Ladismith Passes & Poorts
Passes around Ladismith
Ladismith Passes and Poorts – The Rooiberg Conservation area covers 60 000 ha intact veld and was the first nature conservation area in the Klein Karoo. It is mountain area with deep ravines and as in a catchment area, several rivers and pools have been formed. At the low-lying areas of the pass the vegetation is succulent Karoo, changing to more mountain fynbos as the road winds to the summit. Some examples of succulents to be found are: aloe species, Cerochlamys pachyphylla (pronkvygie), Crassula alpestris (bergplakkie), Crassula columnaris (koesnaatjie), Gasteria brachyphylla (oukossie), Glottiphyllum regium (groot skilpadkos), C. carnosum (klein skilpadkos), Haworthia blackburniae, Tylecodon ventricosus (klipnenta), Portulacaria afra (spekboom). In the higher lying areas are ravines with indigenous forests, with stinkwood trees growing in some of the ravines. A wide diversity of mountain fynbos is also to be found. The scarce protea, Paranomus roodebergens, appears here, as well as in the neighbouring Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, on Sandberg at Zoar and Touwsberg in the Ladismith area.
Several mammal species occur in the area and this includes klipspringer, grey rhebuck, springbuck, duiker, grysbuck, leopards, baboons, honey-badger, wild cats, mongoose and other cat species. The black eagle as well as the booted eagle can be found here. A new endemic butterfly, Thestor rooibergensis has been discovered some time ago in the area. From Vanwyksdorp one could take the turn-off towards Gamkaberg, via Dwars-in-die-Weg over the Rooiberg Pass to Calitzdorp. While not spectacular in the way of providing huge drops, the Rooiberg Pass is a substantial one, rising to a height of 800 m and crossing the top of the range, before descending to the west bank of Gamka River near Calitzdorp. It is said that the pass was constructed during the depression and built with spades and wheelbarrows by the inhabitants of Vanwyksdorp. At the summit of the pass is a site where earlier travellers prayed to give thanks every time that they did the dangerous and difficult trip and also asked for help for the steep descent. Each deposited a stone on a prayer heap and it can still be seen today. From here one has a 360º view of the surrounding Klein Karoo, with the Langeberg to the south and the Klein Swartberg to the north, with rising hills on the plains, which is so typical of the Klein Karoo landscape.
HUIS RIVER PASS (‘Huis’ – Khoi for willows)
Difficult mountain terrain separated Ladismith from Calitzdorp. The earliest route through the mountains was a kloof discovered in 1807 and named Welgevonden or Rooielsbos-kloof. It was opened up by Gerrit Pretorius and, being the only direct way to Ladismith, was used extensively. A few years later, in 1810, it was rechristened Caledon Kloof in honour of the Governor of the Cape at that time. Caledon Kloof could not really be designated a pass, for it was nothing but the roughest track following the bed of a stream through the mountains that emerged south-west of Calitzdorp.
A Dr Wangemann, inspector of the Berlin Mission Stations, travelled through the Caledon Kloof on 1 November 1866 and described the route as extremely beautiful but frightening, for it passed between high rock walls that almost touched one another in places, the passage being so narrow that there was insufficient room for both the stream and the road. There were potholes half a meter deep alternating with huge rocks, and the kloof was – not surprisingly – littered with broken wheels, bits of wagon and skeletons of oxen. It was quite impassable when it rained. During 1882 a ‘flying survey’ or reconnaissance to investigate the possibility of a rail line was carried out. The report stated that “the kloof was narrow – too narrow to carry both the road and a rail line, and with perpendicular krantzes of hard sandstone on both sides; the whole breadth of the valley being occupied by the river and road in some places. The road must be sacrificed for the railway, and the former would be taken by way of Huis River”. The whole bed of the kloof was totally washed away by a flood in May 1885, and this was the end of any thoughts of developing Caledon Kloof as a permanent route between the two valleys.
