One cannot drive all the way to Calitzdorp or to Oudtshoorn and not drive over the Swartberg Pass on the R368 to Prince Albert!
Approaching the Swartberg from Oudtshoorn.
This narrow, rough, and spectacular dirt road pass is worth every single bump and curve all the way up to its 1 568m summit and down the other side. One climbs 1 000 metres in 12 kilometres, making it a steep pass indeed. It is out-of-this-world beautiful, interesting and a part of our living history.
Some of the exposed rocks
This 27km slow-going pass is very impressive – such a grand feat of engineering pre-dating the development of modern earth-moving equipment. What I find amazing is that the pass was built with the use of pickaxes, spades, sledgehammers, crowbars, wheelbarrows and gunpowder. Boulders were split by heating them with fire and then dousing them with cold water. Rocks were broken into smaller pieces with sledgehammers and then carefully dressed by the convicts.
A wheelbarrow used during the construction of the Swartberg Pass
The final cost of building the pass, including a few kilometres of access roads, was ₤14 500, which excludes the value of the convict labour.
Once you have traversed this pass you will not be surprised to find that this is the epitome of gravel road passes for many South Africans and tourists alike: the allure of the Swartberg Pass is such that you simply have to drive over it at least once in your life. It was proclaimed a national monument in 1988; is a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and is considered in some circles as Thomas Bain’s best accomplishment of road building. He constructed this pass with the help of some 250 convict labourers from 1883 to 1886.
Date carved into the rock
I found the dry-packed stone walls, which range in height from ½ metre to 13 metres, particularly impressive. You do not notice them while driving on the road itself, until you look up or below and realise that what you have been driving on is being shored up by these walls which have been built up stone by stone!
As mentioned in my posts about both Uniondale Poort and Meirings Poort, one cannot help being in awe of the dazzling display of contorted sandstone. The Swartberg is ranked among the best exposed folded mountain ranges in the world and clearly depict an upheaval of rock frozen in time.
Bain constructed underground tunnels to disperse flood waters – the openings of these can be clearly seen if you take the trouble to look closely at some of the tall dry-walls on the bends.
Drainage tunnel entrance
One has to negotiate a series of hairpin bends along the pass, which ensure that one drives slowly and carefully.
Take time to drink in the wonderful geology close at hand.
Striking geological features
View the spectacular scenery stretching out below.
Scenery far below
If you can take your eyes off the road for a minute, you may even spot the odd bright flower or two: