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.

Dry-stone walls

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!

Dry-stone wall

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.

Folded rocks

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.

Hairpin bend

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:



10 thoughts on “SWARTBERG PASS

  1. Your post brings back so many beautiful memories, Anne! To me the pass is most beautiful driving from Prince Albert to Oudtshoorn, rather than the other way around – probably because of that first time we took it and being confronted with that huge rock wall, with the road seemingly heading straight at it and marveling in wonder where the road will find its way!


    • We were planning to drive back that way. However, as you can tell from some of the pictures, the mist was coming down and so there was little point. I would love to drive over it again in bright sunshine.


  2. Gelukkig het ons ook al die voorreg gehad om dit te ry. Dis ‘n ongelooflike stuk werk en mens kan net bewondering hê vir ‘n man soos Baines. Hy was ontsettend talentvol. Dankie vir jou pragtige foto’s en interessante vertelling. Ek het dit so geniet!


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