Swartberg Pass (R328 / P0369)

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Swartberg Pass southern view from the summit Swartberg Pass southern view from the summit - Photo: Trygve Roberts

The Swartberg Pass is for many South Africans, the rubicon of gravel road passes. There is an allure and a mystique around this old pass, coupled with its status as a national monument, which elevates this pass to the very top of the list. It was Thomas Bain's final and best piece of road building. Most of the historical points of interest are signposted along the pass. There are names like Die Stalletjie (Small Stall), Witdraai (White Corner), Fonteintjie (Small Fountain), Skelmdraai (Devious Corner), and of course Die Top, the latter sign is almost completely obliterated by graffiti by some folk who might feel they have just crested Everest and have this burning desire to paint their name on the well known sign.

Scroll down to view the map & video. This pass was filmed in four separate video clips. It is recommended to watch this video in HD and in the sequence displayed. (Click on the "quality" button on the lower taskbar of the video screen and select 720HD)

Part 1: Overview and Orientation



Part 2: Southern start to the summit

 

Part 3: Summit to Muller Kloof

 

Part 4: Mullers Kloof to northern end point

FULL-SCREEN MODEMODE: Click PLAY, then pass your mouse over the bottom right corner of the video screen. The outline of a square will appear. Clicking on it will toggle Full Screen Mode. Press ESC to return to the original format.

Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.



Digging into the rockface:

It leaves one with the sense that those responsible for naming the various points up the pass, had exhausted their creative energies by the time they reached the summit (1575m ASL) as the best name they could come up with was Die Top. It must have been a monumental effort.

Near the southern start of the Swartberg PassLooking north west from the southern start of the pass / Photo : Thorsten KuttigThomas Bain, with the help of some 250 convict labourers 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 cleverly 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.

It was tough going and there are many stories that abound about the hardships endured by these pioneering men. When the crest of the pass had been reached during the second winter, a road builders camp had been set up close to the summit. After a particularly heavy snowfall, the roof of the camp collapsed, killing several of the convicts. 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. This technique was first brought into South Africa by John Montagu and Charles Michell and the first known examples of dry walling to support roads dates to the Montagu Pass (built by Michell) and Bainskloof (built by Thomas Bain's father, Andrew Bain).

Perfect examples of the dry packed supporting wallsA good example of Bain's dry stone walls / Photo: PanoramioThe 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. Thomas acquired most of these skills from his father, (and to whom he was apprenticed for a several years), who had an intimate understanding of geology. In these early pioneering days, the tools employed were very rudimentary and consisted primarily of picks, shovels, sledgehammers, gunpowder and hard labour.

There are four view/picnic sites on the southern ascent. If you are planning a picnic, the first site might be the most pleasant, as there is nearly always strong wind and cold temperatures near the summit. The entire pass is 23,8 kilometers long and we had to dedicate three separate videos to the task! The ascent lasts for 10,3 kms and should take about 20 minutes to drive excluding stops. Although the pass carries the route number R328 it's administrative number is P0369. The nearest town is Prince Albert (30 km). There is plenty see, from flora to fauna, and some mind boggling geology too. The fynbos is at its best in winter and spring with proteas, ericas, restios and pin-cushions in profusion.

Sign at the summitSign at the summit / Photo: sncdn.com
There are baboons, grysbok, grey rhebuck, klipsringer, leopards and caracal - with the last two seldom sighted. The road is narrow in certain sections and some reversing might be required to get past an oncoming vehicle. Etiquette is to give way to the ascending vehicle. There are no heavy vehicles or caravans allowed. For camper vans with high roofs, be warned that there are some sections with overhanging rocks which could be problematic. Drive at the speed limit or slower - this road can be dangerous in bad weather. If you plan on stopping at the top for a photo or two, have a windbreaker ready - it can be ice cold out of the car and almost always windy.

The pass starts just past a local guesthouse called Kobus se Gat (no translation forthcoming !) and after a long, sweeping left hand bend, one reaches the end of the tar. This is also where the border of the Swartberg Nature Reserve begins. The reserve is large - at 180,000 hectares and provides hiking, picnicking, 4x4 routes, bird-watching, swimming and just being close to nature. The Swartberg Pass is also the spring-board to the start of the famous Gamkaskloof Road with it's awe-inspiring Elands Pass (featured on this site as a separate 4 part series and a must watch for potential first time visitors).

Looking south from the summit of the passLooking south from the summit / Photo: blogsausbettiesThe pass is a national monument and, like its sister pass (Montagu Pass), stands in proud defiance of modern technology. It would be a shame if these roads were ever tarred as their core charm would be lost forever. A plaque commerorating the efforts of the men who built the pass was unveiled on the pass's centenary celebrations in 1988. It stands at the western side of the road at the summit. This was the last pass that Thomas Bain built in the Cape and it was surely his opus magnum. The final cost of the pass, including a few kilometers of access roads, was 14,500 Pounds Sterling, excluding the value of the convict labour, which was free.