Finally in 1896 a new road was built through the Huis River Pass, which made it easier for anyone needing to cross the mountain. In 1966 a modern highway was constructed through the Huis River Pass. Four kilometers from Calitzdorp one enters the Pass. It is a spectacular road winding through the mountain up to 665 metres above sea level, providing some spectacular scenery and it is a beautiful example of location and construction. Parts of the old gravel road can still be seen on the slopes of the mountain above the tarred road. It ascends in long sweeps from where it crosses the Gamka River at the bottom of the kloof, some11 km from Calitzdorp, following the hillside above the Huis River. The Huis River runs from Seweweekspoort and is one of the tributaries of the Gourits River, as is the Gamka River, which separates the Klein Swartberge from the Groot Swartberge.
The mountains here, as in Seweweekspoort and Meiringspoort, are composed of sedimentary sandstone strata, originally laid down under the sea and forced upwards by such tremendous pressure that they have been warped and twisted into the most intricate shapes (Cape ripple mountains). Richly impregnated with oxidised iron and manganese, the sandstone is so vividly coloured in red, orange and yellow, that it seems aglow with fire.
Vegetation in the pass consists mainly of succulent karoo: Aloe speciosa (slaphoring alwyn), Dioscorea hemicrypta (olifantsvoet), Portulacaria afra (spekboom) as well as Rhigozum obovatum (wilde/geel granaat, Karoo gold) and Nymania capensis (klapperbos).
Seweweekspoort & Bosluiskloof Pass
The local inhabitants on both sides of the Swartberg had been agitating for the construction of access roads through the mountain range since about 1854. John Montagu, the Colonial Secretary, visited the area in 1849, and after various investigations it was decided to build the first road through Meiringspoort, and then that through Seweweekspoort, 23 km east of Ladismith.
The following year Mr Woodfield completed a survey, and construction started, also in 1859, with 108 convicts under their head overseer, Mr Aspey. He fortunately had sufficient road-making experience to carry on with the preliminary works until Adam de Smidt – brother-in-law of Thomas Bain – who was repairing damage to Meiringspoort caused by the severe flood of November 1859, took over from him in 1860.
The gorge is 17 km long, following the course of the Huis River (derived from a Khoi word for ‘willows’) at a level of 600 – 1 000 metres above sea-level through the mountains. One theory about the origin of the name of Seweweekspoort is that it is named after a Berlin Mission Society preacher Louis Zerwick, who did his good work in the vicinity. Most authorities though accept the explanation that the name is derived from that of the Seven-weeks fern (Rumohra adiantiformis), called Seweweeksvaring in Afrikaans, which occurs in moist places and crevices.
The form Seweweekspoort is preferred for official purposes (“New Dictionary of South African Place Names” 2004). Had it not been named Seweweekspoort, we might have ended up with a Huis River Poort, as well as the Huis River Pass further downstream on the road to Calitzdorp. Here, as in Meiringspoort, the ‘padmakers’ were faced with a refusal by the Road Board to allocate sufficient funds for a reasonable standard of road. The ‘boer road’, which was all that could be built along the valley bottom, came under water at the twenty-three river crossings, often blocking traffic, when the water level in the infant river rose.
Construction was sufficiently advanced by June 1862 for the pass to be opened to traffic and it was finally completed five months later. Although susceptible to flood damage, it was a tremendous benefit to the districts which it served, opening up the lines of communication on which economic development is always dependent. A four to six days’ journey had been reduced to one of three hours. Severe flooding in 1875 washed away the road, prompting Thomas Bain to report that an entirely new road would have to be built. As the cost was exorbitant, he proposed a new route over (not through ) the Swartberg. (This was the spectacular Swartberg Pass that was built from 1881 – 1887). De Smidt was already at loggerheads with Bain over the new Knysna road to George. The two drifted apart and eventually refused to talk to each other again. Ironically, it was De Smidt who was appointed to oversee the completion of Katberg Pass, the final work of Bain’s father, before the latter’s sudden death in 1864.
