Learn about the rich his­tory of Mon­tagu Pass – the old road be­tween George and Oudt­shoorn.

The 15 km-long Mon­tagu Pass be­tween George and Oudt­shoorn has some hair-rais­ing bends, but it’s the kind of road that re­minds you why you should al­ways try to choose a gravel road over a na­tional high­way.


Mo­ments ago I could still hear the rum­ble of traf­fic on the tarred N12 over the Outeni­qua Pass. But here on neigh­bour­ing Mon­tagu Pass – the old route through these moun­tains – it’s cool and quiet. I’m sit­ting on a stone wall on the bridge over the Keur River and mice and small an­te­lope are rustling some­where in the thick­ets. Birds sud­denly start to chat­ter. Maybe they spot­ted a boom­slang? What was it like to travel this nar­row road in the old days? Was it easy to bring your team of oxen to a stand­still when a horse cart ap­proached? Did it take a lot of sweat and swear­ing to get them mov­ing up the slope again? I’m pulled back to the present by a buzzing sound. It’s a cy­clist free­wheel­ing down the hill. It’s also time for me to carry on, but there’s no rush be­cause there’s so much to see!

For cen­turies, the Outeni­qua Moun­tains have chal­lenged road en­gi­neers. In 1689, the VOC sent a cer­tain Isaac Schri­jver to the area to buy cat­tle from the lo­cal Khoi peo­ple. He had to find a way to get from the coast to the in­te­rior where the cat­tle grazed and he spent four days hack­ing through veg­e­ta­tion to open up an ele­phant trail. This rugged route be­came the At­tak­waskloof Pass and it was used for more than a cen­tury and a half be­fore other routes – like the Voortrekker, Robin­son, Dui­wel­skop and Cradock passes – were tested. Ev­ery gorge and river course was ex­plored as farm­ers, traders and ad­ven­tur­ers sought the eas­i­est route to con­nect the Lit­tle Ka­roo and the Langk­loof with the har­bours in Mos­sel Bay and Knysna. But no route was ever ideal. Each pass was dan­ger­ous, la­bo­ri­ous to tra­verse and prone to reg­u­lar flood­ing. That is, un­til John Mon­tagu – colo­nial sec­re­tary to the Cape of Good Hope – de­cided to step in. He tasked then sur­vey­or­gen­eral William Stanger and civil en­gi­neer Charles Michell to build a new road along the course of the Keur River. Con­struc­tion started in 1844. Road in­spec­tor Henry Fan­court White was ap­pointed to over­see the pro­ject the fol­low­ing year. White was born in York­shire and had moved to South Africa with his par­ents in 1820. The pass was opened at the end of 1847 and it was a mir­a­cle: Trav­ellers could now cross the moun­tains in three hours when it had pre­vi­ously taken three days! The pass soon be­came the most pop­u­lar and pre­ferred route be­tween the in­te­rior and the ships moored at the coast. For those in Mos­sel Bay hop­ing to join the di­a­mond rush in Kim­ber­ley, the short­est route to riches was via

Mon­tagu Pass, Meir­ingspoort and Beau­fort West – at least un­til the rail­way line from Cape Town was ex­tended in­land in 1880. There was still heavy traf­fic on the pass af­ter the rail­way line ex­ten­sion, es­pe­cially from Oudt­shoorn where the os­trich feather in­dus­try boomed from 1875 to 1885, and again from 1903 un­til World War I broke out in 1914. As the rail­way net­work spread fur­ther and fur­ther from Cape Town, the en­gi­neers en­coun­tered sim­i­lar prob­lems to their pre­de­ces­sors from the pre­vi­ous cen­tury: It was nearly im­pos­si­ble to find suit­able ter­rain to lay a rail­way line from Mos­sel Bay through the moun­tains – the Mon­tagu Pass route seemed to be the only so­lu­tion. By 1907 the rail­way line had made it as far as George, but the con­trac­tor was bank­rupt. The pro­ject picked up again when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 and the South African Rail­ways com­pany was estab­lished. Con­struc­tion on the ad­ja­cent rail­way pass lasted a few more years un­til Sir David de Vil­liers Graaff cut the rib­bon on 6 Au­gust 1913. The gravel road and the rail­way line still run par­al­lel in sec­tions, sep­a­rat­ing to go through a tun­nel or over a bridge. I pull over sev­eral times to study the stonework up close. Get­ting through these moun­tains re­quired metic­u­lous plan­ning and a fair dose of con­fi­dence. Look at the new Outeni­qua Pass – the tar road that was built be­tween 1942 and 1951 west of Mon­tagu Pass through the Mal­gas River Val­ley. It has more than 40 sharp bends, each one care­fully de­signed tak­ing tra­jec­tory and gra­di­ent into ac­count. Mon­tagu Pass is an equally ex­tra­or­di­nary feat of en­gi­neer­ing, but its beauty is a lit­tle more rough around the edges. I pre­fer it that way. Next time you’re vis­it­ing the Gar­den Route, have an ad­ven­ture on the old road through the Outeni­qua Moun­tains.

BRIDGE OF SOR­ROW (bot­tom right). On 18 Au­gust 1915, the George and Knysna Herold re­ported the deaths of John Cooper from Oudt­shoorn and his mistress Alice Lee from Som­er­set East. Here, at the bridge over the Keur River, Cooper shot Lee and then him­self...

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