I love road trips and especially when they involve mountain passes. Whether with clients or friends I never tire of the thrill when I know I’m going to travel along a road that provides breathtaking views and cliffs with amazing rock formations. Luckily, I live in a mountainous region with many exciting mountain passes.
The many passes of the Western Cape are a road tripper’s delight. At once daunting and awe-inspiring, these high-altitude crossings are not only an amazing scenic drive; they also have important historic significance because they opened access between the Cape and the rest of Africa during the time of ox-wagons. They offered hope to traders and farmers who could now reach ports to sell their produce and buy necessities. Today, we use them for leisure in comfort, our biggest concern being to get the right angle for the best photos, but most travellers don’t give much thought to the man who built most of them – Thomas Bain, 1830 – 1893.
Thomas learnt the trade from his father Andrew Bain, a Scot, a road engineer who built 8 of our famous passes in the first half of the 19th century and who also became known as the father of South African geology after discovering the richness of the Karoo. The spectacular Bain’s Kloof near Cape Town is named after Andrew Bain. Thomas went on to build a further 24 passes and roads in the second half of that century.
Bain Jnr was a busy man throughout his 63 years. He fathered 13 children and the family was kept on the move all the time as he worked on various projects. His wife couldn’t have been happy about not settling down in one fixed spot until very late in their marriage, and then he died soon after. Thomas Bain also found the time to become a noted botanist, archaeologist, Karoo water researcher, magistrate and artist, producing fine maps and tracing ancient San paintings he came across during his work.
Bain was known for working on at least 3 projects at a time, travelling between them on horseback. Not an easy feat in those days. The work on the passes was hard – no dynamite, no modern equipment, a scarcity of labour and very little respite from the harsh surroundings. Bain would explore, on horseback with a theodolite and compass, the area where he wanted to build a pass, making sketches that eventually became passes. He liked following rivers, as he believed rivers know best. Two of his wonderful ‘poorts’ (canyons) – Seweweekspoort and Meiringspoort – each cross a river about 20 times as they snake through the mountains with towering cliffs on either side.
Some of these roads are still supported by dry stone walling built by Bain and his teams more than 130 years ago. His famous dry-walling method of construction to support roads on mountain faces, involved breaking large rocks up by means of fire, followed by cold water, to create manageable smaller pieces. Bain devised this method as the only other option was gunpowder which was very expensive. I wonder what we can build today, without modern technology, which would last as long?
Here are some of my favourite Thomas Bain projects.
Many thanks to MountainPassesSouthAfrica for some information and use of some photos.
The road down to Prince Albert on Swartberg Pass (Black Mountain Pass).
Connecting Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert and considered one of the most beautiful of all the Cape’s passes, this was the last major project Bain undertook. Almost 1600m at the top, 25km long, it deserves to be travelled slowly with lots of time to stop and admire the view. As you reach the first dry-stone wall, ask your driver to let you out so that you can walk up for a few metres. That way you can admire the genius of Bain and his stone walls that still support this road. Snow in winter often causes this pass to be closed – choose your season wisely! On the other side of the pass is one of the prettiest towns in the Cape – Prince Albert.
Sharp bend on Swartberg Pass.
There is something almost mythical about this pass. Maybe it’s the fascinating history of the community at the foot of one section, Die Hel. For more than a hundred years a group of farming families lived peacefully in the Gamkaskloof Valley, or “Die Hel” as it became known. Their only connection with the outside world was via foot and donkey trails up “Die Hel” to the top of the Swartberg Pass and then down the mountain to either Calitzdorp or to Prince Albert. A road was finally built in 1962 and opened in 1963.
Meiringspoort – named after a local farmer – is one of our favourite roads. It runs between Prince Albert and De Rust. Breathtaking cliffs on either side as you drive along this excellent tarred road. Stop for a swim in the waterfall pool or a picnic. In some parts the mountains close in on both sides and rise steeply up, completely blocking out the sun. After many floods and subsequent damage, the road has been upgraded in modern times.
Tradoux Pass – between Barrydale and Swellendam / N2.
Lovely tarred road with breathtaking views around every bend and several beautiful waterfalls and viewpoints. Be sure to stop at the spot where you can park your car and walk a few steps to see a particularly lovely waterfall almost hidden under the trees.
Seweweekspoort – Just off Route 62.
This magnificent canyon is well worth the detour. Good gravel road, awesome rock formations … the road twists and turns as it follows the river, with cliffs rising high on each side, at times giving the driver the impression of driving straight into the mountainside. A couple of photo stops are mandatory. The magnificent vertical rocks reflect extreme volcanic eruptions millions of years ago when the Swartberg Mountains were formed.
Victoria Road – between Sea Point and Hout Bay, Cape Town.
This coastal road was Bain’s very last project. Not as dramatic as his other projects, it is nonetheless a beautiful road and possibly the most commonly used one as it is minutes from the centre of Cape Town and heavily used by commuting locals. After the plush suburbs, you have the famous 12 Apostles on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, this road is a pleasure to drive or cycle.
Prince Alfred’s Pass – between Uniondale and Knysna.
This is possibly the longest pass in South Africa and we recommend making a full day trip of it because there’s just too much to see if you are pressed for time. It’s a beautiful example of Bain’s work, especially the dry-stone walling that he used for so many of his roads. Fabulous views, farmstalls for a coffee break, landmark spots reflecting the history of the Knysna forests, a plaque honouring Thomas Bain, photographers’ delight – yes, this one is worth taking your time.