Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Prins Alfred’s Pass in the Western Cape

The lovely winding road of the Prince Alfred’s Pass is surrounded by four biomes that are home to an abundance of indigenous fauna and flora, making for some breathtaking and captivating scenery. Trygve Roberts explores.

The Prince Alfred’s Pass on the R339 gravel road between Knysna and Uniondale is probably Thomas Bain’s most remarkable work. It is the second oldest unaltered pass still in use and is the longest (publicly accessible) mountain pass in South Africa at approximately 68.5km. This exceptionally long pass presented almost every possible technical obstacle to the pass-builders.

The pass is Thomas Bain’s Opus Magnum – a work of monumental proportions carried out with rudimentary equipment and convict labour. Nevertheless, science, ingenuity, and Bain’s “can do” attitude made this engineering marvel possible. During his lifetime, Bain constructed 29 passes, mainly in the Cape colony. This pass exemplifies all of his unique touches, but especially his exceptional drywalling method of construction.

One can access the Prince Alfred’s Pass from either the north or the south. If you drive from the Knysna end, head east out of Knysna on the N2. At the crest of the first big climb out of town, turn left and drive north through the township that sprawls over the mountain – this is the southern start of the pass. If you drive from the north, take the R62 to Avontuur and turn south at the village onto the R339, the northern start of the pass.

In many respects, Bain was a self-taught man who possessed a range of skills, including engineering, geology, cartography, art, writing and accounting. He was the son of Andrew Geddes Bain, a Scottish immigrant from whom he first learned pass building techniques. He drew his own maps and plotted his own lines – either on foot or on horseback. Over time he earned himself the nickname of “the man with the theodolite eye” due to his uncanny ability to visualise the line a pass should take with his naked eye.

His famous drywalling construction method to support roads on mountain faces involved breaking large rocks up by utilising fire, followed by cold water, to create manageable triangular pieces. These rocks would then be packed by hand in a close-fitting triangular format, with an inward tilting angle of 15 degrees. While the inside section was filled with sand and smaller rocks, the weight increased and made the retaining walls immensely strong – sufficient to last 130 years with vehicles of all shapes and sizes driving over the roads. The more backfill added, the stronger the retaining walls became, utilising the scientific principles of friction and cohesion. There are many kilometres of Bain’s original walling still supporting this road. Bain’s contribution to South Africa as a developing nation was profound and many sections of this pass have been declared a national monument

About 4,5 km from Avontuur, you will arrive at the summit, marked as “Die Kruin” (The Summit) at an altitude of 1 038m above sea level (ASL). The top of the mountain is often covered in clouds, and heavy mist and rain occur near the summit, with the southern slopes being much wetter than the northern side.

The road narrows slightly after the summit and starts the first big descent towards De Vlugt, where Bain built a house for himself and his family as a base during the pass’ construction. The small house still stands today and can be rented as a self-catering dwelling. Around the next bend, the trees open up to reveal a spectacularly broad and sweeping view at a spot named Tiekieliefie Draai at 914m ASL. One of those “lost in translation” names, it relates to the convicts receiving their “ticket of leave” on completion of doing their time. With most convicts being illiterate and struggling with the English language, this ticket of leave morphed into ‘Tiekieliefie’.

The Langkloof

Perhaps the most intriguing section of the entire pass, this area should not be confused with the vastly bigger Langkloof along the R62. This beautiful meandering section contains dozens of very sharp corners, many of which are over 90 degrees. The trees are still relatively sparse at this higher altitude, allowing motorists to enjoy the excellent mountain scenery.

The terrain starts steepening here, and the first of the retaining walls begin making an appearance. As altitude is lost and approaching the Langkloof itself, the walls become higher – in some places up to 12m! About 10km from the start, the road levels off slightly and bisects a small farmstead. It is best to slow down to at least 20km/hour and be careful of animals and children. At this point, accommodation becomes available from the northern descend. The farm has a delightful chalet to rent, aptly named Cloud Cottage. Beyond the farm, the road starts to descend more steeply as it enters the northern access to the Langkloof (Long Ravine). Along these upper reaches of the Langkloof, you will find some beautiful examples of Bain’s famous drywalls propping up the road.

Approximately two kilometres south of Cloud Cottage, you will find a ruin on the west side of the road. It is speculated that these are the remains of dwellings constructed by Bain and used to accommodate his convict labourers. Bain was a smart man who treated his labourers well with proper shelter and good food as he understood their value. The first landmark you will see is signposted as “Die Kerf” (The Slice or Notch) – a narrow part of the river gorge where there are a series of small waterfalls in a beautiful setting.

A little further, you will spot another sign marked “Hangkrans” (Hanging Cliff). Bain expertly manoeuvred around this large chunk of the mountain by building high and substantial retaining walls into the river’s course. He also constructed tunnels under the road to efficiently move floodwaters from the road’s high side into the river’s flow. Yet more proof that his engineering standards were well ahead of his time.

