Passes of the Southern Cape
This overview covers an area loosely referred to as the southern Cape, from Swellendam in the west to De Rust in the east, and from Prince Albert in the north to Mossel Bay in the south. There are dozens more passes in this area, and only the main ones (and a few smaller ones) are covered here. The rest of them are probably mostly of interest to ‘pass hunters’. This overview does not delve into the history of the passes, but focuses on their scenic aspects. www.samountainpasses.co.za is an exhaustive source for historical and other information, not only for the passes mentioned here, but also for a long list of smaller passes.
The route depicted here can comfortably be covered in a week. It can obviously be started at any number of points. For the purpose of the mapping, we route it clockwise here, starting in Swellendam and finishing at Riversdale or Heidelberg.
Tar. The turnoff to the Tradouw Pass lies about 13km beyond Swellendam. It is the main thoroughfare connecting Swellendam and Heidelberg in the south, to Barrydale and the R62 in the north. The village of Suurbraak lies about halfway between the turn-off and the foot of the pass. It started life as a mission town and life here still harks back to an era of simplicity. Rumour has it that City yuppies have started buying up property here, so the bargain basement prices will probably not hold forever.
Tradouw Pass carves a gentle curve up the Langeberg Mountain as it follows the course of the Buffelsjags River. Its traffic load is surprisingly low, giving ample opportunity to explore the many viewpoints without being harassed by high speed traffic the whole time.
Dirt road. The turn off to Seweweekspoort is on the R62 between Ladismith (22km) and Calitzdorp (28km), opposite the small settlement of Amalienstein. After turning off on the dirt road, continue for about 10km to get to the poort.
From this point, time will slow down to a trickle, particularly if you have a camera in your hand, as every bend in the road brings a brand new variation on a theme of contorted sandstone. Although it is traditional for photographers to seek out the rich ambers of early morning or late afternoon light, the poort is deep and narrow and many of its cliff faces are swallowed in deep shadow at these times. So, it is best to break this golden rule and photograph the kloof at midday for best results.
The poort is similar to Meiringspoort in structure, but less touristy and makes for a more authentic experience.
Tar. To get to some of the passes in this essay requires a bit of route planning. Not so the Huisrivierspas. It is on the main drag between Ladismith and Calitzdorp, two of the bigger towns on the well-known R62.
The downside of this pass is that it is what we at Nightjar refer to as a ‘high speed pass’. It is wide, fast, and carries a fair burden of traffic. No mercy is taken and none given as cars and trucks thunder down its declines and crawl up its inclines.
It’s a pretty enough pass, make no mistake, and there are a few viewpoints from where you can observe the grandeur of the mountains to the accompanying symphony of road traffic. But, in the main, you will have to have a knack for high-speed observation to enjoy this pass as it flashes past your windscreen.
Dirt road - can be tricky at times. The Swartberg Pass between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert in the Western Cape was completed in 1888, and has given rise to almost legendary stories about its ‘toughness’ over the years. And, sure, when it’s wet, or covered in eight inches of snow it can be utterly treacherous. But, nowadays is perfectly navigable in an ordinary sedan vehicle with reasonable ground clearance for most of the way. Just take your time and enjoy the experience. In fact, it is hard to imagine why one would want to do this pass at anything but at a snail’s pace, with regular stops to drink in the sheer majesty of the Swartberg Mountains around you.
GAMKASKLOOF / DIE HEL
Dirt road - steep descent. Although Gamkaskloof was first settled in the 1830s, the road into the valley was only completed in 1962. Farming here was always marginal and as the valley opened up, farm kids got lured away to better opportunities elsewhere and farming eventually came to a halt. The last farm was sold to CapeNature in 1991, and the entire valley is now managed as a conservancy.
