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Swartberg Pass

  • The Swartberg Pass was built using convict labour and opened on 10 January 1888
The Swartberg Pass was built using convict labour & opened on 10 January 1888  © South African Tourism

Swartberg Pass

Swartberg Pass

The brilliant engineer and road builder, Thomas Charles Bain (1830 - 1893), built seventeen mountain passes in the Cape Province. The Swartberg Pass is one of the most spectacular and well known mountain passes in South Africa, linking Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn. The pass was declared a National Monument in 1988, 100 years after it was opened on the 10th January 1888.

The project began in 1879 when Thomas Bain was commissioned to plan a new route over the Swartberg Mountain Range due to the fact that the existing routes between the port of Mossel Bay and the towns and villages of the Great Karoo were often closed due to flood damage and rock falls. The footpath which already existed over the mountain between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn was only suitable to be travelled either on foot or on horseback. Planning the route was a tough task due to the unavoidably steep gradients. The engineer tried four different lines before he succeeded in finding a practical one. Bain's plans for Swartberg Pass were approved by the Government in 1880.

John Tassie started building the pass from Prince Albert in 1881 with 100 Mozambican labourers from Delagoa Bay, but he was declared insolvent after building only 6km of the pass. Bain took over the building of the pass in November 1883 and used between 200 and 240 convicts to tackle the task. What people need to remember when looking at the feat, is that there was no heavy machinery involved, the pass was built using of pickaxes, spades, sledgehammers, crowbars, wheelbarrows and gunpowder. The giant 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. And the dry-wall method of construction that was used to build the impressive retaining walls that held the road up against the mountain slopes is still holding it up a century later. The convicts were divided into teams and the ruins and remains of the convict stations can still be seen in the Swartberg Pass. It is said that Bain finished ahead of schedule and under-budget, a task which is unheard of especially in this day and age.

The Swartberg Pass was officially opened on 10th January 1888 and was a major event in the history of the town of Prince Albert. The opening saw the town of Prince Albert come to a standstill as every store was closed for the festivities. A procession left the town at 7am that day, on a 3 hour journey to the summit 1 585m above sea level. The procession included almost 500 people and 100 vehicles which were made up of spiders, capecarts and mule wagons. The pass was officially opened by Colonel F.X Schermbrucker who was the Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works and a twenty-one gun salute concluded the ceremony.

Over the years there has never been a need to tar this masterpiece the locals believe that this would actually ruin its beauty and its value as a national monument. A trip over the Swartberg Pass is an unforgettable experience for any visitor, whether local or foreign.


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