The long way home via five mountain passes: A weekend in the Olifants River mountains, Part V

This is Part 5 of our weekend in the Olifants River Mountains. Here are the links to the other four post about this trip:

Goodbye to Pampoenfontein – and Lilly-Beth

Dawn sky lighting up the little dam

We woke up to a fabulously clear sky, with just the slightest of breezes. Just before the sun climbed slowly out of bed, the sky turned orange-reddish-pink all along the western and northern horizon.

Dawn sky towards the west

We had a leisurely breakfast of muesli and fruit and sat outside, enjoying the early hours of daylight. It promised to turn into yet another scorching day, but for now, we still had another hour or two of cool and brisk mountain air left to enjoy. And so we did.

A pretty Cape Robin was fluttering about, eluding my camera lens. He perched on the balustrade for a moment, twittering his “cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet“, before launching himself into the air just as I clicked the shutter – and leaving me with a blur of his wings.

What a beautiful fella!

He landed on the braai, pecking at whatever tiny fragments of meat or toastbread were still stuck to the grid, before leaping down onto the ground and hopping around the paved area. Ever so often, he’d angle his head to peer at the ground, before pecking energetically – perhaps he’d caught an insect? After several failed attempts, and blurry shots, I finally caught him balancing on the braai.

Goodbye, little friend. I do hope we’ll meet again.

Lilly-Beth, having lapped up the remains of our milk, was sitting on the wooden decking in a beam of sunlight, cleaning herself thoroughly, from the tips of her ginger ears to the ends of her neat white hindpaws, which she stretched into the air in that enviably graceful manner of cats the world over.

It was so hard to say goodbye to her. And to our cosy little Lilly Cottage, which had sheltered us from the howling wind and the sweltering heat.

Dasklip Pass

What a view!

Before descending the Dasklip Pass on our way back down to Porterville, we stopped briefly at the paragliding take-off site. We walked down the little path we had seen on Friday, and came to a second large green mat, spread over an almost level, just slightly sloping, area that had been cleared of all its vegetation.

Table Mountain is clearly visible in the distance

Today, the sky was less hazy than it had been on Friday. In the far distance, beyond Porterville in the foreground, towards the south-west, we could clearly see the familiar outline of Table Mountain, with Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head on either side embracing the Mother City. Less than two hours away, if we were to drive straight home, it nonetheless felt like a completely different world.

But we weren’t ready to go home just yet.

I had recently bought The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes (2002), in which Graham Ross writes eloquently and passionately about some of the mountain passes in the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape. And we were really keen to explore some of them while we were in the area.

Porterville

We cruised slowly down the tarred curves of the Dasklip Pass, enjoying the views. When we reached the gravel road to Porterville, we had to slow right down to 10-20 kph, because of the corrugations and the sharp stones spitting up against the car. It took us a while to reach the petrol station in Porterville, where we pumped up our tyres to their optimal 2.50 bars.

Driving smoothly once again on the tarred R44, we drove south past Saron and Gouda, where we turned left onto the R46 towards Tulbagh.

The Cape Fold Mountains

These were the three original passes across the Cape Fold Mountains

When you look at a map of South Africa, and specifically the area around Cape Town, you will see that there is a series of mountain ranges that forms a semi-circle around the South-Western Cape. Also known as the Cape Fold Mountains, they run from the sea at False Bay (the Helderberg mountains) northwards via the Stellenbosch mountains, the Drakenstein mountains, the Winterhoek mountains and the Olifants River mountains, to the Cederberg mountains in the north. Another branch of the Cape Fold Mountains also goes all along the southern coast towards Port Elizabeth in the east.

When the first white settlers arrived in South Africa, and set off to explore the interior of the country, they were faced with this massive barrier of rugged mountains. During the days of Jan van Riebeeck, who was Commander of the Cape from 1652 to 1662, three places were identified, where travellers could traverse these mountains:

  • in the south, Sir Lowry’s Pass through the Hottentots Holland mountains near Somerset West,
  • in the north-east, the Roodezand Pass (now Nuwekloof Pass) into the Tulbagh valley, and
  • even further north, the Piekenierskloof Pass (Grey’s Pass) across the mountains near Citrusdal.

Try to imagine what it must have been like to travel across this land, without highways or tarred roads, on horse back, on foot with pack donkeys, or with ox wagons. And how difficult it must have been to find, never mind construct a safe road across inhospitable terrain with very limited equipment, and without reinforced concrete, among other things!

