Tag Archives: Swartberg Pass

Cycle Tour of the Karoo – May 2013: Part Two

To read Part One of this tour, click here.

Day 4: Prince Albert to Calitzdorp

(Approximately 87 km with cumulative climbing of approximately 1664 metres)

Day 4 started with the climb up the Swartberg Pass from the northern side. Although it was still quite cold the day was clear and dry, allowing us to take in the spectacular scenery and spend some time pondering on the engineering skill of Thomas Bain and his co-workers in the construction of the Pass. The road is often supported by packed stone walls as it clings to the side of the Swartberg Mountains and it is amazing that the construction has remained in such magnificent condition for 130-odd years. It was deservedly declared a National Monument in 1988.

9 - Day 3 - The north side of Swartberg Pass

10 - Day 4 - The north side of Swartberg Pass

In contrast to the ascent from the south on Day 3 we all rode up the Pass this morning and stopped several times to take photographs and to drink in the magnificence of the mountain scenery. It was satisfying to look back at the road snaking up the mountainside, knowing that we had just cycled up that stretch.

11 - Day 4 - Andrew climbing the north side of Swartberg Pass

After we reached the top (marked by a sign inscribed “Die Top”) and started down the south side of the Pass it became very cold, but today it was dry and we were better prepared for the low temperature. We thoroughly enjoyed the gravity-assisted descent.

Looking back at the Swartberg from the foothills we could see how the cloud had once again descended and were pleased to have crossed the Pass when it was relatively clear.

The ride on to Calitzdorp was very pleasant, on quiet country roads with very little traffic, and with many short uphills and downhills to keep the cycling interesting.

Day 5: Calitzdorp to Cloete’s Pass

(Approximately 117 km with cumulative climbing of approximately 2145 metres)

The “Pass of the Day” today was the Rooiberg Pass, although the day would also include a tough climb up from the Gouritz River, and end with the ascent of Cloete’s Pass.

The Rooiberg Pass over the Gamkasberg was built in 1928 to provide a link between Calitzdorp and Van Wyksdorp. This Pass provides a steady climb over several kilometres, but the gradient is not too challenging and there was time for us to take in the diverse vegetation of the Rooiberg Conservancy. This conservancy forms part of the Gouritz Biodiversity Meander, a world biological “hotspot” where three biomes meet – Succulent Karoo, Fynbos and Subtropical Thicket. We stopped several times to look back in wonder at the spectacular mountain scenery behind us.

12 - Day 5 - Ken & Derrick on Rooiberg Pass

At the top of the Pass is a cairn of stones left by travellers over many, many years in thankful tribute for a safe passage up the mountain, and in the hope of an equally safe descent. The spot is marked by a plaque erected in 1984. One is inclined to overlook the challenge that these Passes presented to travellers in animal drawn wagons a century ago and the thankful prayers that were offered up for a safe arrival at this spot.

We each placed a stone on the cairn before starting the descent to Van Wyksdorp through the scrubland of the Little Karoo.

13 - Day 5 - Scenery on the road to Cloete's Pass

After a quick lunch in Van Wyksdorp we continued riding and soon reached the descent to the Gouritz River. This stretch provided still more views of the wide open country, covered with the low shrubs and grasses typical of the area. The climb up from the Gouritz River is steep and testing for legs that were growing weary from the days on the road. But there was to be little respite, as the day ended with the climb up Cloete’s Pass which we reached shortly before dusk, when the temperature was taking its usual evening plunge.

Just two kilometres into the descent of Cloete’s Pass we reached Dwarsrivier Country Getaway, our overnight stop at the end of the longest day of the tour.

Day 6: Cloete’s Pass to George

(Approximately 91 km with cumulative climbing of approximately 1164 metres)

The final day of the tour turned out to be surprisingly difficult! The day started with the easy descent of the balance of Cloete’s Pass, but we were immediately challenged by the sharp climb up from the river on a road surfaced with loose gravel and small stones. This stretch also provided what was surely the steepest descent, and the steepest ascent, of the tour. The descent was fairly short, but very steep and I was glad not to be riding in the opposite direction, only to find a matching ascent on reaching the valley.

