To Hell and Back

The enigmatic bulk of the Swartberg Mountain excites the adventure in everybody visiting the Klein Karoo. The mountain range is the barrier between the Klein Karoo and the Central Karoo, the gateway to the vast Karoo.

There is a way to explore mountain by means of the Swartberg Pass, which takes you to the dizzying heights aswell as deep into the heart of the mountain. Approaching the mountain from the Oudtshoorn side, one turn sharp left just before the final approach to the Cango Caves, following the signs for Prince Albert and Swartberg Pass.

The road takes you past Kobus se Gat, a rusting restaurant serving delicious Klein Karoo fare, including traditional roosterkoek (griddle cakes) and afval (tripe and onions). Eventually the tarred road runs out, leaving you to complete the trip on a dirt road. Although it is maintained, rain and melting snow can deteriorate the surface against the steep incline.

After heavy rains or snow, the pass is often closed for the driver’s safety. A portion of the pass on the Prince Albert side was closed after heavy rains this year, but it was reopened at the end of October. The pass is at elevation of 1583m above sea level, and climbs 1000m in 12 kilometers. The road is gravel and sand and although you do not need a 4×4 vehicle, it is advised that you use a vehicle with high ground clearance, as there are many streams to cross.

Although the pass is worth driving, it is definitely not for the faint-hearted, as twisty hair-pin corners, high elevations and steep grades are intimidating to some. The views are spectacular, but it is advised that the driver keep his eyes on the road, while the passengers enjoy the historical monuments of a lost era along the narrow twisting, such as an hotel, a toll hut even an old jail. The pass was build between 1881 and 1888 by master pass builder Thomas Bain with the labour of some 250 convicts, hence the strange position of the old jail. The mostly erected dry-stone walls at the most treacherous places, making it much safer to negotiate. The pass was opened on 10 January 1988. The pass was declared National Monument in 1988. The Swartberg Mountain is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

On the way to the top, one has the opportunity to see rich and varied wildlife. During my first visit up the pass, two klipspringer stood motionless on a boulder right next to road for a moment, watching the vehicle with great curiosity, before the male continued marking his territory with pheromones from glands next to his eyes.
Once at The Top, one has a breathtaking view of the patchwork of agricultural land Matjies fontein River Valley on the southern side. On the northern side, one has a spectacular view of the mountain view, with the Old Toll House nestled in a sleepy hollow below

The mountain is home to a number of rare species, such as a dwarf chameleon, which turns white at night! Other rare species are regarded as indicator species, which signal a healthy environment. These includes dragonfly nymphs, which are seen at open water such as streams or dams, which indicate a healthy river system. Orange-breasted sugar birds feed on the nectar of proteas, and while they do so, it is a certain sign that the protea plant is healthy. The marsh harrier is a indication of a healthy rodent population. When the rodent population is diminished as the result of an unnatural fire or removal of vegetation, the marsh harrier leaves to seek food elsewhere.

CapeNature depends on visitors to respect the Swartberg Mountain status as World Heritage site and not to destroy or remove any plants or animals. They urge people to look out the for tortoises crossing the road, and not take them home.