Nuwekloof Pass between Gouda and Tulbagh

The first passage into the valley around the little town of Tulbagh was discovered by Pieter Potter, a land surveyor, in 1658. He had been sent to find the Khoikhoi living in the area, with the orders to buy some cattle from them. He didn’t succeed in crossing the mountains, but he did manage to find a potential route, from where he could see into the valley. It took another forty years for this fertile area to be opened to farming. It was named the Land of Waveren, after a place in Holland, although the local farmers also referred to it as the Roodezand after the red sandstone cliffs, which were located in its northwestern corner.

The old Oudekloof Pass and the more recent Nuwekloof Pass into the Tulbagh Valley

The Roodezand Pass, which was built in about 1700, crossed a low neck between the Obiqua and Oudekloof Mountains about 4 kilometres north of Gouda. It was very narrow and extremely steep in places. Effectively, wagons had to be unloaded and taken apart at the foot of the mountains, and everything had to be carried over on the backs of the cattle.

By 1749, about 90 years after Pieter Potter had first seen the Roodezand Valley, the farmers of the area decided it was time to construct a new pass along a different route. This time they chose a cleft between the Obiqua and Voëlvlei Mountains, more or less along the course followed by the Little Berg River. This pass was so narrow in places, that only one wagon could pass at a time – so the drivers would crack their whips really loudly when they approached these sections, that any travellers from the opposite side would be warned of their approach. Apart from that, the river, which it traversed, was sometimes so swollen by the rains that it was impossible to cross safely.

The old pass became known as the Oude Roodezand Kloof (later abbreviated to the Oudekloof), while the new pass became known as the Nieuwe Roodezand Kloof (similarly abbreviated to Nieuwekloof).

The valley, which was originally used for stock farming, began to be used more and more for to cultivate fruit, vine and vegetables, and stock farmers began to move further inland.

The modern Nuwekloof Pass – you can see the railway line on a higher-lying embankment alongside the road

In 1855, two hundred years after Pieter Potter’s first foray through these mountains, Thomas Bain, the famous South African builder of roads and passes, was instructed to set out a new route for the pass, as well as to incorporate a railway line through the kloof. This work was completed in the 1860s.

In the 1960s, another hundred years later, sections of the road also had to be moved from one side of the river valley to the other and the road through the pass was widened and reinforced, to accomodate the faster motorvehicles of today. This new route was called the Nuwekloof Pass. Parts of the old route can still be seen, when you are driving along the new, faster route.

Tulbagh

This was the route we now travelled into the beautiful valley of Tulbagh, which is surrounded by rugged mountains: the Obiqua mountains to the west, the Great Winterhoek to the north (up to 2077 metres above sea level), and the Witzenberg to the east. During the winter, the higher peaks are often capped by snow, which usually results in an influx of visitors eager to build snowmen and play in the snow!

In 1969, however, an earthquake, the most serious earthquake experienced in South Africa, registered 6.4 on the Richter scale. It caused extensive damage to farms, houses and structures in this region (Great Winterhoek valley, Ceres, Tulbagh, Wolseley and Prince Alfred Hamlet):

“After the earthquake in 1969 every home in Church Street was restored. These 32 buildings were all declared National Monuments and constitute the largest concentration of National Monuments in one street in South Africa.” (Tulbagh Tourism)

The Museum and Information Offices in Church Street have documented the history of the town, the effects of the earthquake and the subsequent restoration work. If you are curious, you can pick up information booklets from them, before you go for a ramble around the town with your camera!

Approaching the lovely town of Tulbagh

We pulled in at Pammies (Bloekombossie), a restaurant just north of the town centre. ‘Bloekombossie‘ is the Afrikaans word for Bluegum tree, of which there were apparently many growing on this site. Most of the trees were chopped down and used to build the restaurant, as well as the fencing and features all around the main building. We found a table inside, where it was pleasantly cool, and had cappuccinos and a carrot and pecan-nut muffin. There was a large (possibly unfinished?) mural on the wall next to us, depicting a forest glade with fairies dancing around the trees.

Michell’s Pass between Tulbagh and Ceres

Feeling refreshed, we drove southwards out of town and onto the R46, which took us past the small town of Wolseley to the start of the magnificent Michell’s Pass.

From the Tulbagh valley to Ceres via Michell’s Pass

After the Tulbagh valley had been opened to settlers around 1700, farmers began to explore the area east and north-east of this valley. But as you can see from the screenshot of Google Earth below, the Witzenberg and Skurweberg mountain ranges towards the east acted as a rather daunting barrier!

