‘Thelma and Louise’ tougher than 4×4 cowboys

“THE Katberg Pass is essentially no longer passable” said the article in one of those magazines written by 4×4 fanatics.

Of course, we did not know this at the time. We only heard it after we had climbed the mountain and finally managed to get close enough to civilisation at 9.30pm to call Max, my husband, and let him know that we had not vanished from the face of the earth.

It all began innocently enough. After years of frustration about the cool places we could not reach in our little vehicles, Max had recently bought himself a 4×4, a second-hand Hyundai Terracan, which we named Koos because he was so butch and tough and had a two-tone paint job, reminiscent of BKB shirts.

Initially he had recurring issues with the starter and we had begun to get that sinking feeling that he might be a lemon, but we had a lovely trip to Mountain Zebra National Park over Easter where Koos was a perfect gentleman, so our confidence in him grew.

At the same time my friend Sandra, an artist from New York, was coming to help teach art and plant vegetables at Joe Slovo School. She had suggested that she and I go on a road trip in her last week here, mentioning that she had always wanted to see Lesotho.

Max offered us Koos for our journey. We started in a leisurely fashion – cappuccinos at Vovo Telo and the mandatory stop at Nanaga to stock up on roosterbrood and lamb and mint pie.

We stopped in Grahamstown and got back on the road by lunchtime with a mere 211km to cover to Queenstown, where we thought we could spend our first night.

Perhaps this is where the rot set in. We were on a main road with a pretty standard couple of hours ahead of us and would settle in before dark … so there was time in hand to do a little detour and explore some country I had never seen before.

So when we saw a sign showing Katberg Pass to the left, I thought it would be fun to turn off and see what views it had to offer. The GPS showed a road over the pass, which linked to a better one heading for Whittlesea and Queenstown in one direction and Tarkastad in the other.

The first thing we came across was an abandoned farmhouse, which, in hindsight, could have been a precursor of what lay ahead, but the afternoon light was so enchanting that we spent a while clambering over wreckage and photographing it.

Shortly after leaving the farmhouse, we saw an interesting spire peeking over the trees and turned off to investigate. We came across a very run-down Dutch Reformed Church building, and enough rusty fences to attract our photographic attention for a while.

Eventually we had to move on, as we became aware of the lengthening shadows. Passing the Katberg Golf Estate, the road started climbing steeply and showing signs of deterioration, but we reasoned with naive optimism that the access road to a major resort could not be too bad.

Anyway, it was getting really pretty so we carried on, stopping when possible for photos.

The Katberg golf estate was below us in the valley, with panoramic views spreading out beyond. When we stopped for this photo, I switched the car off and when we tried to get going again, the starter motor just gave a sickening click.

I went cold, thinking that the recurring starter problem could not have chosen a worse place to reappear. The sun was setting and there was no way of turning or reversing.

I tried again and Koos started OK. Sandra and I looked at each other with huge relief and vowed that we would not turn the car off again until we were safely in Queenstown.

Lured on by the GPS which showed that we just needed to make it round a few more bends before reaching a bigger, better road, we continued. By now the road had narrowed dramatically and become more like a rutted rocky track, with deep drops into the valley on the left and gullies or rock walls on the right, so it was not possible to turn around anyway.

Sandra quipped: “Why do Thelma and Louise spring to mind right now?”

Creeping along in low range 4×4 and clawing our way up the loose rocks on the steep slope, we finally made it to the top and, thinking that we were through the worst, decided that the views were worth it.

We turned onto the “better” road shown by the GPS, and headed in the direction of Whittlesea, whose lights had begun to twinkle in the valley below as the light faded fast. With sinking hearts we realised this road was barely better at all, in fact it practically disappeared into tracks in the grass in places, and a gullied riverbed in others. But it was getting dark and we knew we would never make it back down the treacherous slope we had just climbed so we had no choice but to follow the GPS and hope for the best.

The lights of Whittlesea sparkled in the distance as we passed stunning rounded hills.

We suddenly went into a forested dip and a large tree had fallen across the road. We found a narrow gap around it, but immediately came across two more, and this time there was no getting through.

We realised we would have to backtrack, so after a 10-point turn in the narrow track, we retraced our path to the top, and tried another faint path that showed around the trees.

We got onto the top of the hill, with the lights of Whittlesea glimmering tantalisingly ahead, and the path petered out into the rocks and grass.

We needed to think what to do next, so I turned the engine off. “Don’t switch off!” Sandra yelled, and I restarted, thankfully it worked first time.

We were making contingency plans to use the gear we had and to sleep in the car on top of the mountain, but I knew Max would be worried by now as he was expecting us to have reached Queenstown long ago, so we reluctantly decided to backtrack over the gullies and rocks until we reached the Tarkastad turnoff to see if that was any better. Thankfully, as we reached the sign, the full moon rose and helped with visibility.

The road improved slightly, although it was a long jolting path with some surreal animal encounters on the way. There were fences on either side, and cattle and horses roaming between them, almost as if the road itself was a long, skinny farm.

We had to navigate a few turns to eventually find our way back to the main Queenstown Road, and encounter the first humans we had come across for at least six hours.

Having a travelling companion who never panicked, but also enjoyed the challenge, really made all the difference. Koos is no lemon, he is THE MAN for making it over a mountain that even the 4×4 cowboys had declared impassable!

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