The Swartberg Pass
Soft hands on the wheel, gentle pressure on the accelerator and eyes glued to the road.
As I enter the straight after the third hairpin bend on this extremely narrow gravel pass, I realize I have been holding my breath.
Exhaling, I accelerate, carry on breathing like a normal person and once again enjoy the incredible rock formations and rugged beauty of the Swartberg Pass.
Thanks to Ford South Africa, I am navigating two tons of luxury vehicle over one of the country’s most iconic passes for the launch of the Everest Sport 2.0 SiT 4X4 10AT.
Amazing facts about the Swartberg Pass
The Swartberg Pass is a national monument and often referred to as the Everest of Passes.
Officially opened in 1888, it took Thomas Bain seven years to build and is considered his finest work.
It is hard to comprehend such a pass being built without the use of any machinery.
Manual labour, mostly convicts, carved this road by hand, meter by painstaking meter. Gunpowder, pickaxes, sledgehammers, crowbars, wheelbarrows, and spades were the only tools available.
Bain used a process learned from his father, Andrew Bain, of heating boulders with fire, then dousing them with water, causing them to crack. Convicts then broke the rocks into smaller manageable pieces to be carted away or used to create the retaining walls.
In 2017 a flash flood destroyed two kilometers of road at Malvadraai. Using modern machinery and engineering, it took ten months to repair the damage. This makes the manual building of the pass even more incredible.
The Swartberg Mountains are part of the Cape Fold Mountains and the folding can be clearly seen all along the route.Mostly quarzitic sandstone, this mountain dates back to the Paleozoic Age, which was 251 to 541 million years ago. It is hard to get your head around something that old.
Driving the Swartberg Pass.
The total distance of the pass is 23,8km and packed into this are 18 tight turns, switch backs and hairpin bends, but it can be driven in any type of vehicle during good weather and dry road conditions.
While not a one way pass, there are many sections where it’s really tight for two cars to pass, and many places where passing is impossible, and reversing is required by one of the cars. Reversing in some sections of this pass is not for the faint hearted. The Everest Sport is 1,860m wide and in parts the road is under 2,5 meters wide. Fotunately we only met one car coming from the opposite direction, and it was able to pass us as we stopped and moved about a meter to one side.
There are also numerous blind corners, and the only clue that another car is coming your way is the telltale dust trail, so keep your eyes peeled. Many people recommend hooting as you approach the blind turns.
Apart from the first few kilometers, the pass is gravel, some sections are fairly smooth, others have lots of loose stones and a in a few areas there are dips and large rocks on the narrow shoulder. This is no problem for the Everest Sport with a ground clearance of 225mm, but be mindful of this if you are driving a regular sedan.
Oudtshoorn sits at 318 meters above sea level and the summit of the Swartberg Pass is 1532m. Some altitude is gained on the approach to the pass, but you are gaining about 1000 meters over 14 km, in parts the gradient is 1:9.
We did not engage any of the fancy driving modes, the Traction and Hill Descent Control are standard functions of the Everest Sport. (petrol heads you can get all those details in the link at the bottom of the page)
On the sections of road that were eroded, causing the car to judder, it stabilized almost immediately, and on one section where my speed was a tad ambitious for the conditions, the braking system, even on gravel, did the job superbly.
I was super impressed by how quiet the interior of the car was, in spite of bouncing along on loose gravel. When I drove this pass in my 2006 Fiat Panda a few years ago it was so noisy that conversation was impossible.
We were on a bit of a time trial but did manage a few stops. I would recommend the old ruins, the views at Skelmdraai, Teeberg and Die Top, and for soaking up the scene or stopping for a picnic, Eerste Water, Tweede Water, and Malvadraai are spacious and very pretty. They are also great spots for a swim in the clear mountain water.
We actually experienced six passes in 24 hours on this epic car launch.
Our diverse and scenic circular route, started and ended at George Airport. A popular, shorter version of this route is starting and ending in Oudtshoorn, the highlights being the Swartberg and Meiringspoort Passes.
We drove from George airport to Hartenbos on the N2, then via the R328 and Robinsons Pass to Oudtshoorn. This takes you through farmlands and the charming rural area of Ruiterbos.
We stayed at the elegant Victorian La Plume Boutique Guest House and Spa on the outskirts of Oudtshoorn.
We left Oudtshoorn on the R328 towards the Cango Caves and the gentle Schoemanspoort Pass which leads to the start of the beast, the Swartberg Pass. Up and over, we continued to Prince Albert, a good place to take a break and have lunch.
From Prince Albert we took the R407 via Klaarstroom, the meandering Kareedouwberg Pass and the incredibly pretty Meiringspoort Pass back to Oudtshoorn.
Then we jumped onto the N12 and the sweeping twists and turns of the Outeniqua Pass back to George and the Airport.
Swartberg Pass insider tips.
Before you go check if the pass is open. A car accident, flooding or heavy rain or wind can cause the pass to be closed off to all traffic. Three of my last five attempts to drive this pass failed due to high wind, an overturned truck and heavy rain the day before causing treacherous conditions to parts of the road.
Check weather conditions before you go, the road is tricky when wet, and can flood dangerously from heavy rain. If the pass is still open in such conditions, think twice about travelling it in a regular sedan.
Be wary of driving this pass at night. It is seriously dark, and there is almost no margin for error on the narrow road. The drops are deadly in many parts.
These peaks are often capped with snow during Winter. Dress up warmly, leave early and go and play in the snow.
Take food and water if you are the snacky type as there are no shops on the route.
It generally takes about an hour from start to finish. Due to the incredible scenery, ruins, streams and viewing points, allow about 3 hours to make the most of the experience.
On the Meiringspoort Pass, allow at least half an hour to stop at the picnic and information site.
Definitely make time to walk to the waterfall. You can thank me later.
Get all the specs or book a test drive of the Ford Everest Sport here.
Thanks to Ford South Africa for hosting me on the launch of the Ford Everest Sport, and to all the team for making it memorable, as always.
A few more pics