In 1878, James Fforde, Chief Inspector of public works, proposed the re-routing and raising of the road through Seweweekspoort. Fortunately, the recommendation was not accepted by parliament – fortunately for those who benefit from the Swartberg Pass, which was built instead, and for those who love the atmosphere and the natural world of Seweweekspoort as it stood for ages, a monument to creation. Many have described the rugged beauty of Seweweekspoort, but I shall quote Dr William Atherstone, a much-respected geologist of that period (he it was who identified the first diamond found near Hopetown in 1867). He drove through Seweweekspoort in 1871 with Thomas Bain, also respected as a geologist, when on their way to investigate reports of gold having been found near Prince Albert.
Dr. Atherstone wrote:
“ …the most wonderful gorge or mountain pass I have ever beheld. For twelve miles you travel bare walls of vertical rock, in part 3 000 feet high, twisting and twining as the mountain stream winds through the flexures and curves of the mountain chasm, crossing and re-crossing, I am told more than thirty times; in part so narrow there is scarcely any room for the river and road – yet an excellent wagon road has been made through it with comparatively little expense; and certainly, nowhere in the Colony have I seen so wonderful a pass – a clean zigzag cut through the whole thickness of the rock formation of the range from top to bottom. When once you enter, no appearance of exit is there for two hours and a half; but you are constantly meeting new scenes, over which quartzose cliffs, curved and fractured in every direction – now red vertical peninsula formation sandstone, with flexures and arches jammed together in inexplicable confusion, as if jammed together laterally by prodigious force – at the next turning, gentle ripple-like rock waves, with blue slate – and high overhead, bright-yellow lichened crags, making the neck ache in an attempt to look up at them, with a small chink of sky overhead; shut up in front and behind, with the white riverbed below, or on one side curved with huge quartz boulders, and fringed with green trees – Virgilia oroboides(keurboom), wagenboom, aloes, and succulents nestling in the rock fissures high above you. How few know of this extraordinary mountain gap!”
All these remarks – even the last sentence – apply today, many decades later: the road still has a gravel surface. Seweweekspoort is possibly one of the most awe-inspiring and spectacular of all the mountain ravines in the country. Nobody can blame the author and poet C Louis Leipoldt for calling it one of the “seven wonders” of the old Cape Province. The magnificent vertical rockfolds, reaching for the skies on both sides of the road, reflect the inconceivable forces of the volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, forming the chain of Cape ripple-like mountains. Often the converging slopes leave only a narrow pass, just broad enough for the Huis River to pass through, whilst the precipices of naked, distorted rock-faces tower like walls of a natural rampart, obscuring the sun.
The ruins of the original Toll house can still be seen at the northern entrance to the poort. It is believed that the ghost of one of the first toll gate keepers still wanders amongst the ruins. On dark, stormy nights a couple of motorists have already been stopped by a man with a lantern. As soon as they approach him, he disappears!
The poort is also the home of the Protea Aristata, a very rare protea which was rediscovered in 1950, after it was suspected to have become extinct. This protea, called the Christmas protea by the locals, flowers during December, while the aloes flower in spring. Pr aristata is a Klein Swartberg endemic (it occurs nowhere else), as is the Stalked Pincushion Ls secundifolium and the Ladismith Scepter Pa centauroides. pruinosa The Poort serves as another gateway from the Karoo into the Klein Karoo and is dominated on the western side by the Seweweekspoort peak, at 2 352 m the highest peak in the Klein Swartberg, as well as in the Western Cape. Cussonia paniculata (Cabbage tree/ Kiepersol) and Virgilia oroboides (keurtjie trees) are in abundance along the road. Occasionally leopards have been seen drinking water from the river.
Bosluiskloof Pass / Gamkapoort Dam
Towards the early 1870’s Thomas Bain and Dr Atherton travelled through Seweweekspoort and Bosluiskloof Pass to Prince Albert to investigate reports of gold in the so-called Gouph region between the Swartberg and Nuweberg mountain ranges and noted for its fertility.
