‘Show him an easy place to make a road and he shakes his head and says no. But show him a place where a monkey can’t get out and he’ll jump at it like a cat.’ So someone said of engineer and road builder Thomas Bain at the opening ceremony of the Swartberg Pass in the Karoo. Today, nearly 130 years later, the gravel pass that Bain built is still one of South Africa’s finest.
There’s a magnetism to this old mountain pass, the last that Thomas Bain built and now a national monument. At nearly 30km long, it’s one of the world’s most spectacular. The gravel road climbs up to 1585m in a series of tight zigs and zags – the sort of place you’d like to stop and marvel every few metres. Resist that urge and stop only at the designated points if you want to stay safe. Also remember to take a windbreaker with you for your stops – the wind can be icy.
- Stalletjie where the mail-coach horses were fed, watered and changed for fresh ones (read about a ghost who haunts the area and how he died)
- Hotelletjie – you can still see the ruins of the small hotel where people used to stay overnight
- Fonteintjie – a perennial stream flows from the high peaks and travellers from Prince Albert used to leave a watermelon in the stream to enjoy on their way home from Oudtshoorn
- Skelmdraai – so-called because when you approach from the north, the road seems to come to an end but it makes a sudden left turn
- Die Top – 1585m above sea level
- Ou Tolhuis – you can still see the foundations of the tollhouse; a toll was introduced in 1888 and the toll collector earned the princely sum of £45 a year
- Gamkaskloof – in 1962 this road was opened to ‘the Hell’ where a small farming community had previously lived in isolation, the only access being by a steep footpath. Book ahead with CapeNature to stay in one of the renovated old cottages. Definitely a route only for 4x4s and people with a strong head for heights on narrow roads; 38km of winding road to the valley floor will take you two hours.
- Blikstasie – remains of an old gaol where the convicts who built the pass were locked up at night
- Tweedewater – in the old days, before a low-water bridge was built, people had to wait for the water level to drop before they could cross
- Eerstewater – donkeys and oxen could be outspanned and watered here before starting the climb; it’s also where Bain had his first convict camp
For more information about the Swartberg Nature Reserve and the activities you can do there, like hiking, mountain biking and a 4x4 route, see its website here.
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