Magnificent Mountain Passes of the Western Cape

Magnificent Mountain Passes of the Western Cape

Image credit: Montague Tourism

Rev up your engines. These scenic drives are worth planning your entire holiday around.

Driving through a mountain pass carries with it a certain symbolism. More than just the exhilarating sense of freedom that being on the open road evokes, it’s the physical act of passing from one place into another. It’s almost as if the lie of the land echoes the state of your mind… heading towards something new and leaving something else behind…

The Cape is blessed with a glorious and diverse topography, where scenic mountain passes are as abundant as they are varied  – it’s almost worth planning your holiday around some of them, that’s how stunning they are. We’ve selected our favourites below. As always, if we’ve left any out, please let us know in the comments.

1. Tradouw Pass, R324

Cape Town Mountain Passess
Image Credit: Gurindercam

Found along the R324 between Barrydale and Swellendam, this 17km drive takes you through some of Langeberg’s most beautiful, natural terrain.
Nearest town Barrydale
Insider tip It ranks as one of South Africa’s best-tarred passes.
Look out for The Buffelsjags River Gorge, with its stunning rock pools and waterfall.
Fun fact Tradouw, derived from the Khoi word tradau, loosely translates to “the way of the women”.
For the history buffs Like so many Western Cape passes, it was built by master pass builder, Thomas Bain, and with its technical innovativeness, is considered one of Bain’s best road-engineering efforts. The pass dates back to 1840 when John Barry (after whom the Klein Karoo town of Barrydale is named) opened the harbour Port Beaufort at the Breede River’s mouth.
Distance from Cape Town Around 3 hours
TIG Reviewer Tamlyn Ryan

2. Bainskloof Pass, R301/3

bainskloof-pass
Image credit: Flickr

The most famous pass built by Scottish engineer, Andrew Bain, snakes up the R301/3 above Wellington – and is certainly a worthy memorial to the master pass builder for whom it is named.
On a clear day, you can see the distant Table Mountain and charming Cape Winelands spread out below you.
Nearest town Wellington
Insider tip The area’s great for camping and swimming in the crystal-clear river streams.
Look out for the indigenous fauna, which includes 182 bird species, otters, jackals, leopards, Cape honey badgers, various buck, and endangered frogs and fish.
Fun fact Completed in 1853, this is one of South Africa’s most picturesque and masterfully constructed passes and covers a distance of 30km, including some hair-raising turns, which make the drive even more of an eye opener.
For the history buffs Declared a National Monument in 1980, Bainskloof Pass lies within a nature heritage site, and is part of the Limietberg Nature Reserve.
Distance from Cape Town Around 1 hour
TIG Reviewer Tamlyn Ryan

3. Du Toitskloof Pass, R101

Du Toitskloof Mountain Pass
Image credit: Wikipedia

Originally used as a cattle track – called the Hawequa – the Old Road (as it’s also known) has a wonderfully rich history, dating back to before its construction during WWII. Opened in 1949, this 48km route that connects Paarl and Worcester may be 11km longer than the newer Huguenot Tunnel (N1) but it makes for a stunning, scenic road trip regardless of the season and time of day.
Nearest town Paarl
Insider tip Stop and picnic at the beautiful viewing and picnic spots overlooking the Paarl valley below.
Look out for troops of baboons that patrol the region! And, please don’t feed them.
Fun fact The pass is named after Francois Du Toit, a French Huguenot Waldensian, who settled in the Cape after fleeing religious persecution in France.
Distance from Cape Town Around 50 minutes
TIG Reviewer Tamlyn Ryan

4. Hex River Pass, N1

hex-river-pass
Image Credit: Derrick Carolin

Located between Worcester and Touws River, this pass navigates through the grape-farming town of De Doorns, and is a favourite in wintertime when the surrounding Matroosberg mountains are capped with snow.
Nearest town De Doorns
Insider tip The Hex River Valley is a picturesque valley, especially in autumn when the vine leaves create a patchwork quilt of colour.
Look out for the southern end of the pass. It has an infamous reputation for truck and bus accidents, and though barriers and arrester beds have been added, please drive slowly.
Fun facts The pass was built in 1875 and has its own railway for the Hexpas Express, a unique railway trolley that passes through the abandoned railroad and tunnel. The famous Blue Train also passes through the Hex River Valley.
Distance from Cape Town Around 2 hours
TIG Reviewer Tamlyn Ryan

