road follows the spine of the ridge with the Phomolong River flowing to the right down a deep valley. The first third of the pass remains a paved road all the way to the 4.6 km point at the turn-off to the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge.

Fika Patso DamThe Fika-Patso Dam / Photo VerticalEndeavour.com

The road now turns through a series of easy bends and settles down along the spine of the main ridge into the south-east. About 3 km off to the right, a big dam is visible with an unusual shape. The four rivers and ravines that feed into the dam give it the appearance of a hand and fingers from the air. This is the Fika-Patso Dam with a capacity of 28 million cu.m. which is a combined earth-fill/rock-fill type dam located on the Namahidi River on the uppermost section of the Elands River, a tributary of the Wilge River.It was constructed in 1986 and its primary purpose is water for domestic and industrial usage.

At the 1.6 km the road passes directly alongside a tall sandstone ridge on the right which has overhangs and caves and makes for beautiful and spectacular scenery. As altitude is gained, the views on the left open up where deeply incised valleys fall away to the lower plateaus. Make a note to have your camera ready at the 1.9 km point as here the cliffs above form a half tunnel, suspended high above the roadway. Shortly after this section of overhanging cliffs, the road enters a very tightly radiused 90 degree right hand bend at the 2.3 km mark and starts climbing steeply at a gradient of 1:7 

From the 2,5 km point the road reaches the end of the Phomolong River ravine and enters a set of very tight corners as the a number of butresses and noses have to be circumvented. Three extremely sharp 90 degree bends occur within the space of just 400m. Don't underestimate them. Slow down and comply with the speed restrictions. 

Bearded VultureBearded Vulture

There are regularly spaced water run off channels that vehicles have to cross at an angle. These are not only effective in getting rid of excess water, but they also act as effective speed channels as each wheel crosses the channel at a slightly different point, causing a side to side sway, which is most uncomfortable if you are driving too fast.

Once through the third 90 degree bend at the 2,6 km mark, the road straightens out and resumes its south-easterly heading, which gently turns ever more into the south via a few subtle bends. The gradients remain steep at 1:10 despite the absence of sharp corners. All the while the dominant Sentinel Peak beckons. This is the final goal at the end of the pass.

 Sandstone caveA sandstone cave somewhat spoilt by lots of ugly graffiti / Photo: Mike Leicester

At the 5,8 km mark, there is a prominent fork which is clearly signposted. The road leading away to the left is the access road (tar) to the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge which 1 km further. If you are heading for the summit point of the pass, keep right on the gravel section. The moment you reach the gravel, you will need to reduce speed substantially as the gravel section can get very rough in places. In wet weather or snow a 4WD would be a much safer option. If you have not yet deflated your tyres, this is a good spot to do so. Tyre deflation will provide your vehicle with improved traction (and thereby safety); make your ride more comfortable and reduce the likelihood of getting a puncture.

[Video cover photo: Mike Leicester]

If you look down to the left at the 5.6 km point you will get a birds eye view of the lodge from 2236m elevation. A big right hand bend of 40 degrees with an easy radius changes the heading into the south-west for the next 700m, where the road suddenly reaches the lip of the escarpment at the 6.3 km point. The views to the right are serously impressive!

Drakensberg flowersDrakensberg delicate floral splendour / Photo: Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge

For the next 3 km the gradient changes from a steep ascent to undulating as the road curves this way and that through a number of ridges and butresses. Despite the many sharp bends along this 3 km section, the views are magical and if you manage to drive this pass on a clear day, you will be treated to some of the best mountain scenery anywhere in South Africa.

From the 9 km mark, the undulating section changes once more into a steep climb. The high incidence of sharp corners continue, as do the sublime views to the right over the escarpment. The road changes back to a paved surface at the 9.1 km mark, for the final ascent to the summit.

Sensational sceneryEnjoy mind blowing scenery / Photo: Traveling Spud

There is one really nasty left hand bend which is worth noting. It occurs at the 11.7 km mark and is sharp 90 degree corner to the left, that requires a reduction in speed to 30 km per hour. It is also the last sharp bend before the summit point is reached at the 12 km point. There are some new buildings and a fenced in secure parking area for about 15 vehicles. If you're fit and you've come to hike, leave your vehicle here and choose your path to the Sentinel or the other hikes in the area.

The Sentinel Peak trail in the Drakensberg is also known as the 'chain ladders' hike.

What would usually be a rather tough and arduous multi-day slog from the Mahai campsite in the Royal Natal National Park is converted into a day's hike. The difference: a drive across the border into the Free State, to start the walk from the Sentinel car park.