From the northern end of Seweweekspoort, turning right, the road runs up the northern foot of the Swartberg up to Bosluiskloof Pass, where it is hemmed in between the Swartberg and Elandberg. It snakes for 22 km between the two mountain ranges, forming the boundary between the Klein Karoo and the Great Karoo, leading to Gamkapoort Dam. The pass has been termed ‘the gateway to the Gouph’.
Adam De Smidt built Bosluiskloof pass while and after working on Seweweekspoort to complete the natural link from Prince Albert to the west. It was not particularly heavy construction, but the pass has a beauty of its own. Atherstone was equally impressed by ‘a boundless sea of blue mountains, cones and peaks, table tops and jagged lines of hillocks, tinged with the faint blush of early morn – the huddled groups of hills in the mid-distance, still in deep shadow; with the aloes and crassulas, and the fantastic rocks of the Zwartberg on our right and the road winding down the steep side of the Klein Zwartberg, whose topmost crags were just painted by the glowing rays of the unseen sun. What a wild charm thrown over the distant labyrinth of hills in the soft glow of early morn!’ He wrote: ‘What visions of unknown gold that first glimpses of the Gouph called up! Nuggets of the Gouph! Yes, there they lay; painted in all the glorious colours of the rainbow; a grand chromatic blending of gold and crimson and azure with the grey tints of deep kloofs, untouched by the magic rays of sunrise…’
Gold they did not find, but another kind of gold – fossils dating back hundreds of millions of years were in abundance – the most prolific being fossils of (bush) ticks (‘bosluise’) – hence the name of the river and the pass.
The area near Gamkapoort Dam is a treasure host of fossils. Among the numerous fossilized species discovered are trilobites, ancient arthropods which lived in the beginning of the Cambrian period 570 million years ago. They flourished as scavengers for 350 million years before becoming extinct and were replaced by more complex organisms. Fossilized brachiopods (lampshells) also abound, superficially resembling molluscs such as clams. Other fossils found are those of mollusc-like snails, slugs and limpets, as well as echinoderms – invertebrates symmetrically radial in form, with a body cavity and the ability to move. These creatures all lived in ancient inland From a point about five kilometers west of the dam the narrow footpath to Gamkaskloof (The Hell) takes off. One section of this footpath is known as ‘Die Leer’ (the ladder); here it zigzags down an almost vertical drop of about 450 metres. Only for the strong at heart and nimble of foot – and a clear conscience would be an advantage!
The 54 000 megalitre Gamkapoort Dam was completed in 1969 to supplement the Nels River irrigation system. The dam is fed by the Bosluiskloof, Elandskloof and Dwyka rivers and mainly by the Gamka, which continues its southern flow through a spectacular gorge known as Gamkaskloof. The construction of the dam cut off the continuation of the road to Prince Albert.
Water and time form an irresistible combination. When you seek the best passage through a chain of mountains, look for river courses. Although Mr A H Garcia, the Civil Commissioner of Riversdale, was not an engineer, he realised this fact and turned it to the advantage of the inhabitants of his district.
The development of the Klein Karoo town of Ladismith in the early 1850’s and the necessity for the farmers and traders to have access to Riversdale and thus so to the port of Mossel Bay, called for a more direct route through the Langeberg Mountains. At that time Plattekloof Pass was the only existing route over the mountains between Riversdale and Ladismith – quite a considerable detour. It was with this in mind that Garcia rode into the mountains following the course of the Kafferskuils River Gorge to see if there was any potential for the construction of a pass at that point.
Though the river may not be large, the gorge of the Kafferkuils is, and Garcia found a way through the mountains. With the help of a few convicts he constructed a bridle path, and by 1868 it was in general use by horsemen.
