The First in Series on South Africa’s Famous Passes

The Swartberg Pass.

The Mighty Swartberg Pass

Carriages on the Pass circa 1880

This is the king of passes in the Cape. The Swartberge pass also known as the Zwartberg Pass and The Great Zwarte Pass is situated between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn. This was the masterpiece of that remarkable and brilliant engineer and road builder, Thomas Charles Bain (1830 – 1893). This is also the last of the seventeen passes he built in the Cape Province.

The Eerstewater today

On entering the gorge from the Prince Alfred side, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of insignificance as one travels between towering, rugged, sheer cliffs. An ice-cold mountain stream greets the traveller at Eerste Water (First Water) – Bain’s camp was situated there. In later years it became known as Die Danssbaan (dance floor), as many young people came from afar to waltz under the stars. As the road snakes higher and higher, around hairpin bends, one becomes aware of the crisp, clear air filled with the scent of Proteas.

Modern Images at the start of the pass

From the summit at “Die Top” the view is breath taking.

A spectacular zig-zag in the Pass- an irressistible subject for photographers for over 100 year- This photo dates from 1910

Work was started by a John Tassie in 1881 but after 13 months of heavy work using 100 Mozambicans from Delagoa Bay he had advanced only 6 kilometres. Tassie was declared insolvent and work ceased until Thomas Bain took over in November 1883, using 200 to 240 convicts, using picks, shovels, sledgehammers, and gunpowder. Boulders were spilt using fire to heat the rocks and then doused in cold water. The smaller rocks were carefully dressed by the convicts and used to build impressive retaining walls that support the road against precipitous slopes. A century later travellers still marvel at this feat.

The Swartberge Pass is the last of the great passes built in the nineteenth centaury and is of great historical interest. Originally the routes through Meiringspoort and Seweweekspoort were the only link between the port of Mossel Bay and the towns and villages of the Great Karoo. The road through Meiringspoort was constructed by Adam de Smidt and was officially opened on the 4th March 1858. These routes were frequently closed due to flood damage and rock falls. Heavy flooding during 1875 closed both roads for weeks.

Looking down from close to Die Top

Bad weather made construction difficult. A group of convicts died when the roof of their hut collapsed during a snow storm. During May 1885 heavy rain caused mudslides, which almost destroyed the convict camp and severely damaged the nearly complete road. The same rains washed away the road through Meiringspoort.

Two dates can be seen chiselled into the rocks in the Pass: 1884 was chiselled into a large boulder near Fonteintjie on the Prince Albert side near Die Top of the pass. In the high retaining wall near Boegoekloof on the Oudtshoorn side of the mountain you can see the date 1886. More than thirty curves and drifts in the Swartberge Pass have been named and each has its own interesting history.

The Oudtshoorn Courant of the 16th September 1886 published this telegram: The Zwartberg Pass is now open to Wagons on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays – the Government taking no responsibility. On the 5th May 1888 a notice was given of a toll to be imposed at the summit of the pass. A toll fee of four pence per wheel and one penny per animal. The toll official was responsible for collecting the toll and maintaining the road.

Dry stone walling from the original construction

In 1879 Bain estimated that the pass would cost 20 000 pounds on the 14th July 1887 Bain reported that the total construction cost was 14 000 pounds.

A cape Cart at the clear stream at Eerstwater. 1890. Today there is a low water bridge across the stream.

Over six hundred plants have been identified in the Swartberge Nature Reserve. A large, colourful variety of Proteas, tolbosse, pincushions, Ericas and shrubs can be seen. Klipspringer, Vaalribbuck, duikers, baboons and dassies and more than 130 bird species have been recorded.

There are signboards placed along the road through the pass the following signs can be seen from north to south.

  • EERSTEWATER (First Water)   Draught animals could be outspanned and watered there before starting the ascent of the pass.
  • TWEEDEWATER (Second Water) Older people in the village remember waiting for the water level to drop before they could cross this drift. A low-water bridge was eventually built.
  • MALVADRAAI (Geranium Bend) Geraniums grow luxuriously here. They can’t be missed.
  • BLIKSTASIE (TRONK) (The Jail) look up and you will see the remains of a stone and clay jail where convicts were confined at night, during the building of the pass.
  • DROEWATERVAL (Dry Waterfall) During the rainy season water cascades down this rock face but it is dry for most of the summer.
  • Droewaterval no water running at this time

    TEEBERG (tea Mountain) Here you find the well known honey tea bush, much sought after by earlier inhabitants, From this point the summit of the pass is visible and if you look down into the chasm you should recognise Malvadraai far below. The view across the Karro plains to the Nuweveld Mountains 120 kms away is spectacular

  • GAMKASKLOOF 38 KM (The Hell) the sign indicates the Otto du Plessis Road (opened in 1962) which leads to Gamkaskloof also called The Hell.
  • FONTEINTJIE 1884 (Little Fountain) this fountain forms a beautiful little waterfall and the thirsty traveller will always find crystal clear water here.
  • OU TOLLHUIS (The old Tollhouse) On this site the old Tollhouse was erected. The foundations of the original House can still be seen. In 1827 the experimental pine plantation was started.
  • DIE TOP (The Top) The summit of the pass is 1 585m above sea level Views all around are magnificent.
  • DIE GROOT KLIP (The Big Stone) a wonderful view site.
  • BOEGOEKLOOF 1886 (Bachu Kloof) In former times this was the area’s medicine chest. Several types of Bachu grow here. Bachu is a well-known medicinal plant.
  • SKELMDRAAI (The Tricky Bend) To the traveller from the north the road seems to come to an end- but it makes a sharp left turn. Drivers ascending the pass were faced with a very steep left turn.
  • FONTEINTJIE (Fountain) on the s0uthern slope a perennial stream flows from the high peaks to revive tired travellers from Prince Albert who would leave a watermelon in the stream to enjoy on their homeward journey.
  • HOTELLETJIE (The Small Hotel) After completion of the Swartberge Pass a postal service was instituted between Prince Albert Road and Oudtshoorn. The hotel was built of offer overnight accommodation. Some maps still refer to the ruins of this inn as Victoria Hotel.
  • PLANTASIE (The Plantation) another experimental pine plantation dating back from 1927.
  • WITDRAAIE (The white Curves) The name derived from two hairpin bends cut into limestone deposits.
  • STALLETJIE (The Stables) the horses and mules used to draw the mail coaches were fed and watered here. Fresh horses would be harnessed for the journey north or south.
  • NEVILLE SE DRAAI (Neville’s Bend) a sharp bend on the plateau on the top of the mountain was named after John Fitz Neville. Clerk of works during the construction of the pass. It is too dangerous to erect a sign here but the name commemorates Neville, who was killed here on the 8th March 1888. Some people believe he was killed in a dynamite explosion, others that he was thrown from his horse.

Map of The Swartberg pass

Sources and Biblography

Helen Marincowitz        The Swartberg Pass

Graham Ross                   The Romance of  Cape Passes

T.V.Bulpin                        Discovering South Africa

Some images Courtesy of Fransie Pienaar Museum, Prince Albert


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Filed under 4x4, Commentary, Tours

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