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

Views & drives for days…

As part of a tour filled with unforgettable experiences, the explorers on the Mountain Passes South Africa Garden Route tour, led by Trygve Roberts, continue to conquer some of South Africa’s most beautiful passes.

After two days of exploring the beautiful Garden Route and surrounds, marvelling at some of the best views the area has on offer, we headed to the Montagu Pass, promising even more spectacular views. Viewed as the oldest unaltered pass still in use in South Africa today, this pass was the first proper road between George and Oudtshoorn and was opened in 1848. It took some 250 convicts just over three years to build at a cost of £36 000 and it covers 17.1km of magnificently scenic, narrow gravel road. The pass was built to replace the highly dangerous and extremely difficult Cradock Pass, which still exists today, but only as a challenging hiking trail.

Named after John Montagu, the colonial secretary of the Cape at the time, the location of the pass was first established by Charles Michell, with the actual survey work being done by Dr W Stanger. Construction commenced in 1844 under the supervision of Mr H.O. Farrell before Henry Fancourt took over the project. Born in Covent Garden in 1811, Fancourt went to Australia at age 17 to visit his father, who had been deported. In the process, he gained valuable road-building experience, and when he later moved to South Africa, he took over the Montagu Pass project to complete the job by 1848. He also completed the southern section of the road to the Gouritz River, as well as the road down the Langkloof to Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth).

After a few kilometres of descending, the road widens and levels off at the Keurbooms River Bridge, which was designed in 1847 by one of South Africa’s most acclaimed and prolific road builders, Charles Michell. He was the chief surveyor of the Cape Colony and has many great works credited to his name. Michells Pass, south of Ceres in the Western Cape, was named after him. This lovely old stone bridge has seen life pass by under it and over it for 170 years, and countless stories are attached to it. Some of them are romantic, and others gruesome. One such story dates back to 1915 and was reported in the George & Knysna Herald on 18 August 1915:

Murder and mayhem on the Montagu Pass

John Cooper of Oudtshoorn was in love with Alice Lee of Somerset East (both had spouses and children). After a three-day lover’s tryst at the George Hotel, they set out for Oudtshoorn. Their journey ended at the Keur River bridge. Mrs Lee was found with her long hair down, and in disarray, one arm of her coat was almost ripped off. Near her lay John Cooper. Within reach of his hand was a recently fired revolver. In Cooper’s car were letters for his wife and eldest son.

Witnesses recounted that some nights when young men raced down the pass on their bicycles, they saw Cooper and his mistress gliding half a metre above the road. Theunis Muller and Izak Theron were two Georgians who swore that they saw the ghosts more than once…

This pass showed off on our trip, and we stopped several times, taking in all the historic and scenic points of interest and mercifully encountered no descending vehicles. Once over the 739m summit point, we were able to pick up speed and soon connected with the N9, turning right onto tar for about 20km before we turned right again to the Louvain farm, which is the northern starting point of the 4×4 route back to the coast.

Awe-inspiring views

The route has three distinct names: the Old Voortrekker Pass, the Oxwagon Route or the Duiwelskop Pass. A long descent follows a short steep ascent up the northern slopes of the Outeniqua range to the coast via Bergplaas MTO Forestry, Woodville, Hoekwil and Wilderness. We arrived at the Louvain farm in pleasant sunny weather and were greeted by Morné Jonker and his staff. With freshly roasted coffee in hand, we learned about the history of the farm and immediate area, as well as the details of the 4×4 pass we were about to tackle.

On this day, we had left the Poswells’ Honda CRV at the hotel in Wilderness, and they jumped in the lead vehicle. The only other vehicle there might have been an issue with was the Subaru Forester. Still, as things turned out, Michael Salzwedel drove like an ace and emerged at the other side intact, despite bottoming out a few times… or as Michael explained: “We gently kissed a few rocks.”

The short steep ascent consists of about five switchbacks, and suddenly the summit beckons. The next 4km are truly magnificent as the road meanders along the spine of the mountain, allowing expansive views of the green-clad slopes of the Outeniqua Mountains. A dedicated circular road leads to a picnic spot with 360-degree views, where we took our lunch break amongst the wildflowers and proteas.

Parts of the descent has some serious ruts and wash-aways, but if one drives slowly and carefully, there should be no problems. After intersecting with the forestry ring road, the going improved, and we could switch up to high range as we descended incessantly towards the Bergplaas forestry station. The scenery is nothing short of magnificent, with the mountain slopes disappearing into dozens of hidden ravines. We planned this tour for springtime, so the mountains were ablaze with flowering fynbos. The track is quite rough, but all the vehicles made it safely to the end. It was a tired and happy bunch of adventurers that enjoyed a great meal in Wilderness that night, followed by a good night’s rest ahead of Day 3 of the tour.

The magnificent seven

This was an easy day, designed to take on the remainder of the Seven Passes – Touwsrivier, Hoogekraal, Karatara, Homtini and Phantom as stories of Thomas Bain were shared over the radios.

