Passes & Poorts: EC Highlands Naudes’ Nek

Naudesnek-winding-roadTweaking the Dragon’s Tail
It’s the pass with the highest summit on a public road inside South Africa, but pass chasers out for a bit of fun should note that Naudes’ Nek Pass in the Eastern Cape is also one of the longest to drive. Go prepared, advises Marion Whitehead.

Just how long can it take to do 70-odd kilometres on gravel, I pondered as I belatedly left the tar south of Mount Fletcher, heading for the tiny mountain village of Rhodes. Driving in the Drakensberg should never be undertaken lightly and I should have left earlier, but I’d been distracted by an amazing rock art site on a morning walk with local guide Thabathani Tshaka and we’d spent more time on the mountain than I intended.

KwaBhaliwe is a fairly recent discovery and one with the potential to challenge the status of  KwaZulu-Natal’s Game Pass Shelter, known as the holy grail of rock art in South Africa, as being key in helping us decipher the world view of the Bushmen who painted these rich murals decorating so many rock faces in the Berg.

“See this figure here,” Thabathani pointed out, there’s something coming from its mouth, it may be blood or spirit. It shows that when in trance, the shaman has an inner power for healing.”

By the time I dropped the entrepreneurial guide off at his little tourist info office in Mount Fletcher, it was early afternoon and there were some big clouds in the otherwise gloriously blue sky. The road snaked up a valley alongside a meandering stream on farms frequented by fly-fishers, but I couldn’t afford to let my eyes wander too much. Bare bedrock poked out of the gravel on many a corner above steep drop offs on Moordenaarsnek Pass, a low-key warm-up to the real challenge. Clouds rumbling across the sky created a distracting patchwork of bright and dark greens across the land, crisscrossed by glittering streams and brooding trout dams.

Naudesnek-monumentAs the mauve mountains of the southern tail of the Drakensberg rattled closer, I pretended to be one of the Naude brothers who’d pioneered this route on horseback in 1896 and I tried to guess the best place to put a pass over the peaks. Just when I’d fixed on a good spot, I’d crest another hill and have to revise my engineering daydreams completely.

By the time I got to the final approach to the 2 590-metre summit of the pass, the shadows were lengthening and the wind was tumbling the seed heads of the mountain grasses wildly enough to give them all severe whiplash. A high retaining wall of solid stone supported the last big bend, Mooidraai, where there’s enough space next to the national monument plaque to stop and say your goodbyes to the coastal plateau, its sweep so broad that the curves of our lovely blue planet steal the panorama away.

Consulting the map, from this highpoint where the Drakensberg, Witteberg and Maloti Mountains meet, I still had more than 30 kilometres of twisting gravel to go with a low sun ready to burn its fiery image into my retinas. I was about to kick myself for letting the impending darkness spoil some of the most spectacular views these hulking mountains can offer when I spotted the turn off to Tenahead Mountain Lodge, one of the highest places to stay in South Africa. I turned gratefully into the 3 500-hectare private nature reserve and found a luxurious haven for my weary bones. It’s an alpine eyrie for nature lovers, birders in search of rare bearded vultures and fly-fishers, who enjoy dangling their alluring paraphernalia in the icy upper reaches of the Bell River.

Next morning, I took the long downhill drive to the village of Rhodes while the mist was still swirling over the nek of the pass. There were twisties galore on the descent, accompanied by magnificent scenery, making me glad I hadn’t tried to navigate the pass in the dark. In one place, the road’s curves made a perfect heart and my own inner pump leapt, mirroring the joy the road builders must have experienced.

It wasn’t long before I encountered the first of a group of adventurous mountain bikers with strong legs, inhaling the thin alpine air with gusto. For their cycling holiday, they’d based themselves at Rhodes and were pedalling one of the area’s numerous passes each day – as long as their legs held out, grinned a puffing biker.

Naudesnek-river-walkIn places the road followed the winding Bell River and, gazing at its clear, dark pools, I began to understand the fly-fishers’ fascination with the fast-flowing rivers of this area.
On the banks of the river at the western end of the pass, there’s a memorial to the two tough Naude brothers who pioneered the track in 1896 and it’s a pleasant spot to picnic under willow trees. However, it took the roads department many years to turn Naude’s Nek Pass into a proper ox wagon road, with construction hampered by heavy snow in winter. Today it still evokes the adventurous spirits of its pioneers and, even in good weather, a high clearance bakkie is advisable.

I eased into Rhodes needing some refreshment. It’s a charming village hideaway surrounded by mountains where time appears to have slowed down to the proverbial snail’s pace. Locals consider their collection of Victorian cottages to be the centre of the universe – and if you’re into fly-fishing, mountain biking, hiking and just chewing the fat with a bunch of mates over a pint in the pub, their claim may not sound so far-fetched.

Father Christmas look-alike Dave Walker normally presides over his pub at Walkerbouts Inn, but I discovered this local character with the long white beard likes to practice what he preaches and had gone fishing. The rainbows swimming about the tank in the bar waiting for dinner certainly didn’t get there by themselves. Instead I got chatting to fly-fishing guide and coach Tony Kietzman. After the obligatory stories of the big ones that got away, we got on to what else goes down in this Eastern Cape hideaway: extreme trail runs, an ultra-laidback Stoepsitfees, spring flowers, horse riding and snowy winter wonderlands. Birders can look forward to ticking more than 250 species in a range of habitats but, best of all for a pass chaser, are the 14 passes piercing the mountains surrounding the village. This may well be the centre of the universe for pass chasers.


This article first appeared in the Sunday Times Travel Mag.

Tshaka Tours: 073 242 6952

Tony Kietzman fly-fishing, birding and flower guide: 082 894 3946

Tenahead Mountain Lodge: 045 971 8901 | 0861 748 374 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. |

Walkerbouts Inn: 045 974 9290 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. |

NB: Fill up with fuel at Barkly East or Maclear before setting out for Rhodes as the village pump is unreliable.
Marion Whitehead is author of the travel guides, Passes & Poorts South Africa and Passes & Poorts Western Cape (Jacana).

Good to Know
Rhodes Stoepsitfees

Good food, great company and rural hospitality are hallmarks of the ultra laid-back Rhodes Stoepsitfees when visitors get to meet the locals over a “cuppa” on their stoeps and natter while knitting blankets for charity. It’s a chance to leave the urban madding crowds behind and kuier in a Victorian village pretty much lost in time.