Tugela FallsTugela Falls - a sight you will never forget / Photo: Trover

In this way, the hike is shortened to about seven hours – if you allow yourself enough time for a break at the top for lunch and to gasp at the views.

One should not venture up the mountain without being prepared (food, water, clothes and even a tent, in case a storm arises).

The initial walk (the trail is self-guided and well marked but if you are in the least inexperienced, best to do this with a guide) is on a good, but steep, path that skirts in a series of zig zags (pause at the top to take in the views) to the base of the Sentinel where you reach the chain ladders. These are high enough up the mountain to immediately scale the vertical face of the Mont-Aux-Sources massif.

Sentinel Peak chain laddersTake the chain ladders up to Sentinel Peak / Photo: Drakensberg Hikes

The chain ladders will more than test your mettle – if you are even slightly frightened of heights, then don't look down.

There is the alternative of hiking up the steep gully to the top of the Beacon Buttress (it is only fair to warn you that it is pretty steep).

Once up the escarpment the scenery now flattens out. It is a half hour walk to the edge of the Amphitheatre where the Tugela falls over its edge (provided it has rained).

You can now either head back down the way you have come, or you can return via the Beacon Buttress gully.

Stand back (and remember to fully engage the hand brake) and enjoy the 2538m elevation 360 views. You're at the 8th highest motorable pass in South Africa!

Witsieshoek scenerySoak up the fresh air and unique views / Photo: Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge

A few buildings and telecomms towers adorn the summit point and a tantalising hiking trail sweeps across the grass covered hills into the south-east. This is far as you can go in a vehicle, so unless you're a MTB rider or a hiker or rock climber, you will need to retrace your route back to where you started. A hike will take you to Tugela Falls and Mont Aux Sources.

History, Tourism and Culture: Undoubtedly the primary attraction along this road is the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. The Qwa Qwa region around Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is primarily inhabited by members of the Batlokoa chiefdom. The Batlokoa community comprises a range of different Sotho-Tswana peoples, its population ranging from Botswana to Lesotho to the Free State and Gauteng.

Witsieshoek snowHeavy snow at Witsieshoek / Photo: Tomcat Tom

The tribe has inhabited the areas around Witsieshoek since the mid 19th century. In 1874, a mission station of the Dutch Reformed Church was established in the area. However, the majority of the Batlokoa living in the Free State today are Catholic. While elements of traditional Batlokoa culture still survive today, such as traditional music and oral poetry, the community has adapted to a rapidly urbanising population and culture, centred on the ever-expanding capital of the Qwa Qwa region,  Phuthadithjhaba (meaning meeting place of the people). 

[Video cover photo: Hougaard Malan]

Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge was originally built in the 1970s as a state enterprise, though former Batlokoa chief Wessels Mota built a stone hut for backpackers on the site in the 1950s. The lodge was gradually given over to the current King of the local Batlokoa community, Morena Mota (son of Wessels Mota), in the mid 90s. It was officially made a community asset by the state in 2000.  Management challenges prompted the Traditional Council of the Batlokoa under their leader, Morena Mota,  to enter into an agreement with Transfrontier Park Destinations (TFPD) in 2010 as management and marketing operators.

Witsieshoek Pass summit sceneryViews looking west near the summit / Photo: Pieter Rinkel

With their focus on the development of a viable and sustainable tourism industry that balances the needs of the local community with those of nature, TFPD now manages Witsieshoek and the surrounding land and tourism activities on behalf of the Batlokoa community. The Batlokoa  still own the lodge and the bulk of its revenue remains within the community; the Batlokoa also provide the majority of the lodge’s workforce.  Any proposals regarding the future of the lodge and the finances garnered by it are relayed to King Mota and his council for discussion before any decisions are taken. Much of the artwork and woven items in the lodge is also made within the local Batlokoa community and Qwa Qwa region.

Renowned for their friendly manner, the Batlokoa people welcome visitors to their local church where an excellent choir sings on Sunday mornings. Traders in the local village of Tsheseng, the closest town to Phuthaditjhaba, can show you both modern commerce and traditional craft and art. 

[All video footage courtesy of Mike Leicester]


Fact File:

GPS START

S28.647624 E28.872674

GPS SUMMIT

S28.727487 E28.890875

GPS END

S28.727487 E28.890875

AVE GRADIENT

1:20

MAX GRADIENT

1:4

ELEVATION START

1953m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

2538m

ELEVATION END

2538m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

585m

DISTANCE

12 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

South

TIME REQUIRED

30 minutes each way

SPEED LIMIT

40 kph

SURFACE

Paving/Gravel/Tar 

DATE FILMED

28.02.2019

TEMPERATURE

19C

NEAREST TOWN

Clarens (86 km)


Route Map:

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Route files:

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

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