20 May The Mini Camel Trophy in the Wild coast
4 Land Rovers, 4 Toyotas and 19 river crossings
We travel the old (non-existent) Transkei Eco Trail from the Kei River mouth to Hole in the Wall at Coffee Bay. In my 56 years this trail tops my list. Our first night was spent camping out on the banks of the Kei River at umThombe Kei River Lodge, a stunning grassed campsite with a few chalets and a 12km access road. In the winter you will require a 4×4 to get to the camp. It was late afternoon when we set up camp in the rain, just enough to duck for cover and reach for the red wine. This is the Wild Coast where rain is a given.
With great excitement we got up early in the morning to load the eight vehicles on the ferry, but, die engine, hy is stukkend! Fortunately we didn’t wait too long for a not so stukkend ferry to arrive and carrying two vehicles at a time, we eventually made it to the other side. Let the fun begin! After about one kilometre our guide, Bruce, turned off the gravel road into the rugged bush with no sign of a trail. After a quick gathering and a prayer (you are going to need one) we mounted our steeds and were hit by the first obstacle, a steep incline with rocky steps that looked rather daunting. We were in the lead Landy 130 with a camper fitted on the rear. Most of the passengers got out to photograph the spectacle and all vehicles made it with flying colours (some flying more than others). Was I imagining things or did the Toyotas fair better than the heavily loaded Landys?
Driving through the green grasslands was a sight to behold and just as we began to relax the vehicles ground to a halt to plan yet another obstacle. After slowly crawling through various dongas and washaways we arrived at our first river crossing. It was spectacular with the clear water sparkling over the layers of rock and pebbles.
Choosing the right line was of essence here and it wasn’t long before Dirk, in his three-week old Hilux slipped and got jammed at an angle dangerously close to damaging that new metallic paint. It was time for the winch which was, you guessed it, attached to the front of the 130 Defender. Land Rover 1, Toyota 0. The rest of the vehicles made it through without much hoo-ha.
THE SPLENDID BEAUTY
The tracks are difficult to follow and in many instances, non-existent. It was difficult concentrating on the array of GPS’s on the dash while admiring the beauty of the surroundings, one moment so overgrown that you can hardly see the bonnet and the next, breaking into the open, where it appears as if Livingstone was here the previous weekend to cut the lawn. In the background you can see the sea with various river estuaries in the distance.
We were travelling over the grasslands, trying to follow the GPS which tried to warn us: Marshland ahead. What marsh? How can there be a marsh on a slope? The GPS should have said quicksand because it wasn’t long before the Landy ran out of revs and no matter how quickly Brent tried to find a lower gear, we were on our way to China. The closest recovery happened to be that same metallic silver Hilux. Land Rover 1, Toyota 1. Who’s counting anyway!
We had just crossed one of the more spectacular river crossings where Clive had nearly put his newly acquired Defender on its side when over the radio we heard, “Bruce, Bruce, come in I have a problem!” It was one of the Toyotas (we won’t mention names) that had no more electrics. Meaning no aircon and no electric windows and it was hot. We were forced to stop for lunch while the manne sorted out the problem. Fortunately a Hilux is as easy to work on as an old Landy.
Looking down from the top of the mountain and staring at the narrow overgrown track inviting us into yonder, three to five kilometres down into an invisible river – hectic! Definitely the most interesting track I have ever driven. You are never fully in control and are basically just falling downhill. Andre’s Puma was in her element with the hill descent doing all the work, and the Toyotas gained some character with a few nice deep scratches.
There is just no way to describe the bottom of the gorge. I didn’t know one requires a 4×4 to go to Heaven. The spectacular river runs over the white rocks, forming a mirror image lake in the shadows of the forest. Seeing the other side of the embankment there is about a 40 degree track exiting into the dense forest. We decided to camp there that night.
We made friends, good friends. I take my hat off to the Toyota okes for attempting this adventure with nearly brand new vehicles, scratching and denting them without a single complaint. Although, as the saying goes, a dent in a Toyota is damage; a dent in a Defender is character.
Getting out of the gorge was child’s play compared to what was lying ahead of us. Even from a distance, we could see the hill ahead was strewn with huge rocks. This was scary. It was going to take the right line and enough momentum to get to the top of this one. With quite a gesukkel most made it to the top, except for Gerrit in his V8 petrol Cruiser having to try more than once to find the right line. Andre in the Puma made easy meat of it, showing off the anti-stall of the Landy.
The sun was already setting when we arrived at the only constructed bridge on the route and discovered it was washed away on both ends. The only way across was to take the whole convoy through the river. Setting up camp right there was a better idea. Landy and Toyota people got together in the warm water of the river with beer in one hand and soap in the other, while others got the fires going.
This was our last day of enjoying the beauty of nature and pushing our skills to the limit. Crossing the Shixini River, the road ahead of us vanished completely. The track was so dense that we could not see through the thick blanket of thorn trees, even spending hours with the help of machete-wielding locals and our array of camping saws, there was no space to drag the cuttings and we ended up driving over them. Later that afternoon, the GPS and our two way radio also parted with us – not ideal when you are the guide. At one stage half the group was driving along the one side of the river while the others were getting lost on the other side. Thanks to a local (paid for, of course) we found the right track (if you could call it that).
HOLE IN THE WALL
The beauty of the sight ahead of us as the vehicles reached the crest of the last hill was breathtaking. Looking down at the mouth of the Mpako River we saw the two rocky outcrops guarding the bay. We could not see the hole from way above and it still took us about an hour to descend into the valley to enjoy the warm water while some braved a swim in the hole. The three days that we spent on the trail felt like a life time. Every time you think you can relax you get klapped by some impossible incline, scary descent or, if not a river, an awesome donga to wriggle through.
Yes, you are going to scratch your Landy. Yes you are going to dent your ego. And yes, you are going to need mud terrain tyres (the bigger the better) with at least one axle diff lock. If a Toyota can do it, anyone can. You will be happy to know that the Toyota okes voted the Puma as the best vehicle on the trail with the coolest dude behind the wheel. This is not a trip for beginners or plat karretjies. This is for real adventure seekers that always wanted to be part of the Camel Trophy.