Soon people began to demand a proper road through the mountains, and in 1869 the Divisional Council of Riversdale approached the Cape Government, and offered a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ contribution of R2 000. Petitions to Parliament followed, and in 1871 Thomas Bain was asked to examine the route. He reported that, with the aid of convicts, a pass could be built for R3 200. The chief inspector, Mr Robinson, was not as optimistic, but even he estimated that the job would only cost R6 000. So, on 3 July 1872, Parliament decided that Garcia Pass should be constructed by convict labour, as soon as Tradouw Pass was completed. In 1873 Thomas Bain was still employed on railway work. Nevertheless he found time to stake out the course of Garcia Pass. By the end of the year the work was completed on Tradouw and 107 convicts were transferred to Garcia Pass. A convict station was built and work commenced on the road.
The pass was to be 17,5 km long, with 9 km of approach road. During 1874 half a kilometre of road was completed, including 12 culverts, the latter being quite a considerable problem on a road of this nature. In 1875 work moved forward only slowly. Bain gave as a reason the small number of convicts employed, and asked for permission to employ a free party as well. The truth was that Garcia Pass was a formidable undertaking – a mountain kloof as rugged as Bain’s Kloof – and it needed the full-time attention of an experienced and brilliant engineer. But Bain was engaged simultaneously on two other major passes – Cogmans Kloof and Pakhuis Pass – hundreds of kilometers apart. The detailed work, therefore, was left in the hands of the local foreman, an unsatisfactory and expensive procedure.
At the end of 1875 Bain reported that only 10 km of Garcia Pass had been completed during the year, and this included 6,5 km of easy approach road. The foreman had been relieved, but his successor had fared a little better. The year 1876 brought further problems to Garcia Pass. The expenditure for the year was limited to R2 000. Bain was smart; instead of building only a short section of good road, he built a long narrow road of a rough character, contrasting unfavourably with the broad sections completed in earlier years. This forced the authorities to spend the extra money the following year. Despite his many frustrations, the pass was officially opened on 31 December 1877 by Mr A H Garcia, having taken four years to complete. The pass cost R58 712 – far in excess of either Bain’s estimate of R3 200 or Robinson’s estimate of R6 000.
The old toll house established in 1877 and in use until Toll Stations were abolished in 1918, has been restored and attained National Monument status in 1968. The pass was finally widened and tarred in 1963.
The Cape Argus, in an editorial dated 27 December 1879, pointed out ruefully the uncertainties involved in estimating the cost of mountain passes.Though the original estimate for Garcia Pass was R3 000, its ultimate cost was R58 712 – an extremely expensive work for those years.
Garcia Pass is one of the lesser known passes of the Cape. It deserves more publicity, for it is a fine example of the pass builders’ craft, having been widened and tarred in 1963. A tarred road leads from Riversdale to the narrow old bridge which is the only way across the Kafferkuils River at the foot of the pass. It has been replaced by a large modern bridge. The old road began climbing immediately and, after as few sharp curves, it emerged on a hilltop where Bain’s convict station was situated. The old stone building has falling into ruins, although one corner appears still to be inhabited. Beyond the convict station the road climbed the slopes of the striking Mosambiekkop (1422m). The view over the valley is extensive, and striking. Your eye is drawn to the deep canyon formed by the Kafferkuils River, on the far side of which are visible the houses of the Corrente-Vette irrigation scheme.
The road enters the ravine of the Kafferskuils River. The gorge is magnificent – a chasm running between Mosambiekkop and the equally high Oudeboschkop (1375 m) opposite. The roadway clings to the edge of the slope with the river, in places, 250 m below. The old road is narrow, but protected by a substantial meter-high wall. Keeping to the right-hand of the kloof, it wound its way right through the gorge. Near the far end a house stands between the old and new roads. It is the old toll house, built in 1877 and in use until 1918. It was proclaimed an historical monument in 1968.
The old pass has been reconstructed and widened in places, the sharp curves eliminated, and cuttings substituted. From the new road you can admire the strength of the supporting walls (sometimes 15m high), which Bain’s convicts constructed.
