Zuurberg | Following Smuts through the Zuurberg Mountains
Deep in the wooded ravines of the Eastern Cape’s Zuurberg mountains a winding 4×4 trail follows the tracks of Gen. Jan Smuts and his Boer War commando. Here Barnie Louw and photographer Mouton van Zyl discovered that local history can be almost as exciting as taking on a steep mountain pass.
For three months afterwards, the stench from the decaying horses ensured that no-one would dare venture far into the kloof. But once the smell had subsided, the farmers of the district, so it is said, heaved wagonloads of saddles, bridles and stirrups out of the ravine.
From our vantage point on this crisp winter’s day, near the top of the Bedrogsfontein Pass in the Zuurberg, and looking down into the kloof, it’s easy to see how 700 English horses could have ended up in the bushes below.
If you close your eyes and use a little imagination, you can see the English ride unsuspectingly up the narrow pass, right into the Boers’ ambush. You can hear the pandemonium as the first shots ring out, the whistling of the bullets from the Mausers and the Martini-Henrys, the desperate neighing of the horses, and the agonised cries of their riders.
This is how Deneys Reitz describes the events in Commando: A Boer journal of the Anglo-Boer War: “The English could not deploy on the narrow road, so they pulled round and made back as fast as they could, for the ground above and below was so steep that they had to keep to the causeway, down which they poured in disorder.
“They seemed to be boring and pushing each other frantically under our fire, horses and men toppling over the edge of the road, and crashing into the timber beneath.”
Fortunately for us, more than a century later, we arrived safely at our lunch stop on the top of the mountain, without our Land Rover and Patrol falling off the precipice and crashing into the bushes below, as happened to the English and their horses on that fateful day.
Early this morning in Kirkwood, photographer Mouton van Zyl and I met up with Stef Delport, local historian, citrus farmer and our guide for the day. Although it was harvest time, a few of the citrus farmers decided to take a break from navels, valencias and clementines, and to join us in exploring this rugged mountainous region at the edge of the Sundays River Valley.
A historian on a 4×4 route?! Indeed. Look, the route from Kirkwood through the woodlands of the Addo Elephant National Park is actually only 45 km long. It takes you through unspoilt mountain scenery, past the yellowwood trees in deep kloofs, over the Zuurberg with its cycads and fynbos to the noorsveld around the Darlington Dam (where a village was sacrificed so that the Sundays River Valley could flourish).
So yes, you can tick this route off your list in four or five hours and then tell your mates about the drifts, steep inclines and stony paths that you’ve conquered. But you’ll be doing yourself a grave disservice if you go about it this way.
Why? Because this route through old hunting grounds and battlefields stained by the blood of man and beast, is steeped in history. Around every corner a new story crops up: stories about border wars way back, Boer War stories and anecdotes of things that happened just the other day.
This once brutal and bloody border of the Cape Colony is one of the few places in South Africa where almost every ethnic group has fought: Xhosa against Khoi, Xhosa and Khoi against Boer and Brit, and eventually Boer against Brit.
This is why it’s worth enticing a historian away from his research and into the bush for a day. Because on this 4×4 route there is more history per square metre than just about any other place in South Africa.
Pg 2: Hey, where’s my …
Hey, where’s my cattle?
“From the point where we reached the top, we looked on a world of more mountains, line upon line of high ranges, each separated from the next by deep wooded gorges, and the prospect of being driven into these fastnesses was not inviting.” – Deneys Reitz
Stef is in his element. Before we had even lost sight of the citrus orchards of the Sundays River Valley, he and Reitz had us spellbound.
As we left Kirkwood, Stef started relating the gripping tale of what had taken place in this region in the course of a few days in early October 1901, when Gen. Jan Smuts landed up in the Zuurberg during his invasion of the Cape Colony.
By the time we approached the entrance to the park, I was scribbling so fast to keep up with Stef’s narrative, that I started panicking that my ballpoint pen wouldn’t survive the day.
Those were action-packed times: within a day or so of arriving in the Zuurberg, Smuts and his starving commando of approximately 250 men had eaten poisonous cycad seeds here in the gramadoelas and become seriously ill (but survived), planned to invade Port Elizabeth and thoroughly whipped the English in the Bedrogsfontein Pass.
On the route we’re doing today, we’ll be crossing the path of Smuts and his commando a number of times ….
It was through this very Uye poort (gateway) on the way to the Kabouga Gate, that some of Smuts’s men rode down to seize Bayville, a day or two after they had entered the Zuurberg from the north.
As Reitz eloquently relates: “Next morning we went down into the beautiful valley filled with yellow wood trees, centuries old, and here camped for the rest of the day …
“One of our men recognized this part, having hunted buffalo and elephant here long before, and he said that he remembered a path running south by which we could get out of the mountains into the valley of the Sundays River, where we might take the small village of Bayville.”
