Taaibos 4×4 | A tough nut to crack
When his wife suggested they attend the Waterberg Game Festival in Vaalwater, Limpopo, he agreed, writes Drive Out reader Nico Swart. But only because he wanted to get even with a mother of a trail that had once bloodied his nose…
About 200km northwest of Pretoria, past Bela-Bela and Modimolle, there’s a sleepy little one-horse town called Vaalwater. You have to look real hard for it on a map and even on Garmin’s 2010 2nd edition Street Maps it’s a challenge to find it.
It’s tiny – two filling stations, a few shops and banks, a hotel and some agricultural establishments.
The hamlet’s biggest claim to fame is probably the annual Waterberg Game Festival, centred on a game auction and a music festival.
Now I’m no stranger to Vaalwater. I remember arriving there a free man nine years ago and after some sort of ceremony I’ve subsequently found myself attending quite a few family gatherings as my wife’s grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins all call the place home.
I had never attended the festival, but when my wife, Jeanti, suggested that we go last year, I agreed only because I had a score to settle.
About six years ago, after I had bought my first 4×4 – a Colt Rodeo 2800 Tdi twin-cab – a couple of friends and I drove a certain little trail about 30 km north of Vaalwater on the way to Lephalale (formerly Ellisras). It’s called Taaibos.
After the three-hour nightmare it took to free my new vehicle from a horrible little stream – the Taaibos River – that has to be crossed numerous times, I learned that, no matter how aggressive or impressive it looks, a 4×4 vehicle can’t drive everywhere.
Coming back for more
Apart from my little “incident”, the beautiful Waterberg area in which the trail is situated, impressed us so much we wanted to introduce other friends and family to it.
The “veterans” in our company who returned for a second stab consisted of myself, my wife and son in our 2.5 DiD Triton twin-cab, my parents-in-law, Koos and Marinda Terblanche, in an automatic 4.3 litre Chev Blazer, our regular overlanding companions Johann Marais (my old varsity buddy) and Elrine Terblanche (my sister-in-law) and their three-month-old son in a 3.0 Toyota D4-D twin-cab.
The new recruits were our good friends Rudi and Eldorette Kitching and their two daughters from Musina in their 2.5 Toyota D4-D twin-cab, and my brother-in-law Stefan, his fiancée, Thea, and our good friends Neil du Plessis and Christel Johnson ensconced in (or should I say encumbered with?) a 2.4 petrol GWM Hover.
We arrived in high spirits one Saturday morning, completed the formalities with the trail owner and deflated the tyres a bit.
It took about 3-4 hours to complete the 14 km trail, the owner, Christo Pistorius, said before we set off at around 10.30 am. Little did we know what lay in stall for us…
As we only had three two-way radios and limited recovery points on our convoy of five vehicles, we discussed driving positions. It was agreed Johann would lead the convoy, followed by Rudi and his family and then Koos and Marinda. I would cover the rear, following Stefan if he needed assistance in the Hover, which, despite its low range, we regarded as a softroader due to its limited ground clearance. Its Achilles heel would turn out to be its restricted wheel articulation.
Chirpy comments flew thick and fast and we stopped for photographs on the rocky ascent into the Waterberg mountains, which were quite dry at the time.
Within half an hour, we reached the top, where we prepared for the descent to the river. We planned to spend the rest of the day at a large, shady sandbank near the end of the trail where the kids could swim and we could have a late brunch.
As he was new to the game, Stefan was a bit less relaxed than usual, but we assured him he was doing fine and that it was all “downhill from here”, which seemed to put him at ease a bit.
But while we descended I realised we might be in for a longer day than anticipated, as the terrain became much more difficult than it had been during my previous visit. However, nothing could have prepared us for what followed…
About 100m down, the track all but disappeared. The “trail” seemingly hadn’t been used for a long time.
We had no choice but to keep going through clearings between the trees and shrubs, as we’d otherwise risk tumbling down the mountain on adjacent steep parts.
Large boulders, rocks and loose stones brought us to a halt every few metres or so. Stefan’s co-pilot/rock relocator, Neil, and I spent just as much time outside as inside our vehicles directing and guiding Stefan. As the Hover bumped and scraped over the rocks, I thought that if Stefan survived the day, he might be forever cured of the 4×4 bug.
It wasn’t my idea of fun either, and as we descended further and further into hostile territory, I felt sorry for Stefan and his passengers and blamed myself for inviting him along.
Roughly a third down the mountain and two hours later, after much rock relocation and road building, Stefan and I reached the rest of the group.
Here Johann’s vehicle suffered its first damage, amounting to thousands of rands, when Rudi attempted to manoeuvre the Toyota, the rear of which slid down the mountain on very loose gravel and collided with a tree.
