Crossing the Swartberg by bicycle….followed by 4x
Amongst the most dramatic land formations of the Cape are the mountains of the Swartberg range, with their incredible foldings of sandstone strata. Reaching a height of 1585m, the Swartberg Pass is one of the most spectacular of South Africa’s mountain passes. The pass is the masterpiece of a remarkable and brilliant engineer and road builder, Thomas Charles Bain (1830 – 1893).
We approached the Swartberg from Kobus se Gat, a veld restaurant on the foothills of the mountain. A howling southerly wind chilled the air, and I felt great sympathy for my husband and daughter cycling up and down the mountain all the way to Prince Albert. I was following at a snail’s pace to the summit, stopping now and again to take pictures of the most awe-inspiring views.
Much to my delight I found so many fynbos species putting on a spectacular autumn show that I never noticed how long it took to reach ‘Die Top’, where I found a plaque which simply reads:
November 1881 – December 1887
This pass was planned and the greater portion built by Thomas Bain, son of Andrew Geddes Bain, the Bainskloof Pass engineer, with the aid of approximately 240 prisoners, mostly from the George/Knysna Area. The 24 km road was opened to the public during the month of January 1888.
In 1879 Thomas Bain was asked to investigate the possibility of connecting Oudtshoorn with Prince Albert through the Swartberg, because the track through Meiringspoort was unreliable due to frequent wash-aways. The original contractor was declare insolvent within 13 months, but in 1883, after protracted bureaucratic red-tape, convicts were sent from George and Knysna and eventually work was resumed under Bain’s supervision. The pass was completed by Thomas Bain in 1887 after years of difficult work and numerous stoppages in the winter months due to heavy fall of snow and hail. The pass was built with the use of pickaxes, spades, sledgehammers, crowbars, wheelbarrows and gunpowder. Boulders were split by heating them with fire and then dousing them with cold water. The dry wall method of construction was used to build the impressive retaining walls that supported the road against precipitous slopes. Today we are still marvelling at this feat.
Going back to Knysna we travelled through Meiringspoort where the Grootrivier sculpted the colourful Meiringspoort gorge through the barrier of the Swartberg range. In 1854 Petrus Meiring, of the farm De Rust, followed the Grootrivier gorge through the Swartberg range to emerge eventually on the southern edge of the Great Karoo. For many years this remained the sole link between Prince Albert and the Little Karoo. The track through Meiringspoort was completed in 1858, a rough track through the gorge that forded the river some 30 times. It was often washed away, and proved unreliable. The modern tarred road follows the old track, crossing the river bed numerous times. Wash-aways still occur, of which the great flood of 1996 was particularly devastating.
Cape Nature’s information centre at the Waterfall is extremely well appointed. What impressed me most were the beautifully displayed fresh flora specimens, informative pictorial information on the history of the poort and the well maintained grounds. Kudos to Cape Nature!
To end our journey we took the old Montagu Pass back to George instead of the modern Outeniqua Pass road. This is a detour worth making, not only for the very different views but also for the lovely flora. The Montagu Pass is the oldest unaltered pass still in use in South Africa and is a scenic trip back in time. I will cover the flora, history and beauty of this pass in the next blog.
Our very short sojurn in the hinterland was so worth it; one comes away with a new appreciation of the beauty of the Cape, its diversity and how lucky we are to be living in this part of the world.
Contributor: Esther Townsend