23 February 2013
“We’re going to cross the Cape Fold Mountains today,” announced Reggie on the afternoon of Saturday, 23 February 2013. “We’ll be driving over Du Toit’s Kloof Pass to the small town of Rawsonville on the other side. One of the farms in the Breedekloof Valley is hosting a picnic concert by a well-known South African singer, Sonja Herholdt.”
“Ooh! So we’ll be having a picnic while listening to some music by a South African singer?!” I asked.
“Yep. After all, that was one of the items on your Exciting Wishlist, wasn’t it, Flat Kathy?”
“It sure was!” I exclaimed happily.
Reggie, Aunty Karin and I finished packing ingredients for a salad and assorted snacks and drinks into two cooler bags, while Richard was stowing away a couple of fold-up chairs and a picnic blanket into the boot of the car. At last, everything was ready, and we set off for the mountains.
Reggie allowed me to sit on her lap so that I had a good view of our surroundings.
“When you look at a map of South Africa, and specifically the area around Cape Town and a little bit inland from there,” began Reggie, putting on her Tour Guide Hat, “you can clearly see the mountain ranges that form a semi-circle around the South-Western Cape. These mountains are known as the Cape Fold Mountains or the Cape Fold Belt.”
“They run from the sea at False Bay, where they are called the Helderberg mountains, northwards via the Stellenbosch mountains, the Drakenstein mountains, the Winterhoek mountains and the Olifants River mountains, to the Cederberg mountains in the north. Another branch of the Cape Fold Mountains also goes all along the southern coast towards Port Elizabeth in the east.”
“Which ones are we crossing now?” I interrupted, curious.
“We’re going over the Du Toit’s mountains,” she replied. “Actually, the old road goes over the pass, but there is also a tunnel, which goes straight through the mountains; this is the Huguenot Tunnel. We’re going to drive over the pass now, so that you can admire the view – it’s quite spectacular – and when we drive back tonight, we’re going to drive through the tunnel, because it’ll be too dark to see anything anyway.”
We were driving on the N1, which is the main national road that links Cape Town to Johannesburg. It was rather funny to think that, if we were to continue driving along this road, we would reach the huge city of Johannesburg in the far northeast of the country, about 1400 km away!
“When the first European settlers arrived in South Africa – do you remember when that was, Flat Kathy?” Reggie asked, nudging me out of my reverie.
“Ohh! Yes! I remember! You told me all about that when we visited the Castle – it was Jan van Riebeeck who arrived at the Cape in 1652, wasn’t it?”
“Very good! Yes, he was Commander of the Cape from 1652 to 1662,” she smiled at me fondly. “Now imagine what it must have been like when the first European settlers arrived at the Cape. No national highway or even tarred roads, no bridges, no houses, no infrastructure – just wild and untamed countryside, covered in trees and shrubs and grasses, with rivers that had to be crossed…”
“Those old explorers must have been very hardy folk,” I remarked.
“They sure were, Flat Kathy,” nodded Reggie. “They didn’t have cars either in those days, so they travelled on foot, or on horseback, or with pack donkeys, or ox wagons. Imagine how difficult it must have been to find, never mind construct a safe road across inhospitable terrain with very limited equipment, and without reinforced concrete, among other things!”
We had reached the foothills of the Du Toit’s Mountains, which loomed up in front of us. The mountains looked very rugged, as though they had been folded by powerful tectonic forces. Richard followed the signs to the start of the scenic Du Toit’s Kloof Pass road.
“Why are we turning off the N1?” I asked, bewildered. “I thought we’re going over the pass?”
“Yes, we are,” chuckled Richard. “But we’re taking the old pass road across; tonight, we’ll come back on the toll road, which goes through the Huguenot tunnel.”
