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.
What’s your favourite mountain pass in the Cape? Perhaps your favourite isn’t listed here, in which case we’d love to know about it! Either way, let us know in the comments below.
1. Tradouw Pass
The Road R324
Distance from CT 3 hours
Nearest town Barrydale
Found along the route between Barrydale and Swellendam, this 17km drive takes you through some of Langeberg’s most beautiful, natural terrain. 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.
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”.
2. Chapman’s Peak Drive
The road M6
Distance from CT 30 minutes
Nearest town Cape Town
One of the most scenic drives in the world, let alone South Africa, Chapman’s Peak Drive is a must-visit attraction for visitors to the Cape, offering views that locals never tire of. On one side, the mountain face forms an impenetrable wall of rock, while on the other, the mountain drops away sharply before the vast ocean. It epitomises Cape Town’s unique geographical qualities.
As you follow the coastal road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek, you’ll pass rugged mountains, pristine white-sand beaches and vibrant fishing harbours. It truly is a marvel of engineering, having been effectively carved out of the mountain face over the course of its seven-year construction, which was ordered by Sir Nicolas Frederick de Waal (the Cape’s first administrator).
Since its opening in 1922, it has undergone several phases of redevelopment in order to improve efficiency and safety (rock falls and landslides have caused several tragic incidents in the past), and in 2004 it received a civil-engineering excellence award for rock-fall protection.
Look out for the picnic sites located at various points along the drive. They include tables and seating, with spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean stretching out below.
Fun fact It’s named after John Chapman, the captain’s mate of an English ship that sailed into what is now Hout Bay in 1607. Chapman was sent ashore to find provisions, and recorded the bay as Chapman’s Chaunce, little knowing it would one day be the location of one of the world’s most famous roads.
Cost Chapman’s Peak Drive is a toll road, and as such requires as tariff of R47 for light motor vehicles (special tariffs are available for owners of a SANParks Wild Card).
The Chapman’s Peak Day Pass grants free access to the section of the road stretching from the Hout Bay entrance to the Day Pass Control Unit (about a 2.7 kilometer drive), allowing members of the public to visit the picnic areas and viewing points without having to pay a toll. It is only valid during daylight hours.
Important note Chapman’s Peak Drive may be closed during severe weather, or as a result of road maintenance. Contact the customer service line (021 791 8220) or visit their facebook page to check the current status.
3. Bainskloof Pass
The Road R301/3
Distance from CT 1.5 hours
Nearest town Wellington
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 masterpass 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.
Declared a National Monument in 1980, Bainskloof Pass lies within a nature heritage site, and is part of the Limietberg Nature Reserve.
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 1854, 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.
4. Franschhoek Pass
The road R45
Distance from CT 1 hour 10 minutes
Nearest town Franschhoek
The lush meadows and vineyards of the Franschhoek Valley spread out beneath you as you traverse this masterfully engineered mountain pass. From this vantage point, you’re able to gaze out upon the oasis of greenery surrounded by mountains, wondering what the earliest settlers – whether San, Khoi or Huguenot – must have thought when they first stumbled upon this hidden piece of paradise.
Look out for The entrance to the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve, which is accessed from the Franschhoek Mountain Pass. Here, you can hike one of the many trails that pass by flourishing fynbos fields and tranquil mountain streams (which are usually in full flow in winter), while offering spectacular views of the mountain and valley.
Fun fact Franschhoek Pass was originally known as Olifantshoek (“Elephants Corner”). Believe it or not, the mighty giants once roamed this region, and would cross these very mountains at the change of seasons.
5. Du Toitskloof Pass
The road R101
Distance from CT 1.5 hours
Nearest town Paarl
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.
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.
6. Helshoogte Pass
The road R310
Distance from CT 50 minutes
Nearest town Stellenbosch
Winding its way between the Simonsberg and Hottentots Holland mountain ranges, this pass links the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek winelands. The road leads you past lush meadows and rugged mountains, as well as several illustrious wine estates, before descending towards the charming village of Pniel (if you’re coming from the Stellenbosch side).
