More than just a passing interest in high-altitude off-road driving
Website that maps the country’s famous mountain passes fills an adventure niche market for the well-heeled, writes Janine Stephen
The moment that changed the direction of Trygve Roberts’s life did not come behind the wheel of a car. It was while treading 11°C water for an excruciating 10 minutes in Table Bay after the yacht he was skippering broached in 2012.
His life "shivered and shuddered before his eyes" before he was rescued. His Man Overboard YouTube video, shot with a GoPro camera he’d attached to the yacht, went viral.
After subsequently trying out the camera on mountain bikes and underwater, he found the best results were achieved by mounting it on his trusty Toyota Land Cruiser. While on holiday in Wilderness on the Garden Route the idea "popped into" his head to film mountain passes. He promptly drove White’s Road (P1621) from Wilderness Heights, around the Touw River and back round the estuary. Thus Mountain Passes of South Africa was born.
Since that drive in 2012, Roberts, now 68, has probably filmed White’s Road another five times, improving the quality of his filming and narration each time. He has gone from subtitles to voiceovers, and screen shots that include the windscreen to a narrower field of view.
The project has grown exponentially. From its origins as a newsletter going to about 50 friends and relatives, his website now has 50,000-100,000 page views a month and 650 subscribers. It provides detailed route information, including videos, of more than 700 passes in all nine provinces (the mother lode is the Western Cape’s 265 passes and counting). A project that Roberts thought would keep him busy for two years is still under way — with the essential help of Johannesburg-based partner Mike Leicester who contributes pass drives in the northern provinces.
The duo still has around 120 passes to map. "As the website gains traction, more people write to us and ask, ‘have you heard about this pass?’," says Roberts. "And another, and another. And we go and film five or six more, but as fast as we produce them, we get new ones thrown at us!"
The most dangerous, offered tongue-in-cheek, is ‘snake way’ in Johannesburg
The website is a gold mine for people with a taste for back roads. There is practical help, such as gradients, videos and maps with instant route finders that calculate distance and time. All the iconic passes, such as Meiringspoort and Du Toit’s Kloof, are mapped.
There is a wealth of detail on obscure gravel roads, including snippets of history, interesting sites and suggested photo stops along the way.
The gravel 8.8km Majubanek Pass (P213) in KwaZulu-Natal can be reached from Newcastle – but only after tackling the Ingogo Heights and Laing’s Nek passes. At the summit is a horse trail and a hike up Majuba Mountain to old battlefields.
The steepest pass is Tierberg in the Western Cape. The most dangerous, offered tongue-in-cheek, is "Snake Way", the suburban Stewart Drive connecting Yeoville to Bertrams in Johannesburg. There is the deliciously named Ping-Pong Cuttings about 40km north of Himeville in KwaZulu-Natal, and the 7.7km Amampoort, a lonely "two-spoor jeep track" that trundles around low mountains in Namaqualand in the Northern Cape.
"This is a quintessential ‘road to nowhere’," the site warns, suggesting that drivers carry two spare wheels and emergency gear. South Africans are deeply attached to their vehicles, Roberts says, and 4x4 adventure driving is growing apace. It is a market segment with money: a new Land Rover Discovery costs from R1m up and a Toyota Fortuner about R440,000.
"People come to SA from other parts of the world to drive on gravel roads," Roberts says. "We have lots and there’s so much to offer the adventure tourist. So much is unexplored."
The back roads are largely undocumented, so Mountain Passes of South Africa fills a gap in the market. While there are one or two books that focus on the country’s passes, they are more historical and don’t attempt a full record.
Roberts started off-road driving "as a way of life" about 15 years ago. He went on a driving course and completed dozens of 4x4 routes from grades 1 to 5 (defined as likely to result in damage to vehicle or bodily harm). By the time he began exploring the further reaches of the country, he was confident he could get out of any trouble he might encounter. He hires a satellite phone for seriously remote places such as the Richtersveld and checks in with family daily. But otherwise he drives and films alone.
The website’s audience is diverse. Besides 4x4 fans, the site now has a big biker following, many Afrikaans speakers and, more recently, Xhosa and Zulu followers. About 46% of visitors are female.
Earlier in 2017, Roberts and Leicester launched a Ben 10 Eco Challenge to promote exploring and tourism in the Eastern Cape highlands. The idea is to drive specific passes within seven days — easy in a 4x4 vehicle, but they can be jogged or cycled.
The names evoke dust and distance: Bastervoetpad Pass, Lundin’s Nek, Volunteershoek and Carlislehoekspruit.
The latter is a snaky 2,563m high route to the Tiffindell Ski Resort, with 1:3 gradients and enough hairpin bends to satisfy most appetites.
On a trip to film all 10 passes again in preparation for the challenge, Roberts rescued a hapless Volkswagen Polo with a trailer that had jack-knifed and nearly headed off the side of one of the mean bends.
Roberts has shredded tyres and become stuck in rivers. Traversing the Doring River in the Cederberg, he didn’t follow his own advice to walk the route first to check on depth.
The water was clear and sandy tracks apparent at the bottom. But in the middle, with about 30m to go, his car began to float. Engaging diff locks, steering towards a handy boulder and other nifty driving techniques saved the day.
On the other side, he came across "what looked like the grim reaper": a motorcyclist in leathers. After battling to cross the river, the biker was too tired to ride further and a friend had taken his bike up the pass. Roberts offered a lift (standing room on the bumper) and after feeding the pair at the summit, made new friends.
"We meet interesting people," he says.
Although the growing subscriber list and a tiny amount of money from Google adverts help to cover travel costs, Roberts says the website was never designed to be a money-spinner; it has always been more about a "legacy".
He stills runs a motor car business, but much of his spare time is devoted to passes, their twists and surprises. "The most magical pass? Probably the road to Die Hel [Gamkaskloof, 37km]. It captures everyone’s imagination and it’s an oasis of greenery – it’s definitely not like going to hell," he says.