Mossel Bay equates to "magic" for many generations of holiday makers who flock here during the summer months. The beaches are some of the best in South Africa and, with fairly warm water, swimming is superb and safe. The town has a rich history and the Dias Museum complex is the place to absorb all the finer details. Adventure sports, many restaurants, fresh fish, hikes, surfing or just plain lazy sun-tanning can all be enjoyed in this interesting town.

Tidal Pool at the Point, Mossel Bay















Knysna Waterfront
Knysna is a very busy, touristy town. My favourite spot is Leisure Isle where one can walk in the Steenberg Nature Reserve and admire the views along the lagoonside towards the Knysna Heads. Most of the older "beach" houses have been replaced by huge B&B's yet it still remains a peaceful area, albeit very expensive for property buyers. The lagoon looks peaceful - however, Knysna Heads area can be extremely treacherous and unpredictable.

 The Naval brig "Emu" was the first victim to fall foul of the dangerous waters on 11/02/1817. The views of the lagoon from the area high above the Heads are so beautiful that one wishes to bottle them up for later consumption! There are numerous boat rides available on the lagoon and the Featherbed Nature Reserve outing is one of the best. The Knysna Waterfront has interesting stores and a selection of restaurants. All in all, a worthwhile stop.

Our friendly neighbour at Teniqua Treetops
The countryside was beckoning so Teniqua Treetops was our next stop. These eco-friendly tree houses are tucked away in the forest approx. 38 km from Sedgefield. The bathroom is all glass and faces the forest and the birds, the toilet is totally eco with a lid that has to be pumped over the loo 3 times. Leaves are added to the mix every time and all goes into a drum outside; the contents eventually become compost. A fan keeps the area fresher than any other toilet that I know! Solar water was piping hot although there was a gas back-up for rainy days. We hiked down the gorge to the Karatara River which was rather tricky as it had rained the night before so everything was slippery. Even with hiking sticks, we struggled but we did make it down and up again unscathed. The river below was roaring so we could not cross or swim.

R340 towards Prince Alfred Pass
Next was our first Thomas Bain Pass - Prince Alfred. We missed the R339 turning just outside of Knysna so headed up the R340 instead. What a beautiful part of the world - the mountains and fynbos are beyond words.

Driving the back roads of South Africa is always a fun experience as you have no idea what awaits around the bend.....like a herd of cows, Angie's G Spot (for some refreshments!) or a child playing his guitar at the side of the road!



Child playing his guitar near Prince Alfred Pass
 The craggy mountain passes of the Western Cape are a road tripper’s delight. At once daunting and awe-inspiring, high-altitude crossings like the Prince Alfred’s Pass, the Robinson Pass, the Pakhuis Pas, the Tradouw Pass and the legendary Swartberg Pass make for easy driving in modern cars. And you can’t help but wonder at the mastery of the man who built them.
Thomas (1830-1893) built 24 mountain passes, thereby opening up access between the Cape and the rest of Africa. Bain Jnr was a busy man throughout his 63 years, 40 of which were spent in service of various Cape infrastructure projects. He and his wife Johanna had 13 children during this time. He also became a noted botanist, archaeologist, Karoo water researcher, magistrate and artist, producing fine maps and tracing ancient San paintings he came across during his project work.
As you drive today on, say, the Swartberg Pass between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn, you cannot help but marvel at the dry stone walling that has held this superb road in place for more than 130 years. Thomas Bain just seemed to have the knack of things.
And yet, as if his worldly achievements weren’t accolades enough, Thomas was also known as an excellent ‘people's’ person’. He was uncommonly kind and thoughtful to the prison gangs who worked on his passes, he was a great father and husband, and a wonderful travelling companion to his fellow-adventurers.
After 4 decades of intense fieldwork – sometimes involving three major projects simultaneously – Thomas Bain settled with his family in their Cape Town home. But he wasn’t still for long. His last major job was to build Victoria Road from Sea Point to Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsula. So as you’re driving, one eye on the road and the other on distant ocean sights, remember the man who built all this – long before the age of motor cars...

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    The start of the Prince Alfred Pass
     After negotiating this gravel road through the mountains, we headed towards our next stop, Bo Kouga Mountain Retreat. This farm is reached via 23 km of gravel road and is far from everything remotely connected to city living yet with all the comforts of home! However, you need to purchase all your food prior to arrival as Uniondale is 30 km away.
    Again, the area is so scenic that one just has to sit on the "stoep" and gaze at the view to feel immediately rested and relaxed! The farm has a fairly easy walk on the mountain with amazing vistas as far as the eye can see. The owners of this farm are retired folk from Johannesburg who decided that country living would suit them. Whilst we loved the isolation for a few days, the city still beckons me!! Closing farm gates brought back many childhood memories of visits to an uncle who owned a dairy farm in the Oudtshoorn district. Closing a gate and suddenly meeting the liquid eyes of a cow all adds to the farm experience.
    Walk - Bo Kouga Mountain Retreat

From Bo Kouga we drove through Uniondale Poort to reach Uniondale. This small town was founded in 1856. It does not rock my boat at all but it is famous for the "ghost" of a woman who died in a car accident on a stormy night over Easter 1968 and it remains a good 1night stop over if travelling longer distances.



