Words and pictures by Grant Spolander
Standing thigh-deep in a clay-crumbling sloot, I anxiously watch the Fortuner’s tyres creep along the 200 mm ledge. Nervous beads of sweat run down my face and I fight back the urge to blink. The Fortuner’s track width only just straddles the wash away; to the vehicle’s left – a rocky mountain face threatens to maul the Fortuner’s flanks. On the right, there’s nothing but a forest and a long fall to ground zero. My arms are held high above my head but my hand signals only just clear the Fortuner’s bonnet for Gary to see. I slowly cup my fingers and urge him to drive forward. Inch by inch the Fortuner creeps along the ledge before a large chunk of earth breaks free and tumbles to my feet. I flap my arms like a bird in distress and shout “STOP!”. Gary cautiously selects reverse gear and I pray the Fortuner doesn’t wheel spin as it claws its way rearward. Thankfully, the 33-inch Cooper Maxx tyres bite deep and slowly drive the vehicle from harms way. We had only just started the second half of the Mafefe 4×4 Trail and up to that point it had taken us almost three hours to cover a mere 100-metres. Strictly speaking, this part of the trail should be called the Lekgalameetse Route, but then again, even the name ‘Mafefe’ is a thumb suck. Roughly 40 km long, the trail covers a section of the African Ivory Route and drives past Mafefe Camp. From there, the trail heads westwards into the northern Drakensberg and deep into the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve. As such, the route isn’t a trail in the conventional sense; there’s no indemnity forms, recovery facilities, or a route map to refer to; half the trail is a public road and the other half is within a national reserve. It’s also one of the most spectacular drives in SA. The route can be driven in either direction, but travelling from south to north is best. If you do things this way you’ll start the trail on the African Ivory Route side, head through Motsane village, and upon reaching two wooded pillars planted in the ground, you’ll officially start the route – that’s to say, it’s the point at which you’ll want to engage low-range. Before that, most of the road leading up to the trail’s start is a bumpy dirt track. The route to Mafefe Camp climbs quickly on the mountain’s flanks; on the right-hand side you’ll enjoy incredible views of the Olifants River along with a hazy-blue backdrop of distant mountain peaks. The road is mostly rock, embedded into compact clay that makes for a bumpy ride. You’ll want to deflate you tyres as much as possible, just before they start to show signs of bulging on the sidewall. The track turns back on itself time and time again, occasionally an inside wheel will slip and seek traction, but the drive is relatively easy and no more than a grade 2 or 3. Eventually, the road straightens out and levels into a plateau of grassy hills, peppered with acacia trees and an embankment of gentle slopes. At this point, the road becomes less rocky and more clay like; its a dangerous part of the route as you get lulled into believing things are all smooth sailing; however, there are countless wash aways and deep gullies that exist along the track, the slightest loss of attention will see you banging your head against the windshield in surprise. If you zeroed your vehicle’s trip meter at the start of the trail, at about 15 km a field of tall bush-veld grass swirls towards to a tree-line valley and a gaping vortex of darkness – a black-hole entrance to another dimension. From majestic mountain views, mist shrouded peaks and sweeping plains, the route suddenly dives into a densely shaded valley and crosses a perennial stream that courses over grey-aged rocks. Along the trail you’ll see several Africa Ivory Route signs that direct you to Mafefe Camp. If you’re looking for a place to stay en-route, it’s your only option as far as flush toilettes and hot-water showers go. The camp has a great communal braai area and the atmosphere is terrific in the evenings. After spending the night at Mafefe, reset your odometer and backtrack for roughly 2.7 km where you’ll come to a cross-road section – if you keep going straight you’ll go back to the start of the trail. If you want to restrict your 4×4 experience to a grade 3 rating, it would be best to call it quits at this point and return to the trail’s start. However, if you’re keen on some action, take the road northwest (on your LHS) and make your way to the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve. At approximately 5.5 km you’ll come to an old rusty gate that’s hanging off its hinges. Once you cross this non-return threshold you tumble into an unworldly dimension of living, breathing, emerald green. But before you get there, you need to negotiate a 100-metre descent of badly eroded track that crumbles like an over-soaked Ouma rusk. On the final stretches of this descent we eventually aborted the idea of straddling the sloot and decided to drive through it at an off-camber angle. With a recovery strap looped around the Fortuner’s rear bumper, we wrapped the strap around a tree and used a friction-pulley system to prevent the vehicle from slipping into the gully and rolling onto its side. The idea worked well, and with the help of some recovery tracks we finally got through the worse of the route. From there, the trail becomes one of the most spectacular drives in southern Arica. Vines hang from the tree tops, granite boulders line the track, and an immaculate stream continually cuts through the route. This section of the trail is only 5 km long, so you really want to slow things down and make an entire day of it. There are countless places to stop and have lunch, or just grab a camera and wander around. You’ll also find a great rock pool to swim in at roughly 9.5 km (that’s if you had reset your odo at Mafafe). Unfortunately, shortly after that, the trail comes to an abrupt end at approximately 10 km, when you arrive at the chalets within the Lekgalameetse reserve. Upon exiting the park, you’ll be asked to pay a R20 per-person visitor’s fee, as well as a R25 vehicle charge. We visited the area at the end of the dry season, but it was still as green as ever and the streams were running strong. I cannot recommend this trail enough; in most cases it’s better than any route you’ll find north of our country’s border, however, it’s just a few hours’ drive from Gauteng. So if you’re looking for an off-road adventure that’s close by, unforgettable and remarkably cheap, head to Mafefe and be sure to pack your recovery kit.
- Province: Limpopo
- Nearest town: Motsane
- Directions: The start of the trail is approximately 400 km from JHB central. Take the N1 north, followed by the N11 north. Once you reach Mokopane, take the R518 east followed by the R37 east. You’ll eventually reach a sign that points to Mafefe to the left – take that road.
- Nearest fuel stop: Penge
- Distance: Approximately 30 km (Unguided)
- Difficulty: On average the trail is a 2 to 3, sometimes touching on 4, but it will quickly escalate to a 5 in wet weather.
- Soft-roader friendly: No!
- Trail cost: Free, if you turn around before entering the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve. Otherwise it’s R20 per person and R25 per vehicle upon exiting the reserve.
- Accommodation: Mafefe Camp along the African Ivory Route: several bungalows available at R195 per person. Each bungalow sleeps two adults. You’ll also find a communal kitchen area, braai area, and hot showers. Contact (015) 781 0690 or www.africanivoryroute.co.za
- Total garage (Penge): S24º 22.762 E30º 17.492
- Start of trail (Motsane town): S24º 16.716 E30º 13.459
- Lekgalameetse south gate: S24º 12.375 E30º 18.342