The valley is special for its isolation and rugged terrain, and so is the road. It is narrow, has vertigo-inducing drop-offs in paces, and some of the hairpin bends on the Elands pass section can only be negotiated via three point turns in larger vehicles. But it is always a question of perspective. Many years ago, the ranger responsible for managing the area related two incidents to us that stood out in his memory. One was a chap who arrived at the top of Elands pass in his Land Rover Defender, took one look at the drop, turned around and went back to town. On another occasion the ranger was doing the evening rounds to check that guests were comfortably settled in their cottages, only to find one of the cottages occupied by two city girls who had driven in in a Fiat Uno! Please be clear that the latter is definitely not recommended. Make sure you drive a suitable vehicle and allow half a day for the one-way trip (approx. 40km) and a full day for an in-and-out.
Tar. Like all passes and poorts, Meiringspoort was build for utilitarian reasons: connecting the farming communities of the Central and Klein Karoo, and allowing easier access to the port at Mossel Bay.
The first road through the poort was completed in the late 1850s, and the final refurbishment was done after the severe flooding of 1996. It was during this last rebuild that the tourist infrastructure of the poort was significantly expanded, and today there are numerous rest areas, lay bys, and even a tourist information centre. Traffic on the road is mild, allowing ample opportunity to explore the fascinating folds in the sandstone layers of the Swartberg Mountains up close and personal.
Tar. Robinson is one of the lesser-known passes of the southern Cape. It lies on the main drag between Mosselbay and Oudtshoorn, so it can’t be that folk haven’t heard of it. Perhaps it’s too utilitarian? It is true that the road sweeps over the pass rather rapidly, and unlike many others, it is a simple up and over pass. But at the right time of year, the view from the top of the pass can be spectacular.
We were lucky enough to photograph the pass in spring when the Leucadendrons were in full bloom. Leucadendron salignum is one of the most widespread of the 80 Leucadendrons, and occurs in large numbers from Ceres in the west to Port Elizabeth in the east. The top of Robinson Pass is a great example of a really dense stand of these beautiful Proteaceae.
The Kouma hiking trail runs west from the top of the pass, and is a worthwhile excursion, particularly at this time of the year.
Dirt road. Cloete’s Pass is not as spectacular as some of the others on this list, but still well worth the trouble. The real reason for taking this route is to connect to the dirt road that runs along the foothills at the back of the Langeberge Mountains. This road veers off to the right to Van Wyksdorp about 50km after Herbertsdale, or you can continue along the foot of the Langeberge to the top of Garcia pass. A descent down Garcia, or Gysmanshoek for the more adventurous, takes you back to the N2. This detour will take about 3 to 4 hours, and is a very pleasant alternative to the 1 hour it will take you to race between Mossel Bay and Heidelberg along the N2.
Tar. Garcia is not as well known as some of its siblings. It connects the towns of Riversdale and Ladismith. Both are on reasonably popular tourist routes, just not in this order. Yet, if you are a ‘pass collector’, this one has to crop up on your list sooner or later and is definitely worth doing. By the way, if you have a bit of time on hand, consider making a right turn at the top of the pass for a detour over Van Wyksdorp to either Ladismith or Calitzdorp (the prettier variation over the Rooiberg pass). This part of the world is practically deserted and the road runs through some really beautiful countryside.
The area around the pass forms part of the Boosmansbos (‘grumpy man’s copse’) wilderness area, and is under the care of CapeNature. Halfway up the pass are the Kristalkloof and Sleeping Beauty hiking trails, permits for which can be bought at the municipal tourism office in the caravan park in Riversdale.
Dirt road. Gysmanshoek is a real go-slow pass. The road is perfectly fine and can easily be driven in a normal sedan vehicle with reasonably high ground clearance, but it feels more like a farm track than anything else. And then there is the fynbos, the birdlife and the abundance of insects. Actually, the best thing you can do is to find a suitable spot to pull off, and explore the area on foot. We spent a good 3 hours in the pass and still it felt like we only managed to dip our toes in the water.
P.S. ROOIBERG PASS
Dirt road. The Rooiberg pass does not form a logical part of this particular route, but is still worth a mention for travellers who have the time to explore the basin between the Langeberge Mountain range and the Mountains of the Swartberg. The countryside here is pretty sparsely populated, and it really transports you away from the hustle and bustle of the typical provincial road network. And the Rooiberg pass itself is not too shabby either.