Well known 4×4 trainer and personality Jacqui Ikin recently swapped her Jeep Wrangler for a more suave Fiat Fullback double cab – and went exploring four mountain passes in the Western Cape, all a proverbial rock’s throw from the Mother City.
The infamous Chapman’s Peak, snaking along the ocean with breathtaking views, is one of those ‘been there, done that’ passes in the Western Cape. Most people have done it. Visiting the region in a Fiat Fullback, I was keen to experience some alternative historical routes and passes in the area. So we aimed for Clarence Drive, Franschhoek Pass, Du Toit’skloof Pass and Bain’skloof Pass.
Clarence Drive (technically the R44) hugs the Cape coastline between Gordon’s Bay and Rooi-Els, a distance of around 22km. It is located near the Kogelberg Biosphere, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considered one of the finest examples of mountain fynbos in the Western Cape, it is home to approximately 1 800 plant species, 150 of which are endemic. During the winter whale-watching season, Clarence Drive is a favourite spot to watch the giants of the deep frolicking in the ocean below. Jack Clarence (after whom Clarence Drive was named) was responsible for replacing the footpath between Gordon’s Bay and Rooi Els with a proper road. With the help of Italian prisoners of war during World War 2, this road was built primarily to service the radar stations at Stony Point (Betty’s Bay) and at Hangklip.
In 1998, the road was upgraded, and remains in beautiful condition. We entered onto Clarence Drive close to Gordon’s Bay. We dropped in at the Yacht Club to take in the sights, and then continued on our way. Leaving Gordon’s Bay, if you know where to look for it, there is a road known as the “Steenbras Mountain Road”, which leads off the R44 up to the Steenbras Dam in the Hottentots-Holland Mountain Catchment Area. This is the only pass in South Africa that has a hairpin bend in excess of 180 degrees. Built in the 1940s to service the water filtration plant near the top of the mountain, you can no longer get all the way to the dam (closed to the public). However, the view over False Bay at Steenbras Lookout Point near the boom gate is simply spectacular. We stopped for a while here, enjoying the scenery and, the most delicious, juicy Cape yellow cling peaches.
Back on the R44, I suggested taking the time to stop in at Stony Point Nature Reserve in Betty’s Bay, home to the endangered African Penguin (or ‘Jackass penguin’ as it is more often known, courtesy of its donkey-like bray). This is one of the largest successful breeding colonies in the world, and you can view them going about their daily business, without disturbing them, by taking a stroll along the boardwalk though the colony. Although the road is in beautiful condition, expect to average less than 40km/h. Beyond stopping to appreciate the impressive scenery, this pass contains over 70 bends and corners (four of which are in excess of 150 degrees), which makes overtaking difficult.
The drive is simply breathtaking. Although the road only ever reaches a height of about 125m above sea level, the sheer scale of the mountains above the road is staggering. Towering mountains on one side, the rugged coastline and glittering False Bay on the other; a truly worthwhile drive.
On the way to this pass we drove past the Theewaterskloof Dam, creatively named after the tea-coloured water that abounds in many of the mountain rivers. The water level was ominously low and the dead trees in the dam were almost completely exposed, a reminder of just how much this part of our country needs the rain. The Franschhoek Pass, located in the UNESCO- declared Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve, boasts exceptional views over the whole valley. About 150 years ago this pass (previously Lambrechts Road) was known as Olifantshoek (or Elephant’s Corner) Pass.
In those days, the only route through the mountains to the interior was a track created by migrating elephants. This narrow and steep path was also followed by herdsman and, in later years, by settlers on horseback. In 1822, Lord Charles Somerset ordered that a pass to be built. The soldiers of the Royal Africa Corps undertook the task, under the command of Major Holloway. This beautiful pass became South Africa’s first properly engineered road. This pass also includes the bridge at Jan Joubert’s Gat. Built in 1825, it is technically the oldest single-span stone-arch bridge in South Africa still in use (fresh concrete was later laid on top of the old bridge to support the new road). It is rumoured that this spot was named after a frontiersman who died after an accident in which the disselboom of Jan’s wagon broke. It is located in a very pretty spot and it’s worth taking the time to stop and walk along the bank of the stream, then down the stone steps to see the original bridge. It was declared a national monument in 1979.
You reach the summit of this pass at 739m, where a small gravel road leads off to the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve, and from there it’s downhill all the way to Franschhoek. This quaint little spot has an unlimited number of attractions, but if you’re even vaguely interested in cars, the Franschhoek Motor Museum at L’Ormarins is well worth a visit. Representing over 100 years of motoring history, the collection exceeds 220 vehicles, more than 80 of which are on display at any given time (they change).