From Die Top, which is a natural saddle in the mountain, you will have expansive views to the south of  most of the Klein Karoo, with it's patchwork of green farmlands, whilst the northern vista is entirely different, displaying much drier mountains with a massive gorge splitting the upper mountain plateau into two. It is down this gorge, that the road will take you. If you are lucky enough to be at the summit alone, switch your car's engine off and listen to the incredible silence or the wind whistling past the rocks at Die Top. This is truly a master pass!

Swartberg Pass Summit view northSwartberg Pass Summit view looking north / Photo: Trygve Roberts
Part 3 of the Swartberg Pass deals with the section of approximately 8 kilometers from the summit (Die Top), past the Gamkaskloof turnoff - via the Teeberg viewsite and ends at the lip of Mullers Kloof, which features the multiple dry-walled hairpin curves - one of the most photographed stretches of mountain pass in South Africa. From the top of the pass, which is frequently covered in snow in winter and subject to occassional road closures, the road descends rapidly in a sequence of four switchbacks featuring 160 to 180 degree turns. On the last west-facing switchback, you will notice a clearing and a picnic spot known as "Pine Bush Picnic Area" Not too long ago there existed a large stand of pine trees, providing shade to weary travellers, but the authorities, in keeping with their policy of removing alien trees and vegetation, have systematically removed the pines, leaving just a fairly level, rather exposed area with some picnic tables. The views are at least superb.

You will also notice a jeep track heading eastwards just after the picnic spot. This is a known 4x4 route which is some 75 km long. Permits can be obtained from Cape Nature and/or the Swartberg Nature Reserve. There is a minimum number of vehicles required per trip for safety reasons. Immediately after the (boomed) jeep track junction, some green roofed buildings appear on the left of the road, almost directly below the pass summit. This was originally the site of the road camp where the convicts were housed and perished that snowy night 120 years ago, when their roof caved in. Today, the buildings have been restored and serve as an information centre for the Swartberg Nature Reserve, as well as an overnight hikers hut and a tearoom.

Controlled by Cape NatureAlmost the entire pass falls under the jurisdiction of the Swartberg Nature Reserve / Photo: SAVenuesOnce past the Info Centre, the road levels off and traverses the central plateau of the mountain. The turn-off to the famous Gamkaskloof comes into view after another few kilometers. It is not recommended to drive this road unless you are well prepared, have sufficient fuel, knowledge, and preferably have booked accommodation overnight at Die Hel. This road is slow and a lot rougher than the Swartberg Pass. It is best driven in a robust vehicle like a 4x4. Having said that, I have seen some 1300cc rental cars along this stretch of road. It takes a minimum of 5 hours to complete the trip there and back including some time to stop and take in some of the scenery. Then you still have to get down either the northern or southern descents of the Swartberg Pass. Trying to do this trip in one day, is not advisable.

From the Gamkaskloof turn-off, the road continues at a fairly comfortable gradient for a few kilometers, before starting a gentle climb up towards the Teeberg viewsite. This site, although devoid of shade and exposed completely to the elements, provides a 360 degree unobstructed, panoramic view of the central plateau and its surrounds, including the summit (Die Top) as well as the deep cleft on the northern side down which the road meanders in a dizzying descent. The view extends far over the expanse of the Great Karoo. 

Hairpin bends just after the summitAfter the summit the road descends via 4 hairpins to the middle plateau / Photo: GardenRoute.de From the Teeberg viewsite, the road starts descending more earnestly down the western flank of the mountain. After a few kilometers, the first of the hairpin turns comes into view. This is the lip of the famous Mullers Kloof. Here you will find the best examples of Bains' enormous dry-packed retaining walls. One of them is justover 13 meters high. This is also the kloof that was featured in the TV commercial with well known South African singer, song-writer, playwright and actor - David Kramer, chasing his beloved Volksie Bus up one of the hairpins in his trademark red "veldskoens".

The Swartberg Pass has almost too much to offer the traveller with a never ending changing set of views - each as awe inspiring as the one before. Mullers Kloof is probably the most photographed section of the entire pass, and justifiably so. The scene from the top is jaw-dropping in it's grandeur, whilst from the bottom, one looks up the road, propped up by all those loose rocks and marvels at the ingenuity and determination of man, as the twisted and contorted rock formations tower all around you.

Hairpins for Africa on the Swartberg passThe most photographed section of the pass at Mullers Kloof / Photo: Trygve RobertsThis kloof also gave Bain the most trouble. In May 1885 a devastating flood swept across the Swartberg Mountains, washing away most of the road in the adjacent Meiringspoort and causing a long closure. Bains' brand new road also suffered damage, but Bain learned his lessons well and rebuilt the damaged sections of road further away from the river's flood levels. If you have the time, you will see that as part Bain's dry-walled roads, he constructed underground tunnels to disperse flood waters. The man was a genius and way ahead of his time. An example of this work can still be seen at the "Droe Waterfall" which is mostly just a trickle (and aptly named), but when the heavy rains arrive, the gorge is filled with a destructive torrent of white water, capable of sweeping away even the largest of rocks.