The road continued in a series of ups and downs, not rolling hills at all, but serious ascents and descents. We by-passed Eight Bells, tempted to stop for tea, but the cycling was more urgent today, the group keen to reach the end. The stops were short and less frequent, and the pace somewhat quicker.

14 - Day 6 - Ken, Derrick, Andrew, Rob at lunch in Groot Brak

After lunch in a park near the Great Brak River, we pressed on over the last, fairly flat 20km to George and the end of a wonderful tour.

Cycle Tour of the Karoo – May 2013: Part One

Originally this cycle tour was planned as a “Knysna-to-Cape Town” event, but once the planning started in earnest it was decided to opt for a more scenic and challenging circuit through the Little Karoo, taking in some of the renowned mountain passes through the Outeniqua and the Swartberg Mountains. The group consisted of five cyclists – Colin, Derrick, Andrew and Kenny, all from Knysna, and myself, from Durban. We were joined on the first day by Peter, also from Knysna. Ranging in age from late fifties to early seventies we are not as competitive as we used to be and this was to be a relaxed (but not easy!), supported tour, with accommodation in convenient B&Bs along the route. Colin has an incredible knowledge of the area and there are very few roads in the Karoo that he has not cycled many times so the route planning and logistical arrangements were left largely in his hands. And a superb job he did! Thank you, Colin!

The Karoo is a vast area of semi-desert lying in the south western region of South Africa and is separated geographically into the Great Karoo and the Little Karoo. As implied by its name the smaller region is the Little Karoo, lying to the south, bounded in the north by the Swartberg Mountains and in the south by the Outeniqua Mountains. Thus to reach the Great Karoo from the coast one has to cross both the Outeniqua Mountains and the Swartberg Mountains which can be done courtesy of some of the most spectacular passes in the world.

We set off from the beautiful seaside town of Knysna on the morning of 1 May 2012, five cyclists determined to make our way over a daunting list of passes over the next six days.

Day 1: From Knysna to George over the “Seven Passes Road”

(Approximately 90 km with cumulative climbing of approximately 1495 metres)

The Seven Passes Road was built over a period of 16 years between 1867 and 1883 and remains a glowing testament to the road builders of that time and in particular to the incredible talents of the master road-builder Thomas Bain. Although some of the original bridges were replaced in the early 1900’s and a few sections have been tarred over the years, much of the roadwork remains that of the original pioneers. The road is quiet and scenic, perfect for cycling as the modern coastal national road is the preferred route for those in a hurry and carries the bulk of the traffic.

1 - Day 1 - Rob at the top of Hoogekraal Pass

Cycling from Knysna at the eastern end of the road the first pass is soon encountered; the ominously named Phantom Pass. Although the name may conjure up images of spectres and spirits, the pass is actually named after the Phantom Moth which is fairly common in the area – I was expecting a headless horseman at the very least! The pass is only about three kilometres long and the gradient not too challenging so we reached the top without undue effort.

2 - Day 1- Ken, Colin, Rob, Derrick & Peter at Woodville

Next was the Homtini Pass, the construction of which was completed in 1882. A very sharp, winding descent led us through the beautifully wooded valley of the Homtini River and then the climb up the other side called for some effort. The name “Homtini” is said to mean “the place of the difficult passage”, and the terrain certainly provided a challenge for the original construction of the road (as it does for modern day cyclists!).

So on we rode, in splendid weather (although perhaps a little too warm for cycling), through spectacular scenery of indigenous forest, descending and climbing as the road crossed the difficult stretch of terrain, bisected by a seemingly endless series of gorges and ravines. The Karatara Pass, the Hoogekraal Pass, The Touw River Pass – crossed via the last remaining iron bridge on this road and opened in 1898 – The Silver River Pass  and the Kaaimans Pass. Each one spectacular in its own way; each one a challenge to a pedal-powered ascent.

We reached George after cycling about 90 kilometres; the distance belied the amount of effort that went into crossing these Seven Passes!

Day 2: From George to near De Rust

(Approximately 80 km with cumulative climbing of approximately 1145 metres)

Not long after the starting the day’s cycle we started climbing the famous Montagu Pass which would take us over the Outeniqua Mountains and into the Little Karoo. There were just three of us cycling this first stretch as Colin had a problem with his bike and he and Andrew went into George to have it seen to. Luckily it turned out to be nothing serious.