5. Michells Pass, R46

michells-pass
Image credit: panoramio

The work of Charles Michell, one of the Cape’s most accomplished military engineers, for whom the pass is named.
Nearest town Ceres
Look out for A beautiful waterfall at the top of the Dwarsrivier, especially rapid during the rainy season. And don’t miss Ou Tolhuis (old tollhouse), a historical monument that houses a restaurant serving traditional rustic fair.
Fun fact The pass was widened in 1938 (just before the outbreak of World War II) due to a shortage of asphalt, but was closed in 1969 after being damaged by an earthquake. It was rebuilt soon afterwards, with superior engineering methods that made it well suited to increased traffic.
Good to know The pass has some very steep curves, particularly at the point where it crosses the railway line. Drivers should take note of the signs and adjust their speed accordingly.
For the history buffs Charles Michell arrived in in the Cape in 1828 to take up the post of surveyor-general, and proceeded to carve out an intricate network of roads that contributed significantly to the growth of the colony. His plans included this route through the Skurweberg and Witzenberg mountain ranges, granting access to the valley in which the town of Ceres would later thrive.
Distance from Cape Town Around 1 hour and 40 minutes
TIG Reviewer Matthew Flax

6. Dasklip Pass, R44

das-klip-pass
Image credit: travelbergrivier

This scenic mountain route is a paraglider’s paradise during summer, when the climate and topography provide strong thermal winds. In winter, there’s a good chance of spotting snow. The pass provides access to the idyllic town of Porterville, as well as the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness, where you can see ancient San rock paintings or go for a refreshing dip in the dam.
Nearest town Porterville
Look out for The paraglider’s launch ramp, near the summit of the mountain. From here, adrenaline junkies can ride the mountain winds down into the valley, though only experienced gliders should attempt it.
Fun fact The rare Disa uniflora grows in this region, and nowhere else in South Africa.
Distance from Cape Town Around 1 hour and 40 minutes
TIG Reviewer Matthew Flax

7. Cogmanskloof Pass, R62

cogmanskloof-pass
With its towering rock formations and enclosing mountain range, this wonderfully scenic 6.5km drive along the famous Route 62 links lesser known towns Ashton and Montagu. Famed pass builder, Thomas Bain, was assigned to its creation in 1877 after the original route was deemed dangerous due to the river crossing, and it was  opened in 1879.
Nearest town(s) Montagu and Ashton
Insider tip Due to its close proximity to the Kingna River, the pass is sometimes closed due to flooding.
Look out for The iconic tunnel – which is the only solid, unsupported rock tunnel in South Africa – and the Old English Fort, which you can climb up to.
Fun fact Montagu was called Cogmanskloof before being renamed after popular Cape Colonial secretary, John Montagu.
For the history buffs The much-loved tunnel (declared a National Monument in 1999) and the Old English Fort, built between 1899 and 1902 by stonemason William Robertson for the Second Anglo-Boer War, only add to its allure.
Distance from Cape Town Around 2 hours
TIG Reviewer Tamlyn Ryan

8. Kaaimans River Pass, N2

kaaimans-river-pass
Image credit: Panoramio

A coastal route that crosses two rivers on its way to Wilderness, the rushing Swartrivier and the calmer Kaaimans River. So named because its murky waters were believed to be the abode of crocodiles. (That said, anyone hoping to see a reenactment of Temple of Doom where Indiana Jones is dangling from a rope bridge will be disappointed – it’s more likely to have been monitor lizards that the locals mistook for fiercer reptiles.)
Nearest town(s) George and Wilderness
Don’t miss Dolphin Point, a lookout spot offering spectacular views of the Wilderness coastline, the rail bridge, and the Kaaimans River as it spills out into the ocean. It is, however, only accessible by westbound traffic (the eastbound route has its own lookout point further down).
Fun fact The pass was once the location of one of the country’s most scenic train rides, but the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe ended its run in 2009 after heavy flooding damaged parts of the line.
Good to know The pass has a reputation for causing many fatal accidents due to sharp bends and steep gradients. However, a sequence of speed traps, and a barrier separating the lanes at the route’s most dangerous curve, has significantly reduced the accident rate.
Distance from Cape Town Around 4 hours and 30 minutes
TIG Reviewer Matthew Flax

9. Swartberg Pass, R328

swartberg-mountain-pass
Image credit: African Safari

The point where the green farmlands of the Klein Karoo give way to the vast stretch of desert known as the Great Karoo reveals a great variation in the landscape and some impressive vistas. The old gravel road winds its way through the Swartberg Mountains between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn, largely avoiding steep inclines thanks to the masterful engineering of Thomas Bain.
Nearest town(s) Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn
Look out for The Wall of Fire, one of many elaborate rock formations in the Swartberg Mountains. This quartzite cliff face glows red when the sun is in the right position.
Fun fact The pass was built by a team of around 250 convicts, under the supervision of Thomas Bain. It was his final project, and in the view of many, his finest accomplishment, requiring him to utilise methods that were well ahead of his time, such as drywall construction (without cement), and the use of heat and water to break down large rocks.
Distance from Cape Town Around 5 hours
TIG Reviewer Matthew Flax

