There are a lot of thrill-seekers who travel in search of a rush: bungee jumping, paragliding, shark-cage diving. I won’t lie – I love the incredible feeling of soaring over the coast in a hang-glider. But I’ve discovered that my favourite adrenaline rush only requires a car or a pair of good walking shoes, a steep mountain pass, and a warm sunny day.
My introduction to South Africa’s mountain passes cut right to the chase: on holiday shortly after moving here, I detoured off the R62 to Prince Albert and felt my jaw drop lower and lower as I meandered through the Meiringsport Pass from De Rust. The next morning, setting off over the Swartberg Pass, I was blown away by indescribable mountain landscapes. Growing up in the North American Rocky Mountains, nothing had prepared me for the raw features and breath-taking views of the Swartberg.
Many drivers worry that a small car won’t handle the roads into some of South Africa’s most picturesque landscapes. While a four-by-four might be necessary in many locations, finding yourself behind the wheel of the lowest class of hired car doesn’t completely limit the options. Any car with roadworthy tires and a functioning handbrake will have no trouble even with the steep gravel inclines of the Swartberg.
For those who don’t have time to travel into the Karoo, there’s no lack of gorgeous mountain drives lie closer to Cape Town. A personal favourites is just beyond Franschhoek; while passing a leisurely day in the winelands, take a detour on the R45 past Franschhoek in the direction of Villiersdorp. This winding road is well maintained and offers beautiful views of the vineyards below.
Another gem lies just off the R62 between Ladismith and Calitzdorp. A ten kilometer drive down the gravel road marked “Seweweeksport” leads to a beautiful picnic stop in the midst of soaring rock walls.
Here’s the secret to a good mountain view: leave your camera behind. You’ll never see all the beauty of the landscape through your lens, and when you upload your photos at home you’ll be disappointed in the pale colours which only hint at the gorgeous rock hues you’ve witnessed. Drink the view with your eyes and remember that when you need another look you’ll be better off taking another drive than paging through an album. The lofty mountain heights will be there to enjoy long after your photos fade.
Drive the Swartberg and Meiringsport: stay overnight in Prince Albert at Onse Rus after coming in through one pass and before leaving the next morning over the other. Enjoy a leisurely dinner of warthog shank or duck, port and black cherry pie at the Gallery Café.
Head for the Seweweeksport: From the direction of Cape Town, catch the R62 to Barrydale for a night at the Tradouw Guest House, then set off after breakfast the next morning for a picnic in the pass. Continue on to Lorenzo’s in Calitzdorp for a cup of tea in his shady garden after gazing at the sunburnt rock.
For more on passes and poorts in the Western Cape, including routes, tips and accommodation options, go to the Getaway Passes and Poorts guide.