Part 4 of the Swartberg Pass deals with the section of approximately 6 kilometers from the first hairpin bend on Mullers Koof, which features those magnificent dry-walled hairpin curves - one of the most photographed stretches of mountain pass in South Africa, past Malvadraai and through the main poort till the gravel road straightens out near Prince Albert.

From the top of Mullers Kloof (which is adequately described in Swartberg Pass - Part 3 on this site) the road arches like a serpent through a series of incredibly tight hairpins, whilst descending steadily down the mountainside. Here you are likely to see baboons and klipspringers, the latter which seem to float up the mountainside with no apparent effort.

Many hairpin bends on the final descentMultiple hairpin bends snake their way down the mountainside in an unforgettable experience for the first timer / Trygve Roberts As you descend into the crook of the ravine, the mountains seem to close in all around you as you reach a high walled section named "Droe Waterval" (Dry Waterfall). Whilst this might be true in the dry season, when the rains come, this little stream becomes a raging torrent and caused our Mr. Bain no uncertain amount of headaches! This is a good spot to stop and get some fresh mountain water and examine the intricate stonework from such a long time ago, complete with under-road water diversions!

A few hundred meters further, keep a lookout for a sign marked : "Blik Stasie Tronk" (Tin Station Prison). This is something of a misnomer, as it wasn't actually a prison, but rather just a building used to house the convict labourers. Just above the sign is a pathway leading up to the ruin. It's an odd name, as one would expect a corrugated iron building. The ruins show the walls were built from clay, but it probably had a corrugated iron roof and must have been blazingly hot inside during the summer months.

The pass in the 1800's with its designed - Thomas BainWhat the pass looked like in the 1800's / Photo inset of Thomas Bain / Courtesy Swartberg Mountain ToursA kilometer further the road starts curving to the left, following the contours of the mountain, adopting a more northerly direction, in line with the main river and it's gorge. The scenery suddenly starts becoming more dramatic as the mountains close in on both sides, as you enter into the southern mouth of the poort, which is also the confluence of the two main rivers. This lowest section of the pass is incredibly beautiful. Stop as often as you can and enjoy the contorted and vertical rock formations in their red hues as they tower above you. This is also where you will see the Wall of Fire when the mountains glow red when the sun is from just the right direction.

On the right hand side (east) of the river, you will notice a footpath snaking up the mountain-side towards a saddle. This is the 6 hour Malvadraai Hiking Trail and is apparently a lot tougher than its gentle name suggests. Malvadraai is a rest area next to the river, where one normally finds wild geraniums at any time of the year. It is named after the plant. The river is spotlessly clean and this is a good spot to have a swim on a hot summers day.

Eerste Water in the northern sector of the passThe spot called Eerstewater where a perenial stream watered the oxen in the 1800's A short distance beyond Malvadraai the road narrows and a sign beckons "Tweede Water" (Second Water). This used to be a simple drift, but today it is a concreted causeway. When the road was originally constructed, the initial construction effort took place from this northern end of the pass. The track crossed the river twice, known as Eerste (First) and Tweede water. They were practical people back then, and water was an essential commodity for the animals to be able to tackle the long slog up the mountain, making these two crossings quite important enough to warrant official names.

Eerste Water comes into view soon enough and it is a particularly pleasing spot, with the gentle, clear running stream flowing under shady indigenous trees, under a background of towering cliffs. It is a popular picnic spot with the locals from Prince Albert. The small rock formation immediately on the left of the road after the river crossing is said to have a striking resemblance of a clock face. The crossing will seldom be a problem to the average car, but when the river comes down in spate, this spot could prove to be dangerous. The road widens for a while and then in a lovely, open section, some ruins can be found. This is the remains of the main base camp of Thomas Bain.

Contorted rocksTwisted rock extrusions can be seen in the northern sectorJust a few kilometers of the pass remain to be driven at this stage, as the road hugs the western side of the river bank, protected by the omni-present dry walling of Mr. Bain. As you exit the final section of the gorge, you will be left with a feeling of awe, relief and disappointment all in one. Relief that you made it through without mishap and disappointment that it's all over. Well, you can always turn around and drive it again?

This pass ranks amongst the top 10 South African passes in terms of the total package. There are others which are higher, longer, sharper, more dangerous, but there is only one Swartberg Pass. This is the one pass you must experience at least once in your lifetime.


Fact File:

GPS START 

S33.391758 E22.109058

GPS SUMMIT

S33.352335 E22.046130

GPS END 

S33.282333 E22.052567

AVE GRADIENT

1:28

MAX GRADIENT

1:5

ELEVATION START

865m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

1575m

ELEVATION END

737m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

838m

DISTANCE

23,8 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

North

TIME REQUIRED

100 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

40 - 60 kph

SURFACE

Gravel (R328)

DATE FILMED

16.10.2012

TEMPERATURE

18C

NEAREST TOWN

Prince Albert (20km)


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Mountain Passes South Africa

Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.
 

Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.
 

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