The Swartberg mountain range (black mountain in English) runs roughly east-west along the northern edge of the semi-arid Klein Karoo.
Most of the Swartberg Mountains are above 2 000 m high, making it the highest range of mountains in the Western Cape. It is also one of the longest, spanning some 230 km from south of Laingsburg in the west to between Willowmore and Uniondale in the east.
The Swartberg consists of two official ranges. To the west is the Klein Swartberg Mountains (Small) which include the highest peaks – Seweweekspoor (Seven Weeks Gorge Peak) is 2 325 m and the famous Toverkop (Bewitch Peak) near Ladismith is 2 240 m. According to legend, this cleft peak was split by a spell and subsequent bolt of lightning. Separated from the Klein Swartberg by the Goutitz river is the eastern Groot Swartberg. The highest peak in this range is the Tierberg (Tiger or Leopard Mountain) at 2 132 m. The Cango Caves are found in the Great Range.
The Swartberg mountains are geologically part of the Table Mountain group with their impressive sandstone strata and rock formations. The vegetation is very diverse – renosterveld, mountain fynbos, Karoo-veld, lychen. Some flower throughout the year.
This is also home to a wide variety of animals – klipspringer, dassies, kudu, grey rhebuck, and baboons. There are even rare sightings of leopard and caracal. There are more than 130 species of birds – notably the black, fish and martial eagles, as well as the Cape Sugarbird and Pied Kingfisher.
Weather: In winter the temperatures drop well below freezing and you will see snow on the mountains. In summer the temperatures are hot (40˚C or more).
Last Great Handmade Passes Through the Swartberg
Once considered almost impenetrable, there are now three major gateways through the mountain range and linking the Groot Karoo in the north with the southern Klein Karoo.
The Swartberg Pass is considered one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world: an untarred road winds to the summit 1 583 sq m above sea level with steep zig-zags and sudden switchbacks. It runs from Oudtshoorn in the south to Prince Albert in the north. The natural beauty of the pass is breath-taking.
The sheer engineering feat of this hand-made pass is awesome. This was the last of 17 engineering masterpieces built by the famous road builder and engineer, Thomas Charles Bain (1830 – 1893).
It took about seven years to build the pass. Employing 100 Mozambicans from Delagoa Bay, work started in 1881. But after 13 months work stopped and the team had only progressed 6 kilometers. Then at the end of 1883, work started again with some 200 – 240 convicts. The pass finally opened on January 10, 1888.
As one drives along one is amazed by the dry-stone retaining walls that were built by hand with 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. In one place the wall is 2.4 km long and they range in height from 1 m to 13 m. Roadway traffic pressure and the laws of friction and cohesion have made the walls secure for over a century and have withstood extreme weather conditions.
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 along with other interesting historical sites and places of interest – for example there are relics of an old prison, toll hut, and hotel, plus there are many wonderful picnic spots and places from which to enjoy the magnificent views.
In 1988 the Swartberg Pass was declared a National Monument.
To the east of the Swartberg Pass, the Meiringspoort is a tarred road through the Swartberg along a river. The ‘poort’ runs north out of the town of De Rust and offers a spectacular drive through incredible rock formations. It is also the setting for the annual half marathon that ends in the town of De Rust.
The first road through the poort was built between 1856 and 1858 by Adam de Schmidt (brother-in-law of Thomas Bain) and was opened on 3 March 1858 with a colourful procession. On the same day the first freight of wool from the interior was dispatched to Mossel Bay through Meiringspoort in “twaalf lange wolwagens” (12 long ox-drawn wool wagons).
The road through the poort is a remarkable engineering feat, but its overwhelming feature is its magnificent natural beauty.
Among the most scenic spots is the Skelm Waterfall tumbling into a dark pool which, according to legend, is bottomless. A beautiful mermaid was said to live in the pool. A story claimed that in the 1996 floods she had been washed out of the pool, down the rivers and out to sea. The story went on to say that she had then been caught in a fisherman’s net and taken to the CP Nel Museum in Oudtshoorn, where she was preserved in spirits! The Museum was overwhelmed with telephone calls and visitors keen to see the mermaid!
Another landmark is Herrie’s Stone, declared a National Monument, where C.J. Langenhoven carved the name of his famous fictional elephant on a boulder in 1929.
Meiringspoort has been flooded several times in its 140-year history and so the idea for building the Swartberg Pass was born.
The road from Amalienstein in the Klein Karoo penetrates the Klein Swartberg Mountains through the Seweweekspoort (Seven Weeks Gate) into one of the most awe-inspiring and spectacular mountain ravines in the country. Author and poet, C Louis Leipoldt, called it one of the “seven wonders” of the old Cape Colony.
Seven Weeks Pass winds for 17 km through the mountains at a level of 600 – 1 000 m above sea-level. It crosses the stream 23 times, whilst the magnificent rock folds reach 1 500 – 2 000 m for the skies on both sides. One can wonder at the inconceivable volcanic forces millions of years ago that formed the Cape mountains. The Poort is dominated on the western side by the Seven Weeks Poort peak, the highest in the Klein Swartberg (2 325 m).
The Poort was started in 1859. The initial work was done by a team of convicts, without a road-engineer. Progress was slow and in 1860 Adam de Smidt took charge of the operations and the road was completed in 1862.
There are several stories explaining the origin of the name: it took seven weeks for mounted troops to escort a gang of highway robbers, being banished from Barrydale, through the Poort; or for the authorities to catch a stock-thief who fled into the mountains; or for a gang of brandy smugglers to return through the Poort from Beaufort West. It was even suggested that it was named after a missionary, Rev Zerwick and that the locals could not pronounce his name. Most authorities, though, accept that the name is derived from the Seven-weeks fern (Romohra adiantiformis), called “Seweweeksvaring” in Afrikaans, which is found in moist places and crevices.
The ruins of the old toll-house can be seen on the northern entrance to the Poort. According to legend, the ghost of one of the first toll-gate keepers can be seen on dark, stormy nights. He appears with his lantern, stopping motorists. As soon as they stop, he disappears, as mysteriously as he appeared!
A very rare protea species, the Protea Aristata, grows in this area. It was thought to have been extinct but was rediscovered in the 1950’s. There are also other species of protea growing on the slopes as well as many varieties of aloes.