September 2018

Lekgalameeste from the summit of Orrie Baragwanath Pass.

Orrie Baragwanath

Funny how sometimes one comes across a snippet of relatively obscure information which then turns out to be a fascinating story.

The story of Orlando Baragwanath is one of those stories.

Many people will be familiar with the very well-known Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital to the south-west of Johannesburg, claimed to be the largest hospital on the African continent and third-largest in the world. And the nearby well-known Soweto suburbs of Orlando East and West – ever wondered where the names came from?

Originally built in 1942 for British Imperial troops stationed in the Middle East, the hospital was located at the 8th milestone (one day’s ride in the early days) out of Johannesburg on the road to Potchefstroom where Mr John Albert Baragwanath had a refreshment post. Formally called “The Wayside Inn” it was simply known as Baragwanath’s and the hospital initially took it’s name from this; The Imperial Military Hospital, Baragwanath. The hospital’s official website gives a very interesting account of the early history of the hospital and is worth reading.

Orlando, better-known as Orrie, was the son of John Baragwanath and his story is the one we’re following.

A few years ago I was looking for some out-of-way mountain passes and the Orrie Baragwanath Pass kept popping up as one of those “must-do” trips for intrepid pass drivers. I’d never heard of this pass so I dug a bit deeper.

Born in 1872, Orrie together with his colleague Frank Lewis are best known for the part they played in prospecting and pegging the Northern Rhodesian (Zambian) Copperbelt in the early 1900’s. Interesting for me, as my father went up to Northern Rhodesia from South Africa in 1927 to look for work in the early years of those copper mines. In the 1960’s I spent my youth growing up on the Copperbelt but we never learned much of the history of the mines.

In 1908, after “discovering” the Copperbelt, Baragwanath and Lewis returned to a farm they owned high up on the mountains in what was then the northern Transvaal. The Downs was named by a previous owner, Ebenezer Gurr-Reed, as this beautiful area reminded him of The Surrey Downs in England. (Some sources say it was Orrie who named the farm).

Orrie Baragwanath on his 100th Birthday.
Image by Chris Walwyn, 1972
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Frank Lewis died shortly afterwards in 1910 but Orrie remained here until he passed away in 1973 at the grand age of 101. His grave can be visited where he was laid to rest on The Downs.

Orrie’s family continued to live on the farm until 1976 when, bequeathed to the people in perpetuity by Orrie, it was acquired by the state and became part of the Lebowa homeland.

The illustrious historical author T V Bulpin’s “Trail of the Copper King” (1959) gives a detailed account of the life and times of Orlando Baragwanath.


The Orrie Baragwanath Pass

The steep western ascent of the Orrie Baragwanath pass.

After settling at The Downs in 1908 a road had to be built to provide access to the plains below and Orrie Baragwanath set about, completing the 27.7Km road from The Downs westwards down to the Mohlapitsi river, and eastwards towards Trichardsdal by 1911.

Retaining walls still hold firm after more than a 100 years.

Today, more than 100 years later, this hand-built masterpiece constructed by a private individual without the benefit of government funds can still be driven and is a remarkable testimony to a remarkable man.

Rising from 771m in the west to it’s highest point at 1380m then descending all the way down again towards Trichardsdal in the east this road was built through some incredibly beautiful but difficult terrain.

In the background the pass winds it’s way steeply up the mountain.

The western section is still much the way it was built more than a century ago. It requires a capable vehicle preferably with four-wheel drive and low-range to negotiate the steep rocky path that twists and turns for 8.7Km up into the mountain till finally cresting a hill to reveal The Downs in all its splendour. From this viewpoint it’s easy to see what attracted Orrie to this bit of heaven on earth.

The spectacular view from the western crest of the pass.

After crossing some fairly level terrain through a broad valley, the road then steeply descends back to the plains below.

The eastern section still follows Orrie’s original road but has been tarred for easy access. Even if one doesn’t have a 4×4 to do the western section, I can highly recommend visiting this beautiful place from the easy eastern side.

The parking area at the waterfall near the bottom of the pass.

Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve

The Downs, Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve.

The Downs, was bequeathed to the people of South Africa by Orrie Baragwanath. After his family left the farm in 1976, the land was incorporated into the then homeland of Lebowa and was proclaimed a nature reserve in 1984 along with seven adjoining land portions. The new nature reserve was named Lekgalameetse (place of water) due to the abundance of water flowing down from the mountains.

The Olifants River.

The adjacent 22 000 hectare Wolkberg Wilderness and the 18 000 hectare Lekgalameetse combine to form a vast area protecting an important water catchment area for large parts of the Lowveld. Waters from this area feed into the Olifants river system sustaining local communities, agriculture and mines further downstream. The Olifants River is also an important source of permanent water as it flows through the Kruger National Park before joining the Limpopo river in Mozambique.

The Limpopo Drakensburg seen from the near Trichartsdal.

The mountains of this area are the extreme northern limits of the Drakensberg range.

Beautiful landscape of Lekgalameetse.

Although larger game animals are not as prolific as in other reserves, the sheer beauty of the surroundings make a drive up to this reserve worthwhile. Birdlife is prolific and birders should be on the lookout for the rare Cape Parrot. Also to be seen are the various historical sites, remnants of the days when the Baragwanaths lived here. The ruins of Orrie’s home can still be seen, an old school and the “forest church”. Also still visible are avocado and eucalyptus trees planted by Orrie although these are being phased out in the interests of removing alien vegetation from the reserve.

Waterfall near the eastern entrance.

Near the eastern gates of the reserve there is a beautiful waterfall tumbling down the rocks. There’s a small picnic area and this is a lovely spot to stop and enjoy the dense greenery of the surrounding forest.


Mafefe 4×4 Camp

Mafefe is built in traditional African style.

While in the Lekgalameetse area I stayed at the Mafefe 4×4 Camp which forms part of the African Ivory Route collection of cultural camps. Although not inside the Lekgalameetse reserve, it’s close enough for easy access whilst at the same time providing quite an adventure driving up the very steep and narrow track to reach the camp from the village of Mafefe 400 metres below.

Almost invisible track.
Dense vegetation closes in.
The rough descent from Mafefe.

The very detailed directions that came with my booking were in fact quite outdated and took me along tracks that hadn’t seen a vehicle for many months. In some places the road all but disappeared and the thick overgrowth made passing through a tight squeeze.

With fresh directions from the camp staff, the return trip was much easier although still sufficiently challenging to warrant the 4×4 designation of the camp. There’s also a short-cut directly into Lekgalameetse but I was advised not to use this as it was very overgrown and would probably scratch my car. Anyway, I’d come to drive the Orrie Baragwanath Pass and for this I needed to go back the way I had come.

The camp has basic but comfortable accommodation in the style of a traditional African homestead. Surrounded by a low wall, the compound consists of a number of sleeping rondavels surrounding a central kitchen area and a separate ablution block. There is no electricity and lighting is provided by paraffin lanterns. Hot water, stoves and fridges are powered by gas.

The communal kitchen area is well-equipped.

The camp has a rather tumbledown air. The staff do a good job of keeping things spick and span and the neglect is not on their side but rather from the head office. Based in distant Phalaborwa it seems there’s not much concern for what fixing needs to be done.

Campers can set wherever they find a spot.

Mafefe doesn’t actually have a proper campsite. Guests who camp are free to set up anywhere they wish. As I was the only guest, I set up my small tent right in front of the kitchen where I had free use of all their facilities.


This was to be my final stop in the Limpopo Province and my next destination was south-east of Mafefe and heading into the next Province of Mpumalanga

Mpumulanga.

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