Look out for the remains of the old Banhoek Pass, which was replaced by the Helshoogte Pass and can now only be accessed by foot or bicycle. Back in the day, the Banhoek Valley was a dangerous region where travellers often fell prey to wild animals and bandits.
Fun fact The scenic village of Pniel, in addition to being the gateway to the Franschhoek Valley, also has deep historical significance. It was established in 1842 as a mission settlement for emancipated slaves (the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had abolished slavery throughout the British Empire).
7. Hex River Pass
The Road N1
Distance from CT 2 hours
Nearest town De Doorns
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.
Insider tipThe 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 fact 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.
8. Michells’ Pass
The road R46
Distance from CT 2 hours
Nearest town Ceres
The work of Charles Michell, one of the Cape’s most accomplished military engineers, for whom the pass is named. He 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.
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 toll house), 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.
Important note 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.
9. Dasklip Pass
The road R44
Distance from CT 1 hour and 40 minutes
Nearest town Porterville
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.
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.
10. Cogmanskloof Pass
The road R62
Distance from CT 2 hours
Nearest town(s) Montagu and Ashton
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.
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.
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.
11. Kaaimans River Pass
The road N2
Distance from CT 5 hours
Nearest town(s) George and Wilderness
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.)
Look out for 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.
Important note 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.
12. Swartberg Pass
The road R328
Distance from CT 5 hours
Nearest town(s) Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn
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.
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.
Please note Due to heavy floods that washed away parts of the pass earlier this year, the road will only be open during ‘safe’ weather conditions. Best to call Cape Nature Oudtshoorn beforehand on 044 279 1739 to find out whether the pass is open. Repair works are underway, so expect stop/go controls along the way.
13. Clarence Drive
The road R44
Distance from CT 1.5 hours
Nearest town Gordons Bay
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.
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.
14. Akkedisberg Pass
The road R326
Distance from CT 2 hours
Nearest town(s) Riviersonderend and Stanford
A scenic coastal route that allows passage between the peaceful farming town of Riviersonderend and the vibrant Stanford Village.
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.
15. Matroosberg Pass
The road The Matroosberg Pass is an off-road 4×4 trail, and can be accessed from Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve, which is located on Bo-Swaarmoed Road off the R46
Distance from CT 2 hours 15 minutes
Nearest town Ceres
Why drive around a mountain when you can drive up one? Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve – located on a working protea and fruit farm – is an adventurer’s paradise, with hiking trails, camping sites and one of South Africa’s most famous 4×4 trails.
Follow the 30 kilometre road through rugged mountain terrain and rock formations, ending at the Matroosberg Peak which, at 2 230 metres above sea level, is the highest peak in Boland. If you’re up for it, you can then take a short walk from your vehicle to the true summit at 2 250 metres.
Look out for The large clearing just before the summit. It’s the perfect spot a picnic, though beware the dreaded frost giants who lurk in these parts (that last bit was made up).
Good to know It’s worth making a weekend of it, so you can explore the many other attractions that Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve has to offer, which include hiking trails, quad-biking, abseiling and secluded accommodation options such as Goatherds House and Lakeside House.
Important note The reserve turns into a winter wonderland in the colder months, when it is bedecked in a white carpet of snow and beset by blizzards. Though this makes it a popular destination for those seeking a secluded winter getaway, it makes conditions very challenging for 4x4s, so those hoping to traverse the mountain road are advised to do so in warmer months.
Fun fact The name Matroosberg translates as “sailor mountain”, and refers to a rock formation visible from the south side of the mountain that is said to resemble a sailor standing beside his ship.
Cost Matroosberg is a private reserve and thus requires a permit, which can be obtained at the reserve. R250 (vehicles); R55 (adults); R35 (children, 3 – 13 years)
Contact Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve: 023 312 2282 (office), 073 194 0885 (duty officer), firstname.lastname@example.org
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
Researched by Matthew Flax, Nikki Benatar, and Annabel Short
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