10. Clarence Drive, R44

clarence-drive
Image Credit: Steven Muskee

Considered by many travellers as one of South Africa’s most scenic coastal drives, this pass lies between Gordon’s Bay and seaside hamlet, Rooi Els. It covers 21km and includes 77 bends, curves and corners.
Nearest town Gordons Bay
Insider tip The drive is particularly beautiful before and during sunset. Flanked by dramatic coastlines and the majestic Hottentots Holland mountain range, the pass offers awesome picnic and viewing spots.
Look out for wild proteas, whales when the season is right, and keen surfers, who adore Kogel Bay (or Cool Bay) and Dappat se Gat, which are found along this route.
Fun fact There are two stone cairns along the way: one is in honour of the pass’s namesake, Jack Clarence, while the other commemorates the road’s impressive modernisation and upgrades in 1998.
Distance from Cape Town Around 50 minutes
TIG Reviewer Tamlyn Ryan

11. Akkedisberg Pass, R326

akkedisberg-pass
Image credit: roamafrica.co.za

A scenic coastal route that allows passage between the peaceful farming town of Riviersonderend and the vibrant Stanford Village.
Nearest town(s) Riviersonderend and Stanford
Look out for The wide variety of fynbos species that can be found among the meadows of the Overberg.
Fun fact The pass is one of the oldest in South Africa, dating back to 1776.
Distance from Cape Town Around 2 hours
TIG Reviewer Matthew Flax

We also rate these vrooms with views:

  • Red Hill Road (M66), Simonstown
  • Kromrivier Pass, Clanwilliam (access to Wolfberg Cracks and Arch)
  • Montagu Pass (P1640), George (oldest, unaltered pass still in use in South Africa)
  • Bakoondhoogte Pass and Leeuriviershoogte Pass, (R60), Ashton-Swellendam
  • Prince Alfred’s Pass (R339), Uniondale-Knysna

There’s so much to see in and around the Cape. Subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll keep you informed.

Disclaimer:

The Inside Guide has made every effort to ensure that the information in this post was correct at the time of publication. However, we do not assume any liability caused by errors, such as price, cost, time, and location.

Time of publication: 17 August 2016

12 Responses to “Magnificent Mountain Passes of the Western Cape”

  1. Sandra Fullerton

    Just beware that the Swartberg Pass on the Prince Albert side has been totally washed away after a cloudburst a few weeks ago. It has been closed indefinitely.

    Reply
  2. Willem Mulder

    And what about Cape Town’s most iconic pass…Chapmans Peak? Also rated as the second most scenic marine drive in the world after Clarence Drive.

    Reply
  3. Salome

    Looking for beautiful places to visit. Love bature and always have the camera ready. Can you suggest places in and around Cape Town. Thanx.

    Reply
  4. Daniel

    Another fun fact on Clarence drive is that its not just one of the most scenic passes in SA but was recently voted Most beautiful driving road in the World.

    http://www.kbrc.org.za/news/clarence-drive/

    Reply
  5. Jacques

    Drove the Tradouw pass for the first time during these December holidays, and was quite blown away. Absolutely spectacular round every bend.

    Reply
  6. Danie

    Left out Montague pass, outeniqua pass, robrertson pass, prins Albert pass. Meiringspoort, seweweekspoort pass.

    Reply
  7. angela lombaard

    I have driven 10/11 and they were wonderful!

    Reply
  8. Dean

    This is one of the treasures that need to be in the hands of all in the tourism industry. Living at the foot of the Swartberg, guests always admire the pass.

    Reply
  9. Cherith

    Meiringspoort Pass is spectacular between Beaufort west and Oudshoorn. It has a waterfall along the way in which you can dip to cool off from the drive

    Reply
  10. Cherry Crowden

    Excellent reviews! We’ve driven many on our motorbike but still there’s more to explore. This area is a biker’s utopia.

    Reply
    • Claire

      I can’t wait to do Meiringspoort on a bike… I’ve done the Meiringspoort half marathon 21.1km through it to De Rust. Driven big interlink trucks (Code14) through the pass as well as in cars. If I haven’t been able to buy or borrow a bigger bike I will be riding up on my 150cc. Determined to go through this magnificent pass on a bike. Also can’t wait to be able to explore all the other passes across South Africa on a motorbike. Been on my BikeIt List long before I got my bike . We have a gorgeous country.

      Reply
  11. Angie

    Thank you for sharing. Always interesting to learn the history of the majestic mountain passes I transversed during my many road trips in the Western Cape. Makes me want to hit the road again . . .

    Reply

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