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Van Reenen's Railway Pass (D284)

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Views from the pass Views from the pass - Photo: Panoramio

This road is often mistakenly called the Old Van Reenen’s Pass, which is incorrect because the original pass mostly followed the course of the present-day N3 route. The road tracks the course of the railway line, which follows a series of contorted loops and tunnels in an effort to keep the gradient to a reasonable level. There does not appear to be an official name for this pass, so it can be confusing to research and to locate. The road, which is mostly gravel, is in a surprisingly good condition and can be driven in any high-clearance vehicle, provided that the weather allows; like Van Reenen’s Pass, the route is subject to both snow in winter and violent thunderstorms in summer.

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[Video cover photo by StopOver]

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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:

Getting there: To approach from the west, travel along the N3 to Van Reenen. The start of the pass is located halfway through a big bend, approximately 2 km from the town on the eastern side, at GPS coordinates S28.385015 E29.392196. There is no signpost, and some maps (Google, for example) do not indicate an intersection at this location. It is diagonally opposite the turnoff to Windy Corner, a cul-de-sac viewpoint on the western side.

Horse countryExcellent pasturage near the top of the pass / Photo: Bookings.com

To approach from the east, travel from the Tugela Toll Plaza complex near the bottom of Van Reenen’s Pass along the R103 towards Ladysmith for approximately 5 km. Turn left onto the P275, then travel for 3.8 km. You will reach a railway level crossing at this point. Cross the railway line, then turn immediately left onto a gravel road, the D284. Travel along this road for 23.1 km to S28.383865 E29.433355, which is the eastern start of the pass.

We have filmed and described the pass from east to west, in the ascending mode. The pass begins at the crossing of a small stream; in wet weather, this could become a formidable obstacle. The railway line tracks the road on the left-hand side, and daunting views of the mountains that you are about to climb dominate the skyline ahead of you. The road surface is rutted, but in a generally good condition.

At the 400 metre mark, the road veers slightly to the left, just as the railway line disappears into a tunnel. The gradient increases slightly and the vegetation becomes more dense. Watch out for farm animals all along this section, although these mobile hazards can appear anywhere along this part of the road right up until the upper reaches of the pass. The road curves back to the right and flattens out for a short stretch, with some rural dwellings on the right-hand side.

Rural shack near the foot of the passRural homestead near the foot of the pass / Photo: R&D Canon

The road now follows a series of shallow bends, climbing ever upward. Tall trees lining the route give a forest-like impression, but most of these are unfortunately alien. At the 1.4 km mark, the road bends through a long and gradual 90-degree right-hand turn, then almost immediately curves back to the left through a full hairpin of 190 degrees. A dense thicket of trees obscures the sunlight. Slow right down at this point, as without warning the narrow entrance to a tunnel appears in front of you.

The tunnel, which was built in 1925 and was originally part of the railway route, is about 200 metres long. It has a slight curve to the left, which means that very little light penetrates the inky darkness until you start to reach the other side. Switch on your headlights and proceed carefully, watching for any obstacles in your path.

Once you have cleared the tunnel, the road bends to the right then back to the left, and continues to meander up the mountainside, now heading almost directly south. At the 3.4 km mark, there is an intersection with a road leading off to the left – this is the entrance to the Clove Railway Siding.

An old natal Government Railways adOld advertisment for the railways / Photo: The Heritage Portal

Thick bush on the left-hand side obscures your view at this point, but be patient; it does become more open. After a short straight, the road turns through a long 90-degree corner to the right. If you stop at this point and look down towards the east, you will be able to marvel at the snake-like course of the railway as it twists and turns its way through tunnels and across bridges, in an attempt to keep the gradient as shallow as is possible.

The road now enters a sequence of 16 corners, turning left and right through a series of shallow bends, climbing steadily upwards at a constant gradient. At the 5.8 km mark, security fencing which surrounds a Transnet compound appears on your right-hand side. Just after you have passed the entrance gate, slow down and stop at a flat layby on the left. This viewpoint presents stunning vistas over the Besters valley, and you will be able to see almost the entire length of Van Reenen’s Pass to the south-east, easily identifiable by the constant movement of traffic.

A 90-degree left-hand bend is followed by a short straight, then the road curves through an S-bend before reaching another 90-degree turn to the right. At this point, the road is directly above the N3, clearly visible on the left-hand side. Patchy tar starts to appear as the road straightens out, and a plantation of wattle trees cling precariously to the steep hillside on your right. Safety railings guard the sharp drop-off on the left, and low retaining walls make on appearance on the right-hand side to prevent landslides.

 

[Video cover photo by Antbear Lodge]

Thick vegetation encroaches onto the roadway through this last section of the pass. At the 8.2 km mark, a Y-junction is reached, with a minor road leading off to the right; ignore this, and continue straight on along the tar. The road makes a final sharp turn to the left, followed immediately by a T-junction which is the intersection with the N3. Turn left to head towards Durban, or right to travel towards Johannesburg.

