The history of this pass follows below, strange in that it should pre-empt anything to be said about it, but the awesome beauty of this pass is so difficult to communicate that only a visit to the region and a very slow, languid trip over the pass will suffice.
Starting from either the Prince Albert or Oudtshoorn sides, you are about to be literally blown out of your seat as you experience beauty of such enormity, that you will be left dumbstruck for some time after the journey is completed.
The route starting from the Prince Albert side is suggested, because it builds up to a crescendo as one summits the pass and one surveys the valley below. At the beginning of the pass, you travel through a poort, winding its way through the Swartberg, with sheer slopes and cliffs extending above you.
The beauty of this section, combined with its eerie stillness has a calming effect, and even though you’re in a vehicle that feeling of being one with nature already descends.
Exiting the poort, the pass proper starts, and it is here when one is nothing less than blown away. The pass winds its way up to a peak of 1583 metres above sea level. This by way of a narrow road snaking its way up the Swartberg with multiple switchbacks a reversals which enable to see where you are going and whence you came. You can see the sections of the pass’s stone retaining wall, painstakingly hand built.
All the while you are treated to an awesome display of Nature at its rugged best and an engineering feat of man, which when considered in the context of available expertise and machinery at the time, is even a marvel in modern terms.
After summiting, one has to then descend the steep slopes to the bottom. The gradient is of such a nature that your foot never leaves the brake pedal and the only way you can fully appreciate the beauty of the scenery below, is to leave the vehicle and drink in its splendour.
The Schoemanspoort is in close proximity to the foot of the Swartberg Pass, and in itself a beautiful stretch of land. One, however, is still likely to be reeling from the experience of traversing possibly South Africa’s most beautiful pass, that it may just go unnoticed.
A short history
The Swartberg Range was an almost insurmountable obstacle to linking the Klein and Groot Karoos.
Mossel Bay, a port serving the Klein Karoo well, was all but inaccessible to the people of the Groot Karoo, who needed to take advantage of the markets introduced by the port.
Meiringspoort and Seweweekspoort were obvious choices for routes through the range and roads were constructed through these ports in 1858 and 1862 respectively. Due to the restrictive availability of funds, these roads were of inferior quality yet still delivered a much-needed lifeline to the economic growth of the Groot Karoo.
These roads, however, with their constant crossing and re-crossing of the rivers were susceptible to flooding, which left the routes unserviceable for months at a time.
Having had some taste of the benefits of a direct link to Mossel Bay through the Swartberg, the locals petitioned for a direct road link between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert in 1878 and 1879, and Thomas Bain got the go ahead to investigate the feasibility of the Swartberg Pass.
The job was put out to tender and the successful road maker started with convict labour. Unfortunately he went insolvent after completing only about 5 kms of the 24km stretch of road in June 1883.
By November 1883, Thomas Bain, in what turned out to be the last pass he built in South Africa, recommenced work. After a setback in 1885, in which part of his completed road was washed away in a flood, he opened the pass in March 1886, and it was officially opened in 1888.
Practically every year the pass finds itself closed for a day or two, not due to flooding but to heavy snowfall instead.
The road Thomas Bain built is still basically in its original form. It has not been tarred, mainly due to resistance by the locals, as the gravel format helps restrict the accident rate.