The Swartberg Pass
Prince Albert lies at the entrance to the 27km Swartberg Pass, considered one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world: an untarred road winds to the summit 1 583 metres above sea level in steep zig-zags and sudden switchbacks, with breath-taking views at every turn. The turn-off to Gamkaskloof lies near the summit of the pass.
The entrance is through a narrow Cape sandstone kloof where the eye is drawn upwards by the convoluted rock faces to the sparkling sky above. The only sounds are bubbling water, the wind in the trees and birdsong. Several picnic sites near the river provide tranquil spots to stop and absorb the peace and splendour.
As you drive on you gain your first sight of the valleys and peaks of the Swartberg Pass. The natural characteristics of the Pass are magnificent – as are the man-made features. This was Thomas Bain's last engineering masterpiece. His construction philosophy, which has stood the test of time was: "A good hat and good boots".
Dry-stone walls - a great engineering feat
The dry stone packed retaining walls are amazing, in one place on the southern side the wall is 2,4kms long. They range in height from ½ metre to 13 metres. Laws of friction and cohesion govern the pressure on retaining walls. The bed (ledge, base or shelf) measures up to 1 metre plus up to 300mm at the top. Selected stone was used and laid with grain at right angles to the natural bedding line. The walls were battered (sloped inward) in a rise of 1:6. To illustrate the scale of the highest sections of the walls, Boegoekloof measures 13,1 metres vertically and the second hairpin on the north, 7,3 metres. Pressure on the roadway through traffic has compacted and secured the walls and roadway.
The larger stones on the ledge bedding provided good drainage but further provision was necessary. Bain’s original specifications give "rule of thumb" measurements and clear instructions as to how many culverts, side drains etc. there were to be, but it is not stated how these were arrived at. What is clear is that they appear adequate, for after over a century of rain the walls are essentially still in place and until recently, with little or no damage.
In September 2000, a concerned group of design and construction professionals from Prince Albert initiated a crisis meeting with the Provincial and District Roads Engineers to discuss their difficulties in providing adequate maintenance of the Pass after the bouts of heavy rains over the past three years. The meeting resulted in all concerned walking the Pass to discuss specific problem areas and a folio of photographs and drawings was handed over. The Pass underwent specialist maintenance and Prince Alberters were delighted to see their old friend (declared a National Monument in its Centenary year 1988) receiving such a comprehensive facelift. A further maintenance project was started in 2012.
Along the way there are relics of an old prison, toll hut, hotel and other interesting historical sites.
Often covered in snow in winter, the mountains' unique micro-climate supports fynbos and a rich bird population, in contrast with the arid zone flora and fauna outside its cool, shady kloofs. Watch out for black eagles and klipspringers.
The Swartberg Pass is now part of a World Heritage Site.
Helena Marincowitz's book on the Swartberg Pass
is available from the Prince Albert Tourism Association
Hiking in the Swartberg Pass
There are a number of options for hiking in the SwartbergMountains, from day hikes to a demanding five day hike.
Lindsay of Dennehof Tours arranges a hiking permit and then drives you into the Swartberg Pass with a picnic lunch, a bird list and map and you hike back down to Malva Draai, where beers or soft drinks will be cooling in the river. Choose between a 9km and an 18km route. Call Lindsay on 082 456 8848 for more information.
The best months for hiking and cycling are April/May and September/October. Details and permits are available from the Nature Conservation Office in Oudtshoorn. Tel: 044 279 1739, fax: 044 272 8110.
You must have a permit to hike in the Swartberg Pass.
SWARTBERG NATURE RESERVE: DAY HIKES, OVERNIGHT HIKING TRAILS AND 4X4 ROUTE
Click here for full information on the Swartberg Nature Reserve Trails and 4x4 Route.
YOU MUST CARRY A PERMIT and these are ONLY AVAILABLE FROM THE CAPE NATURE CAPE TOWN OFFICE!
You can book for the trails and 4x4 route at the Central reservation office in Cape Town on 0861 CAPENATURE (227 362 8873) or 021 483 0190.
For more information visit their website at www.capenature.co.za
Cycling in the Swartberg Pass
Dare-devils can hire a mountain bike to ride up and down ... or just down the SwartbergPass! Call Lindsay of Dennehof Tours on 082 456 8848 for more information.
ake a guided tour through the Swartberg Pass
Lindsay Steyn of Dennehof Tours takes visitors on trips in an air-conditioned combi through the Swartberg Pass. He also arranges trips into Gamkaskloof, visit www.dennehof.co.za for more information.
Books on the Swartberg Pass
Read all about the history and romance of this spectacular pass in: Swartberg Pass - Masterpiece of a brilliant Road Engineer by Helena Marincowitz, available at the Fransie Pienaar Museum and the Tourism Association Office.
Local enthusiasts have produced a field guide to the flowers of the Swartberg Pass, available from the Fransie Pienaar Museum and the Tourism Association Office.