We took the back road out of Uniondale R341 and headed towards De Rust for breakfast. A tiny Victorian Karoo town with restaurants, art galleries, hot summer days and cold winter nights.

Our next Thomas Bain experience was awaiting at Meiringspoort along the N12 towards Prince Albert.

The waterfall is well signposted and the stone steps leading up to the view point are fairly easy.
There was not more than a trickle in the falls when we visited but you must do it! A few days later, it rained and the pass was closed so we were very lucky. Imagine crossing the river 25 times? 

"The 16-kilometer road was completed in less than a year and opened to the public in 1858. The Poort was named after Petrus Meiring, a farmer from the de Rust area, who had pushed through a bridle path, the first road of any kind. He had also tirelessly campaigned for a road through the Poort.
 
The major drawback of the Poort was that it was vulnerable to severe flooding which caused lengthy closures. These disrupted traffic and trade and directly led to the construction of the Swartberg Pass.
A concrete causeway was built between 1948 and 1953. Construction of a trunk road started in 1967. It was an environmentally sensitive project, superbly handled. The river had to be crossed 25 times and instead of building bridges with retaining walls, road slabs were constructed, which allowed for overflowing. As is the nature of the Karoo, high water levels dissipate rapidly, so flooding is temporary.

The project was completed in 1971 and blended the road exceptionally well with the surrounding area.

In 1996 the Poort suffered severe flooding which all but destroyed it. This resulted in closure for many months and a refurbishment, which was completed in 1996. The end result is truly beautiful. Take a leisurely drive through the Poort and take in its natural beauty. The high cliffs, which rise sharply from the edge of the road, are wondrously sculpted by nature and have one staring upwardly in absolute awe of its formation, and magnitude.

Construction of walls has been expertly blended into the surrounding areas and is an engineering marvel.
Meiringspoort is the spectacular final product of geological processes that have taken place over more than 200 million years."
Rock Formations Meiringspoort
 Our next stop was the beautiful town of Prince Albert - a friendly, welcoming place with architecture of yesteryear, many eateries, painted dustbins - yes, you read that correctly! The dustbins in the town are brightly painted with history and facts relating to this town of over 250 years. Unfortunately, we did not overnight here but it would certainly be worth a 2 or 3 night stop or more if you are into hiking, art galleries, markets and photography.

Windmill in Prince Albert



The only disappointment was heading out of town to the beginning of the Swartberg Pass - litter and many empty beer bottles. It seems that some of the locals hang out here for Friday afternoon drinks or week-end parties and just dump their litter and leave. 


Ou Tol Hiking Trail on Swartberg Pass

Our next Thomas Bain pass was the world renowned Swartberg Pass. This is a drive that everybody should do at least once in their lifetime! The road twists and turns, climbs and descends with vistas stretching as far as the eye can see. It blows one's mind - if the strong winds don't blow you over first while taking those photo's!



There are a number of hiking trails - please ensure that somebody knows where you are going!

The very famous "Die Hel" -  Gamkaskloof leads off the pass. We did not venture down this valley as it takes 2.5 hours to wind down 37 km. A 4X4 is recommended and perhaps some overnight accommodation (pre-booked). The original inhabitants have mostly left this remote valley where they lived in total isolation from the 1830's for so many years. Once the road was built, they started leaving the valley. The area is now run  by Cape Nature Conservation and accommodation is available.

As we descended the pass, a mountain fire was raging on the other side of the farming valley.
Apparently, we heard later, a farmer tried to do a controlled burn (in the wind!) and the fire raged totally out of control, threatening a number of farms. Rather silly to start a controlled burn with high winds expected.

Mountain Fire across the valley as we descended the Swartberg Pass






Magnificent views can be enjoyed on the Swartberg Pass between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn

























Oudtshoorn is nestled below the mountains and this is Ostrich and Cango Caves country. The town is surrounded by mountains and gets hellishy hot in summer and very cold in winter when the snow can be seen covering the tops of the Swartberg Mountains. The original wealth of this area was all to do with the ostrich feather industry and many "Feather" palaces were built during this era. The slump in sales of ostrich feathers caused a financial drought but the town lived on and now has many more ostrich products and show farms where one can even ride an ostrich, if you are brave enough! Years ago, ostrich meat was used to feed the cats and dogs, now it is classed as a very healthy alternative to beef and lamb!