Bayville, Kirkwood’s forerunner, was a hefty stone’s throw from the existing town centre. There the commando relieved a shop owner of his supplies, in addition to appropriating a couple of hundred pounds from the bank manager of Uitenhage who had come to Bayville to do business for the day.
The commando’s morale took a blow shortly thereafter, when an English patrol shot and killed three Boers on a farm further up the valley. (These were the Boers who perished the furthest south during the war.)
Although it’s now more than 100 years since Smuts’s invasion, you can still see what Reitz meant by the “deep, wooded gorges” and “fastnesses”.
Even here, at the tame beginning of the route, there are a few kloofs into which you could easily disappear if Igor and Boris should insist in less than subtle ways that you pay back the few rand you borrowed from their boss, Stanislav, just before the J&B Met last year.
After paying the necessary fee at the Kabouga Gate, we stop for breakfast under the acacias in the Mvubu Camp, on the banks of the Sundays River. Usually there are a few hippos in the river, but no
Between bites of his egg sandwich and sips of coffee, Stef explains how this very river was almost the end of Kommandant Tjaart van der Walt and his punitive commando in 1802.
Van der Walt and his men from the Swellendam District were sent to recapture cattle which Khoi and Xhosa cattle thieves had stolen from the frontier farmers, and at the same time to punish the poachers.
They swiftly carried out their orders, crossed the Sundays River and attacked the poachers’ kraal (presumably situated just outside the present-day Kirkwood). Although Van der Walt’s son died in the attack, they managed to bring back 200 head of cattle, 12 muzzle-loading rifles and five horses.
Their problems began when they got back to the Sundays River. Whilst they were gone, it had begun to flood, leaving them stranded on the wrong side.
To make matters worse, the poachers were not exactly in the best of moods and began to lay into the trapped commando. To placate them, the commando were obliged to return everything they had taken, plus Van der Walt’s rifle.
Shortly afterwards the poachers attacked again, but in the meantime the water level had dropped, and the men were able to escape unharmed.
The Mvubu Camp is relatively close to the beginning of the route and is ideal for a late-afternoon arrival, overnight camp and early departure for the mountains. Or you can stay at the Kabouga cottage, a renovated farmhouse, just a few kilometres further on.
Although the first part of the route as far as the Kabouga cottage is easy driving on a reasonable gravel road – more farm bakkie than 4×4 territory –the natural surroundings are far from tame.
The bushy vegetation clinging to the steep cliffs of densely covered ravines make me wonder yet again how on earth anyone could make it through this territory on horseback. Jannie Smuts, I salute you and your men!
It’s so overgrown that a bulldozer would most probably be the best way to get from one valley to another. And to think that until not so long ago, before the Parks Board bought up the farms and incorporated the land into the Park, this rugged land was actually being farmed. The farmers of the Zuurberg, I salute you too!
Beyond the Kabouga cottage the route begins in earnest. The road burrows deeper and deeper into the kloofs; the inclines become ever steeper and pretty soon there are a couple of small drifts of the Kabouga River to be crossed.
Pg 3: Hard times in …
Hard times in the Zuurberg
“Scattered about stood a strange growth known as ‘Hottentot’s bread’, a wild fruit not unlike a large pineapple. It is edible only at certain seasons of the year, but coming from the north, we did not know this, and as one of the men sampled it and found it to his liking, many unfortunately followed suit.” – Deneys Reitz
Your knowledge of plants won’t necessarily make you the life of the party, or weaken the knees of that new girl in accounts, but had Smuts and his men known their Encephalartos longifolius from their Encephalartos
altensteinii, they would have escaped keeling over and nearly dying like cattle that have eaten green lucern.
Yes, the English columns chasing them back and forth over the Zuurberg were a problem, but it was an indigenous plant – and not the English – that nearly
finished off Smuts and his men.
As we drove higher and higher into the Zuurberg, Stef would from time to time point out the cycads looming like sentinels on the steep sides of the mountain. It was to these trees that Smuts’s commando turned in hunger.
“Up to now we had found so little difficulty in commandeering supplies from the farms we passed, that no one ever thought about the next day, with the result that when we unexpectedly found ourselves in a wild region without habitations, the men had little or no food with them, and were already beginning to feel hungry,”
Exhausted and ravenous after a day or two without food, the Boers came upon the Zuurberg cycad (Encephalartos longifolius) which can grow to six metres in height, and began to eat the poisonous seeds.
The result? The men fell out of their saddles, much like a drunken Russian sailor falling off a bar stool. Others, including Smuts, lay on the ground, convulsing in agony, while some lost consciousness.
