The Swartberg range of mountains run some 230km, east/west along the southern part of South Africa and are amongst the most rugged, alluring, beautiful and inhospitable destinations in the country. They divide the Great Karoo to the north and the Little Karoo to the south and rise to a height of over 2000m above sea level. Much of the Swartberg range forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered by many to be the one of the most magnificent exposed fold mountain ranges in the world...
Crossing over these awe-inspiring mountains is the Swartberg Pass. John Tassie started work on constructing the pass in 1881 and in 13 months had built just 6km of road. Thomas Bain, who had originally surveyed the route, took over in 1883 and it was officially opened in 1888. Bain used convict labour to construct the pass and many of the dry stone retaining walls are still in existence today – 100 years later it was declared a national monument. The pass itself is about 24km long and rises to a height of 1 583m above sea level and, although, in good weather, it can be driven by pretty much any sedan, it’s not for the feint hearted – it’s narrow, steep (it reaches a maximum gradient of 1:8 in places). Justifiably, it’s an icon for those back road travellers, mountain bikers, and 4X4 enthusiasts among us.
We tackled it from Prince Albert and, rather than travelling right over the pass, elected to do an out and back ride to the highest point, a total of 42km. We based ourselves at Olienhof Cottages and Caravan Park on the outskirts of the quaint little village and our accommodation was reasonably priced, comfortable and convenient.
The day of the ride was, fortunately, overcast and cool and we set off at about 9:30, enjoying a leisurely pedal to the base of the pass – a small cleft in this massive wall of Table Mountain Sandstone. It’s quite daunting as you enter the pass, the quiet burbling of the Dorps River next to the road belying the fact that it can become a raging torrent as it has done a number of times, washing away the road. Make no error, the pass is steep and the ride gruelling. The previous day we had watched two conventional mountain bike riders retire after just a few kilometres and even with pedal assist, it’s not for sissies.
We cleared the narrow gorge, deciding that it would be silly to “push things” and nudged the power buttons to add a little more assist. Sheer cliffs rose above us, the rocky faces twisted and deformed by some pretty heavy forces about 250 million years ago. We stopped from time to time, enjoying the spectacular views, interesting plant life and some of the amazing cars of the Nuts and Bolts rally that was happening at the time. At the Teeberg viewpoint/picnic site, we stopped for a breather and a bite to eat – RaceFood bars and an apple or two, savouring the wild environment.
Something we simply had to keep an eye on were the battery reserves. Most of us were riding in the “Standard” power setting and it was chewing battery power. At this point all the displays were showing under 50% power remaining and 1 bike, around 30%. And we still had some distance to go.
The road dropped down for a few hundred metres, a welcome respite from the climbing, passing the turn-off to The Hell on the right (This would be another wonderful ride – watch this space.) and the climbing began again. Clouds and mist hung over the summit, drifting down the valleys and coating the beautiful protea flowers along the side of the road in condensation. As we reached the summit, with the last “block” on the power meter flashing (and we still had to ride back to Prince Albert!) a guy arrived on a BMW 1200 GS adventure bike. We got chatting: He had popped out from his office in Oudtshoorn for a coffee and admitted to doing the trip every week, ostensibly to buy his wife the spiced ribbetjies from the butcher in Prince Albert – we all knew though that it was the pass and the ride that was his motivation! In minutes he had his little camping stove set up and coffee on the way. We liked that!
We tackled the trip back with care. As mentioned, the pass is very steep in places and its easy for things to run away with you. We feathered the brakes all the way, sometimes using just one for a while, alternating, so that they wouldn’t overheat. We really didn’t want to loose our brakes – there are some pretty high drops and the retaining walls are occasionally very low. It was a lovely ride back to Olienhof, and, because we freewheeled much of the way, our ebike power lasted for the whole trip – nobody being more surprised than us!
Route Distance: 42km return from Prince Albert
Route Conditions: There is a little tar initially and good gravel on the pass itself. The climb is steep, as much as 1:8 in places but very rideable – you’ll be very glad that you are on an ebike! Take a GPS (and know how to use it), a mobile phone and adequate water and sustenance.
If you’d like to see more of our mountain biking photographs, click here.