Another visit to the Valley of the Kings
The rugged, mountainous terrain of KwaZulu-Natal has 28 mountain passes, with many tarred, and on main roads. Although this does not detract from the area’s scenic beauty, these passes have lost some of their appeals to off-road travellers. Luckily the province has some challenging dirt and gravel passes that fulfil all the requirements of 4×4 enthusiasts.
We all know Sani Pass, the highest pass at 2876m, is located on the border with Lesotho, but the Valley of the Kings offers quite a few other 4×4 gems.
The Devil’s Pass consists of a rough track up the Southern slopes of the historical Mhlobane Mountain. This pass has a summit at 1562m with more than 3500 panoramic views. Be warned though: this track terminates at a dead end at the top, meaning you are forced to reverse to decent, which can be quite a challenge!
Sandspruit Pass sports a demanding gravel pass that requires technical driving in low range, and you’ll need more than the usual ground clearance. Watch out for deep ruts in some sections that occur along the summit in wet conditions. It is hard to imagine that this pass was a route once used by Voortrekker Piet Retief who had only a team of 4 x Oxen to rely on.
Hela Hela Pass offers an altitude gain of 651 vertical meters over 7.19 km making it a rather difficult gravel pass, with an average gradient of 1:11 and some sections up to a 1:6 gradient. In wet conditions, you will find it a slippery slope indeed.
Normandien Pass has all the classical elements of a first-class mountain pass. With an elevation gain of 515 vertical meters, tight bends, loose gravel, switchbacks, and a few sections with a 1:6 gradient, you need to be brave. Some steep sections have been kitted with concrete stripping to help with traction, but you will still need a diff lock and good ground clearance.
Meet me at the Terrace!
Let us introduce you to two of the gems that are somewhat off the beaten track: Ithala Game Reserve and Thangami Game Reserve. Ithala is a Zulu word for “terrace” and Thangami aptly means “meet me”.
Ithala Game Reserve’s 4×4 trail is a self-drive rocky mountain track with river crossings. Only three vehicles are allowed at one time so you’ll have to book in advance. The 18 km Bivine Trail is intended for low-range vehicles, with a more scenic route with game viewing along the 34 km Nce Nce Trail. These trails should take between 4 and 6 hours to complete, and are graded from 2 to 4. The good news is that you will be able to visit the restaurant, bar, and coffee shop afterwards!
Ithala is located to the north of Louwsburg, about 70 kilometres East of Vryheid and about 400 kilometres North of Durban. The town was proclaimed in 1920 and named after Dawid Louw, who was a well-known pioneer in the area. To get to Ithala Game Reserve, take the N2 past Rosendal towards Pongola Dam, but turn south to get onto the R66. About 20kms from the N2, you turn west again onto the R69 towards Louwsburg. Thangami Mineral Spa and Game Reserve has four interlinked trails that crisscross around the game reserve. Trails offer steep inclines and declines, loose sand, river crossings, unstable rock, the occasional log, and glorious mud (their trademark, actually). The 2-hour trail is eight kilometers long and ideal for those with limited experience. The 4-hour trail is 20 kilometres long and includes steep slopes, river crossings, and mud (depending on the season). Thangami has a variety of plant and animal life so you will be tempted to look around – adding to the pleasure of the challenge. The area is unique with its mineral-saturated mud fountains and hot minerals springs. The family can enjoy the hot and cold swimming pools, jump in the mud or try their hands (and feet) at abseiling or the zip line. Self-catering accommodation is available (2-10 sleeper options), and it is a good venue for teambuilding activities too.
Thangami is located about 75 kilometres from Vryheid (translated as “freedom”) in KZN, a town close to the site of one of the more infamous battles of the Battlefields Route, the battle of Blood River, fought in 1838. Vryheid is one of the more interesting towns on the Battlefields Route, well worth a visit. To get to Thangami Game Reserve and Mineral Spa, follow the N3 towards Germiston/Durban and take exit 133 for the R34 toward Vrede/Frankfort. Basically, stay on the R34 until you reach road P219, and continue for 44 km on the winding road, closely following the GPS coordinates.
Remember before embarking on these challenges to ensure that your vehicle is in tip-top shape, so bring your 4×4 to us for a service or repairs: https://n14x4.co.za/rmi-workshop/