Sir Lowry's Pass (N2)

Sir Lowry's Pass looking west Sir Lowry's Pass looking west Trygve Roberts

Sir Lowry's Pass was named after Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, Governor of the Cape in 1828. Today's modern, cantilevered four-lane highway is a far cry from the original pass, recklessly dangerous and steep. Prior to the pass being built, all wagon traffic from the Overberg routed through the Franschoek Pass - the preferred route for many years with its kinder gradients for wagons and oxen. 

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This pass is embedded with thousands of tales of hardship dating back many centuries. The local Khoi herders originated a path they called Gantouw or T'kana Ouwe which approximates the current road. Careful aerial study reveals this still existent track to the north of the N2. Forging a route through the Hottentots-Hollands mountains would facilitate trade with the farmers in the fertile valleys of the Overberg to the east. The earliest recorded crossing of the pass was by a Dutch East India Company surveyor, Hendrik Lacus in 1662 in an effort to initate trade with the Chainnouqua Khoi chief, Chief Sousa. Lacus travelled across the Groenland ('green land') -- the richly forested area between the Steenbras River and Houw Hoek.

By 1740, a permanent road maintenance person - called a cloevermaker - was stationed at the pass to oversee daily maintenance. The tolling of the road paid his salary. History books record Lady Anne Barnard passing over the mountains in May 1798. She wrote: 'The path was very perpendicular, and the jutting rocks over which the wagon was to be pulled, were so large that we were astonished how they were accomplished at all - particularly at one point, called The Porch (Die Poort). At length we reached the summit.'

This notoriously treacherous pass was travelled by many well-known adventurers, including the botanist William Burchell and Captain Robert Percival. Traffic increased rapidly, and by 1821 more than 4 500 wagons were using the Hottentots-Hollands Kloof each year. It came, however, at a steep price: one out of every five wagons were damaged in the process. Still, it continued as the main route to the east for over 150 years.

Old tearoom at Sir Lowrys pass







 


Left - The old tearoom was a popular spot at the top of the pass in the period 1945 to 1960. A massive mountain fire razed it to the ground. The photo dates to circa 1948 - Andre Palmer.














Sir Lowry Cole chose engineer Charles Michell (previously involved in the Franschoek Pass and the Michells Pass, amongst others) to head up the project. Besides being an excellent engineer, he also had an eye for the ladies --- scandalously eloping with the 15 year-old daughter of a French army officer! Michell and Cole made a good team and, after their surveying and funding of the project, the construction of the new road with a much gentler gradient was approved. Using convict labour, Michell commenced construction of the new pass in 1829, and saw its official opening on July 6th, 1830. Despite the obvious need for and success of this new pass, Sir Lowry Cole was later rapped over the knuckles by his British masters in London for overspending - but he blithely reassured them that every Pound spent was more than well worth the effort in developing their colony, promising to never do it again!

The pass was officially opened by Michell on 6th July 1830, and named Sir Lowry's Pass. Michell and three others were driven up the pass in a wagon drawn by only two horses, and four heavily laden ox wagons and two horse wagons descended the pass, and did not require their wheels to be locked.

The pass had cost £3,094 19s 10½d. To meet the expenses of the work a toll was established: for every coach, chariot, chaise, landau or pleasure wagon or cart drawn by six or more horses: 2/-; for a saddle horse: 3d; and for heavy carts and wagons drawn by six or more horses, or eight oxen upwards: 1/- west to east and 1/6d east to west. There were also rates for driven livestock. Michell had designed an attractive toll house at the summit, but the toll-keeper and his family were reluctant to live there and in 1833 it was demolished and a new one built near the foot of the pass (Sir Lowry's Pass Village) The tolls received more than justified the pass's construction, rising from £225 8s in 1830 to £364 by 1832. [Info courtesy of Graham Ross]

Traffic increased steadily, resulting in the need for constant and usually extensive maintenance. Farmers, ever fearful of losing their wagons and cargo down the steep krantzes, tended to lock their wagon wheels for the descent which literally turned the wagons into sleds, causing massive damage to the gravelled surface. These remskoene ('rim shoes') were different to brakes in that the wheels were simply locked into one place and the wagon would act like a plough. Michell failed to get a law passed which prevented wagon owners making use of the remskoen practice. By 1930 the pass was widened and tarred. Between 1956 and 1959 the pass was rebuilt at a cost of 291 000 Pounds Sterling. By 1984, another rebuilding was undertaken - with widening of the road and the introduction of a 2.7km cantilevered section near the top, where the railway line tunnels beneath the road, costing R4,4 million.

A word of warning: wind speeds can be savage at the summit in the summer months when the howling Cape Doctor (Cape Town's prevailing, south-easterly wind) reaches speeds of up to 150kp/h -- powerful enough to tip over high-sided, unladen trucks and caravans! Even whilst we filmed this pass in April 2013, there was considerable maintenace work and rock stabilization taking place as can be seen in the video footage. The viewsite at the summit showcases endless panoranic views to the west, with the majestic sweep of False Bay to the south, framing the pass and the convoluted tracks of the railway line as they kiss at the summit.

Some elements of the text and video narrative courtesy of Graham Ross.


FACT FILE

GPS START

S34.152935 E18.942611

GPS SUMMIT

S34.149441 E18.928401

GPS END

S34.123740 E18.888188

AVE GRADIENT

1:21

MAX GRADIENT

1:15

ELEVATION START

382m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

452m

ELEVATION END

46m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

406m

DISTANCE

9,54km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

West

TIME REQUIRED

12 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

60 to 80 kph

SURFACE

Tar

DATE FILMED

23.04.2013

TEMPERATURE

22C

NEAREST TOWN

Somerset West (5km)

 


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FULL-SCREEN MODE: 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.

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Sir Lowry's Pass www.MountainPassesSouthAfrva.co.za & Google Earth

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