The start of the Swartberg Pass on the R328 lies a short five minute drive from Prince Albert and the first half 15 minutes of the pass encompasses some of the most dramatic scenery you’ll see anywhere in the world. So, even if you don’t drive the whole pass, a visit to Prince Albert and exploring the first few kilometres of the pass is well worthwhile.
The Swartberg is amongst the best exposed fold mountain chains in the world, and the pass slices through magnificently scenic geological formations.
The tender for the Swartberg Pass was initially awarded to John Tassie, but the mountain beat him and he could only build 6km of road before going bankrupt.
The job was taken over by Thomas Bain, an extraordinary road engineer dubbed ‘The Man with Theodolite Eyes’. By now he had built 16 of the country’s most challenging mountain passes. He had learnt his craft from his father, Andrew Geddes Bain, a brilliant road engineer, palaeontologist, geologist and explorer.
Thomas Bain worked with 250 convicts and a lot of gunpowder. He finished the Swartberg Pass ahead of time and under-budget.
The pass opened on 10 January 1888. The drystone work supporting some of its picturesque hairpin bends (and as barriers to the steep drops) is particularly noteworthy over 120 years later.
This was the last pass that Thomas Bain built in the Cape and was surely his greatest achievement. The final cost of the pass, including a few kilometers of access roads, was £14,500, excluding the value of the convict labour, which was free.
Thomas Bain built the pass from 1883 to 1886. He managed to keep the gradient lower than 1:8 throughout the pass, compared to the steeper 1:6 of the Montagu Pass. Bain used the ridges of the foothills for a comfortable ‘altitude gaining’ approach to the looming bulk of the Swartberg range, where he chose the lowest saddle as his target.
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. In these early pioneering days, the tools employed were very rudimentary and consisted primarily of picks, shovels, sledgehammers, gunpowder and hard labour.
Elevation start — northern side: 776m
Elevation – summit: 1,575m
Elevation end — southern side: 864m
Time required: 60 — 100 minutes, and more for frequent stops.
Average gradient: 1.31
Maximum gradient: 1.5