In 1765, Jan Mostert, of the farm Wolvenkloof in the southern area of the Tulbagh valley (roughly where the Mosterthoek Mts are on the image above), built a 13 kilometre long road up the valley carved by the Dwars river. He charged a toll for everyone who used this Mostertshoek Pass into the Ceres Valley beyond. However, the terrain was so precipitous and the passage so dangerous, particularly when the river was in flood, that the wagons had to be unassembled and carried on ox-back and horse-back over sections of the pass. Nonetheless, this pass continued to be used until 1848! (Ceres Museum: Passes)

Michell’s Pass sign at the start of the pass from the Ceres side

Fifteen years later, in 1780, and further north (closer to the town of Tulbagh), another farmer, Field Cornet Jan Pienaar, found a way over and across the Witzenberg and Skurweberg. Although these passes gave access to the higher lying area that became known as ‘Agter Witzenberg’ (Behind the Witsenberg), and beyond it to the Bokkeveld, the pass from the Tulbagh side appeared to have gone almost straight up the mountain at a scarily steep gradient.

Here, too, the togryers (the Afrikaans word for the transport riders, those courageous people who transported all kinds of goods back and forth between Cape Town and the farms and developing towns in the hinterland), were forced to dismantle their wagons before carrying everything piecemeal across the steepest sections.

One of the viewing sites on Michell’s Pass

In the 1830s, it was decided that the Mostertshoek Pass had to be rerouted. Charles Michell, the Civil Engineer of the Cape Colony at that time, appointed Andrew Geddes Bain (“geologist, road engineer, palaeontologist and explorer” – Wikipedia), to build the new pass. Michell designed the new route, and Bain, with the assistance of – among others – his son Thomas (who, like his father, was one of the most well-known road and pass builders of South Africa), and 240 convict labourers, constructed it. At the time, it was typical to use convicts to build the roads in the Colony. It took Bain only three years – 1846 to 1848 – to complete the work on what was then called Michell’s Pass.

The pass follows the course of the Dwars River (later the Breede River) through the mountains

At that time, a Toll House was built on the pass, where you had to pay a set toll per wheel on the wagon, per pack animal carrying a load, and per sheep, goats, pigs, and other animals. When diamonds were discovered in the Kimberley area during the 1870s, this pass was the quickest route north, and Ceres flourished as a stop-over point. The toll house, which still stands in the same place, has since been declared a National Monument. Currently, the Togryer’s Restaurant can be found here, just behind the historic Toll House.

What a beautiful, wide valley!

A railway line was constructed through the pass, joining Wolseley and Ceres, in 1912.

A hundred years later, in the 1940s (during World War II), major work was done on this road, reinforcing and resurfacing it with concrete, widening the roadway and altering the curves and gradients to take into account the increasing use of motorised vehicles.

More recently, between 1988 and 1992, further extensive work was done on the pass. I thought it would be interesting to quote Graham Ross on the extreme difficulties encountered at this time:

“This was a most tricky project: the work had to be planned and executed in such a manner that traffic was not unduly impeded, especially during the critical fruit-picking season, and a whole number of considerations had to be taken into account, especially when blasting – the railway, major Eskom powerlines and Post Office lines, as well as the fact that the road runs through the Ceres Nature Reserve. …

Restricted space within which to operate with construction equipment, while still accommodating traffic, posed the major obstacle. All padmakers [road builders] hate working ‘under traffic’: one cannot position or move one’s equipment to maximum advantage; non-construction traffic causes delays while one sits fuming unable to get on with things; and, generally, work which would otherwise be tackled as a single logical whole has to be split into a varying number of uneconomic little bits. And the situation is exacerbated on a mountain pass where it is generally impossible to construct deviations or make use of existing alternative routes to accommodate the traffic.” (Graham Ross, The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes: pp 29-30)

Here you can clearly see the railway line on an embankment the road. Judging from the burnt vegetation and blackened earth, there must have been fires here recently.

Ceres

It was almost 13h00 by the time that we cruised into the lovely valley of Ceres, named after the Roman Goddess of agriculture because the land was so fertile.

Originally, farmers grew mainly wheat in this area, but over the years, they focused increasingly on fruit farming (pears, apples, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries). On the outskirts of Ceres, you will find one of the manufacturing plants of the Ceres Fruit Juice, the largest fruit juice packaging operation in Africa. The company dates back to 1923!

More recently, farmers in the area have also started to grow potatoes, and nowadays about 40% of all potatoes grown in South Africa, come from this area!

(If you want to read more about the history of fruit growing in this area, click here.)

