Montagu Pass – a scenic trip back in time

There are four passes through the Outeniqua Mountains which connect the small city of George in the Southern Cape to the interior. The Outeniqua (newest), Montagu, Cradock and Railway passes were built in different eras to serve an increasing amount of traffic which had to travel between George and the town of Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo. The Montagu Pass was built between 1844-1847 and was declared a National Monument in 1972.

This is one of the few places in the country where you can see very old and new passes side by side in a nature reserve. Cradock Pass is the oldest and is now a one-day hike marked with white-painted beacons visible from the modern Outeniqua Pass on the opposite mountainside.

Montagu Pass is the oldest unaltered pass still in use in South Africa and is a scenic trip back in time – you can almost hear the oxwagon drivers cracking their whips to warn oncoming traffic of their position on the winding pass. Near the top, the road runs parallel to the Railway Pass for a short while and it’s always a thrill if you’re lucky enough to encounter a train on the route.

*From Passes & Poorts: Getaway’s top 30 scenic mountain routes in the Western Cape by Marion Whitehead.

We decided to take a drive from George to the little village of Herold on the other side. It is a popular road for both motorcyclists and mountain bikers, as well as a small amount of motor vehicle traffic. The Sunday we drove up the pass was a beautiful, clear and sunny winter’s day. We froze in the sections which are in the shadows of the mountains, and got hot 0n the slopes exposed to the sun.

[A map of the area and the four passes can be seen here.]

Where we were heading - the Outeniqua Mountains with the old Toll-house in the foreground. ©2011 LB/

During the construction of the Montagu Pass, in about 1847, a stone toll-house, with a thatched roof, was erected on the George side of the mountain. According to a proclamation in the Government Gazette of 24 February 1848, a toll-gate was set up, and a tariff of tolls publicised. Upon payment of the prescribed fee the toll-keeper would raise the bar across the road to enable the vehicle or animal to pass.

In the Government Gazette dated 16 July 1867, the toll-tariffs were:

  • Each wheel of a vehicle – two pence;
  • Animal drawing a vehicle – one penny;
  • Animal not drawing a vehicle – two pence;
  • Sheep, goat or pig – one halfpenny.

All tolls were abolished on 31 December 1918, but thanks to the fact that it was declared a National Monument in 1970, this interesting relic of the last century has been saved for posterity.

**From Montagu Pass, and other passes over the Outeniqua Mountains by Helena Marincowitz.

The Toll-house up close. ©2011 LB/

Today the Toll-house stands neglected with doors and windows secured with steel bars and sheeting. Presumably to stop people from getting in and vandalizing it. There is now a project underway to restore the Toll-house and create a museum and information center.

Plants starting to grow from between the stones of the Toll-house. ©2011 WMB/

Montagu Pass was the first properly engineered route over the Outeniqua Mountains and it took four years to build, using convict labour. About 9 kilometres of solid bedrock had to be blasted out with gunpowder (dynamite was not yet available) to provide gradients suitable for ox wagons. Gunpowder was expensive, however, and the low-cost option of building fires over large boulders, then throwing cold water on them to make them crack, was often used.

Low dry-stone packed walls were constructed along the edge of the road and still provide protection from the dizzying drops into the ravine below.

*From Passes & Poorts: Getaway’s top 30 scenic mountain routes in the Western Cape by Marion Whitehead.

So this was another South African pass built using convict labour. “About 250 convicts were employed at any given time on the construction of the pass. Total expenses for the construction of the Montagu Pass amounted to £35, 799 of which no less than £1,753 was spent on gunpowder. “**

Marks left by the drills which were used to force the rocks apart and position explosives. ©2011 WMB/

Even though it is still winter here, we found indigenous plants like this Erica flowering all along the pass. ©2011 LB/

The beautifully built bridge over the Keur River which flows through the pass. This is also a National Monument. ©2011 LB/

A close-up of the Keur River bridge. ©2011 LB/

What looked like a missing rock in the wall of the bridge, is in fact a drainage hole. ©2011 WMB/

This warning sign should be heeded! Big rocks sometimes get dislodged (especially in wet weather) and go tumbling into the ravine below on the left hand side. ©2011 LB/

One of two overhanging rocks along the pass. It's not possible to see it at this angle, but the road is very narrow at this point, and anything bigger than a normal vehicle runs the risk of getting stuck here. ©2011 LB/

An old, still upright tree decaying as mosses, fungi and insects invade it. ©2011 WMB/

We leapfrogged with three cyclists all the way up the Montagu Pass. They would pass us when we stopped to take photos, we would pass them again on very steep inclines. At this point they had perspiration dripping off them as they tackled the steepest hill. ©2011 WMB/

The mountain biking sites say that the Montagu Pass is a moderately difficult ride. A comment from Willie (who trains on this pass!) about cycling up the Montagu Pass:

Cycling Montagu pass is one of the nicest MTB training rides in the area. The lack of single track is more than made up by the scenic climb and then the high-speed descent is a good test of the break maintenance on your bike – resulting in a total adrenal rush. The pass is 6.5 km from the town of George and the ascent is 4.5 km with a 510m (1673 feet) climb. You need to maintain a steady cadence up the pass, at about the 75% mark the gradient increases and you have to go down to “granny gear”. Beyond this section the going gets easier and you can decide if you want to carry on past the small town of Herold or return to George. Do not miss this ride when you are in the area!

