As mentioned in my introduction to Mpumalanga, I’ve spent many happy weekends and holidays exploring this picturesque corner of our country. This time my plan was not so much about re-visiting already well known places but to rather try and find something new.
At around 1000 metres above sea level, Sabie lies about halfway up the Drakensberg escarpment forming the divide between the coastal lowlands and the high plateau of the interior. The result is that almost all roads in the area will reveal some spectacular vistas, either going inland towards the highveld or eastwards towards the lowveld. This lovely town is surrounded by magnificent mountain scenery and is the perfect place from which to explore eastern Mpumalanga.
The drive to the summit of Mariepskop was tops on my Mpumalanga to-do list but besides this highlight, there were still a few other spots that I’d wanted to investigate but never made the time for. This was now the perfect opportunity. It was school holidays, so to avoid the mad rush, I booked into Merry Pebbles in Sabie for the duration of the holidays and used that as a base for my excursions.
Eleven Passes Drive
If, like me, you get a kick out of driving mountain passes, then here’s a route suggestion: A round trip of approximately 200km will take you through no less than eleven mountain passes. Some are more spectacular than others but nevertheless the entire drive is very scenic and a lovely way to spend a day. The route mostly steers clear of busy main routes and, adding a further bonus, some of it is on gravel. You’re unlikely to come across much traffic anywhere on this route. None of it is particularly difficult and with reasonable ground clearance a 4×4 isn’t necessary. As usual, conditions in wet weather will be very different:
Leaving Sabie, head east on the road to the Lone Creek Falls. Before reaching Lone Creek, turn left onto the gravel road marked Horseshoe Falls. Carry on straight past the Horseshoe Falls and just follow the road. Passing a large sawmill, this road is well-used by forestry trucks and machinery so be careful and take it easy as it can be a bumpy ride. The lower section follows the shady course of the Sabie river for a bit before it begins rising steeply up the mountain. After about 8km you will reach the main R37 between Sabie and Lydenburg. Turn right here and head towards Lydenburg.
Almost immediately you will encounter the first two of the passes, the famous Long Tom Pass, (the summit, at 2150m will be the highest point of the day’s drive), closely followed by the Masjiennek Pass (2114m) on the descent. This is a main route and the road is in excellent condition as it twists and turns up to the summit and then back down to Lydenburg. There are several places to stop and admire the views and there are a few well-marked tourist stops if you’re so inclined.
Founded in 1850, Lydenburg, now called Mashishing, was once the capital of its very own Boer Republic and can be a destination on its own. It’s worth spending some time in this historic town but for today we’re just passing through.
Take the R36 heading south towards Belfast. Just out of town there is a 4-way stop. Turning right will put you on the R540 to Dullstroom. At this stop, turn left onto the gravel road towards Weltevrede.
For the first 20-odd kilometres you may wonder what’s so special about this road as it makes its way across fairly flat terrain but suddenly you arrive at the summit of the Mokubulaan Pass (1921m) where it begins it’s descent. The views from here are stunning. To the east lies the lowveld towards distant Mbombela (Nelspruit). Look north and you will see the emerald green hills surrounding the Long Tom pass you have just come from. In a southerly direction the road winds steeply down the mountain through lovely grasslands and planted forests.
Roughly 17km from the top of Mokubulaan you will reach a junction coming in from the right. This road will take you directly to the busy N4 where it passes through Schoemanskloof. It’s only about 7km so turn right and soon you will traverse the Wonderkloof Pass (1251m) before the road descends down to the Krokodil River. The last section reveals lovely views of the N4 as it passes through dark green citrus plantations.
Unless you want to join the highway, make a u-turn at the bridge over the Krokodil and retrace your route back to the intersection. Here, take a right turn and the road now descends through beautiful rocky landscapes as it makes it way along the Houtbosloop Pass (1204m) till you reach the Sudwala Caves.
The Sudwala Caves are well worth a visit. However, today we’re driving passes, so as a bonus, take a quick drive up the very steep road to the main entrance of the caves and just continue down again.
About a kilometre after passing Sudwala, turn left onto the R539 towards Sabie. Here, as you cross over the Houtbosloop River you are now at the lowest point of the day’s drive at 832 metres above sea level. Now back on tar, the road almost immediately begins to climb and soon summits the Sudwalaskraal Pass (1113m). Seven kilometres from the Houtbosloop River, take a right turn for a short detour on the D1054 towards Schagen. A short drive along this road will bring you to pass number seven for the day. Mount Carmel Pass (1043m) is fairly short but quite pretty and worth the short detour. The scenery changes as you go lower down as this fertile flatter terrain allows for extensive citrus, avocado and nut farming for which the area is known. At the bottom of Mount Carmel, turn around and retrace your route back to the R539 continuing in the direction of Sabie. This will now take you over the Sudwala Pass (1223m), (not the same as Sudwalaskraal) before the R539 joins the R37 where a left turn will take you back to Sabie.
About 100m before the intersection, there is a smaller road left towards Renosterhoek. Although tarred as far as the tiny settlement of Renosterhoek, there are quite a lot of potholes to negotiate but the scenery is lovely. It meanders along a lush valley through which flows the Nels River. Upon reaching Renosterhoek, a fork to the left will take you along a gravel road till it joins the R37 again above Sabie. This last section rises steeply through plantations and forests with great views back down to the valley below.
If however, you choose not to take the detour through Renosterhoek, then just stay on the R37 towards Sabie. Soon the road will take you over the Hendriksdal Pass (1525m) and finally down the Koffiehoogte Pass (1479m) back into Sabie.
Klipkraal and Kowyn’s Passes
Another lovely day-drive can be done in the opposite direction, heading north out of Sabie towards Graskop. About eight kilometres out of town, turn right towards Wilgerboom and follow this gravel road. It’s a beautiful drive going down the Klipkraal Pass as it descends towards the lowveld. After 21km shortly after crossing the Mac Mac River you will reach the R353 midway between Hazyview and Graskop. Take a left and head back up the escarpment on the Kowyn’s Pass to Graskop and from there back to Sabie. There are quite a number of waterfalls and other sights along this route so make a day of it and enjoy the drive.
Mountain Passes South Africa
I would like to give credit to Mountain Passes South Africa whose excellent website I’ve used for a great deal of my research into the passes travelled. The website is an absolute treasure trove of information not only about the passes but also historical and other interesting facts about the surrounding areas. Their small annual membership fee is worth every cent as it opens up a world of detailed descriptions, co-ordinates, videos, facts, figures and tales about mountain passes throughout South Africa and more recently, Lesotho.
Merry Pebbles Resort
Merry Pebbles Resort is a large, well-known family run establishment next to the Sabie River and only about a kilometre out of town. It has ample space to cope with even the busiest of times and their facilities are amongst the best in the area. Although busy during the school holidays, it never felt crowded and the spotless ablutions easily coped with the large numbers. There are enough activities and plenty of space to keep energetic children busy. Located at the foot of Castle Rock with the Sabie River running through, the scenery is lovely with scenic hikes to nearby waterfalls. Conveniently, there is also a shop, liquor store and restaurant on site.
After an enjoyable stay in Sabie, it was time to move on to Kaapsche Hoop and Barberton.