While this was happening, the English decided it was time to make life even more difficult for them, and attacked. Those burghers who had not eaten the seeds had no choice but to tie the unconscious men to their saddles and lead them to safety.
“..[I]t was a bold man who mentioned ‘Hottentot’s Bread’ to General Smuts for a year or more afterward,” General Ben Bouwer drily remarked in his memoirs.*
Smuts later confessed that he suffered the consequences of the cycad episode for the rest of his life, and it was many years before he could see the funny side of it. And yet this story later became one of his favourite anecdotes from the Boer War.
I doubt that Smuts’s men were then aware of or even interested in the fact that their route covered seven of the South African biomes – something Stef points out to us as we drive along.
He shows us how the landscape changes, sometimes dramatically and sometimes more subtly. First there’s the valley bushveld biome with its sneeze-wood, elephant’s food, ghwarrie, aloe, wild olive and wild plum, which alternates with the tigerwood, yellowwood and milkwood of the Knysna-like temperate forest biome.
Then, higher up, it’s the fynbos biome with its stretches of proteas and pincushions, before the openness of the sour grass veld biome, covering the highest areas of the Zuurberg.
As you descend the sunny side of the mountains you find yourself in yet another world: the noorsveld and elephant’s food show you that you’re now in the Nama Karoo biome.
Pg 4: A Pandemonium of …
“A Pandemonium of men and horses”
“We made a long trek through the kloofs of this wild region until, after midday, we found a disused pass, made, I was told, by Sir Harry Smith in the ‘fifties during the native wars. This pass ran up a dark ravine, flanked with dense timber, and heavily overgrown with brushwood, but otherwise in good preservation.”
– Deneys Reitz
About fifty years ago there were apparently still thirty English graves here, all neatly lined up alongside to one another, but baboons looking for scorpions
and cattle grazing in the veld have made sure no stone has remained unturned.
We get out of the vehicles just before the top of the Bedrogsfontein Pass and Stef leads us a little way into the veld. He shows us a flat stone standing upright, hidden under a bush, and another one nearby. This is all that remains of what historians assume are the graves of the English who fell in the Battle of Bedrogsfontein.
We stop on the other side of the road for lunch, in a clearing under two giant milkwood trees, on the same spot where Smuts and his men had outspanned, more than a hundred years ago.
Here Stef tells us how the English rode into the Boers’ (hastily planned) ambush:
After the commando fell ill from eating the cycad seeds, looted Bayville and lost three of their comrades, their problems were still not over. Therafter an English force coming from the Uitenhage side chased them out of the Sundays River Valley and back into the
By then the commando had heard about the Bedrogsfontein Pass built by Sir Harry Smith in the 1840s to take his troops over the Zuurberg during the frontier wars.
The pass consists of a narrow path that coils ever higher and steeper, around countless sharp bends, through deep, thickly overgrown ravines, up to the small plateau just before the top – the very same route that we drove this morning.
There the commando felt reasonably safe, dismounted, shot two wandering head of cattle and lit a braaivleis fire under the two milkwood trees, which are still there today.
“… [W]hile the rest of us turned our horses out to graze and lolled about at our ease, admiring the grand forest scenery and enjoying the luxury of our beautiful surroundings …” Reitz describes the commando’s comfortable situation.
The burghers began to relax, believing the English would never dare venture up the steep and narrow mountain pass, whilst they were at the top. Some of the men dozed in the sun, others cut each other’s hair and ate the chocolate which they had looted in Bayville.
But the English were under the impression that the Boers had fled right over the mountains. When the Boers looked again, it was to see a thousand-strong English cavalry riding up the pass in ranks of four abreast. They were so relaxed that they hadn’t even sent out scouts.
This part of the pass consists of a narrow road with a steep wall on one side and a precipice of about 300 m on the other. The Boers hurriedly set up an ambush, waited until the English were within range and opened fire …
Bouwer described what happened next: “The result may be imagined: maddened horses tumbled screaming into the donga, carrying their riders with them. Their line for eight hundred yards down was a pandemonium of men and horses.”
The Boers left behind a ghastly scene in that pass: According to Smuts’s biographer, William Hancock, Smuts estimated that about 200 English and 700 horses were killed, wounded or injured. And the biggest cause for this was their panic-stricken attempt to escape more so than the effects of the Boers’ bullets.
Pg 5: A village is …
A village is sacrificed
“We were all heartily pleased to be clear at last of this appropriately named range.” – Deneys Reitz
Afterwards the Boers, like us, followed the meandering pass further over the Zuurberg, through fields of fynbos and grass veld to the highest parts, before descending to the plains of the Karoo.