The beautiful Outeniqua mountains. I don't know the geological processes involved in forming these slopes and valleys, but in certain light it looks like the mountains are covered in green velvet. ©2011 LB/

The name Outeniqua is derived from the Khoi-Khoi word meaning “people carrying bags of honey”. According to the reports left by early travellers the slopes of the emerald-green mountains were covered with heather and swarming with bees.

Extract from “Montagu Pass, and other passes over the Outeniqua Mountains” by Helena Marincowitz. 

Because of the fact this area is a nature reserve they still are covered with heather and swarming with bees – and birds.

In parts the Montagu Pass come close to and crosses under the Railway Pass.

The huge arches of the railway bridge. ©2011 LB/

In the photograph below the Montagu Pass winds its way up the left hand mountain (not seen in photo), while the new Outeniqua Pass can be seen cutting into the right-hand mountain.

View from "Amanda's Grave". Near the top of the pass, you come to a point when you can look through a gap in the mountains, across the farmlands of the coastal plateau, to the sea beyond. This photograph doesn't do the view justice. ©2011 LB/

Amanda's Grave: The story goes that Amanda's husband decided to bury her ashes where he had once proposed to her. A romantic to the end! He later joined her there. ©2011 WMB/

With the pass behind we drove on to the little town of Herold. On one of the farms, the fireplace and chimney - all that is left of the cottage that once stood there. ©2011 WMB/

An old (disused?) farm cottage. ©2011 WMB/

The church in Herold. Although the village itself is very small - a couple of houses, a shop and a guest house - the church serves all the nearby farms. ©WMB/

An unexpected splash of colour - the first Spring flowers. ©LB/

Also see: A drive to Hell and back

Information Sources:

  1. * Passes & Poorts: Getaway’s top 30 scenic mountain routes in the Western Cape by Marion Whitehead.
  2. ** Montagu Pass, and other passes over the Outeniqua Mountains by Helena Marincowitz.
  3. Website: From Getaway Magazine: Passes & Poorts: gateway to the Garden Route
  4. Website: Exploring The Magnificent Montagu Pass

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Categories: Lifestyle/Travel, Nature/Environment


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at and (my photoblog)


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32 Comments on “Montagu Pass – a scenic trip back in time”

  1. August 4, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    Hard work, labor, majestic beauty, fragile beauty, nostalgia, finance, spiritual things, adventure and romance…all in one post. Absolutely beautiful job from the heart.

    • August 5, 2011 at 7:17 am #

      Thank you! I really managed to pack everything into one post didn’t I? 🙂 I always love the things I discover when I start researching a place. You forget that it had a history long before you came there.

    • August 5, 2011 at 8:03 am #

      Forgot to say that I added the link to another mountain pass post after you read this one. It’s about the Swartberg Pass – the link is: . If you don’t have time to read it, just look at the photos. There are some really amazing rock formations there.

  2. August 4, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    Mountain passes are some of my favourite drives! We did the lovely one between Ceres and Welligton (a section of the R301 also a national monument) and another between Barrydale and the R324.

    By the way, have you ever heard of Geocaching ( I think you’d enjoy it…

    • August 5, 2011 at 7:20 am #

      Hi Tara! Thanks for coming by and leaving a message. Also for the passes recommendations. We are going to try and visit as many of the passes in the Western Cape as we can.

      Somebody mentioned Geocaching the other day (they had just discovered it), I just haven’t had a chance to check it out yet.

  3. Lu
    August 4, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

    Beautiful post Lisa! The mountain passes are wonderfully majestic. I’m in awe of the engineers of the past, having to work with such basics and yet their legacies live on despite the ravages of time.

    • August 5, 2011 at 7:30 am #

      Thank you Lu! Yes, I’m also amazed by the skill of the engineers back then. What vision and skill they had! And they built those passes to last – no shoddy workmanship back then. One thing I’m discovering through visiting all the passes, is that I really like rocks and rock structures. 🙂

      • Lu
        August 5, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

        hmmm… so we’ll make an honorary geologist out of you yet!! 😉

      • August 6, 2011 at 9:30 am #

        LOL You never know! 😉 My father worked on the gold mines when he first came to South Africa, and had to study some geology. When we were travelling around he’d always point stuff out to me. So I think my interest started there.