It is well worth stopping at any place where you can safely get your vehicle off the roadway and walk down the next section (camera in hand) – it is truly one of the most beautiful spots in South Africa. It will leave your senses calmed yet invigorated.

The lower part of the Langkloof is the most scenic part of Prince Alfred’s Pass. It covers a short distance of just over 1km as the road winds its way through the narrowest parts of the kloof, surrounded by towering cliffs, tumbling waterfalls, and calming scenery. Over this short section, the road traverses the river seven times via narrow concrete bridges, which have long since replaced Thomas Bain’s original stinkwood beams, which lasted about 40 years. The road is at its most narrow along this section, and should you meet oncoming traffic, one of the vehicles will have to reverse back to a wider point where passing is possible.

The road winds over to the river’s east bank and soon arrives at the next bridge signposted, “Convicts Grave”. A burial spot fit for a king, the convicts that died here doing hard labour found their final resting place in one of the most exquisite places on earth. Looking upstream, there are a series of little waterfalls as the river tumbles down towards the Keurbooms River a few kilometres away. This small river becomes a raging torrent after heavy rains, and Bain’s stonework and riverbank reinforcing still stand firmly in place 150 years on.

As the Langkloof opens up into the Keurbooms River valley, you will pass several points of interest before crossing the Keurbooms River over a low-level concrete causeway.

The road passes through rugged and spectacular scenery. You will pass a rock formation signposted as Tata Riet se Gat, a rudimentary cave-like shelter right next to and slightly above the road. This dates back to when one of the farmhands known as Tata (Outa) Riet used to take the children for walks on Sunday afternoons and spent time in the shelter.

Three hundred meters further, as the road curves through a gentle S bend, a distinctive rock formation comes into view with a solitary column rising on the western side. Named Bain’s Pillar, this is one of many landmarks named in Thomas Bain’s honour. It is interesting to note that as a young man, Bain first recced the pass under the supervision of his father, Andrew Geddes Bain. He would prove to surpass his father’s already impressive achievements by a massive margin.

A short while later, the road drops quickly in altitude to the Keurbooms River, where one crosses the river via a low-level concrete causeway to arrive at the charming little settlement of De Vlugt. This is the spot chosen by Bain to build a home for his family for the duration of the four years constructing the pass. The humble cottage is still intact and is available to rent by passing visitors.

It is approximately 150 years old and has the original creaking yellowwood floors with an old wood-burning AGA stove. The piece de resistance is that there is no electricity and, even better, no cellphone reception. An overnight stay here will take you back in time into an era of horses, carts, elephants and gravel tracks.

G-Spots and legal battles

To find out what other activities are available to enjoy in De Vlugt, visit the self-help information kiosk. One of the must-visit spots is, of course, Angies G-Spot. This laid back country pub is strongly reminiscent of the hippie era. Owners Harold and Angie Beaumont have had a titanic legal struggle with a neighbour spanning several years, which caused them immense stress. Angie passed away in December 2020, but Harold is still operating the business. The little pub has become something of a rite of passage for the adventure biking fraternity and the presence of bikers on the pass over weekends needs to be taken into account when driving the pass.

One of our readers, Mr. Pieter van Rensburg, submitted this information: “I own the original house Thomas Bain stayed in for a while at De Vlugt when he constructed the Prince Alfred’s pass. It is called the STASIE (Station) since it was built for the Station Commander, who was overseeing the convicts. It was subsequently sold to the Berlin Mission station and our family acquired it in 1928. I recently upgraded the homestead and it looks great now. I also own the adjacent land that housed the convicts during the construction of the Prince Alfred’s pass. According to my late father, Thomas Bain first stayed in our house and then built the house where his family joined him. The latter is currently owned by Daan van Rooyen of De Vlugt. Bain sadly lost a daughter who fell off the steps of the house when frightened by a turkey.”

The conservancy corridor was set up by concerned residents in 2006 and today comprises approximately 50 000 hectares of protected land. There is an ancient wild fig tree on the western side of the road, making for a lovely picnic spot.

Dramatic views

Along the southern side of the Keurbooms River valley, the views are dramatic and produce excellent, sweeping vistas of large tracts of the valley with rank upon rank of blue and grey serried mountains fading off into the distance. After two kilometres, the road turns away from the river and heads resolutely south through beautiful pastoral scenery before plunging into the next section of the pass, where the road can be seen winding its way far below you down the mountainside.

This 7km section, although a relatively easy drive, contains many bends, corners and curves – in total, 35 of them, so drivers need to remain alert. There is also a severe hairpin at the 26km mark, where speed needs to be reduced to 20km/h. 

