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The Passes of the 12-Apostles

Mountain passes are thrilling rides and offer magnificent scenery and mostly indigenous vegetation, including high elevations and deep valleys, over rivers and sometimes through tunnels created by master builders. This article provides additional historical value to the passes included in the 12-Apostles Challenge.

The 12-Apostles Challenge medallion.

There is a great website available that lists all the Mountain Passes of South Africa - check it out for these and many more that our country has to offer! This is however subject to a yearly subscription fee, giving you ample time to access videos, the full text of all mountain passes articles, fact-files, interactive maps, directions and route files.

Another site that can be used for research purposes is SA Mountain Passes.

The 12 passes that will be encountered on this route are as follows:


1. Old Kaapse Weg Pass

Until the Ou Kaapse Weg was completed in 1960s, the only access for nearly 300 years was via the main road that follows the railway line along the False Bay shore from Muizenberg via St James, Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek to Simonstown. It was not until 1923, that the scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive which links Hout Bay to Noordhoek was opened.

There never was an original Ou Kaapse Weg. The name of the modern road is based purely on romance. The only way over the mountains was little more than a track from Kalk Bay to Hout Bay. Consequently, Noordhoek was for many years cut off from the main urban development of the southern peninsular.

Since the Ou Kaapse Weg was completed, however, the valley has not been spared the ravages of urban blight which are in danger of destroying the very qualities that made Noordhoek attractive to start with: it’s rural landscape and natural beauty, which are now a mere 30 minutes from the heart of Cape Town.


2. Sir Lowry's Pass

Sir Lowry’s Pass through the Hottentot Holland Mountains was completed in 1830. The roads through the latter and Franschhoek Mountains converged at the farm Boontjieskraal on the Swart River, about 10 km west of Caledon. It was constructed by Charles Michell and named after the then governor, Sir Lowry Cole. Apparently it seems as if the pass was built without authorisation by the Colonial Office as there is reference to Michell and the Governor being hauled over the coals for unauthorised spending on the building of the pass.


3. Houwhoek Pass

Houhoek Is a close counterpart of Sir Lowry’s Pass, Where Sir Lowry's lifts the traveller over the lip onto the high mountain plateau, the Houhoek takes them down again to the coastal plain. and into the Overberg, That much is simple enough. but the history of the pass is quite complicated.

The name 'Houhoek' is of uncertain origin and varied spelling'. Either transcribed as 'Hou' as in 'hold', 'Houw' as in 'rest' or even 'Hout' as in wood - this is a pass with many manifestations.

The first route over the mountains at this end of the chain simply went straight up to the summit, and steeply down the other side. This was common practice in the days of the ox-wagon, as a span of oxen has more power when pulling in a straight line than when trying to negotiate sharp bends in the road. Many of the old passes therefore avoided all that gentle winding through the contour lines, and went for the straight "up", straight "down" approach instead.

The first Houhoek pass proceeded in this manner, up from Houw Hoek Inn and down to the Bot (Butter) River. It was, by all contemporary accounts, a hideous passage that was even more dangerous than the Hottentots Holland Kloof. Various stories of wagons careering down the steep pass have been recorded, and many early travelers were heard to say a prayer of thanks when the traverse was over.

Charles Michell, the engineer, tried to complete the work he had started with Sir Lowry's Pass by building a more sophisticated Houhoek road in 1831. But Michell and his governor, Sir Lowry Cole, were still smarting from the rebuke they had received from the Colonial Office for the unapproved expense incurred by the building of Sir Lowry's Pass the previous year, and the new Houhoek road was a pretty makeshift affair.

Michell’s road was eventually improved by Andrew Geddes Bain in 1846, and several other routes down the slopes seem to have been improvised over the years. None of these routes was entirely satisfactory, however, and each track was subsequently abandoned and swallowed up by the fynbos. Then, in recent years, a fire swept the Houhoek summit and revealed the fossils of no less than four different routes. This only added to the confusion, but road historians are having a ball, trying to put the puzzle together again.


4. Floorshoogte Pass & Theewaterskloof-Dam

Floorshoogte Pass is situated on the Regional road R43 (Western Cape) between Bot River and Villiersdorp.