The biggest of these, in terms of the scope of work involved, is the Homtini Pass. Lying sixth in the string of Seven Passes between George and Knysna, the narrow, gravel Homtini Pass covers 5km of wonderfully scenic driving, descending to the river from which it takes its name, and ascends the eastern side to terminate at the Rheenendal Timber Mill. Its name is apparently of Khoi origin and means either ‘mountain honey’ or ‘difficult passage’.

Of the passes on the Seven Passes Road built by Thomas Bain, this was the one that presented him with the most complex technical challenges. It may very well have been the point where his frustration boiled over, leading to the now famous argument with his brother-in-law, Adam de Smidt, when the pair disagreed vehemently about the routing of the Seven Passes Road. The family argument eventually led to them not ever speaking to each other again.

The last pass on the route was the Phantom Pass. Contrary to popular belief it is named after the beautiful grey and brown phantom moths that arrive in the area each spring and has nothing to do with ghosts on the pass. At the foot of Phantom Pass, we turned left onto the N2 and diverted to The Heads in Knysna for a delicious lunch in one of the most spectacular settings. After lunch, we drove up Coney Glen Road to take in the viewpoint with its dramatic views over the heads and the lagoon. Our overnight venue was Belvidere Manor on the western side of the lagoon, which was very popular amongst our guests, with its lush lawns and gardens. The Bell pub on the premises is authentically old, with low door heights and a wonderful atmosphere.

Fabulous forest drives

This would be the day of the forests. We headed north up the Simola Hill Climb and straight into the indigenous forests of Gouna via the Gouna Pass and Kom se Pad. This long bumpy gravel road offers one of the best forest driving experiences in South Africa. Shafts of sunlight pierce the forest’s gloom to the sounds of frogs and birdsong.

We joined the Prince Alfred’s Pass at the Diepwalle forestry station and drove north towards Buffelsnek, where we detoured up to the Spitskop view site. The 360-degree views up there are mesmerising. Afterwards, we headed to the sleepy little hamlet of De Vlugt – where Thomas Bain built a small house for his family during the construction phase of the pass – for lunch. The last section of the pass provides the most thrills, from the moment one crosses the Keurbooms River and enters the Langkloof, it is simply stunning. The narrow winding road is a joy to experience, with landmarks like Bain’s Pillar, Tata Riet se Gat and Hangkrans conjuring up images of the road builders in the 1800s.

Closer to the summit, the names of the ravines appear on small boards with the most unusual one being Tiekielief Draai. Apparently, the convicts working on the road received their ‘Ticket of Leave’ when their sentence was served and because they had great difficulty pronouncing the English words, Tiekielief was born.

The weather held out nicely, with blue skies and pleasant temperatures as we popped over the summit and descended to Avontuur. We needed to get to Plettenberg Bay that afternoon, so took the N9 down the Potjiesberg Pass, then rejoined the Prince Alfred’s Pass at De Vlugt via the gravel road (P1660), which follows the course of the Keurbooms River past Katot Meyer’s farm and Williamsburg. At the junction of the R339 and the R340 we stopped for a bit of fun and tried to immitate the sound of elephants at the unusual sculpture by Strijdom van der Merwe named “Calling the Herd”. The last leg of the day was a traverse of the Paardekop Pass with its spectacular views, before arriving at our hotel in Plettenberg Bay, to eat, drink and be merry in preparation for the final day of our tour.

Last-day shenanigans

Yet another glorious day beckoned as we headed east towards The Crags. We gave our guests options to visit Birds of Eden, Monkeyland or the Elephant Sanctuary. That took us to noon and time to drive two of Thomas Bain’s famous passes, of which the highlight of the day would be the Bloukrans Pass. First up was the Grootrivier Pass, which took us down to Nature’s Valley. We were thrilled to see some extensive roadworks on the western descent – well done to the Western Cape government! Our lunch stop coincided perfectly with our arrival in Nature’s Valley, where we headed for the beach to enjoy a nice, unhurried break.

The famous Bloukrans Pass beckoned. The western descent down to the river is very neat and tidy, with the verges trimmed and broken tar repaired. Even the bridge has had a fresh coat of paint, but after crossing the river into the Eastern Cape, the change is a real eye-opener. Here, the vegetation has encroached over the road, reducing the width by 50%. Small rock falls can be seen often, but it’s not dangerous. A short drive on the N2 brought us to the Storms River Bridge. Some interesting facts about this bridge – also known as the Paul Sauer Bridge – is that it is a deck arch bridge. It is located between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth on the Garden Route section of National Route 2. At a maximum height of 120m above the Storms River, it was the highest concrete arch in Africa until the Bloukrans Bridge, at 216m, opened on the same road in 1984. It was a pioneering engineering triumph for the (then) South African National Roads Department. Sadly, our inaugural Garden Route Classic Tour had come to an end, but with many memories buried in our hearts and lessons learnt, we are already planning the 2023 edition of this adventure.

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