Reggie continued: “When these travellers set off to explore the interior of the country, they were faced with this massive barrier of rugged mountains. During Van Riebeeck’s days, three possible crossing places were identified: in the south, Sir Lowry’s Pass through the Hottentots Holland mountains near Somerset West; in the north-east, the Roodezand Pass (now Nuwekloof Pass) into the Tulbagh valley; and even further north, the Piekenierskloof Pass (Grey’s Pass) across the mountains near Citrusdal.”
“What about this pass? Wasn’t it one of the three?”
“No, it wasn’t. Actually, Flat Kathy, Du Toit’s Kloof Pass was only built as a proper road for vehicles around 1940, so it’s a very young road,” Reggie explained.
“But the pass itself had been in use for centuries already – by cattle and wild animals, who crossed from one side of the mountains to the other. A farmer by the name of Joshua Joubert built a road through the kloof in 1738, and petitioned the government for permission to charge a toll for passing travellers and their animals, which would have allowed him to maintain and improve the road. Permission wasn’t granted. Over the years, several attempts were made to build a proper road across the mountains, but the costs were always regarded as prohibitively high, and so nothing happened.”
“That’s until an intrepid engineer by the name of P.A. de Villiers surveyed Du Toit’s Kloof in 1940,” Reggie told me. “He had promoted the idea of building this road for a number of years already, and suggested that a tunnel should be built through the mountain, as this would reduce the distance considerably.”
“But in 1940, South Africa was still at war – the Second World War had just started – and the government had other priorities. Apart from that, many of the road builders and engineers had volunteered for military service, and thus weren’t available. In 1941, however, a large group of Italian prisoners of war began working on the pass road.”
“I’ll read to you what it says on this website,” said Reggie:
‘a temporary POW camp was built in Klein Drakenstein to accommodate about 500 men (some sources say 1,500 POWs). The POWs lived there until they were expatriated at the end of the war. Before returning to Italy in 1945 four of the POWs erected a T-shaped wooden cross on Huguenot Buttress overlooking the pass to commemorate their stay in the Drakenstein Valley. Local farmers in turn agreed to maintain the cross in their memory. The Italian Cross as it is known today has since been replaced with one of stainless steel.’
“Can we go and see the Italian Cross, Reggie?” I asked, intrigued.
“Unfortunately not,” Reggie shook her head. “You’d need to climb the mountain, and it’s quite a steep climb. I believe it’s called the Miaspoort Trail. But we’ll stop at one of the viewing sites, to have a look at the memorial plaque.”
“At one particularly challenging and dangerous section of the road, known as the Kleygat Nose – or the Clay Hole Nose in English – the engineers decided to construct a 222-metre tunnel,” said Reggie. “The old pass road still goes through this. You’ll see it just now. There’s a funny story about this tunnel.”
“Oh? Will you tell me?”
“Yes,” she laughed. “It is said that the road tunnel that was built by an engineer by the name of M.C. Vos was excavated in 3 months by a crew that had never before constructed a tunnel! But – apparently – Vos had bought and studied a book before his crew started work!”
“That is a funny story. Is it true?”
“I don’t know,” shrugged Reggie, smiling. “It says so in a book I have on my shelf. I’ll show it to you later.”
Richard pulled off the side of the road at one of the viewing sites, and pointed out the toll road, which was clearly visible in the valley below us, until it suddenly disappeared inside the mountain!
“That’s the Huguenot Tunnel, Flat Kathy,” indicated Richard. “This tunnel shortens the road by 11 km, which considerably speeds up travel times and reduces traffic congestion. It was constructed around 1988, and I think it’s about 4 km long. We’ll be driving through the tunnel on our way home tonight.”
I had really enjoyed our drive across the Du Toit’s Kloof Pass – it is a lovely scenic road with amazing views.
* Much of the information about the history of this pass comes from the excellent book by Graham Ross, The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes (2002), in which he writes about 50 of the more than 490 mountain passes in the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape.
* An interesting article about the history of this pass can be found here: http://www.historywebs.co.za/articles/dutoitskloofpass.html.