While we were taking a breather, the veterans agreed with me – this was hardcore stuff, easily a four rating and five in certain places.
Completely fenced in with trees on that little narrow track, turning around was out of the question. Due to our slow progress, we couldn’t linger long either.
Cry me a river
As we continued our descent, I learned from Johann who had since reached the river that the going wasn’t getting any easier. The obstacles were still roughly 10-20 m apart and were getting worse.
Traversing the rocky river was complicated by hidden holes and sharp and very slippery rocks.
As they progressed down the river, reports from Johann and Rudi way ahead of us became bad. Very bad. Johann radioed that the course mostly followed the rocky riverbed. What’s worse, he got so badly stuck in a sandy section of the river that water flooded into the vehicle. I didn’t tell Stefan, he wouldn’t have appreciated that kind of news.
Johann directed me to an area where it was safer to cross the river.
Soon after, Johann and the front-runners reached the sand bank where the roughest part of the trail ends.
We were so far behind that Johann had enough time to remove his rear wheels and clean sand and mud out of the brake drums before we arrived.
Every time Stefan asked me how far ahead the others were and how far we still had to go, I had to keep mum to keep his spirits up. What I was able to tell him was that the GPS showed we had roughly a third of the route left … as the crow flies.
We lost even more time as no less than four times we had to backtrack and hunt for traces of our companions among the dense scrub along the river.
Meanwhile, my parents-in-law could no longer wait for us, as they had to prepare potjiekos for the artists performing at the festival.
Stefan’s nerves were close to breaking point, so although it was getting dark I stopped for 10 minutes to reassure him that we would make it.
While Stefan was having a smoke
break, Johann radioed to ask where we were. It appeared we were about 300m behind them. To be sure we hooted. They couldn’t hear us but Christel, who went to scout up ahead, told us she could hear Johann’s hooter.
Our progress was so painstakingly slow, it took us about 5 minutes to cover 10 m. At this rate it would be pitch-dark when we reached them.
Finally, as we moved on, we got our first break. One of our companions ahead had walked towards us and told us that we were very close – it had taken him less than five minutes to walk to us and there was only one stream crossing left.
Exhausted, we reached the sandbank at dusk. It was almost completely dark, but at least everybody, except my in-laws who had to leave, was together again.
What should’ve been a 4 hour drive turned out be a 10 hour-plus drive. Our late brunch thus became a late dinner.
We completed the last 1-2 km of the trail that was a very rough gravel road and headed to Vaalwater where we spent the night.
The next morning we scrutinized the vehicles, specifically the Hover, for damages. There was surprisingly little. On the Hover, some plastic clips had become undone resulting in some plastic kit just below the doors tearing loose, it had a spot of paint damage on the front bumper and lots of scrapes on the chassis. The Chev lost its power steering fluid due to a knock. My Triton suffered no damage apart from three mild knocks to the chassis.
The Achilles heel of the Hover is not so much the limited ground clearance, but wheel articulation. The smallest of axle twisters and uneven areas saw it stuck where the double cabs eased through without the diff locks engaged. This caused the greatest damage, as one simply cannot stop everywhere to build a better approach angle. This saw Stefan sometimes gunning it to clear a simple obstacle resulting in knocks and scrapes.
A diff lock would’ve made a world of difference. Thereafter I would lift the suspension, which would then place it squarely in the ranks of the heavy-calibre 4×4’s.
On my wish list you will find rock sliders and a bash plate.
Just before we left that morning, the owner advised us to be on the lookout for a vehicle travelling solo that left an hour or so before us. We never found any traces of him and I hope he made it out.
It’s probably impossible to maintain a trail like Taaibos as a grader, bulldozer or tractor couldn’t get down to the river. If a vehicle breaks down there, it will remain there until you return to fix it. I shudder at the notion of trying to tow a vehicle out of that area. I’d rather face hell 10 times over.
And Stefan? Well, surprisingly, he has since bought his first double-cab bakkie, a Ford Ranger 2.5.
What you should know
Trail distances: 14km and 20km
How long will I be driving? 5 hours and 7 hours, respectively, depending on your skills level
Best time to go: All year, but the trail sometimes closes after heavy rains
Nearest town: Vaalwater (30km)
Accommodation: two-sleeper self-catering chalet (R350 per night); nine-stand campsite (R80 pppn) with facilities next to the river or bush camp (R80 pppn) for the totally self-sufficient; two 6-sleeper dorms (R80 pppn) for hiking groups of up to 30
What else? Other activities include swimming and tubing in a dam or mountain streams, foefie slide, quad biking, hiking and abseiling.
GPS: S24.18537 E27.86510
Contact: Charmaine or Christo Pistorius 014 754 4462, 082 670 0792; email@example.com