This past weekend we went on a photo drive to “Hell” and back. Well okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but in my opinion the Swartberg Pass in the Southern Cape comes close. A description from Wikipedia:
The spectacular Swartberg Pass runs through the Swartberg mountains (“black mountain” in Afrikaans) which are a mountain range that runs roughly east-west along the northern edge of the semi-arid area called the Little Karoo in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
The Swartberg is amongst the best exposed fold mountain chains in the world, and the pass slices through magnificently scenic geological formations. To the north of the range lies the other large semi-arid area in South Africa, the Great Karoo. Much of the Swartberg is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was built using convict labour by Thomas Bain and opened on January 10, 1888. The drystone work supporting some of its picturesque hairpin bends is particularly noteworthy.
Thomas (son) and Andrew (father) Bain were between them responsible for the construction of many of the spectacular mountain passes (still in use today) found throughout South Africa. What makes the Swartberg Pass between the towns of Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert so famous is (and I’m quoting here from Wikipedia)
. . . the spectacular geology that is exposed at its Northern end. The contortions in the rock display astonishing anticlines and synclines, and the vivid coloration of the surrounding Quartzite is remarkable. At the Northern end of the pass seven hundred metre high quartzite cliffs of the upper Table Mountain Group can be seen, and these are often tilted through 90 degrees (sometimes even more). Arguably the most famous of all these cliff faces is the spectacular ‘Wall of Fire’.
You can read the entire Wikipedia article and check out all the additional information here. You can see a map of the area here. The Swartberg mountains are in the upper-left corner of the map.
The “hell” bit in the blog title refers to the Gamkaskloof – a narrow valley in the Swartberg mountains – which is known by the locals as “Die Hel” (or “The Hell). See this post for more information. It also refers to the climate in the Karoo – which can get extremely hot and dry in the summer months. It is currently winter here, and it was freezing on the southern side of the Swartberg mountains. Although there is no snow there at the moment, an icy wind was blowing when were there. Getting out to take photographs was painful!
Our destination: The Swartberg Mountains with Aloe ferox plant in the foreground. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Close-up of aloe leaves and flowers. ©WMB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Driving up the Swartberg Pass. On the right-hand side of the road a ruin of an old stone cottage. ©WMB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
The remaining walls of the stone ruin. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Close-up of stone cottage walls. Note that natural rock of different sizes and shapes has been used. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Even the dry-stone retaining walls supporting the road are local rock. To think that these walls are still standing after over 120 years is mind-boggling. Who makes things that well these days?! ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Detail of dry-stone wall with a small tunnel at base to allow water stream to go under the road. ©WMB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Near the top of the Swartberg Pass, looking in an easterly direction. The Swartberg Mountain range is on the left, the Little Karoo is on the right. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
The descent down into the Great Karoo, passing through "Hell" on the way down. This is the first of many hairpin bends. We - that is, Riekie (aka Clouded Marble) and I - let Willie do all of the driving! We went in his 4x4, but did see some ordinary vehicles driving up and down the pass. ©WMB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Across the valley one can see the road winding around the mountain. ©WMB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
On the opposite side of the valley, on the left side of the road going down, are the ruins of the old prison. This is where the convicts who were building the Swartberg Pass were housed. ©WMB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
One of the spectacular quartzite cliffs. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
A close-up of the cliff face above. Note the "hollows" in the rock where big boulders would have detached from the rock face and gone rolling down into the valley below. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Layers of rock which have been pushed into a vertical position. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Green lichen grows on south-facing rock walls. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
These vertical slabs of rock are HUGE! ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Towards the northerly end of the pass one comes to "the cross" on the right side of the road. We had a debate as to whether this was a natural rock formation or not. I think nature had some help! ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
A close-up of "the cross" rock formation. ©LB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Another huge rock cliff just before leaving the pass. ©WMB - notesfromafrica.wordpress.com
Photographing the rock formations proved to be tougher than one would expect, and it is difficult to do this awesome place justice. We had to deal with bright sunlight on north-facing slopes and deep shade on the south-facing areas and in the valleys.
Thank you to Willie for taking us on such an interesting photo drive – and for driving so carefully! Rosie (the dog – yes, she was also with us!) and I managed not to get car sick, despite all those hairpin bends.