The town is a mix of old and new architecture and many of the old stone houses are still intact.
The old Boys High School is now the museum and is next to the Queens Hotel which has been around forever. Do try the Queens "Colony" Restaurant - charming, with good food and friendly service.

Cango Caves, an ostrich farm, the Meercat Experience (for the very early risers!) the museum, the Cango Wildlife Ranch - all must do's in this town.

The Suspension Bridge in Church Street, which used to freak me out as a child, is now a National Monument and still freaks me out walking across it with it's swaying motion!

Suspension Bridge in Oudtshoorn

















We headed towards the last of our Thomas Bain passes along the R62, stooping at the famous Ronnie's Sex Shop for breakfast. It was too early for beer and, as we still had a drive over the Tradouw Pass to look forward to, we restrained ourselves. The pub was open and is full of "garments" that the public have left behind! Ronnie has a very long, grey pony tail and has spent 17 years or so enjoying his pub. He sells bright pink T-Shirts for the ladies and black T-Shirts for the gents - that is, if you really want to advertise the fact that you have visited Ronnie's Sex Shop!!!


Ronnie watching TV!
















 
" Ronnie painted the name Ronnie's Shop on this cottage next to the R62, planning to open a farm stall to sell fresh produce and fruit. His friends played a prank on him by changing the name to Ronnie's Sex Shop. Initially angry about the involuntary name change, Ronnie left the name and continued fixing the dilapidated building. His friends would stop by for a chat, having a few beers and throwing a couple of chops on the fire. During one of these evenings, someone suggested: "Why don't you just open a pub?"

Ronnie's Sex Shop has had visitors from all over the world, judging by the graffiti, it has also become a regular pitstop for bikers, the local farmers and people travelling this road regularly."


Our last Thomas Bain Pass was the Tradouw Pass between Barrydale and Swellendam. Whilst we were heading towards Swellendam, the views are better coming from Swellendam towards Barrydale so we turned around at the bottom of the pass and headed up to absorb the beauty of this area. Most of the stopping places are on this side of the road. As the pass is only 13 km long, it is easy to do this.

Tradouw Pass between Swellendam and Barrydale

Our last stop was Swellendam - a town with a number of great restarants, an interesting history scattered over a number of buildings (Drostdy Museum) and the cutest little house I have ever seen. The Drostdy Cafe has a private collection of coca cola memorabilia which is worth looking at.

The cutest little house I have ever seen - Swellendam

















Sadly, our trip is now complete - with great memories and tremendous admiration for Thomas Bain who achieved such incredible roads so very long ago.

Thomas Bain's Construction Projects
  • Meiring's Poort (after local farmer Petrus Johannes Meiring), 16km long 1854-58
  • Grey's Pass near Citrusdal (after Sir George Grey), 11km long 1857-58 (Piekenier's Kloof 1958)
  • Tulbagh Kloof (after the town of Tulbagh), 5km long 1859-60
  • Seweweekspoort (thought to be after Berlin Mission Society preacher Louis Zerwick) from Laingsburg through Swartberg, 17km long 1859-62
  • Prince Alfred's Pass (after Prince Alfred) from Knysna to Uniondale, 70km long 1863-67
  • Seven Passes road (after number of passes along route) from George to Knysna, 75km long, ending in the Homtini Pass near Knysna 1867-83
  • Robinson Pass (after Chief Inspector of Public Works, Murrell Robinson) from Oudtshoorn to Mossel Bay 1867-69
  • Tradouw Pass (Boschkloof, Southey Pass) near Barrydale, 13km long 1869-73
  • Garcia's Pass (after Maurice Garcia) from Riversdale to Ladismith, 18km long 1873-77
  • Pakhuis Pass (after Pakhuisberg, a branch of the Krakadouw Mountains) from Clanwilliam to Calvinia, Cederberg 1875-77
  • Koo Pass or Burger's Pass (after Koodoosberg) near Montagu 1875-1877
  • Verlaten Kloof Pass from Sutherland to Matjiesfontein -1877
  • Cogmans, Kogmans or Kockemans Kloof (after a Khoikhoi clan) from Ashton to Montagu, 5km long 1873
  • Swartberg Pass from Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert, 24km long 1880-88 (John Tassie built 6km of road from Prince Albert end)
  • Baviaanskloof from Willowmore to Patensie, 3km long 1880-90
  • Bloukrans Pass near Nature's Valley
  • Grootrivier Pass at Nature's Valley
  • Storms River Pass on the Garden Route