History of the swartberg pass

The Swartberg Pass, a National Monument between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn, is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular and best known mountain passes in South Africa. It is the masterpiece of the brilliant engineer and road builder, Thomas Charles Bain (1830 – 1893), and the last of the seventeen passes he built in the Cape Province.

Originally the routes through Meiring’s Poort and Seven Weeks’ Poort were the only links between the port of Mossel Bay and the towns and villages of the Great Karoo. The road through Meiring’s Poort was often closed due to flood damage and rockfalls. The heavy flooding during 1875 caused the closure of these gateways for weeks.

In 1879 Thomas Bain was commissioned to plan a new route over the Swartberg Mountain Range. The existing footpath over the mountain between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn could only be negotiated on foot or on horseback. Due to the unavoidably steep gradients, Bain tried four different lines before he succeeded in finding a practical one. Bain’s original master plan was approved by the Government in 1880.

The building of the Swartberg Pass proved to be a mammoth task. As Bain was building the Tsitsikama road, John Tassie’s tender of £18120 was accepted. Employing 100 Mozambicans from Delagoa Bay he started construction from the Prince Albert side of the mountain in 1881, but after 13 months of toil he had advanced only 6 kilometres.

After Tassie was declared insolvent, construction came to a halt for a year, until Thomas Bain took over the building of the pass in November 1883. Using 200 to 240 convicts he tackled the job with great enthusiasm.

The pass was built with the use of pickaxes, spades, sledgehammers, crowbars, wheelbarrows and gunpowder. Boulders were split by heating them with fire and then dousing them with cold water. Rocks were broken into smaller pieces with sledgehammers and then carefully dressed by the convicts. The dry-wall method of construction was used to build the impressive retaining walls that supported the road against the precipitous slopes. A century later, travellers still wonder at this feat.

Meat, dried beans, soup and other kinds of food were cooked in large pots for the convicts. Fresh bread was baked and an ox and sixteen sheep were slaughtered daily to provide meat for everybody on the project. The convicts were divided into teams and the ruins and remains of the convict stations can still be seen in the Swartberg Pass.

Conditions during the winter were very unfavourable. During May of 1885 heavy rain and mud slides almost destroyed the convicts’ camp. The nearly completed road was also badly damaged. The road through Meiring’s Poort was completely washed away by the same flood.

The name of the pass was changed frequently during the construction phase. Originally it was to be named “Rainier’s Pass” in honour of Prince Albert’s then magistrate, George Rainier, who was responsible for petitioning a pass to the Cape Government.

Later the name “Luttig’s Pass” was considered to commemorate J.R.G. Luttig’s contribution to the completion of the pass. Other names up for contention were “Victoria Pass” or “Jubilee Pass” in honour of the British monarch’s 50 years on the throne. The town councils of Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert finally settled on naming the pass “Zwartberg Pass.”

The official opening of the Swartberg Pass was 10th January 1888. All the shops and offices in Prince Albert were closed for the day to allow everyone to participate in the festivities. At 7am that Tuesday the procession, consisiting of about 100 vehicles (spiders, capecarts and mule wagons) started off from Haak’s Hotel on the 3 hour trek to the open terrain near the summit. It’s estimated there were about 500 people present, including reporters from six newspapers.

The Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works, colonel F.X Schermbrucker, officially opened the pass. Miss Gertrude Schermbrucker broke a bottle of champagne at the summit of the pass, 1 585m above sea level, and a twenty-one gun salute concluded the ceremony.

On 5th May, 1888 a toll was proclaimed on the summit of the pass. From the eight tenders received, John F. Mackay was appointed the first toll official with a salary of £45 a year. Besides collecting the toll fee(4 pennies per wheel and 1 penny per animal), the official was responsible for maintaining the road in good condition. The official was also allowed to use collected toll fees to his own advantage.

Swartberg Pass