Van Reenen under snowSnowbound at Van Reenen / Photo: Ladysmith Gazette

Warning: This is a very dangerous intersection, and vehicles on this extremely busy road approaching from both the left and the right will not be expecting you to suddenly appear out of nowhere. Be patient, and wait for a long gap in the traffic before proceeding.

In the mid-1800s, the small town of Durban on the south-east coast of Africa was little more than a village with a motley collection of thatched cottages and buildings, and around 4000 inhabitants. The settlement was situated among sand dunes and bushes, and wild animals freely roamed the surrounds. That this far-flung outpost of Queen Victoria’s mighty empire would provide South Africa with its first railway is really quite remarkable.

After much planning, debating and quibbling, the newly-formed Natal Railway Company finally laid the rails from Market Square in the town to the Point in the harbour area, some three kilometres away. Even though a railway enterprise had been launched earlier in the Cape Colony, the Natal colonists had made more rapid progress; a fact which gave the Natalians no small measure of pride and satisfaction.

Railway Pass viewed from Pyramids MotelView from the Pyramids Motel with the Railway Pass in the background / Photo: Pyramids Motel

On Tuesday, 26 June 1860, Durban was abuzz with excitement. Dignitaries, including the Acting Lieutenant-Governor, Major Williamson, and the chief clergyman, Bishop Colenso, gathered in the town’s Market Square to provide the necessary pomp and sense of occasion. The great moment had finally arrived; the first official train journey was about to take place on South African soil!

Drawn by an engine aptly named “Natal”, invited guests hosted by the chairman of the Railway Company took their seats in the passenger carriage, and the train set off. The journey is colourfully described by George Russell, who was to become South Africa’s first station master:-

“With a prolonged wailing shriek Jacobs turned on the steam, and the first train moved off amid the deafening and prolonged cheers of the assembled spectators. Gathering speed as he cleared the Engine House, he ran smartly down to the Point, which he reached in about five minutes. The crowd hurled back a defying yell, and started in pursuit, while a number of well-mounted young Dutchmen, who knew a thing or two, decided to test the bottom of the iron horse, so put spurs to their quadrupeds and successfully headed the train until it reached Stanger Street, when it was declared to have bolted around the corner into the bush screaming at them as it ran.”

The locomotive Natal at The Point, DurbanThe locomotive Natal at the Point in Durban / Photo: Graham Leslie Mc Cullum

From these humble beginnings, the railway expanded slowly towards the interior, reaching the foot of the Drakensberg escarpment in the late 1880s. The challenge to overcome this almost insurmountable obstacle proved to be fraught with technical difficulties, but human ingenuity prevailed, and after a massive engineering feat involving a series of tunnels, bridges and reversing stations, the line eventually reached the village of Van Reenen in 1892. It was later extended from Harrismith to Bethlehem between 1903 and 1905, and to a junction on the Free State mainline at Kroonstad (Gunhill) in 1906. The line provided an important shortcut between Natal and the Orange Free State, and was of significant strategic importance during the second Anglo-Boer War.

The reverses were eliminated in 1925 with the construction of a new tunnel (the same tunnel which appears in our video), but the line was still steeply graded, and a totally new line, which included a complete spiral, was opened in 1963.

Van Reenen’s Pass was first laid out in 1856, following the path of traditional game trails. It was named after the rather shadowy figure of Franciscus Josefus Van Reenen (1824 – 1914), who owned farms in the area and was a member of the first Harrismith town council. The present-day pass more or less follows the same route, but certain parts of the old pass are still visible, the most notable of these being the short section from Van Reenen to Windy Corner, a viewpoint which is still traversable today and which is definitely worth a visit.

The route described on this page therefore never formed part of Van Reenen’s Pass, and today is used primarily as a railway service road and an access route for the farmers who inhabit the area between the escarpment and the small traditional village of Besters. Although not an official pass, we have included it on our website as it offers a unique driving or riding experience and beautiful views over the lush KZN landscape. Provided that you have an adventurous spirit, the right vehicle and a bit more time on your hands, the joys of exploring the hidden gems of this little-known pass, as an alternative to the heavy traffic on the N3, make this detour spectacularly worthwhile.

[Text & video footage by Mike Leicester]


Fact File:

GPS START  S28.383865 E29.433355
GPS SUMMIT S28.385015 E29.392196
GPS END  S28.385015 E29.392196
AVE GRADIENT 1:34
MAX GRADIENT 1:6
ELEVATION START 1457m
ELEVATION SUMMIT 1700m
ELEVATION END 1700m
HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS 243m
DISTANCE 8,4 km 
DIRECTION - TRAVEL West
TIME REQUIRED 15 minutes
SPEED LIMIT 60 kph
SURFACE Gravel/Tar (D284)
DATE FILMED 18.03.2017
TEMPERATURE 26C
NEAREST TOWN Van Reenen (2 km)

Route Map:

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Route files:

||Click to download: Van Reenens Railway Pass (Note - this is a .kmz file, which can be opened in Google earth and  most GPS models)

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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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