Our second day of exploring passes dawned hazy with the smoke of runaway fires in the Somerset West area. Luckily, we were heading out on the N1 towards Dutoitskloof and Bainskloof passes and were hopeful that the air would clear somewhat as we got closer to our destination. We drove the old Dutoitskloof Pass from the southern side, passing Paarl on the N1, taking the left hand exit just before the toll, and driving approximately 60m before turning immediately right which is the starting point (follow the signs for the R101).
The old pass is 11km longer than the new N1 route, and summits at over 800m. It was named after a 17th century Huguenot pioneer named Francois du Toit who settled in the lower reaches of the mountains (Kleinbosch farm). Originally only a cattle track, the path developed into a wagon road as the area became more settled. In 1940, after numerous failed attempts, it was finally decided that a road should be built through Du Toit’s Kloof following a survey by the government engineer, PA de Villiers. Construction began in 1941 when fate intervened and thousands of Italian prisoners of war were detained at Worcester, around 1 500 of whom were ‘usefully employed’ to build the pass. After hostilities ceased in 1945, and the Italian prisoners were repatriated, paid local labourers completed the task in 1948.
A commemorative cross was erected on a high peak in 1945 and (after being replaced several times due to weathering) is still there today. Expect to travel much slower than you would on the N1 route, firstly because of the terrain; and second, the trucks, which rumble along at inappropriate speeds, either uphill at a crawl or careening down the hills. This route is worth choosing if you have some time on your hands to appreciate the grandeur of the mountains, the views over the Paarl valley, and the elegantly constructed tunnel, built in a time when World War II was busy changing the world. As you drive along this pass, and observe the sheer scale of the mountains and precipices, you can understand why, after surveying the kloof, South Africa’s master pass builder Andrew Geddes Bain decided early on that it would be too expensive to build (he then went on to build Bainskloof Pass – our next destination).
After completing Dutoitskloof Pass, we continued along the N1, eventually turning left on to the Slanghoek Road, onto the R43, and then left again onto the R301 or the Bainskloof Pass road. This route is scenic and enables you to do a circular route of these two passes. Created in the 1850s, Bains-kloof Pass is a magnificent example of Andrew Geddes Bain’s engineering prowess. Born in Scotland, he came to South Africa as a young man. He was to eventually become a trader, explorer, soldier and geologist… but was perhaps best known for his building of Cape roads and passes. Work began in February 1849, and the pass was completed by September 1853; a remarkable feat considering the terrain and the fact that it was built by convict labour using basic tools and raw materials. The pass joins the towns of Ceres and Worcester to the town of Wellington, and summits at 595m. Bain did an incredible job (as always) on this pass, which has stood the test of time and has now been declared a national monument. The speed limit is 60km/h, but rather budget on doing 40km/h to safely navigate the more than 200 bends and corners. There are numerous viewpoints along the way which are well worth the time and the scenery is magnificent.
Bainskloof Pass is part of the Limietberg Nature Reserve and was declared a national monument in 1980. Perhaps the most famous landmark on the pass is Dacres Rock (or Dacres-se-preekstoel), an enormous outcrop which protrudes into the road. This was where Reverend Dacres delivered a sermon on the opening of the pass. Another attraction is a beautiful little bridge known as Borcherd’s Bridge which crosses the stream that bisects the Wolwekloof, and it is here that Tweede Tol (second toll) is found, a Cape Nature camping and picnic site about halfway along the pass. You arrive in Bain’s Kloof village not too long thereafter, the settlement where Bain made his base camp during the construction of the pass. Set among some rocks, you will find two plaques in his honour on the side of the road. On leaving the village and descending southwards towards Wellington, we stopped at a pleasant little picnic spot, complete with the traditional South African concrete chairs and table. Contemplating our surroundings while we ate our lunch, we agreed that life was, indeed, grand.
Fiat Fullback 2.5Di-D Double Cab 4×4 LX
Engine 2 477cc, four-cylinder turbodiesel
Power 131kW @ 4 000r/min
Torque 400Nm @ 2 000r/min
Gearbox Five-speed manual (with transfer case)
Average consumption on trip 11 litres/100km
4WD system Part-time (2H, 4H and 4LOW)
Traction aids Rear differential lock
Price R468 900
Text and photography: Jacqui Ikin