We’re stuck in a stationary queue of traffic, the third set of roadworks since Brandvlei, but this time it isn’t moving.
We’ve been sitting here for the past twenty minutes watching the cars back up behind us further and further up the hill. My bladder is bursting after ten hours of driving and only a very brief toilet stop earlier. I have no option but to squat in the little gap between the trailer and the Landcruiser, a vain attempt at modesty since the car behind us is a pantechnicon truck affording the driver a bird’s eye view. Nothing he hasn’t seen before, I figure.
Ten minutes later, hubby runs out of patience and we decide to turn back in favour of a dirt road which apparently runs alongside the one we’re on, up in the mountains. Reversing a 4 x 4 trailer and doing a three-point turn hemmed in by lorries and impatient drivers doesn’t really appeal to me, especially as in the absence of anything else to do, we will be the main sideshow! So, we do it together. Hubby takes the wheel from the passenger seat and I manage the gears, clutch and accelerator. Reversing a trailer of this size is totally counter-intuitive and the chances of me ‘jack-knifing’ it are pretty high… at least this way I will be sharing the responsibility. Much to my surprise, we do the thirty-point (three was ambitious!) in no time at all and hit the open road again.
The track hubby has found is a good road, recently scraped, and we make good progress through beautiful citrus groves, the Clanwilliam dam on our right. The sun is dropping towards the horizon, setting the oranges, naartjies and lemons alight against the tawny sky. It’s a living David Hockney painting.
And then as dusk gives way to night, the bucolic scene disappears and we hit the Middleburg Pass – a steep incredibly narrow gravel road cut into the side of the mountain which pushes up and up and up into the black – the mountain on one side and a sheer drop into the void on the other side. The Landcruiser seems to be groaning as it pulls the trailer and its cargo up the pass. My stomach is knotted tight as I play the gears between first and second to creep up the mountain and keep the car on the road through the tight hairpin bends. The trailer has no brakes and I know that if I misjudge a bend by taking it either too fast or too slow, it could pull us over the edge. Every now and again, I crunch the gears and I can hear hubby’s sharp intake of breath. He is holding on to the dashboard with both hands, the children are completely silent; probably praying I think somewhat wryly.
An hour later or so we reach a plateau, or is it? I relax a little and ask everyone to look out for signs to Kagga Kamma. The lodge is in the heart of the Cederberg Reserve. We opted for it for the treat of overnighting in cave rooms, carved out of the mountainside; a last hooray for the children.
But just as I start to allow my mind to dwell on a glass of ice-cold white wine, we cross a single lane bridge over the Riet River and I see another sign. Katbakkies Pass (cat’s cheeks ). And the mist is coming in. It feels like doomsday has come. I cannot believe that I have to traverse another cliffside in the dark.
The pass traces over what was once an old sheep-trekking route and joins the Koue Bokkeveld with the Ceres Karoo. I have been told that the pass is frequently covered in snow in the colder months. That’s all I need! The road immediately starts climbing up the foothill of the mountain hulking ahead. After about a kilometer it veers sharply right into a very stiff climb, the gradient at least 1:5. I can feel the power drain from the engine as we climb. An elevation gain of almost 300m makes it one of the steepest passes in South Africa. I can see no further than the reach of my headlights which are being sucked into the fog.
No one says a word, it’s deathly quiet in the car, the only sound the chug-chug of the engine up the incline and the odd grind of the gears as I ram the beast back into first for more control. Suddenly out of the silence comes a deadpan voice: ‘This is the road to hell.’ Big brother has spoken.
The pass is just less than 3.5km long but when we reach the top, I feel as though I have just finished a marathon session of Spintires. It’s almost 7pm and we have been on the road since 6am. We pass the a sign saying that Kagga Kamma is 15km away, and then we pass it again and I feel like I’m in In the darkness and cold of the Long Night. The sandstone rock formations lunge out of the dark and mist at us, like White Walkers.
“In that darkness the White Walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds.”
Not long after, I finally feel the gravel change to sand and the lights of the Lodge draw us in. The relief in the car is palpable.
The few guests left in the bar when I collect our keys are wide-eyed to see someone arriving so late. ‘Hey lady, did you just do Katbakkies in the dark?’ a burly South African, beer in hand, asks.
‘Oh yes siree, I sure did!’ I am a hero for a nano-second and it feels good.