3 - Day 2 - Ken & Derrick at the start of Montagu Pass

The Montagu Pass was completed in 1847, using convict labour to a large extent, and was built under the direction of the Australian road engineer Henry Fancourt White. Henry Fancourt White’s legacy in the area is not just the magnificent Pass, but extends to the historical property named “Fancourt” and also to the village of Blanco (meaning white), both of which were named after him.

4 - Day 2 - Ken on Montagu Pass

The Pass is in excellent condition and the scenery quite spectacular. The gradient is fairly manageable on a bicycle, although the climb is unrelenting and taxing on aging legs. Near the start of the climb is the old toll house, apparently in the process of being restored. Early travellers were required to pay a toll for the privilege of using the pass (toll roads in South Africa are NOT new!) – three pence per wheel and a penny for each animal drawing the wagons. Would that be sixpence for the bike and a penny for the pedal-pusher, one wonders.

5 - Day 2 - Rob & Ken on Montagu Pass

Nearer the top of the Pass we passed under the railway bridge and then reached Moertjieklip, a large rock that was apparently dislodged during the building of the railway line and which rolled down the hill, crushing and killing one of the workers.

From the top of Montagu Pass we were in the Little Karoo and the terrain was pleasantly undulating as we passed through attractive farmlands with large flocks of ostriches.  After passing through Dysselsdorp, we ended the day’s journey after about 80km at the Oudemoragie Guest Farm, which provided quite spectacular views of the Spitskop mountain as it peered through the low lying cloud.

6 - Day 2 - Colin & Derrick

In terms of cycling, this was a much easier day than the first day, and was, in fact, to be the easiest day of the tour.

Day 3: Near De Rust to Prince Albert

(Approximately 84 km with cumulative climbing of approximately 1741 metres)

This was a day of two halves! The morning ride was very pleasant, with relatively easy, rolling terrain in pleasant, sunny weather. The kind of morning casual cyclists dream of.  Cycling in our shirtsleeves, heading westwards through the foothills of the Swartberg with the sun on our backs. Wonderful!

7 - Day 3 - Scenery on the road near Oudemoragie

Then came lunch time and with it the foul weather.

As we turned to the north and the approach to the Swartberg Pass it started to rain, the wind picked up from the north and the temperature plummeted. The group of cyclists was quickly reduced to two as the prospect of tackling the Pass under these conditions drove the others to the (relative) comfort and warmth of the support vehicle.

The Swartberg Pass is considered by many to be one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world. From the Little Karoo the Pass climbs the magnificent slopes of the Swartberg, populated with groves of watsonias and proteas, climbing steadily for seven kilometres to crest at 1568 metres above sea level and more than 1000 metres above the Little Karoo from whence it started. The Pass, constructed by Thomas Bain between 1881 and 1888 (this was to be the last Pass that he would construct in South Africa), rises in a series of switchbacks and  hairpin bends, providing breathtaking views at every turn.

But today these views were hidden from us by the thick mist and pelting rain as we cycled up the unrelenting gradient. Looking over the edge of the road toward the valley below revealed nothing but milky-white mist. The gravel road became muddy and small streams developed in the roadway as the water spilled down off the mountainside. The mud and the water and the gradient conspired to retard the rotation of the wheels of the cycles and to destroy any lingering remnants of our good humour.

8 - Day 3 - Rob climbing the south Swartberg Pass, 2km from top

Picture courtesy of Andrew Finn

Climbing, though, generates a fair amount of warmth and being somewhat protected from the wind on the southern side of the Pass meant that we were not unbearably cold on the ascent. I planned to meet the support vehicle at the top of the Pass and put on some warm clothing before the descent, but unfortunately I reached the top ahead of the vehicle. The wind on the northern side of the Pass was very strong and although it was not raining on this side, it was savagely cold. I started the descent, but within a very short time I was so cold that I could not continue. I waited for the support vehicle and when it arrived I donned some warmer clothes and completed the descent to Prince Albert. The last few kilometres of tarred road were a welcome reprieve from the clinging gravel of the Pass itself.

The hot shower at Dennehof B&B was one of the highlights of the tour!!

To read about Part Two of this tour, click here.