The long, steep, and dramatic Franschhoek Pass, renowned for the picturesque scenery it provides, was South Africa’s first properly engineered pass and is a great weekend destination for those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of life in the city. Trygve Roberts explores.
The scenic Franschhoek Pass is also known as Lambrechts Road, though – more poetically – 150 years ago it was known as Olifantshoek (Elephants Corner), after the now mythical herds of elephant which once roamed the valleys and mountains it traverses. This long, steep and dramatic pass with its variety of scenery was South Africa’s first properly engineered pass. During weekends city folk stream to the pass on foot, bicycles, motorcycles, skateboards and in cars and SUV’s to enjoy its sheer magnificence.
The elephants’ path over the neck was followed by herdsmen and later by settlers on horseback. It was only in 1822 that Lord Charles Somerset ordered the pass to be built. Major Holloway, commander of the Royal Africa Corps at the time, and his men were tasked with the arduous job of building this famously spectacular pass, including a very unique bridge at Jan Joubert’s Gat. The latter is the oldest single-span stone-arch bridge in South Africa which is still in use.
It is an extremely pretty spot and well worth a stop, perhaps even a picnic. A plaque at the little stone bridge commemorates the obvious hard work of the pass-building soldiers. (Before Sir Lowry’s Pass was built in 1833, Franschhoek Pass was the only pass used by travellers heading east from Cape Town.)
Thankfully, there are plenty of safe places from which to admire the breath-taking tumbling rivers and steep gorges. The view from the summit, however, is the coup de grace as it stretches out over the wine farms and beyond.
The town of Franschhoek has become one of the trendiest spots in the Western Cape. Over weekends the village is abuzz with the jet set arriving on or in, the biggest, shiniest and best modes of transport. The vibe is chic and cool, with pavement-style cafe’s operating from one end of the town to the other. It is particularly popular with biker groups. If you are heading to this pass, expect bikes – lots of them!
The main road through town intersects with Lambrechts Road (the old name for the pass) at the Huguenot Memorial. This is also the northern starting point of the pass. The first few hundred metres are still within suburbia and then the climbing starts in earnest as the road curves away to the right in a steep climb up the foothills of the mountain towards the SSE. The road passes the Haute Cabrière restaurant and winery with its underground cellar and then begins a 1,7km-long climb through tall bluegum trees via a series of easy curves. Another famous Franschhoek restaurant – La Petite Ferme (the little farm) – appears on the right.
Soon the road reaches the first hairpin. It’s very sharp and curves completely through 180 degrees and needs to be negotiated slowly. The road continues climbing steadily into the north-west and as altitude is gained, the pass follows the contours of the mountain as it curls into the north-east, revealing gorgeous views of the town below in the valley, surrounded by a vast patchwork of vineyards and orchards, set against the backdrop of towering mountains. There are several safe areas where one can pull off and savour the idyllic countryside. The distance of the long climb from the first hairpin to next is 3,5km.
The next 1,5km are probably the best of the pass in terms of sheer drops and dramatic scenery, as the road enters a series of soft bends, then switches direction abruptly to the north-west. This next hairpin is extremely sharp with a very tight radius and once again the turn is a full 180 degrees. The road is well supported here with substantial stone supporting walls up to 10m high. After the hairpin, there is a short pull of 600m to the summit. There is another large viewing area on the right where some of the best photographic perspectives of the pass can be enjoyed.
At the summit (739m), a small gravel track leads off to the left and leads to the Mont Rochelle nature reserve. In winter (with a permit in hand) this track will take you to the snowfields. You now have a very long descent ahead of you – filled with deep gorges and tumbling waterfalls. This section of the pass is more remote and there is no civilization to be seen. The reason for this is that almost the entire area, from the summit to the Theewaterskloof dam – which can be seen in the far distance – is under conservation control.
The descent heads due south for 2km, winding its way through another group of soft curves. Watch your speed as these bends are deceptively tricky. After 1,8km from the summit, the third hairpin comes into view. This one turns through 160 degrees and whilst it’s sharp, it’s nowhere near as sharp as the previous one. The direction heads north-east for 400m, where the entrance track to a youth camp can be seen on the left.
The next major bend is a horseshoe, but it has an easy radius and brings the direction to south-west for 400m of continuous descending. The next 1,5 km has the road hugging the near-vertical cliffs of the gorge towards the south, with the odd glimpse of the tumbling, amber waters far below. Keep your speed down as this section is dangerous and has been the scene of several accidents.
A wide right-hand bend reveals a deep gorge running transversely from right to left. This is where the Jan Joubert’s Gat bridge is located and once again, a large, shady viewing area has been provided on the left. Park and take a short walk across the road to read the plaque in honour of the soldiers who built the bridge and the pass. Then take a short pathway along the southern bank of the stream and take the stone steps down to get a good look at the original stone bridge, with the new concrete bridge built over it. Built in 1825 and as mentioned earlier, it is the oldest single-span bridge still in use in South Africa.
After the bridge, which forms the fourth hairpin bend, the direction changes back to east, faithfully following the course of the gorge. After 500m the road swings back to the south. There are two excellent viewing areas next to each other on the left-hand side of the road, making for easy access for descending vehicles. It is well worth stopping here as the scenery is achingly beautiful at any time of year. Winter and spring are the best times, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the rivers are in spate.
From there the next 750m follow a series of tight curves and then a sign warns of a sharp turn to the right. Pay attention as this is one of the most dangerous bends on the entire pass and catches many drivers off guard. A speed of 30km/h is suggested for this 90-degree right hander. The bridge over the Du Toit’s River comes into view and is reached within 650m. This also marks the end of the pass. Within a few hundred metres there is a picnic site on the right hand side of the road.
Roughly 100m after the bridge you can still see the old toll house on the left. The old pathway runs close to the river and passes an old ruin on the western bank, deep inside the rugged ravine, marked on maps as Ou Hugenote Opstal. The original farm that included this end of the pass had a diamond shape and had its northern point up near the scout camp and its southern point about 3km below the existing road bridge. The farm had the unusual name of Purgatory Outspan.
If you want to continue heading south along the banks of the sprawling Theewaterkloof dam, it will take you about 12 minutes to cover the 10km to the big bridge over the dam. A left turn takes you to Villiersdorp, whereas a right turn will take you to Grabouw over Viljoens Pass.