5. Franschhoek Pass

Until the French Huguenots settled in what was then known as Olifantshoek, the only route through the Franschhoek mountains to the interior was along a track created by migrating elephants - hence the name. The route was very narrow and steep, and could not be used by wagons. In 1818 the Cape government contracted a local farmer - SJ Cats - to build a mountain pass. He had no formal training, and completed the road a year later. The route remained dangerous, and wagons could only carry a maximum load of eight bags of corn. Cats’ road soon fell into disuse.

In 1822 Major William Cuthbert Holloway, head of the Colonial Engineer’s department, chaired a commission to examine the feasibility building a pass - either through the Franschoek mountains or through the Hottentots Holland Mountains. The commission calculated that the latter would be five times more expensive, so the choice fell on Franschoek. Labour would be provided by the 150 soldiers of the Royal Africa Corps stationed temporarily in Cape Town while waiting to be deployed to Sierra Leone.

The pass was completed in 1825 and the road was broad enough for allow two wagons to pass each other. Franschhoek Pass was SA’s first professionally designed and constructed mountain pass, and it also has the country’s oldest stone arch bridge (Jan Joubert’s Gat bridge) - and the oldest still in use.

The town of Franschhoek can be seen from the top of this pass.


6. Du Toit`s Kloof Pass

The Du Toitskloof Pass was completed in 1945, until then the main route to the north was via Bainskloof Pass near Wellington, through Michell's Pass, and then through Ceres to Sutherland and beyond. Some 500 Italian POWs interned in Paarl provided some of the manual Labour to build the pass. At the end of WWII, most of the POWs returned to Italy, and the pass was completed using local labourers.

Du Toitskloof Pass was named after a French Huguenot, Francois du Toit (1664-1731), who owned the farm Kleinbosch in Daljosaphat. His farm was just below the Hawequa cattle track that passed through a narrow kloof and gave access to the land beyond the Hawequa mountains. The track was used by nomadic Khoikhoi stock farmers and free burgher hunters and cattle farmers. Governor Simon van der Stel called the track "Het Oliphants Pad" in a communication with his son and future governor of the Cape, Willem Adriaan. The cattle track probably started in the Blouvlei Valley southeast of Wellington near Hawequa Neck.

Several attempts were made to build a wagon road through the pass. In 1785 a farmer called Joshua Joubert started on a private road through the kloof. The road attracted to much traffic that he applied for permission to levy a toll to help finance the rest of the project. The government would however not allow Joubert to build a toll gate, and Joubert was unable to maintain the road.

Featured below are photographs taken on the 2008 VOG West Cape Wander.


7. Bain`s Kloof Pass

Completed in 1853, this pass was designed and built by temporary Wellington resident Andrew Geddes Bain. The Scottish born engineer was the first man to build a road across the Limiet Mountains, the main barrier between the Cape Settlement and the interior. Bain achieved this remarkable feat without any formal engineering training, and then continued to build several more passes in the Western Cape. Bain's Kloof Pass, one of the most picturesque and magnificently constructed passes in South Africa, is a National Monument which blends in perfectly with its natural surroundings.

Featured below are photographs taken on the 2008 VOG West Cape Wander.


8. Bothmanskloof Pass

First built in the 1700s and upgraded through the years by the Divisional Council, Bothmanskloof (or Bothmaskloof Pass) descends the Kasteelberg on the R46 into the Riebeeck Valley, with its olive groves and vineyards spread out below.

Hugging the slopes of the mountain is Riebeeck Kasteel and then just a few kilometres from there is Riebeeck West.

The history of the two villages starts with an inland discovery expedition sent out by Jan van Riebeeck in 1661. They climbed over the Bothmanskloof Pass, already there probably as a footpath forged by large herds of animals. Here they saw 13 quagga, five rhino and thousands of wildebeest. This was an ideal outpost for the expedition, within sight of Cape Town.

In the 1850s the two villages agreed to build a church but, halfway through its construction, the wealthier residents of Riebeeck West pulled out to build another. De Oude Kerk in Riebeeck Kasteel was the first to open in 1855, but three years later it was Riebeeck West that had the first congregation, because they could fund a dominee. This event created a rift, which had since become friendly rivalry.


9. Nuwekloof Pass

The Nuwekloof Pass has a long history dating back to the early 1700's and is also known in it's various forms as the Nieuwekloof Pass, the Roodezand Pass or the Tulbaghkloof Pass. It is a modern, safe, well engineered pass which connect the towns of Tulbagh and Wellington on the tarred R46 route.