Approaching the small town of Ceres from Michell’s Pass

We drove straight through the centre of town, turning left onto the R303, which led us northwards in the direction of the Gydo Pass. If you were to continue along the R303 from Ceres across Gydo Pass and past the settlement of Op die Berg (appropriate called ‘On the Mountain’), you would eventually reach Citrusdal. But most of that road, apparently, was gravel, and we had had quite enough of those for one weekend, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, we felt like driving up to the top of Gydo Pass to see what it was like up there, and so we did.

Prince Alfred Hamlet

Along the way, we drove through the village of Prince Alfred Hamlet (Ceres Museum: History of PA Hamlet).

The Ceres valley up to Gydo Pass

This had been established on the farm Wagensboomrivier around 1860. Not only was it a resting place for travellers heading up the Gydo Pass into the Koue Bokkeveld beyond the northern mountains, but it was also a fruit packing centre for the surrounding farms. As it was also the terminus of the railway-line that ran from Wolseley via Michell’s Pass to Ceres sometime around 1929, it became very important in the transport of fruit, vegetables and other agricultural products both into and out of the area.

The village was named after Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, first Duke of Edinburgh, when he visited the Cape Colony in 1867.

According to the roving reporter of Encounter Magazine:

“It is the fascinating variety of people who give the town its particular charm. There is, amongst others, the SPCA Rep who cares for a convict’s donkey and township pets, an Moroccan aromatherapist, two botanical researchers, an Italian octogenarian mineralogist, the wandering poet dressed in patchwork who lives in a pear tree and a reclusive painter. A young dynamic couple (the Odendaals) runs the cherished Swartberg Hotel. The mayor’s wife stocks a farmstall with delectable Karoo delicacies.

Outa Lappies, christened Jan Schoeman, is indeed a minstrel of a man. He is a philosopher, writer and artist. He pulls a cart covered with the scraps of life and hangs lanterns from “his” tree. He is also known for selling beautiful embroideries, hand-stitched by local women.”

Sounds intriguing! This time around, we didn’t stop to explore the village, but we will do so another time.

Gydo Pass from Ceres into the Koue Bokkeveld

Sign to the Gydo Pass viewing site

This awe-inspiring pass some kilometres outside Prince Alfred Hamlet, travelling in large loops up the Skurweberg and the Gydoberg, was built by Andrew Geddes Bain in 1848, the year he completed Michell’s Pass.

The word ‘Gydo

“is of Khoikhoi origin and is said to mean ‘steep pass’, or ‘milkbush poort’ after a species of euphorbia. From the summit, travellers can enjoy fine views of the Hex River Mountains and the Warm Bokkeveld.” (Website)

And we did indeed! The view was truly fabulous.

The impressive loops of the Gydo Pass

By the time we had reached the top of the pass, we had risen rather quickly to an altitude of just over 1000 metres (I think). It felt as though we were ontop of the world here! This was definitely an area we were drawn to explore further – but perhaps next time with a car more suited to rough gravel roads!

Turning around and heading back down the mountain

The road was lined by fruit orchards

We continued following the tarred road for a few more kilometres, as we were curious where it would lead. On either side of the road, which ran more or less at a level between higher-lying mountain ridges, were neat patches of fruit orchards, one beside the other. They were looking lush and green, with most of the trees laden with fruit.

Yep, definitely apples! Yum!!

We stopped to have a closer look:

We returned down the Gydo Pass, through Prince Alfred Hamlet and Ceres, and down Michell’s Pass.

Bain’s Kloof Pass between Wolseley and Wellington

From Ceres to Wellington via Michell’s Pass and Bain’s Kloof Pass

Our next destination was Bain’s Kloof Pass, which crosses the Limietberge between Wolseley and Wellington. Completed by Andrew Geddes Bain in 1853, after close on 5 years of construction, it was quite deservedly named after him, because it is truly magnificent and picturesque, particularly if you take into account the challenges and complexities of this project!

While Bain was working on Michell’s Pass, he began to explore the kloofs and ravines in the Limietberge in the hope of finding a way through to Wellington. It seems to have been a particularly challenging terrain that necessitated some serious bundu-bashing. I’ll quote some of his words:

“We had to skip from one stone to another and force our way through thick brakes, wade the river times without number, climb precipitous krantzes, tumble down again among loose stones and, on the whole, such a fatiguing exploration I never had before…” (quoted in Ross, The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes, 2002: p83).

