There was no properly engineered road from Cape Town across the “Mountains of Africa” when Lord Charles Somerset authorised the construction of Franschhoek pass in 1823. The Franschhoek valley is closed off at its eastern end by the Franschhoek Mountains, and the pass sneaks across around the northern toe of this range known as Middagkransberg between the Wemmershoek Mountains.
Until the French Huguenots settled in what was then known as Olifantshoek, the only route through the Franschhoek mountains to the interior was along a track created by migrating elephants – hence the name. The route was very narrow and steep, and could not be used by wagons.
In 1818 the Cape government contracted a local farmer – SJ Cats – to build a mountain pass. He had no formal training, and completed the road a year later. The route remained dangerous, and wagons could only carry a maximum load of eight bags of corn. Cats’ road soon fell into disuse.
In 1822 Major William Cuthbert Holloway, head of the Colonial Engineer’s department, chaired a commission to examine the feasibility building a pass – either through the Franschhoek mountains or through the Hottentots Holland. The commission calculated that the latter would be five times more expensive, so the choice fell on Franschhoek.
Labour would be provided by the Mountains 150 soldiers of the Royal Africa Corps stationed temporarily in Cape Town while waiting to be deployed to Serra Leone.
The pass was completed in 1825 and the road was broad enough for allow two wagons to pass each other.
Franschhoek Pass was SA’s first professionally designed and constructed mountain pass, and it also has the country’s oldest stone arch bridge (Jan Joubert’s Gat bridge), and the oldest still in use.
Franschhoek was originally known as Oilfants Hoek (Elephants Corner) . As the elephant formed a path when they came over the mountains on their migrations it was decided to form a wagon pass following in their footpaths. But the pass was not suitable for wagons. it was therefor decided by Simon van der Stel that the Helshoogte Pass outside Stellenbosch and Olifants Pad should be the route for the wagons bringing much-needed timber from the Riversonderend Valley to Cape Town. unfortunately nothing was done by the government about the pass for a long time.
After more than a hundred years it was decided that the estimated cost of 8,000 rix-dollars was way beyond their means. However a local farmer S.J.Cats volunteered to do his best to construct a pass. This pass was so rough and steep that the maximum load that could be carried was eight bags of corn.
Lord Charles Somerset approved the work in 1822 and agreed that the 150 soldiers og the Royal Africa Corps awaiting shipment to Sierra Leone be called in to assist.
Major William Holloway of the Royal Engineers was put in charge of the project and started work on the eastern side building the first stone arch bridge in the country. A five metre span over a kloof named Jan Joubert’s Gat.
The pass was finished in 1852 for the sum of £8,390-0s-10d.
The pass remained the main gateway to the Overberg and the east until Sir Lowry’s Pass was constructed in 1830.
In 1932/33 the improvements of the geometrics was undertaken.
The pass was finally tarred in the 1960s.
Today the Franschhoek pass, besides its contribution to commerce and farming, provides a delightful drive with some quite breathtaking scenery. It is often referred to as one of “the Four Passes”, a well-known day-trip via Helshoogte, Franschhoek, Viljoen’s and Sir Lowry’s Passes.