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...