The Dieprivier has carved a deep and attractively wooded valley as the road routes through it, descending rapidly through 15 sharp corners towards the river. Along the descent, the road gets narrow (as in single width), and the steep drop-offs to the right are masked by dense vegetation. There are some vertical cuttings of 5m height on the left, which must have presented Thomas Bain with some serious engineering challenges.

The road winds its way laboriously down to the river, which is reached at the 30km mark. A very sharp hairpin bend marks the spot where there is a small, shady picnic site next to the river, which is usually nothing more than a trickle in dry weather. A fairly new concrete bridge recently replaced the old drift, which often presented travellers with problems in the past. At the apex of the hairpin, you will find the Bain Memorial.

Here, at this tranquil spot next to a small stream in a thick riverine forest, you will find the memorial plaque in honour of Thomas Bain. Doff your hat to one of South Africa’s greatest men as you allow the birdsong and silence to transport you back in time when horse-cart and ox-wagons trundled past this spot in 1867. According to the Knysna Historical Society, the pass was opened to light traffic during 1866 and was re-named during  Prince Alfred’s visit in September 1867. The official opening of the pass was on 29 September 1868.

Winding roads to art

At the 34km mark, the road curves away to the left and follows the contours of a long ridge. As the road winds its way down to the intersection with the R340/ R410 towards Wittedrift and Plettenberg Bay, there are beautiful views over open hillsides and forest-clad slopes.

At the 35.5km mark, you will reach the intersection. Here you will see an odd metal tree-like structure with what looks like old fashioned loud-hailers attached to the ends. This piece, dubbed “Calling the Herd”, was installed in 2013 by Strijdom van der Merwe. It was commissioned to celebrate the Keurbooms Corridor connecting the Garden of Eden section of the Garden Route National Park to the Tsitsikamma National Park section. The unveiling of the art piece opened the 2013 Site Specific International Land Art Biennale.

At the 37.2km mark, there is a very sharp right-hand bend of 160 degrees. The road changes direction into the west and climbs gently towards a small cluster of timber buildings in the distance, which is the lower Buffelsnek forest village. There is usually logging activity here on weekdays, so be aware of heavy-duty vehicles on the road. There is also a school close to the road, so be mindful of children and domestic livestock.

From Buffelsnek, you face a non-stop 27km downhill to Knysna through some of the finest indigenous forests in South Africa. Immediately after Buffelsnek, there are two distinct changes. The first is that the road is mostly riddled with potholes filled with muddy water; and the second is the change in vegetation as the road plunges into the forest. If you don’t typically drive with headlights on, we strongly recommend that you do so from this point. The dappled light from the overhead trees makes it difficult to see oncoming vehicles. More so when you are concentrating on avoiding potholes.

At the 43.7km point, there is a sharp left-hand bend with a small green sign on the right-hand side announcing the Valley of Ferns Picnic Site. If you have planned for a picnic stop, this is an excellent spot. It’s neat and tidy and surrounded by indigenous forests with birdsong. The views are lovely down a deep wooded ravine that trails away into the east.

The next bend after the picnic site is a right-hander, where another signboard points the way to the Spitskop viewpoint. This section is a short, but steep, and fairly rough drive up to the top of a conical hill, which offers commanding 360-degree views over the entire area. There are picnic benches at the viewpoint, but the likelihood of experiencing wind is much higher there than at the previous site. Allow about 30 minutes to do the excursion to Spitskop. Note, however, that cars with inadequate ground clearance might struggle or damage the undercarriage. It makes for a nice hike for those who have the stamina (30 minutes, either way, walking).

Beyond Buffelsnek, it is downhill all the way. The road is mainly immersed within the forest canopy which makes it one of the longest forest drives in South Africa. However, be aware of logging trucks that are always present on the pass – and they do tend to drive fast!

You can stop at the Diepwalle Forestry Station where there is a tea-room, attractive gardens and ablution facilities; as well as a range of forest walks. Please ensure you get a permit at the office before going for a walk. Who knows, you might spot one of the elusive Knysna elephants!

All that remains is an easy drive to the end of the pass (the last few kilometres on tar), which ends at the local township on the eastern side of Knysna on the N2 highway.

Fact file:

  • GPS START: S33.725712 E23.164605
  • GPS SUMMIT: S33.757541 E23.163033
  • GPS END: S34.041719 E23.105142
  • AVE GRADIENT: 1:81
  • MAX GRADIENT: 1:6
  • ELEVATION START: 878m
  • ELEVATION SUMMIT: 1 035m
  • ELEVATION END: 191m
  • HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 844m
  • DISTANCE: 68.5km
  • DIRECTION – TRAVEL: North/South
  • TIME REQUIRED: 2 hours
  • SPEED LIMIT: 60km/h
  • SURFACE: Gravel (P0059/R339)

*For more information on mountain passes near you, visit the Mountain Passes South Africa website:

https://www.mountainpassessouthafrica.co.za/

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