The morning sun shines softly through the rising forest mist as we ascend the Outeniqua Pass on our way to Oudtshoorn from George. Every now and then the mist lifts and exposes the gorges and winding contours of this famous pass.
At the top of the mountain we turn left to Oudtshoorn onto the famous Route 62. Now the landscape turns flat and above the mist of the mountain below you can see the outline of a few mountain ranges away as well as the far-away horizon of the Indian Ocean to the south, leaving you with a wonderful sense of spaciousness and breath-taking inspiration.
We stop at ‘Smitswinkel’ at the entrance to Oudsthoorn to satisfy our rumbling tummies. Here you can build your own breakfast by ordering separate items and there’s plenty to keep the little ones occupied,
Oudsthoorn has indeed been on the map for a long time. Coffee shops, foody-type eateries and contemporary interior shops are found in between old stone buildings.
Oudsthoorn is known as the ostrich capital of the world. Its ostrich industry dates back to 1864. The ostrich feather was the main reason for the surge in Oudtshoorn’s prosperity as it became a very fashionable accessory among European nobility. By 1870 feather auctions were being held in Mossel Bay and by 1875-1880 ostrich prices reached up to £1,000 a pair. The value of white ostrich feathers, per pound, equalled almost that of diamonds and was referred to as white gold.
The market collapsed in 1914, according to The Chicago Tribune, as a result of “the start of World War I, overproduction and the popularity of open-topped cars, which made ostrich-feather hats impractical.” Eighty per cent of the ostrich farmers were bankrupted. The end of World War II opened new markets for ostrich leather and meat and as a result the industry eventually recovered. Outbreaks of bird flu between 2004 and 2014 had cost the country R4 Billion as 50 000 ostriches sadly had to be culled. The production of specialised agricultural seed is the biggest contributor to the region’s wealth today, but ostrich farming remains an important business.
Oudsthoorn is also synonymous with the world–famous Cango Caves in the foothills of the Swartberg mountain range. Cave paintings and artefacts indicate that the caves were in use throughout prehistory over a long period during the Middle and Later Stone Ages.
The caves were rediscovered in modern times in 1780 by a local farmer named Jacobus Van Zyl. Mr. Johnny van Assenter, the cave’s first official guide, is purported to have walked 29 hours to find the end of the caves in 1898. He is said to have calculated that he was 25km from the entrance, and 275m underground. Today, the extensive system of tunnels and chambers go on for over 4km but only about a quarter of this is open to visitors who may proceed into the cave only in groups supervised by a guide.
Oudtshoorn is also at the start of the Route 62 wine route. Some of the best South African Port style wines are produced in the area surrounding Oudsthoorn and is highly recommended!
The ‘Little Karoo National Arts Festival’ is South Africa’s largest Afrikaans language arts festival and takes place in Oudtshoorn on a yearly basis.
Meandering north for kilometres out of Oudtshoorn towards the Swartberg mountain range and after a long, sweeping left hand bend one reaches the end of the tar road. This is also where the border of the 180 000-hectare Swartberg Nature Reserve begins.
The Swartberg pass is a National Heritage site and is exceptionally long at 23,8km. It takes about an hour to drive, excluding stops. You will be treated to a wide variety of incredible scenery. As a well–maintained gravel road, it can be driven in any vehicle in fair weather. The road is narrow in certain sections and some reversing might be required to get past an oncoming vehicle. Etiquette is to give way to the ascending vehicle. There are no heavy vehicles or caravans allowed. For camper vans with high roofs, be warned that there are some sections with overhanging rocks which could be problematic. Drive at the speed limit or slower – this road can be dangerous in bad weather. If you plan on stopping at the top for a photo or two, have a windbreaker ready – it can be ice cold out of the car and almost always windy.
From the 1 583m summit, which is a natural saddle in the mountain, you will have expansive views to the south of most of the Little Karoo with its patchwork of green farmlands. On a clear day one can see more than 150-kilomtres to the Nuweveld Mountains in the north. From here you can also see the massive gorge splitting the upper mountain plateau in front of you into two. It is down this gorge that the road will take you. If you are blessed to be at the summit alone, switch your car’s engine off and listen to the incredible silence or the wind whistling past the rocks at the summit. An unforgettable and potentially life-changing moment!
This lowest section of the pass is also incredibly beautiful. Stop as often as you can and enjoy the contorted and vertical rock formations in their red hues as they tower above you. This is also where you will see the Wall of Fire when the mountains glow red when the sun is from just the right direction.
