By Jennifer Stern
Cape Town - I love the Garden Route, but I think what makes it special is its juxtaposition to the Karoo - the yin and yang of lush and dry, soft and hard.
And the best way to experience that duality is to drive through some of the fabulous passes that link them.
After picking up a rental Subaru in George, I dallied a bit on the coast and then headed through Baviaanskloof (that’s another story) to De Rust in the Little Karoo.
I popped in to a pretty little coffee shop for a quick breakfast and caffeine hit, but De Rust is one of those towns where everyone stops to chat, so I left for Meiringspoort much later than planned.
Built in 1858, Meiringspoort goes through the mountain rather than over it. In the first half of the 19th century the sheep farmers of the Great Karoo had to take their wool all the way to Cape Town for export. They gazed longingly at the high, steep barrier of the Swartberg - if only they could find a way through, they could export their wool from Mossel Bay.
A rough route was forged following the course of the Groot River - crossing it 25 times and creating a narrow pass or poort. It was prone to flooding, and was rebuilt in the 1920s. The drifts were replaced with concrete causeways in 1945. In 1996 the pass was flooded so badly even the resident mermaid was washed out to sea. It was rebuilt again, and the drifts were replaced by bridges, so it’s not a challenging drive.
It is beautiful. Towering sandstone mountains loom over you on both sides, and the river tinkles away below the road. There is a lovely waterfall with a picnic spot and information centre.
Once you’re out of the poort, you’re almost in the tiny hamlet of Klaarstroom. There’s not much there except some pretty houses, a recently renovated hotel, and a not-quite complete coffee shop-cum-succulents nursery-cum-performance venue. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s on hold anyway as the proprietors are shooting a movie in this tiny little dorp - watch your backs, Loxton, Mumbai, Hollywood, Cape Town and Lagos.
From there it’s a pretty uneventful drive to Prince Albert, which is possibly the foodie capital of the Great Karoo. Olives, figs and Guernsey cheese. Oh, yum.
Gaye’s Guernsey Dairy is virtually in the town - really, just at the end of the main road. And almost every establishment serves her wonderful cheese. When I got to my lovely guest house I found some fresh milk (Gaye’s, of course) in the fridge - that always earns any hotel or self-catering spot a double-gold bonus brownie point in my book.
And then - aaah - the Swartberg. A while after Meiringspoort was completed, the engineer Thomas Bain started construction of the Swartberg Pass, because - unlike Meiringspoort - it was unlikely to flood. Opened in 1888, it’s still snaking its way up, over and down the Swartberg just as Bain planned.
It’s a steep, winding road with some super-tight hairpin bends and sections with rather disconcertingly high vertical drops on the side of the not-quite-two-car-width road. But it’s so worth traversing for the incredible views of the twisted, contorted sandstone that gives the Cape Fold Mountains their name.
If you stop a while, get out of the car and just stand, you can hear the silence breathing.
The pass is an engineering masterpiece, with some of the most spectacular dry stone walls. No cement is used and the skill is in how you pack the rocks. If you do it right (and Bain did) the combination of friction and pressure makes the wall stronger, with each rock reinforcing all the others.
There are some parts of the pass where the only thing separating you from the abyss is a 13m vertical section of 120-year-old dry stone wall. All engineering students should drive through this pass, look, learn, and pay homage to The Master.
And then, after a quick descent into Oudtshoorn, I headed out on the N12, took a left turn towards Uniondale and then turned right on to the Montagu Pass. I’d saved the best for last. This is the oldest, unchanged, unrenovated, unrebuilt pass in South Africa.
Completed in 1848, it was built by that other great 19th-century road builder, Henry Fancourt-White, to replace the only link between George and Oudtshoorn, the Cradock Pass, now a hiking trail.
Once you've passed through the teensy weensy town of Herold on the Karoo side of the pass, you’re into the fynbos. Drive with your windows wide open on a sunny day and you can smell the protea nectar with a subtle base note of helichrysum. The road is narrow and twisty, but there’s not much traffic, so you don’t have to do too much negotiating over which of you is going to reverse when you meet another car.
I only met one and he was bigger than I am, so I gave in and ended up reversing about 100m.
Near the top of the pass I looked for the remains of the Smithy Shop, but all I saw was a sign saying this is where it had been. Smart move that. It’s sort of the same business model as those towing companies and backyard mechanics in tiny Karoo towns - of course, you;d pay less in Cape Town or Joburg, do you want to wait for them to come out?
The pass is only a fraction more than 7km, and probably would have been pretty quick and easy on horseback, but it must have been quite a trek with a wagon. Did oxen wear shoes? Or did the smith make a living fixing bits of wagon?
A little further on I came to the real money-spinner - the toll house. It’s a beautiful old stone building that fell into disrepair, but it is being renovated. The view is great, so a coffee shop would go down really well here. Or perhaps a shoe shop.
It’s not that I’m obsessed with shoes - for people, horses or oxen, it’s just that I found out that, when not gathering a penny for each wheel, the toll keeper made velskoens to sell to passing travellers.
While I drove slowly through the pass with relative ease, everywhere I had a reminder of what it must have been like nearly 200 years ago. What for me was an entertaining detour was once the main highway, and quite a strenuous trip.
When I got back on to the tar, something flipped in my brain. I was stuck behind a slow truck - sooooo irritating! But I was going faster than I had been on the passes. Tar does something to the way we view the world. I concluded this was because we drove on tarred roads because we had to. But we drive on gravel roads because we want to.
If you go...
You can do this route without a 4x4, but I certainly felt happier knowing the car had all its four feet firmly working to keep me on those high, twisty, narrow, potholed and somewhat corrugated gravel roads.
You can fly in to George and rent a Subaru from Action Rentals (actionrentals.co.za) 044 873 4736, 073 620 2665.
It’s a great way to do a test drive if you’re in the market for a 4x4. You can arrange that, if you buy a Subaru from Action Rentals - the car rental is deducted from the purchase price.
In De Rust, Olivier’s Rust (oliviersrust.co.za) 044 241 2258, 062 494 5567 is a green oasis of a self-catering spot, right in the village.
Or you could spoil yourself by staying a few kilometres out of town, in the unique, wildly artistic and special Oulap Country House (oulap.com), 082 829 9604.
Karoo View Cottages (karooview.co.za) 023 541 1929, 082 882 5342 are beautifully appointed self-catering cottages with a great view over Prince Albert and the surrounding Karoo.