On Sunday morning, after breakfast, we stowed all our gear into the car, tidied up our little cottage, and shared the remaining carrots and apples between the two horses. It felt great to have made friends with both of them – even the grey one looked sad to see us go.
With a final wave at the horses, we turned onto the R323 north out of Riversdale, and across Garcia’s Pass towards Ladismith in the Little Karoo.
Garcia’s Pass is named after Maurice Garcia, one of the 1820 settlers, who became Civil commissioner of Riversdale in the first half of the 19th century. Realising the importance of roads and communication between the coast and the interior, which were separated from each other by a towering chain of mountains known as the Langeberge, he used convict labour to carve a narrow bridle path through the mountains, using the deep gorge of the Goukou River. By 1860, this route was in general use by horsemen.
Soon, the locals were keen to have the path improved and widened to a wagon road, and Thomas Bain received permission to survey the route around 1870.
Thomas Bain, the famous South African builder of roads and passes, is the son of Andrew Geddes Bain, who built eight major mountain passes and roads in South Africa between 1830 and his death in 1864. Thomas clearly inherited his father’s skills, because he built 24 major mountain passes between 1854 and his death in 1893. These original padmakers (road builders) have left an indelible mark in the history of our country.
Thomas Bain began work on the pass in 1873, using a workforce of about 100 convicts transferred from the Tradouw Pass (near Swellendam and Barrydale, see previous blog post), which he had just completed.
“Construction was not easy – kloofs where water has cut through a mountain range generally have steep side-slopes and little soft material on them. Thus we see a considerable amount of dry-stone walling, as was of course common at the time.”
The pass was completed and officially opened in 1877, and named after Maurice Garcia, to acknowledge the important role he had played in its construction. Not quite a hundred years later, between 1958 and 1963, the pass had to be reconstructed and upgraded significantly to accommodate an increased use of modern and faster moving vehicles.
“Garcia’s Pass ia a very attractive road to travel… Some of Thomas Bain’s original dry-stone walls, up to 15 metres high, may be seen and inspected, as well as sections of the old road, going around noses through which the new road cuts, or going right into side valleys with a resulting turn, which would be rather tight for present-day transport vehicles.” (Information and quotes from: The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes by Graham Ross, Chapter 6: Plattekloof, Tradouw and Garcia’s Passes, pages 38-43)
As we curved left and right, and left and right again, up the side of the mountain, we suddenly came to some roadworks – a cordoned-off stretch of tarmac with a large hole in it. And I mean, a large hole.
Now that is a serious-looking pothole. And that might just explain those signs at the bottom of the pass saying that trucks or any large vehicles were not allowed to travel along this road at the moment.
Near the top of the pass, we saw a sign to the Old Toll House. It was built in 1877 (which is when the pass was officially opened), and was in use until 1918, when toll stations were abolished. It has since been restored and was declared a national monument in 1986 (info from here).
We pulled over so that I could have a closer look; I’d read somewhere that the two-day Sleeping Beauty Hiking Trail uses this as an overnight hut, and I was curious to take a look at the facilities. Alas, there was a solid wire-mesh fence all around with a big chain-locked gate forbidding access. Ah well, I suppose that vandalism and wanton destruction could be a serious risk in such an isolated area.
Shortly afterwards, the road began to descend once more, and we found ourselves entering the Little Karoo, with the mighty Swartberg mountain range appearing on the far northern horizon.
(A well-written article on this route can be found here.)