#SARoadTrip: Top 5 awesome gravel mountain passes

Cyril Klopper
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 AWESOME ROUTES IN SA: There are some magnificent public roads that the government hasn't gotten round to tarring yet. Check out these 5 gravel passes in South Africa... Image: Supplied / Gerhard Hoogendoorn ~ Supplied

Cape Town - Was it the pictures of lorries scraping past each other on the North Yungas Road in Bolivia – the so-called Road of Death – that has you interested in gravel passes?

Or was it Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor riding their BMW motorcycles on the Kolyma Highway from Yakutsk to Magadan in Long Way Round?

We have a number of trails in South Africa that’ll challenge hard core off-road enthusiasts but let’s stick to those magnificent public roads that the government hasn’t gotten round to tarring yet (and we hope they never will).

No permits needed

To be eligible for this list passes had to be part of a public road (no permits), it had to begin and end within South Africa and surfaces had to be 99% tar-free. For this reason giants such as Sani Pass and lesser known but remarkable trails such as the Kuboes Community 4x4 Trail were not included.

Ratings are based on technical difficulty during dry weather: 1 allows a VW Beetle and 5 requires lockers and low range. The rating should not be confused with those applied to dedicated 4x4 trails.

1. Baster Voetslaan Pass, Eastern Cape

GPS: S31.18783 E27.97673
Length: 35km

The entirety of the Barkley East area is a gravel-pass paradise and any one of its roads deserve to be in a top 5 list. Our favourite is without a doubt Baster Voetslaan.

The pass doesn’t see much traffic and appears almost forgotten were it not for the commemorative plaque that announces the pass’ official name as the Dr Lapa Munnik Pass.

The countryside is covered in an unusual shade of green rarely seen in arid South Africa, giving it an almost otherworldly appearance. Once you have reached the bottom you’ll be surrounded by red sandstone cliffs reminiscent of Golden Gate national park.

Tip: Take plenty of selfies because you’ll share your trip with the folks at home.

Difficulty rating: 4/5

Don’t even joke about heading out with a regular sedan unless you have a grudge against the rental company you hired it from. The road has a number of extremely sharp turns that make it practically impossible to tow an off-road trailer down the mountain.

The ruts and debris will also have motorcyclists on 1000cc dual sport bikes cursing loudly inside their helmets. But it’s a peach of a route and you’ll be glad you came.

2. Naude’s Nek Pass (R396), Eastern Cape

GPS: S30.73878 E28.13695
Length: 46km

Connecting the scenic towns of Rhodes and Maclear, this stunning route actually consists of several short passes, some of them unnamed. It was originally built by two industrious brothers who needed a faster route to the livestock markets beyond the mountains.

Summiting at 2587m, it's the second highest dirt road in South Africa (Sani claims the record). While you are here you may want to check out the Tiffendel Ski Resort. It’s a great place to bring the family during July to see the snow.

Tip: Mind the weather forecast.

Difficulty rating: 2/5 It is usually pleasant to drive but during adverse weather it can become quite challenging in a 4x4 and a downright nightmare on a motorcycle.

After a flood the slushy road may be washed away in places requiring you to get out of your car and push rocks into trenches before you can continue on your way. Or worse: it may be snowing and you’ll have to dig your way out! Fortunately the pass is frequently repaired and a pleasure to drive.

3. Prince Alfreds Pass (R339), Western Cape

GPS: S33.87418 E23.14871
Length: 68km

Where the previous two passes on this list are a little on the short side, Prince Alfred is one that you can really sink your teeth into. Often called Thomas Bains’ greatest work, this pass offers a bit of everything: Bridges, cliffs, retaining walls, hairpins, views, forests, waterfalls, everything except a tunnel.

Tip: It is an excellent pass to ride your dual sport motorcycle on. Spend the night at Angie’s G Spot in De Vlugt and take your time to explore the many side roads through the dense forest.

Difficulty rating: 1/5 It is a testament to Bains’ engineering skills that this pass allows you to explore it in a small city car despite it winding through treacherous mountain terrain.

4. Bezuidenhouts Pass, KwaZulu-Natal

Ronald Doyle
GPS: S28.54327 E29.20934
Length: 5km

Like many gravel mountain passes, Bezuidenhouts can be a bit of a chameleon: If it’s recently been graded the pass will be disappointingly easy to drive, but if it’s been neglected for a while it can reduce a novice motorcyclist to tears.

There are several sharp turns and switchbacks to keep you on your toes but it’s the loose shale and deep ruts that’ll likely catch you out.

Tip: You may wish to deflate your tyres to around 1.5 bar to prevent punctures. Lockers and low range will go a long way to protect the pass from being damaged by spinning tyres.

Difficulty rating: 3/5 Good ground clearance is absolutely necessary if you are travelling by car but low range and lockers can be substituted with attentive driving and common sense.

5. Hela Hela Pass (D114), KwaZulu-Natal

GPS: S29.90981 E30.07748
Length: 7km

Starting the list off easy; Hela Hela Pass lies midway between Richmond and Donnybrook near the Umkomazi River. The pass rises gently into the mountains as you make your way toward the Drakensberg Escarpment.

A few switchbacks and hairpins make the road interesting but the real reason for your visit is the jaw-dropping view over the river below. The pass summits at 1 199m surrounded by pine plantations and towering red cliffs.

Tip: Travel during the rainy season when the landscape is jade green and the river is in flood. Try to time it so that you can observe the chaos of the Umkomaas Canoe Marathon held around March every year.

Difficulty rating: 2/5 Although not particularly challenging, the inclines are fairly steep in certain sections and quite slippery when wet.