Gysmanshoek Pass – A Hidden Pass In The Southern Cape
Travellers who like to turn off the beaten track, should definitely go looking for the Gysmanshoek pass between Riversdale and Heidelberg in the Southern Cape, crossing the Langeberg mountain range into the Klein Karoo. It is most probably one of the best preserved secrets of that area – a real gem. It is not indicated on tourism maps as it so fo far from the main roads that it takes quite a while to reach it. In some places there are just two tracks and in winter it could get slippery and dangerous.
From the south-eastern side one travels from Riversdale towards Garcia pass. Shortly after the Agricultural School a gravel road turns towards the Korenteriverdam. Turn left and set your odometer on zero. After 25,5km of ups-and-downs over hills and valleys, and winding through ravines, one reaches the turnoff to the pass.
The first part of the road is quite bad and rocky where it descends along a steep decline. The wonderful fynbos along the way is a natural wonder. About 4,5 km from the turnoff the road goes over the first mountain range through a marshy dale where several mountain tracks have been opened on the slopes. From there one proceeds to a valley, typical of the higher parts of the Southern Cape mountains, just to ascend the next incline of the second mountain.
And where the road emerges on top of the second mountain, the next wonder awaits the traveller – from there one has a vista of the mountain ranges of the Klein Karoo – each one a different shade of blue – one after the other. Looking north, one can see Towerkop at Ladismith on the horizon. From that point the road descends to the Klein Karoo. About 6,3 km for the summit one reaches a T-junction where one turns to the left to reach Barrydale, or to the right towards Garcia pass and Riversdale or towards Ladismith to the north.
Do go and have a look where Gysmanshoeks pass is – you will feel as if you have discovered a completely new world!
To reach Laingsburg from Ladismith, the traveller has either have to travel to the west to round the Klein Swartberg mountain to Rooinek Pass or drive through Seweweekspoort and Vleiland to reach his destination. The Buffels River runs mainly south and east from Rooinek Pass through an 12 kilometer poort and this offered an alternative.
During the sixties the Cape Provincial Administration investigated the possibility and ran a base-line survey along the route through the poort. Land surveyors did the job and besides the normal hazards of a road survey – in this case the poort was heavily bushed – the survey party had to flee in haste up the side of the gorge one evening when a flood came down. The first land surveyor fell ill in the poort and had to be helped out to the hospital where he later died.
After the land surveyors consulting engineers stepped in. Kantey and Templer investigated the Buffelspoort route in considerable detail. It was realised that a high-standard surfaced road was needed and when the catchment area of the Buffels River was taken into consideration, there was no way in which the road could run along the narrow bed of the poort. Kantey’s designers thus had quite a long section where it was necessary to provide precast concrete brackets, as long as the width of the road, bolted to the rock face to keep the road above flood level. This obviously made for a very expensive construction and this caused the project to be shelved.
During the seventies the Department of Water Affairs investigated the possibility of a system of canals leading from the Floriskraal dam to the Ladismith farmers. It was decided against because of the adverse influence it would have had on the flora and fauna.
After the Laingsburg flood in 1981, it was realised the no road through Buffelspoort could stand up to bad floods, making sure that Buffelspoort, was well as being classified as ‘one of the passes which never were’, can be also be classified as ‘a pass that will never be’.
Buffelspoort is an absolute pristine wilderness area and has been declare a Nature Heritage area. The impressive S-shaped poort with 600 m high spectacular folded rock formations was formed by the Buffels River carving its way through the mountain. Although the poort was apparently completely stripped of vegetation and utterly devastated during the 1981 flood, is has undoubtedly reinstated itself in the interim – nature has amazing healing abilities.
It is said that leopard still appear here, as well as the fish and black eagle. Approximately 110 bird species have been identified in the Poort and 5 different species of fish appear in the pools. Flora includes mountain fynbos as well as populations of endangered species, ie Nerina persii, Gasteria angustiarum and the protea Aristata.