As you exit the final section of the gorge, you will be left with a feeling of awe, relief and disappointment all in one. Relief that you made it through without mishap and disappointment that it’s all over. The good news is you can experience it all again on the drive back!
Thomas Bain, with the help of some 250 labourers, built the pass from 1883 to 1886. It was his final and best piece of road building. With much fanfare involving a 21-gun salute and the clinking of champagne glasses, the Swartberg Pass was officially opened by Colonel F Schermbrucker on 10 January 1888. The Colonel’s words at the opening that, “ten-thousand travellers will in future feast their eyes on this beautiful picture” has echoed over the more than 125-years since this most beautiful of mountain passes was opened.
By this stage of his road building career Bain had developed several unique techniques employing his knowledge of science. One was his dry-walling construction using the principles of cohesion and friction, using no cement at all. The other was using heat and water to break big rocks up. A large fire would be lit under or near a difficult rock and then cold water would be poured over it, resulting in the rock cracking into smaller, more manageable pieces. Thomas acquired most of these skills from his father (to whom he was apprenticed for a several years) who had an intimate understanding of geology. In these early pioneering days, the tools employed were very rudimentary and consisted primarily of picks, shovels, sledgehammers, gunpowder and hard labour. The pass and its sister pass, Montagu Pass, stands in proud defiance of modern technology.
The Swartberg Pass remains a must for those who revel in the beauty and splendour of magnificent mountain landscapes and long views to distant horizons.
Curving out of the Swartberg pass, a flat landscape opens up in front of us with the small town of Prince Albert in the distance. I am stunned once again by the vastness of our beautiful country! After all the stops on the Swartberg pass and at the sight of the heat mirage over the landscape in front of us, all I can think of is an ice cold drink!
Sipping on my creamy ice coffee under the cool water-sprayed veranda of the ‘Victoria Room Restaurant’, my eyes feast on the decorative detail on the adjacent Swartberg Hotel. This beautiful structure has been a hotel since 1864, changing names over time and is also a National Heritage site. I can almost hear the sound of horses pulling carts up the then gravel main road many moons ago. The architecture of the old buildings (including 13 national monuments) tells me that this town has been around for more than a while. In fact, the earliest inhabitants of the northern slopes of the Swartberg Mountains in the vicinity of modern-day Prince Albert were the San or Bushmen. In 1762 it was decided to officially form a town on the farm Queekvalleij. In 1845 it was renamed Prince Albert in honour of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, who was historically part of the Cape Colony. Honouring the memory of her husband, who died in 1861, Queen Victoria sent a book containing Prince Albert’s speeches to the village in 1867 which is now on display in the Fransie Pienaar Museum.
The fertile valley fed by the streams flowing down the northern slopes of the Swartberg Mountains attracted many other farmers to the district. The village continued to develop and in 1849 a post office was opened followed by a school in 1852. The railway linking Cape Town with the interior reached Prince Albert Road in 1879 and this further spurred development in the village. However, the most significant development in the transport links with the remote village was the construction of the spectacular Swartberg Pass linking Prince Albert and the far-flung communities of the western Great Karoo with Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo.
Today Prince Albert has become a favoured destination and home for artists and other creative people. This quaint town in arguably one of the most beautifully situated villages in all of the Karoo has become a refuge for those seeking the peace and tranquillity the Great Karoo offers in abundance. Extensive renovations of the old buildings and residences in the village have seen property prices escalate as more and more people from South Africa’s bustling cities seek the peace and quiet of Prince Albert on the edge of the Swartberg mountain range
Prince Albert has a small local population, mainly engaged in farming and tourism. The village has many authentic Cape Dutch, Karoo and Victorian buildings. There are several olive farms and other very large export fruit farms in the area, as well as wine producers, sheep farms and an export mohair trade. Birding, hiking, cycling and stargazing are other pursuits for visitors. The area is well known for its endemic fynbos and is at its best in winter and spring with Proteas, Ericas, Restios and Pin-cushions in profusion.
We settle in for the night in a picturesque guesthouse. As this unforgettable day draws to a close, images of ancient, huge rock formations glowing red against the blue-sky swirl around in my head. The sound of an insect symphony floats on the welcoming breeze of the cool Karoo evening. So many stars … it feels like I can stretch out my hand and touch them. Oh, the joys of discovering new places on a road trip!
So, pack the cooler box, make sure your cameras are charged, take extra memory cards, and make your way into the mysterious Klein Karoo! It will take your breath away.