10 Eastern Cape passes in 7 days. Can you conquer them all?

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The Ben 10 Eco Challenge was conceived in 2011 by Trygve Roberts – founder of Mountain Passes South Africa – as a means to boost local tourism in the Rhodes/Wartrail area. He envisioned an event that would last indefinitely, something that would attract tourists to the areas and so the idea was born to turn it into a challenge.

The Ben 10 Challenge is an open invitation for off-roaders to tackle these mountain passes at any time of the year whilst enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Eastern Cape highlands, and supporting eco-tourism, thereby uplifting the local population, in this remote part of South Africa. And it is not only limited to 4×4 vehicles, you can also enter if you are up for the challenge of walking, running or cycling to the top of the passes.

But this challenge – to finish 10 high altitude passes in 7 days – is not a walk in the park.

More than five years went by after Roberts founded the Ben 10 Eco Challenge, before the first person managed to complete the challenge in 2017.
And then a few more followed.

The challenge has had more than 200 entrants, but only half of the tough cookies have completed the full challenge which, according to Roberts, is a constant reminder of how tough the challenge is and many an entrant retreats from the mountains in defeat.

Do you think you’ve got what it takes?

10 passes to summit for a badge of honour

1. Ben MacDhui Pass

This one will get you high (and challenge your acrophobia). After opening a new road, the Ben MacDhui Pass took over the title from Sani Pass as the highest altitude summit in South Africa. And it is no wonder, because the Ben Macdui is also the highest peak in the Eastern Cape that is entirely within South Africa. Prepare yourself for extreme cold, yes, even in summer.
Altitude: 3001 m

2. Carlisleshoekspruit Pass

Just like the challenge, this extreme pass – which is also the main access road to the Tiffindell Ski Resort – is not recommended for novice drivers when the weather doesn’t play along. Carlisleshoekspruit Pass descends/ascends 739 meters over 14,4 km and hold on to your adrenaline, because there are some incredibly steep gradients.
Altitude: 2563 m

3. Volunteershoek Pass

Close to the Lesotho border, the Volunteershoek Pass connects the Wartrail farming valley with Tiffindell Ski Resort, and with an average climb gradient of 1:14 it’s first, middle and last name is steep. The weather can change within seconds and you can expect anything from sunshine to severe electrical storms, and from hail to snow.
Altitude: 2581 m

4. Naudes Nek Pass

If you are a trophy hunter for passes, then this is one feather to add to your off-road cap. Naudes Nek Pass is the fourth highest altitude, publicly accessible pass in South Africa, and it zigzags its way over the Southern Drakensberg for a lengthy total of 32.7 km.
Altitude: 2590 m

5. Lundin’s Nek Pass

It is ranked as the most underrated – and one of the greatest – gravel passes in South Africa. Lundin’s Nek Pass (also known as Lundean’s Nek Pass), leads to the Tele River border post between Lesotho and South Africa. This 14.5 km pass boasts 110 bends, corners and curves and there are multiple unbridged stream crossings.
Altitude: 2170 m

6. Joubert’s Pass

This pass traverses through a beautiful rural area of the Witteberg Mountains, between Lady Grey and Barkley East. The road, which was built by farmers and opened in 1914, is in a great condition expect during snowy periods; it offers an incredible view over the picturesque town of Lady Grey.
Altitude: 2234 m

7. Bastervoetpad Pass

With the Ben 10 Challenge, challenging passes are in order and the Bastervoetpad Pass is one of them. Also known as Dr. Lapa Munnik Pass (a former minister of Public Health), this pass, between the summit of the Barkly Pass and Ugie has a length of 20 km and can be quite daunting in bad weather. The route travels along the southern arm of the Drakensberg and the scenery often reminds travellers of the Scottish Highlands.
Altitude: 2240 m

8. TTT [Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse]

The Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse consists of four small passes over a distance of 27 km and it connects the Tiffindell Ski Resort in the west with the Tenahead Mountain Lodge in the east. The road has been used for many years to patrol stock theft into Lesotho and therefore it is also known as Die Patrollie Pad (The Patrol Road), Die Grenspad (the Border Road) and The Cairntoul Road (named after a farm on the eastern side of the traverse). The route is fairly easy, with a few tough spots here and there and a grading of 1 to 2.
Altitude: 2720 m

9. Otto du Plessis Pass

The Otto du Plessis Pass ranks in position 31 nationally in the ‘most altitude gained’ category, and it offers everything off-road enthusiasts are after: a hint of danger, spectacular unspoilt views and the use of some technical driving skills. The area is also known as one of the best birdwatching spots in the highlands.
Altitude: 2115 m

10. Barkly Pass

The Barkly Pass is 10 km in length and if you were hoping to get some extra mud on your bakkie, then this one will keep things squeaky clean as it is tarred. But don’t fret or fear, this moderately steep road between Elliot and Barkly East still offers great views and a stop at the hotel, Mountain Shadows, will give you a glimpse into some local history. Be careful in winter though, because when the snow hits, this pass is a no-go.
Altitude: 2018 m

How to enter the Ben 10 Challenge

• Subscribe to the Mountain Passes of South Africa website.
• Fill out the entry form (click here).
• For each pass, a photograph must be submitted showing the applicant, with his/her vehicle at the summit point to prove the pass was driven, ridden, walked or run. Submit all 10 photographs via e-mail.
• Every pass must be driven completely; the full length including the ascent and descent.

Here are some tips to help you complete the Ben 10 Challenge

• Subscribe to the www.mountainpasses.co.za website, not only is it a perquisite to have a subscription if you want to enter, but the site is filled with a wealth of information of all passes in South Africa and it will give you access to all the safety and technical information necessary.
• Use an additional mapping system to double check coordinates.
• Weather plays a big role in the Eastern Cape highlands, ask ahead to make sure roads are not closed. In mid-winter when the ski slope is covered in snow, vehicles are not allowed to drive over the ski slope, so you can’t access the Ben MacDhui Pass with the usual road, there is however an alternative access road that avoids the ski slope that you can use if there’s no snow. In the case of snow, and if you entered the challenge with a vehicle, you are allowed to walk up the pass and it will still be validated.
• Rhodes doesn’t have a fuel station, go prepared.
• The passes may be driven in any order.
• Don’t attempt to this challenge alone, make sure there is another vehicle with you.
• Don’t leave home without the necessary recovery equipment.
• A satellite phone is recommended for some of the passes in case of emergency, as well as extra clothing and food.