Adam Kok’s Epic Trek over the Drakensberg -1861 to 1863

The old Dobson Map of Basutoland (Lesotho) published in 1909 clearly indicates ‘AdamKok’s Road’ which he followed on his epic trek from Philippolis to Nomansland, later known as East Griqualand, where he established the town of Kokstad. This trek over the Drakensberg Mountains during 1861/63 must rate as one of the epic journeys undertaken during the 19th Century. This is how it happened.

By the end of the 18th Century, pastoralists of Khoi and people of mixed origin had established themselves along the Orange River. They called themselves the Bastards and so recognized the presence of people of European descent. Missionaries persuaded them to change their name to Griquas and so it is today.


By the middle of the 19th Century, several leaders had collected a band of people and laid claim to large tracts of land. One of these leaders was Adam Kok who established himself at Philippolis south of the Gariep (Orange River). There was much fighting between the tribes and Griqua raiding parties with firearms attacked African groups over a wide area of the interior. They were turbulent days.( In the last paragraph of her book “World Blackout” Sarah Gertrude Millin writes that in a discussion about the war situation with General Smuts in September 1940, the General said…”she (America) will come in, believe me, with us. Even then, the war remains a serious affair – yes, even with all my hopes. Did I ever tell you the prayer of Adam Kok, of the Griquas?

“He said ‘God, in spite of all our prayers, we keep on losing our battles. Tomorrow we are fighting a big battle. We need help very badly, God, and there is something I must say to you: the battle tomorrow will be a most serious affair. It will be no place, I can tell you, for children. I ask you therefore, God, not to send your Son to help us. Come yourself.”)


Then came the Voortrekkers after 1838, many of whom set up farms in Transorangia (that is an area north of the Orange) including the lands claimed by Adam Kok. The area became known as the Orange River Sovereignty. In the 1860’s, Adam Kok had sold off much of his land to encroaching Boers. Tired of the continual strife in the  area , he decided to trek with his people from Philippolis across Basutoland (Lesotho) ,over the Drakensberg to settle in  Nomansland; an unoccupied fertile area which was later known as East Griqualand. The main settlement was established at Kokstad, a town still in existence.


The only problem concerning this proposed exodus was to find a suitable route over            the mighty Basutoland Mountains and the Drakensberg that lay between Philippolis and Nomansland. In 1859, Adam Kok set off with a hundred armed men to find a suitable route around the south of Moshoeshoe’s territory. They passed through what is now Dordrecht then to Tsomo and finally to somewhere near present day Matatiele. During this exploratory journey, they encountered tribes hostile to the Griquas and so Kok decided not to use this route but rather to trek over Basutoland. They therefore returned to Philippolis through Moshoeshoe’s country marking out a workable route over the precipitous mountains. On the way, someone was accidentally shot on the pass leading into Basutoland from the south. To this day, the route is known as Ongeluk’s Nek. Kok carved his name on a rock at the spot where the accident happened and it is still clearly visible. Kok then visited Moeshoeshe to get his permission to trek across his territory.


Kok and about 2000 followers; about 20 000 head of stock; something like 300 wagons and numerous donkey carts set off, early in 1861 to cross the mighty, uncharted and the most incredibly precipitous mountains to reach Nomansland on the eastern side of the Drakensberg range.


Having trekked past Smithfield and Zastron they camped for some time below Hangklip in the Mohales Hoek District of Basutoland. On the old Dobson map there is a village marked ‘Adam’, possibly where Kok camped. Near a place called Mekaling there are grooves chipped into a sandstone slab where the trekkers set and tightened their iron wagon wheel bands. There was a serious drought during 1961/62 and the trekkers suffered severe stock losses. They crossed the Orange River at Seaka and then trekked up the south bank of the Orange as far as Mt Mooroosi. This in itself is an arduous journey crossing many streams and gullies, valleys and steep mountains. It was, however, nothing compared to what lay ahead.


Much is written about the historical events leading up to this trek, but very little, if anything is recorded about the arduous and harrowing trek itself. Near Mt Moroosi, the Dobson Map clearly shows ‘Adam Kok’s Road’. It climbs the steep Mkochomela range near Tosing. It is said that when traversing such steep slopes throughout the trek, they fixed the two smaller front wheels of the wagon to the topside of the wagon and the two larger rear wheels to the lower side in order to level out the wagon making it less likely to tip over. (One wonders how they did this?—they must have devised an ingenious way of adapting the axles or the story may not be fact!). However, they often did dig trenches across the slope in which the upper side of the wagon ran thus levelling off the wagons.


Having climbed Mkochomela, the terrain evens out somewhat and the route continues along a high ridge east of the Dalewe Valley, then traverses above the headwaters of numerous streams and rivers flowing south to north into the Orange. It was still necessary to traverse across steep gradients and mountains until they reached a pass leading down the Drakensberg to Nomansland. In 1981, some members of the Mountain Club backpacked along this route.


