Prince Albert lies at the entrance to the 27km Swartberg Pass, considered one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world: an untarred road winds to the summit 1 583 metres above sea level in steep zig-zags and sudden switchbacks, with breath-taking views at every turn. The turn-off to Gamkaskloof lies near the summit of the pass.
The entrance is through a narrow Cape sandstone kloof where the eye is drawn upwards by the convoluted rock faces to the sparkling sky above. The only sounds are bubbling water, the wind in the trees and birdsong. Several picnic sites near the river provide tranquil spots to stop and absorb the peace and splendour.
As you drive on you gain your first sight of the valleys and peaks of the Swartberg Pass. The natural characteristics of the Pass are magnificent – as are the man-made features. This was Thomas Bain's last engineering masterpiece. His construction philosophy, which has stood the test of time was: "A good hat and good boots".
The dry stone packed retaining walls are amazing, in one place on the southern side the wall is 2,4kms long. They range in height from ½ metre to 13 metres. Laws of friction and cohesion govern the pressure on retaining walls. The bed (ledge, base or shelf) measures up to 1 metre plus up to 300mm at the top. Selected stone was used and laid with grain at right angles to the natural bedding line. The walls were battered (sloped inward) in a rise of 1:6. To illustrate the scale of the highest sections of the walls, Boegoekloof measures 13,1 metres vertically and the second hairpin on the north, 7,3 metres. Pressure on the roadway through traffic has compacted and secured the walls and roadway.
The larger stones on the ledge bedding provided good drainage but further provision was necessary. Bain’s original specifications give "rule of thumb" measurements and clear instructions as to how many culverts, side drains etc. there were to be, but it is not stated how these were arrived at. What is clear is that they appear adequate, for after over a century of rain the walls are essentially still in place and until recently, with little or no damage.
In September 2000, a concerned group of design and construction professionals from Prince Albert initiated a crisis meeting with the Provincial and District Roads Engineers to discuss their difficulties in providing adequate maintenance of the Pass after the bouts of heavy rains over the past three years. The meeting resulted in all concerned walking the Pass to discuss specific problem areas and a folio of photographs and drawings was handed over. The Pass underwent specialist maintenance and Prince Alberters were delighted to see their old friend (declared a National Monument in its Centenary year 1988) receiving such a comprehensive facelift. A further maintenance project was started in 2012.
Along the way there are relics of an old prison, toll hut, hotel and other interesting historical sites.
Often covered in snow in winter, the mountains' unique micro-climate supports fynbos and a rich bird population, in contrast with the arid zone flora and fauna outside its cool, shady kloofs. Watch out for black eagles and klipspringers.
The Swartberg Pass is now part of a World Heritage Site.