Swartberg Pass – a MUST for any bucket list of road trips!

The road from the arid Great Karoo and Prince Albert approaches from the north.  The mighty Swartberg mountain range which stretches from Willowmore in the East for a distance of approximately 250km to beyond Ladismith in the West and includes such well known landmarks as Meiringspoort, Swartberg Pass, Gamkaskloof (The Hell), Seweweekspoort and Towerkop peak.  The highest peak in the Western Cape, Seweweekspoort Peak (2324.9m), is one of more than twenty peaks in the range that are higher than 2000m.  To the south on the Oudsthoorn/Calitzdorp side lies a lush valley in stark contrast to the areas to the north.

The road from the arid Great Karoo and Prince Albert approaches from the north. The mighty Swartberg mountain range which stretches from Willowmore in the East for a distance of approximately 250km to beyond Ladismith in the West and includes such well known landmarks as Meiringspoort, Swartberg Pass, Gamkaskloof (The Hell), Seweweekspoort and Towerkop peak. The highest peak in the Western Cape, Seweweekspoort Peak (2324.9m), is one of more than twenty peaks in the range that are higher than 2000m. To the south on the Oudsthoorn/Calitzdorp side lies a lush valley in stark contrast to the areas to the north.

The start of Swartberg Passfrom the Prince Albert side.

The start of Swartberg Pass from the Prince Albert side.

The start of the Swartberg Pass on the R328 lies a short five minute drive from Prince Albert and the first half 15 minutes of the pass encompasses some of the most dramatic scenery you’ll see anywhere in the world.  So, even if you don’t drive the whole pass, a visit to Prince Albert and exploring the first few kilometres of the pass is well worthwhile.

The Swartberg is amongst the best exposed fold mountain chains in the world, and the pass slices through magnificently scenic geological formations.

The tender for the Swartberg Pass was initially awarded to John Tassie, but the mountain beat him and he could only build 6km of road before going bankrupt.

The job was taken over by Thomas Bain, an extraordinary road engineer dubbed ‘The Man with Theodolite Eyes’. By now he had built 16 of the country’s most challenging mountain passes. He had learnt his craft from his father, Andrew Geddes Bain, a brilliant road engineer, palaeontologist, geologist and explorer.

Thomas Bain worked with 250 convicts and a lot of gunpowder. He finished the Swartberg Pass ahead of time and under-budget.

The pass opened on 10 January 1888. The drystone work supporting some of its picturesque hairpin bends (and as barriers to the steep drops) is particularly noteworthy over 120 years later.

This was the last pass that Thomas Bain built in the Cape and was surely his greatest achievement. The final cost of the pass, including a few kilometers of access roads, was £14,500, excluding the value of the convict labour, which was free.

Thomas Bain built the pass from 1883 to 1886. He managed to keep the gradient lower than 1:8 throughout the pass, compared to the steeper 1:6 of the Montagu Pass. Bain used the ridges of the foothills for a comfortable ‘altitude gaining’ approach to the looming bulk of the Swartberg range, where he chose the lowest saddle as his target.

By this stage of his road building career Bain had developed several unique techniques employing his knowledge of science. One was his dry-walling construction using the principles of cohesion and friction, using no cement at all. The other was using heat and water to break big rocks up. A large fire would be lit under or near a difficult rock and then cold water would be poured over it, resulting in the rock cracking into smaller, more manageable pieces. In these early pioneering days, the tools employed were very rudimentary and consisted primarily of picks, shovels, sledgehammers, gunpowder and hard labour.

Key Facts
Elevation start — northern side: 776m
Elevation – summit: 1,575m
Elevation end — southern side:  864m
Distance: 25.1km
Time required: 60 — 100 minutes, and more for frequent stops.
Average gradient: 1.31
Maximum gradient: 1.5

2 thoughts on “Swartberg Pass – a MUST for any bucket list of road trips!

  1. Brian Wakeham

    I must agree – the Swartberg is a magnificent piece of engineering. In the past 8 years I have travelled this pass 6 times on visits to S Africa and each time I notice something I had not seen on a previous visit. Sadly last year’s visit in November coincided with some heavy torrential rains and the pass was rendered “out of bounds” for a few days and so had to forego a vist to Prince Albert with friends from the UK on their first visit to SA. I had missed my fix! But I will be back for more over the next few years.

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