SWARTBERG MOUNTAIN PASSAn iconic mountain pass that has found its way onto the bucket list of many an international traveller.
About the Pass
The Swartberg Pass is an iconic mountain pass that has found its way onto the bucket list of many an international traveller.
The Pass is a 27 KM long gravel road with steep inclines. It lies on the R328 and is the shortest route between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn. It takes about 1 hour to drive the entire length of the Pass. Allow an extra 20 minutes to reach the Pass from Oudtshoorn and an extra 10 minutes to reach Prince Albert once you exit the Pass. Allow additional time for stops at viewpoints. In good weather the road can be tackled with any vehicle. Vehicles with low clearance must go very slowly across some eroded sections but will be able to complete the route.
The Swartberg Pass offers spectacular views and unrivaled natural beauty. It is regarded by many as the ultimate in gravel road passes in South Africa and the dry-stone retaining walls and geological formations have become iconic features of the Pass.
The road follows steep zigzag and sudden switchbacks as it winds its way to the top of the Pass at 1583 meters above sea level.
The Pass was constructed between 1881 and 1886 as part of a drive by the government of the day to open reliable routes between the interior and the coast.
The design of the route was done in 1879 by Thomas Bain.
Construction work started in 1881 under guidance of Jan Tassies who made use of 100 Mozambican workers. His efforts lasted all of the 13 months after which he was bankrupt. He had only completed 6 kilometres of the road.
In September of 1883 Thomas Bain took over the constructions work. Using mainly convict labour, he completed the road in record time and by November 1886 it was opened to traffic. The official opening of the Pass took place with much pomp and ceremony on 10 January 1888.
The dry stone packed retaining walls are an engineering feat. On the southern side there is a stretch where the retaining wall is 2.4 kms long without break. At Boegoe Kloof, also on the Southern side of the Pass, the retaining wall is just over 13 meters high! Laws of friction and cohesion govern the pressure on retaining walls and is the mechanism through which the stones are kept in place – no cement or mortar was used in the construction of the initial walls. The history of the Swartberg Pass is filled with interesting stories and given an insight into the forces that shaped the town of Prince Albert and its community.
You can explore more about the history of the Swartberg Pass at the Fransie Pienaar Museum where there is an entire exhibition on the construction of the Pass. It is also worth while to get one of the registered tour guides in Prince Albert to take you on a trip to the Pass and Gamkaskloof (Die Hell) or to just tell you the stories over sun-downers.
The Pass has a unique climate, often with cool, misty clouds covering the top – supporting rick fynbos. Birdlife is magnificent with Verreaux eagles and jackal buzzards a regular site. Birders come from far to find the Cape rock jumper and the Victorians warbler as well as the beautiful orange breasted sunbird.
The Swartberg Nature Reserve was declared a world Heritage Site in 2004. The Swartberg Pass lies in he World Heritage Site and was declared a National Monument in its centenary year 1988.
Do not attempt to drive the Swartberg Pass in rain or snow unless you are experienced in driving along gravel road passes – some sections may be slippery, and visibility may be low. People with server fear of heights may want to go as far as they feel comfortable on a day trip and then turn around rather than tackle the entire road.
Exploring the Pass
A visit to Prince Albert is not complete without exploring the Swartberg with its iconic Swartberg Pass.
There are many ways in which visitors can experience the awe of the majestic Swartberg mountain:
– Drive, walk, run or cycle along the Swartberg Pass – you can hire bicycles in Prince Albert.
– Visit Gamkaskloof (die Hell) for the day or spend the night.
– Take a guided tour up the Swartberg Pass or to Gamkaskloof
– Do one of the hiking trials operated by Cape Nature. There are day hikes as well as overnight routes. Permits for day hikes can be obtained by Lazy Lizard.
– Take a picnic and enjoy the scenery at Eerstewater, Tweedewater or Malvadraai – PLEASE DO NOT MAKE A FIRE.
– Go birding along the various roads in the mountain.