On the other side of the mountains the commando came upon a British camp, where they were busy preparing a feast. Evidently the commander of the English column that had just ridden into the ambush, had earlier sent word that they had successfully driven Smuts out, and that he thought a celebration would be in order.
The Boers helped themselves to such ample fare as roast chicken and turkey, set the camp on fire and then made themselves scarce, because as Bouwer wrote: “[We] knew instinctively that if you eat a man’s carefully prepared dinner and destroy what you do not require … he is in the imperfect state of human nature – apt to cherish uncommonly hard feeling towards you.”
The Bedrogsfontein Pass probably looks just as it did 100 years ago, but on the dry side of the Zuurberg the world looks very different today.
From the last mountain ridge of the Zuurberg, Smuts and his men would have looked down onto the open, dry plains of the Karoo. Today we are looking down on a massive stretch of water, recalling that a small village had to be sacrificed for the Sundays River Valley to flourish.
Darlington was officially founded in 1905 by former hawker, P.W.F. Weyers, whose cattle the Boers shot on the Bedrogsfontein Pass (apparently Weyers harboured a life-long grudge on account of this loss).
Fruit orchards and vineyards were planted in the fertile silt, and a hotel, post office, shop, smithy and houses were built, all of which had to disappear under water when Lake Mentz was completed in 1922 to supply irrigation to the citrus farmers further down in the valley.
Darlington’s best-known inhabitant must surely have been Dr Reginald Koettlitz, the senior medical official on Captain Robert Scott’s first expedition to Antarctica (1901–1904). Blame had been laid at his door when Scott’s men had contracted scurvy, and he had taken refuge in Darlington.
The first chairman of the irrigation board was none other than Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, author of Jock of the Bushveld.
When it was suggested that the dam be named after the then minister of land affairs, Colonel Hendrik Mentz, who was not exactly a popular man, someone was said to exclaim: “Oh, damn Mentz!” “No, Lake Mentz,” came the reply. (In the 1990s it was renamed the Darlington Dam.)
* Sources: Memoirs of General Ben Bouwer by P.J. le Riche, HSRC, 1980; General Jan Smuts and his Long Ride by Taffy and David Shearing; privately published, 2000; Commando: A Boer journal of the Anglo-Boer War by Deneys Reitz, Jonathan Ball, 1998.
** Additional reporting by Piet van Niekerk
*** Drive Out travelled with Suurberg Safaris and paid all their own expenses.
Pg 6: Quick facts
I WANT TO GO TOO!
The best time to go?
In the spring, autumn and even in winter. Anytime but summer, when it’s unbearably hot, particularly in January and February. In fact, the highest temperature ever recorded in South Africa was in Kirkwood in 1928 – a whopping 50.3˚C.
How tough is it?
The grading of the route is 2–3.
4×4 or not?
Apart from the fact that your bakkie with diff lock will probably not make it over the hills and dales of the Zuurberg, only 4x4s with low range are permitted on the route (to prevent Mother Nature from getting a kick in the teeth).
Self-guide R250 per vehicle; if you want a guide, Stef will work out a tariff for you, based on the number of vehicles and number of persons in your party.
Where can I stay?
- Mvubu Camp (R60 per night for the first two guests; R15 per additional person; plus a R20 conservation fee per person) is ideal for late afternoon arrival and an early rise for the trek over the mountain.
- Or you can book the Kabouga cottage (R250 per night for the first two guests, R90 per additional person; plus a R20 conservation fee per person). It’s practical and convenient because you won’t have to load up too much camping gear.
- The luxury Darlington Lake Lodge (R680 per person sharing; including three meals a day) is managed as a concession on behalf of the Parks Board.
- Stef Delport/Suurberg Safaris:
042 230 1311; 082 657 1960;
- 4×4 route/Mvubu Camp/Kabouga cottage:
042 230 0740 (Gladys)
- Darlington Lake Lodge:
042 243 3673
- Addo Elephant Park:
042 233 8600;042 233 0556;
- Sundays River Valley Tourism:
042 230 0066; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.greateraddo.com
BUT I DON’T HAVE A 4×4…
Relax, you don’t need a 4×4 to drive over the Zuurberg Mountains. After all, the main route between Port Elizabeth and Somerset East used to cross these mountains as recently as 50 years ago.
The R355, about 40 km east of the 4×4 route, is decent gravel road. It passes the stately Zuurberg Inn which houses one of the oldest genuine English pubs still operating in South Africa.
From Port Elizabeth you take the R335 to Addo (the locals call it the Motherwell Road). Take the turn-off to the left, just outside Addo, to get onto the R335 over the Zuurberg.
Approximately 30 km beyond Ann’s Villa, the R335 intersects the R400, which will take you to the Darlington Dam. In this way you can easily catch up with the guys who’ve already crossed the mountain in their 4x4s.