  4. August 4, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    This was such a wonderful, detailed, well-written post – love the photos and the descriptions and the detail. It makes me want to explore this place the next time we travel through that area.

    • August 5, 2011 at 8:11 am #

      Thanks Reggie! Willie did some research and found all the interesting links for me. 🙂 It’s really worth taking a drive up this pass, instead of taking the Outeniqua Pass to Oudtshoorn. Takes a little longer – especially if you stop to look at things and take photos – but it’s definitely got more character than the modern passes.

      • May 22, 2017 at 9:02 pm #

        Hello Lisa!

        We finally got around to driving the first section of the pass around Easter this year (2017). We had come down the Outeniqua Pass from Oudtshoorn, and decided to fit in a brief there-and-back detour on our way to Stormsriver Village.

        We made it as far as the ‘Old Smithy’, where we thought it prudent to do a u-turn, as we didn’t know whether we’d find another spot higher up that would be wide enough. What an intriguing pass this is! It was heavily corrugated in places, so very slow going.

        I wish we had had time to drive the entire pass – next time! And I’ll give you some advance warning of when we’re in the area, so perhaps we could meet up? 🙂

      • May 28, 2017 at 10:33 am #

        Hi Reggie!

        Sorry for the slow response. It would be lovely to meet up with you and Richard sometime. Will send you an email soon. 🙂

  5. August 4, 2011 at 11:27 pm #

    What a beautiful area. Thank you for giving us so much information. It makes me want to go there.

    • August 5, 2011 at 8:13 am #

      Thanks Debra! I’m glad to hear that you like our part of the world too. 🙂

  6. August 5, 2011 at 5:14 am #

    Wow–what a stunningly beautiful place! Amazing. I don’t know though that I’d be up or biking on those mountains. My muscles burn just thinking about it!

    • August 5, 2011 at 8:16 am #

      I’m with you, Kathy! I would still contemplate walking up the pass, but biking looks like way too much for me. Those guys we met look super fit!

  7. August 5, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    Great photos, Lisa and Willie!

    Thanks for the factual summary of the pass’s history, Lisa! I love the “old world” charm of these passes – just look at that bridge over the Keur River.

    I know we live in a modern era, but it’s just sad that the “natural look” went out of style. I guess it takes too much time and/or is too expensive for projects these days.

    • August 5, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      Thanks Riekie! As you can see from the photos there’s not too much difference between the two cameras – just the one operator (LB) is MUCH better! 😉

      I loved the Keur River bridge too – we have lots of photos of that! Obviously building methods and materials have changed, but the stone-work on those old passes is amazing.

  8. Sarita Botha
    August 5, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    Ok! Now I really miss home. Every time I see photos of all the familiar spots, I want to come back.

    Lovely post.

    • August 5, 2011 at 10:33 am #

      That’s my evil plan . . . to lure you back to the Southern Cape again! 😉

  9. Sarita Botha
    August 5, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    Oh, you’re really evil!

  10. jacquelincangro
    August 5, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    Thank you for this tour, Lisa. I loved it, especially the view from Amanda’s grave.
    What a stunning site.

    I don’t think you’d find me pedaling up those hills though. They look pretty steep! 🙂

    How far is this from where you live?

    • August 6, 2011 at 9:21 am #

      Yes, the views from Amanda’s grave are stunning. That coastal plateau is about 15 km (9.3 miles) wide at that point and is largely hidden by the mountains in front. So that gives you an idea of how far you can see from that point. The start of the pass is very close to where we live – maybe a 20 minute drive. We live very close to the mountains. 🙂

  11. August 9, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Did you really take those pictures? So not only can you make a beautiful blog, you take the most phenomenal pictures, they look fake. That is the most beautiful scenery I have seen in a while. Makes me want to travel. Great post.

  12. August 10, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    This looks like a beautiful drive. You and Willie took some great photos as well! I always like reading your posts, Lisa. You should be writing for a travel magazine about South Africa!

    • August 23, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

      I’m glad that you like the photos. I was actually testing a new compact camera and was pleased to see that the quality of the shots were as good as the bigger camera which Willie was using. Although as I found out in the Kalahari – it’s limited to things which are relatively close. Thanks for the compliment, but I’m still not quite up to the standard of the South African travel mags. This is one of the ones that we read:

  13. March 17, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    Great photos, I am driving along the pass with clients tomorrow and I now have some interesting facts to share with them. Thanks Lisa.

    • March 18, 2013 at 6:22 am #

      Hi Clive! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I still want to get hold of a copy of the Passes & Poorts book by Marion Whitehead. Another very interesting pass is of course the Swartberg Pass. I wrote about that here:

      Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment! 😉

  14. February 1, 2014 at 8:20 am #

    Hi Lisa, I am travelling over Montagu Pass again today with more clients, I always refer them to your blog and they so enjoy reading it, thank you from my Americans guests.


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