The Khyber Pass in Afghanistan is one of the most notoriously dangerous and difficult high altitude passes in the world. But did you know that South Africa also has a Khyber Pass? This week we take you to the green rolling forests of KZN well north of Howick into a land of evergreen forests and tumbling waterfalls where the gravel roads can vary from excellent to downright slippery.
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The Kingscote Cutting is an impressive example of road engineering where the hills have been carved into to make a safe and more level driving surface. It's named after the nearby Kingscote farm and lasts for 4,3 km descending a total of 260 vertical metres, producing an average gradient of 1:17. It's located on the tarred R617 route between Kokstad and Underberg with sublime views of the Drakensberg for most of the distance.
Kwaggasnek is a short and straightforward gravel pass which straddles the border between the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal near Volksrust. It would usually be driven in conjunction with Majubanek, a much bigger pass located to the north-east on the same route. The road is not in a particularly good condition, but can be traversed in any vehicle, provided that the weather allows. The pass is probably named after the now-extinct Quagga, which once roamed these hills in vast herds, but the name could also refer to the Burchell’s Zebra which is sometimes called a Kwagga in Afrikaans.
For those of you fortunate enough to have made a 10 day break out of the public holidays, we trust you're having a wonderful time wherever you are and for those of you labouring amongst the work force that are keeping SA's wheels turning - Sterkte!
We get some interesting mail from our readership, including one that arrived yesterday explaining the origin of the name Katbakkies - one of our most popular passes in the Western Cape. The owner of the farm Katbakkies at the summit of the pass has explained the name, so now we can finally put to bed all the other populist versions - and here are the two of the most common theories:
1. In the olden days, when cars were less powerful, they had to reverse up the steep inclines of the pass with their passengers sitting in the boot (kattebak) to help gain wheel traction. (Reality - The pass existed long before the advent of the motor car, so that story can be assigned to the sin-bin, as interesting as it sounds).
2. There is a rock close to the pass that strongly resembles the face of a cat. (Katbakkies = Cat's Face). The owner of the farm has assured us that no such rock exists on the farm or anywhere near the pass. This more reasonable theory, which is widely published, is also not true.
Today we bring you the real story behind the name....
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Gregory’s Nek appears to have been named after James Jenkins Gregory, a prominent citizen of the area around about the 1850s. As there were four generations of Gregorys that all produced sons named James Jenkins, it is a little unclear as to which of these men achieved the honour of having the pass named after him – it could even have been named after the family itself, or their farm, which is located nearby. The pass has a classic profile and is situated on the R33 between Vryheid and Dundee, about 15 km from the latter town. The road is not in a particularly good condition, but it is tarred and as such is suitable for all vehicles.
Van Tonder’s Pass is a gravel road pass located just to the west of the R33 between Dundee and Helpmekaar in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Details of the Van Tonder families that migrated to this area during the Great Trek are a little hazy, but it is most likely that the pass was named after Johannes Van Tonder (1788–1855), who owned the farm “Goedekeus”, located on the western extremity of the pass. The road is in a fairly good condition and can be driven in any vehicle, but this would depend on the prevailing weather conditions. There are some steep sections, and the pass could be decidedly slippery when wet!
The Grobbelaarskloof Pass is named after a farm which is actually in the next kloof to the east. This pass is also commonly known as Colenso Heights. It descends into Colenso from the north-west and is part of the old tarred main road (R103) between Colenso and Ladysmith. The road drops just under 200m in altitude over 5.7 km producing an easy average gradient of 1:29, with the steepest parts being at 1:10. It's a fairly minor pass in the greater scheme of things, but like many of the smaller neks and passes in this area, it's jam packed with battlefields history.
Lombardskop Nek is an easy tarred traverse along the east/west axis just outside Ladysmith in KZN with a minor change in altitude of just 53m. The road routes between a series of peaks and hills which have great historical value and in this instance the peak called Lombardskop takes us back to the Battle of Lombardskop in 1899. We spend most of our research into the history of the Anglo-Boer war, rather than the technical side of this very easy drive.
This insignificant little climb up a small hill with three slight changes in direction is an officially recognized pass on government maps, despite the fact that it does not meet any of the defined requirements of a true mountain pass. This area is, of course, rich in battlefields history and most of the hills, ridges and mountains around the town of Ladysmith have a military connotation - in this case, we have Rifleman's Ridge forming the northern part of the neck, whilst a small peak called Lancer's Peak [1202m] is the highest point of a series of hills forming the southern part of the neck.
This pass lies on the tarred R68 between Melmoth in the east and Babanango in the west and traverses large commercial lumber plantations mostly above 1000m ASL. The road is quite narrow and motorists should always be wary of large logging trucks on this road, which might encroach over the barrier lines on corners, due to their size. The pass has an average gradient of 1:14 which puts it firmly into the 'steep' category. The steepest sections are at 1:7. The pass is also subject to mountain mists which can severely reduce visibility.
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.
We are as passionate about maps as we are about mountain passes. A good map is a thing of beauty that can transport you into the mists of time or get your sense of adventure churning. It is a place to make discoveries about deserts and seas, mountains and lakes; of roads leading into places you have not been before; a place to pore over holiday destinations or weekend camping trips. A map is your window to the world.