10. Michell's Pass

Bokkeveld farmers also wanted to benefit from the great upsurge in the Cape market in the 18th century, and in 1765 Jan Mostert of the farm Wolvenkloof built the first pass to Ceres.

This pass was called Mostertshoek Pass and was certainly not built for joyrides. It crisscrossed the river and was so steep under the waterfall that the wagons had to be taken apart and carried over the mountain in pieces. Mostertshoek Pass was used until 1848.

From 1846 to 1848 Andrew Geddes Bain built a new road – a masterpiece for those days – at a cost of 21 000 pounds. Small streams were forded with solid dry masonry and living rock was hollowed out of the mountain slope. The pass was named after Col. C Michell, Surveyor- General of the colony for 20 years.

Goods were brought from Ceres Station (now Wolseley) over the Michell’s Pass. A toll house was later built on the pass, and the following tolls were levied:

  • 3d per wheel of four wheeled vehicles without remschoens;

  • 2d per wheel of other vehicles;

  • 1d per pack animal;

  • ½d each for sheep, goats or pigs,

  • 2d each for all other animals.

Bain’s Michell’s Pass was used for nearly a century, until a concrete road was completed on 31 March 1946.

In the photo above - the town of Ceres is seen from Mitchell's Pass.


11. Theronsberg Pass

This pass links Ceres with the R355 to Calvinia and the Theronsberg Mountains take one into the Tanqua Karoo, a gorgeous semi-arid area that is quite simply beautiful – clear, starlit skies, incredible scenery and enviable sunsets.

Because of its proximity to Ceres and a colder climate, there is a good chance that the Theronsberg will see snow fall during the winter months, and it is always an excellent choice for a drive from Cape Town in search of snow.

Interestingly the Theronsberg, Karoopoort and the Hottentotskloof passes were all part of an old wagon route from the Boland into the interior, before the advent of the Du Toitskloof Pass and the N1. In 1969 when the totally unanticipated earthquake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale, hit the area, devastating towns like Tulbagh and Wolseley, Theronsberg Pass was the only road out of Ceres as parts of Mitchells Pass were buried as a result of the earthquake.


12. Hex River Pass

Hex River Pass is situated in the Western Cape, province of South Africa, on the National road N1 road between De Doorns and Touws River.

The legend of the Hex:

In the year 1768, just after their house had been built, one of its occupants was a beautiful girl named Eliza Meiring. She was so popular with the local young bloods that she set any would-be suitor the initial task of bringing her a disa (a species of orchid) from the inaccessible precipices of the 2249-m Matroosberg, the highest peak of the range; the very difficulty of the task was intended to deter unwanted suitors.

Unknown to Eliza, however, the one young man she really favoured set out to surprise her by securing a disa. In the attempt he fell and was killed. The shock deranged the fair Eliza and she had to be locked in an upper room of the house. One night she contrived to force a window open, but in trying to reach the ground she slipped and was killed. It is said to be her spirit, lamenting the death of her lover, which wanders along the windswept peaks at night and believed by some locals that she committed suicide. She was called the witch of the Exe River Valley (die heks van Exeriviervallei), and according to the community - the name of the Exe River Valley changed to the Hex River Valley.

After an earlier failed attempt to locate a route, the Hex River Pass route was re-examined in 1874. The appointed surveyor, Wells Hood, under the instruction of the railway engineer Thomas Brounger, found a potential route which snaked up 2,353ft (735m) from Worcester to the top of the Karoo mountains east of the Hex River Valley, with gradients no more than 1:40 (which is very steep by modern standards). In addition, he proposed that a short tunnel would be required.

Thomas Brounger's route through the Hex River Pass was selected by 1876 with the line to follow the route from Worcester through De Doorns, Touws River, Matjiesfontein and on to Beaufort West.

Ranking as one of the Western Cape's most dangerous passes for trucking accidents, it is not so much the gradient that is problematic, but the long, straight, momentum-gathering descent which leads suddenly into a dangerously sharp, left-hand bend. Thankfully, a substantial crash-barrier prevents out-of-control vehicles from crossing over into the oncoming traffic. A strategically place arrestor bed halfway down the pass has also helped to reduce the dangers of trucks experiencing brake failure. There are so many scars on that crash barrier that it leaves one wondering what story each scar has to tell!



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