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26 July 2011

Buses stuck on snowy mountain pass

CHRISTMAS IN JULY: Lauren and Kevin Allen were spotted playing in the snow between Stutterheim and Cathcart after heavy snow fell in the area yesterday. Picture: MARK ANDREWS

TWO busloads of passengers looked to be spending the night on the notorious Penhoek Pass by late yesterday as winter made its icy presence felt in the Eastern Cape.

As heavy snow and rainfall replaced the warm sunshine of the past few weeks, and icy roads claimed at least five lives, Greyhound spokesperson Jean-Pierre du Buisson confirmed that two Greyhound buses, each carrying about 60 passengers, had been stuck on the mountain pass between Queenstown and Jamestown since between 3.58am and 4.40am yesterday morning.

A City to City bus was also stuck for a number of hours, said a passenger, but was on the move again.

A passenger on a Greyhound who spoke to the Dispatch late last night, preferring to remain anonymous, said they had been on the pass since about 4.30am . Emergency personnel in 4x4 vehicles had passed by, and a grader had tried to clear the road. Passengers were frustrated as no emergency official had spoken to them about the prospects of getting off the pass.

"We moved a bit but then we stopped and it looks like we will spend the night in the bus here. We were promised blankets and soup but nothing has arrived yet."

The passenger said he and his fellow passengers were otherwise in good spirits and communicating with loved ones at home via cellphone.

He said they had received SMS communication from Greyhound at about 5am and then again at 10am informing them that the bus’s arrival at its destination would be delayed, but nothing further since then.

The pass is known as a high accident zone, especially in bad weather. At least 18 other roads were closed due to snow and rain, including the Nico Malan Pass between Seymour and Whittlesea. Other roads reported as dangerous were the R61 between Cradock and Graaff-Reinet and the R58 between Ngcobo and Elliot .

The most serious accident was reported on the R409 between Ngqamakhwe and Tsomo yesterday morning when a Toyota Avanza and a Mazda bakkie collided at around 8.30am. Police spokesperson Captain Jackson Manata said all five occupants of the Avanza died and the driver of the bakkie was taken to Butterworth Hospital .

Snow blanketed large parts of the Eastern Cape, including Hogsback, Queenstown, Molteno, Cathcart and Dordrecht, and temperatures remained low for most of the province. The highest maximum recorded by the Port Elizabeth Weather Office was at Coega, where the mercury reached 14.5 Deg/C. Further inland, the temperatures did not even reach double digits with maximums of 5.4 Deg/C in Graaff- Reinet, 4.2 Deg/C in Cradock, 0.4 Deg/C in Barkly East and 0.9 Deg/C in Queenstown. Reports of falling trees have been received from Ngcobo, while rivers are also said to be flooding . "People crossing rivers are asked to ensure that rivers and bridges are safe before crossing," said Arrive Alive spokesperson Tshepo Machaea.

Captain John Fobian, spokesperson for the South African Police disaster management unit, said drivers should be particularly cautious and, if possible, try to remain off the roads.

"O bserve road closures and keep a safe travelling distance behind other vehicles," he added. "Adapt travelling speed to the slippery roads. Many of the problems encountered were because drivers didn’t do this ."
By yesterday, Nelson Mandela Bay’s five dams were at an average 91.4%.

Queenstown resident Brian Aylwin said the snow was "half a metre thick in places" by 6.30pm. "M y mom said the last time it had snowed in Queenstown was 40 years ago," he said last night. " It is still snowing now, quite heavily, and if it continues tomorrow, we might not be able to get out ."

Aylwin, who was in London in January, said it was colder here.

- Daily Dispatch