18 December 2020 (cont.)
On a clear day, when you turn onto the N12-highway just west of the gates to the Karoo National Park, you will see straight ahead of you the outlines of a large mountain range some 100km to the south. That’s the Swartberg (“Black Mountain“) – the highest mountains in the Western Cape, separating the Great Karoo from the Little Karoo.
We had two choices to get to the other side of the Swartberg, driving as we were from the Karoo National Park to the Bontebok National Park. The first is to stay on the N12 and go “through” the mountain along Meiringspoort – a beautiful stretch of tarred road but the less adventurous of the two options. The other option is to turn off the N12 onto the R407 just before Meiringspoort, following the road that leads to the small town of Prince Albert, and then taking a left turn into the Swartberg Pass (road R328). For us, the choice is an easy one.
Unquestionably one of the most exhilarating drives in South Africa and a personal favourite of ours, the Swartberg Pass is an engineering masterpiece designed and built (with convict labourers, many of whom died during construction) by the renowned Thomas C.J. Bain between 1881 and 1888. Recognised as a national monument, with a gravel surface and supported by impressive dry-stone retaining walls, the pass connects the Western Cape towns of Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert. Crossing over the beautifully unspoilt Swartberg, itself a declared nature reserve and World Heritage Site, while reaching a maximum altitude of 1,575 metres above sea level, the scenery along the Swartberg Pass is as awe-inspiring as the numerous tight switch-back bends, blind rises and steep gradients are hair-raising!