Far below us in the valley, a little waterfall is tumbling into a small pool

Nonetheless, he did manage to find a possible route through the mountains, and construction on this began after he had completed work on Michell’s Pass. In view of the challenging nature of the project, they had between 300 and 450 convicts working on it at any one time.

In order to approach the pass from the east, we continued along the R43, until it suddenly turned sharply to the left (to join the N1 near Worcester); at that sharp turn, we took the R303 through the Limietberge via the Bain’s Kloof Pass, all the way down to Wellington. A large sign warned road users that there was a height restriction of 3.87 metres, and that trucks had to be less than 9 metres in length. (Honestly, it was quite a relief not to meet any trucks on this pass, because the roadway was really narrow in places.)

We crossed the Breede River by means of an extremely narrow bridge. We had to wait for a minute or two, for a van coming from the other side to cross the bridge, before it was our turn.

Crossing one of the very narrow bridges

Halfway up the western approach from Wellington, Andrew Bain built South Africa’s first road tunnel (400 feet long, 16 feet high, 12 feet wide); unfortunately, the material was so unstable, that the tunnel collapsed during the winter rains of 1850, and thus had to be abandoned.

We were excited to see that the start and end of this tunnel are in fact signposted, but unfortunately there weren’t any stopping sites nearby to allow us to explore them further on foot. Actually, I don’t know how accessible they would be anyway, because the vegetation seemed to be impenetrably dense.

Sign indicating that we are now on Bain’s Kloof Pass

Bain began constructing the pass from the western side above Wellington; this appeared to have been the easier section.

The eastern side of the mountain, however, posed some serious challenges. He found that the rocks here were incredibly hard, making it almost impossible to create a well-graduated road.

As Ross describes it:

“All drilling had of course to be done by hand drill and sledge – the junior man holding the drill steel – and the blacksmiths were kept busy resharpening the drills. … Wedges were used to split boulders – it was only at a later date (when work was on the go in Meiringspoort) that Bain developed the method of building a fire around the rock and then dousing it with water when the rock was hot, to cause the rock to split. Large rocks were moved with muscle power, steel bars and, sometimes, rollers.” (Ross, The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes, 2002: p87).

These roadbuilders were clearly tough, rugged and resourceful men.

A box cut through the hard rock strata

One of the most famous features of the pass is Dacre’s Pulpit, a long pointy nose of rock that hangs over half of the road, and is no doubt the reason for the height restriction! It is named after Reverend Dacre, who gave a sermon here when the Pass was opened in 1853, and it is supposed to resemble a pulpit. (? I’m not so sure about that – to me it looks more like a very pointy nose…)

The odd-looking landmark known as Dacre’s Pulpit

On the downslope, dry-stone retaining walls were built, some up to 20 metres high, and often using the material blasted out of the mountain side towering above. Incredibly, these still hold up the road today. I think this must be one of the tallest retaining walls on the pass:

A retaining wall near Dacre’s Pulpit – not one for vertigo-sufferers!

(By the way, this website lists some of the interesting historical features of Bain’s Kloof Pass, and the places where it is worth stopping for a closer look.)

When we descended the slow loops of the pass on the western slopes of the mountain, we stopped at one of the viewing sites to linger for a while.

View westwards across the Wellington valley

What a glorious view across the valley towards Wellington – and beyond it to Paarl… and beyond even that, home was awaiting!

—————

* Much of the information about the history of the passes comes from the excellent book by Graham Ross, The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes (2002), in which he writes about 50 of the more than 490 mountain passes in the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape.

8 thoughts on “The long way home via five mountain passes: A weekend in the Olifants River mountains, Part V

  1. A perfect way to end the trip, indeed. You packed so much information into this post–excellent! I’m sure people will truly appreciate this if they’re planning to visit this area. That Cape Robin is gorgeous. What colors!

    So glad to read this today. thank you, thank you, Reggie! (Can’t wait til your next vacation!)

    • You are VERY welcome, Kathy. I’m hoping we can get away sometime in May, for a certain special someone’s birthday. 😉 So then I’ll have another adventure to write about.

      And this afternoon, while I was working in the garden, I saw a Cape Robin! I’ve NEVER seen one in my garden before, so it felt almost other-worldly, as though the world paused for a breath. Magic! It was about two metres away from me, and completely unfazed by my presence. I moved slooooowly towards my camera, and managed to take some pics of it, but I haven’t checked yet whether they are in focus or not.

  2. Hi Reggie, what an amazing website. May we use your information and especially your photo’s in an official municipal document that we’re currently drafting for the Witzenberg Municipality.

  3. Pingback: CapeNature negotiates protection of Dwars River

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