The Swartberg Pass is as iconic to Prince Albert as the Dutch Reformed Church, olive farms and starry skies.
With the Great Karoo on its northern side and the Little Karoo to the south, it is a South African National Monument with a history that is tantamount to the modern existence of the village.
Covering a distance of 27 kilometers and reaching 1853 metres above sea level at the summit, the Swartberg Pass is considered one of the best constructed mountain passes in the world. It is both a feat of engineering and a bucket-list drive.
The Swartberg Mountains, which the road is built upon, is one of the finest examples of exposed fold mountain chains on earth. As a result of the geological processes that gave birth to the Swartberg range, the southern and northern sides of the pass take the visitor through very different environments. The southern side shows the more gentle slopes of the mountain while the northern side, the side closest to Prince Albert, stuns you with impressive and awe inspiring cliff faces, gorges, geological formations and a view all the way to the Nuweveld mountains at Beaufort West.
Planning to traverse the pass? Before you pack a picnic basket, fuel up and check the camera, read up on its fascinating past to make sure you get the most out of the experience.
Here’s what you need to know.
Prior to the construction of the Swartberg Pass, the only roads that linked the port of Mossel Bay to villages and towns in the Great Karoo were the Seweweekspoort and Meiringspoort gorges, but these were often closed for weeks in winter due to flooding. What’s more, the only route that linked Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn was a footpath over the Swartberg Mountains that was only navigable by horse or foot.
Famous pass builder Thomas Bain (son of Andrew Geddes Bain, the mastermind behind Bainskloof Pass) was commissioned to plan a new route over the mountain range in 1879. The unpredictable steep gradients led to Bain only succeeding on his fourth attempt, and his plan was approved by the government in 1880.
At the time of approval Bain was constructing the Tsitsikama Road. John Tassie was commissioned to build the pass with a workforce of 100 Mozambicans. After thirteen months, he had only advanced 6 kilometers kilometres and was insolvent. Bain was asked to step in and commissioned 240 convicts, which he divided into teams. With pickaxes, spades, wheelbarrows, sledgehammers and gunpowder, they set to work.
Winter conditions were hard and on one occasion heavy rain and mudslides nearly washed the camps away. Remains of these camps can still be seen..
The pass was opened to the public in 1886, but at their own peril, since it was still under construction. It officially opened on 10 January 1888, and shops in Prince Albert closed for the day so that a convoy of 100 various carts and wagons could make their way to the top with a procession of about 500 people. The first motor car was driven over the pass in 1904 by Dr Russell from Oudtshoorn.
Bain’s construction philosophy was “a good hat and good boots” and this sentiment is fitting even today. Roll down the windows, dress stylishly and take a leisurely drive over the pass, stopping at various lookout points to admire the stunning views and natural vegetation and, of course, to take pictures and unwind.
These are the best spots to stop:
As you enter the Swartberg Pass from the North (Prince Albert side), Eerste Water is the first signposted spot in the pass. Stop here. Just before Eerste Water a short steep ramp leads to what is known as ‘die dansbaan’ (a story for another day). When you stand here you are in an amphitheatre showcasing the best of exposed fold mountain geology. It is awe inspiring. Amongst the bushes you will find the remains of buildings that were part of the little village established for the construction of the pass all those years ago. This is a good spot to open the flask and packet of rusks.
One of the iconic views of the Swartberg Pass is of the section where the road gains height rapidly by way of a number of tight zig-zags, etched with the familiar stone packed walls. To get the best view and photograph of the zig-zags, you should find a spot to stop close to Droë Waterval, just before the road leads you into the zig-zags.
This is the stop you can not miss. Experience the silence of the mountain. You may be lucky enough to see the resident pair of Verraux’s Eagles drift up from the gorge on the thermals and glide right next to you. If the wind is not up, this is a beautiful place for a sundowner.
Well, it is in the name. This is the top of the pass where it tips over the mountain. This is another stop you can not miss. The view is wonderful and from here you get a good sense of the difference in the northern and southern sides of the mountain. Even on a bright day it may be very windy and icy cold here – always bring a jacket!
Please remember – you are never allowed to make a fire anywhere in the pass and you are never allowed to swim in any of the streams. Take all your waste with you.