It is necessary to return our attention to Mt Moroosi and the mountain of Mkochomela. It seems possible that some of Kok’s group split off here and travelled further up the Orange River valley, since the remains of a road are still visible traversing along the northern slopes of Mkochomela. The Ward Chief of the area maintains that some of Kok’s people trekked up this route. It seems likely but it is not known just how they trekked from Mount Moorosi to Ongeluk’s Nek. The route indicated on Dobson’s map on the southern side of Mkotjomela can be accepted as accurate for at least a large section of the trek. It seems highly probable that the trek did split, since 200 wagons cannot camp in one valley for reasons of space and available grazing. The actual route taken after the split (if indeed they did split) is not known for certain, and is largely a matter of conjecture.


Doyle Liebenberg, [well known mountaineer and author of ‘The Drakensberg of Natal’] in private correspondence has this to say: “the exact route followed by the wagon column is not known – the first six miles of the route from Seforong to Ongeluksnek (20 miles as the crow flies) is a steadily rising climb of two thousand feet followed by a precipitous drop of a thousand feet in less than a mile to the valley of the Qwadi valley. In the Qwadi valley, at least two major rivers and several smaller tributary streams had to be forded. Then came an ascent of about twelve miles at an average gradient of one in twenty; a long slow haul to the summit of Ongeluks Nek at 9518 feet above sea level.” The route via the Qwali valley is certainly different to the route indicated on the Dobson map since it is well north of the direct line between Mt Moroosi and Ongeluks Nek. Anyone following the Qwali River would go over Pack Horse Nek rather than Ongeluks Nek. The probability is that Adam Kok’s people must have split up into several groups and taken more than one route. Dobson’s map indicates a main bridlepath passing Mkotjomela and continuing up Quthing valley to Ongeluksnek and it would seem to me that Adam Kok used this route – but this is conjecture on my part!


One can only imagine the trials the Griqwas must have suffered in conditions completely different from what they had been accustomed to in Philippolis:  mountainous terrain; different types of grazing grasses; excessive rain and rivers flooding; snow and sleet at altitudes going over 9000 feet high ridges before dropping down to 5-6000 feet in the valleys only to climb again. Stock losses were enormous and more than likely human deaths as well Wear and tear on the wagons would have been heavy.


Another serious problem with which they had to contend was that of stock theft by the Basotho, in spite of Moeshoeshe having given them free passage. One of the main culprits was Nehemiah or Sekonyela, Moeshoes’s brother who was custodian of Southern Basutoland. Lastly came the famous descent at Ongeluk’s Nek. (Possibly Pack Horse Pass). Dower records how, every morning scores of men went out to work with picks and crowbar, hammer and drills, as well as spades to dig out a passable track down the mountainside. This continued for several weeks. The descent was considered difficult but generally not too dangerous. Some sections, however, were so steep that wagons had to be dismantled and lowered on ropes and then reassembled,


On 12 May 1863, the Griquas arrived on the slopes of Mount Currie, a broken people due to the enormous losses they had sustained during their trek. However, they established the town of Kokstad where they set up their own form of Government. Their troubles were by no means over. They simply did not know how to manage farming in these vastly different conditions to those they knew in Philippolis. One factor that confounded them was how to control the ravages of veld fires raging through the tall dry grass found in Nomansland (now known as East Griqualand).


Griqua farmers sold off much of their land to other settlers and tended to move into Kokstad. In 1867 Kok ceded his land to Natal mainly because he needed help in removing small bands of raiding Pondos who were continually stealing the people’s stock. The Griqwas suffered severe stock losses from marauding bands of Basotho. In his ‘NOTES ON A JOURNEY ROUND BASUTOLAND’ T.B. Kennan writes “in 1865, Nehemiah Moshesh, on his return from a successful raid on Adam Kok’s cattle in East Qriqualand, was pursued by the latter chief through the mountains, so Nehemiah took up his position in this Kloof and fortified the cave and the surrounding positions. He had a garrison of fifty men and Adam Kok some 400 to 500 Griquas. The besieged party kept the enemy at bay for some days but at last the pasture for the cattle became scarce, so Nehemiah saw the necessity of escaping. One night he passed out of the ravine with the greater part of the cattle he had captured, or stolen from Kok, and, unnoticed by his enemy, gained the Orange River and followed its course, soon escaping into a distant part of the mountains. Next morning the besiegers noticed that the place was unusually quiet, so they sent spies to ascertain the cause. These soon returned with the information that the nest was deserted. When Adam Kok took possession of the place with his people, he only found 50 or 60 cattle and with this same booty he had to return to his distant home, leaving behind several dead men in the neighbourhood of the cave…”

Nehemiah’s cave, clearly marked on Dobson’s map, is indeed an eerie spot. It is approached through a very narrow and deep gorge with immense rocks and jagged precipices of solid rock arising some six hundred feet all around. Scars from bullet marks can still be seen on the rocks of the cave.


There followed various political troubles including an uprising against British Imperialism. In December 1875, Kok, while leaning forward across the front of his carriage to whip up his horses fell off and was killed when one of the wagon wheels went over him crushing his chest.



  1. Private correspondence Kokstad Museum
  2. Doyle Liebenberg ‘The Drakensberg of Natal’
  3. Rev W Dower ‘The Early Annals Of Kokstad’


(The above article is not the result of complete scientific research, but the product of a layman’s interest and a record of what he learnt by hearsay from ‘old Timers’ and from reading books.) 

Story by Peter Millin

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