Thursday, December 7, 2017

Mountain Passes and Geography Classes

After leaving Cool Runnings resting safely at anchor in Knysna, we headed out in our little VW Vivo rental car. Our destination was “Numbi Valley” a farm a few kilometers outside of de Rust in the Karoo. Deciding to give the national roads a skip, we opted instead for a secondary, unpaved road, the Prince Alfred’s Pass. It turned out to be a stunning drive, and we ambled along, taking most of the day to arrive at our destination.  We loved the constant change in countryside from open fields to forests to contorted bends in the cliffs.

We stopped at a small settlement called de Vlugt, where we learnt that the pass had been built in the 1860’s by Thomas Baine. It took 5 years to complete, and at 68.5 km (42.5 miles) it is the longest publicly accessible mountain pass in South Africa, as well as being the second oldest unaltered pass still in use. Bain constructed 29 passes mainly in the Cape colony in his lifetime. Apparently this pass epitomizes all of his unique touches, but especially his exceptional dry walling method of construction, where, to support roads on mountain faces, he broke up large rocks using fire, followed by cold water to crack the rocks into manageable triangular pieces. He then stacked them up at an inward tilting angle of 15 degrees and backfilled from the top. The more backfill that was added, the stronger the retaining walls became, utilizing the scientific principles of friction and cohesion. (Can you tell, there were school lessons involved here!!).  There are many kilometers of his original walling still supporting this road, and it was amazing for us to see this first hand, knowing that those exact rocks were laid there, by hand, over a 150 years ago! Many sections of this pass have been declared a national monument. (info from

A stop in de Vlugt at "Die Plaaskind Padstal" (Plaaskind = farm child; padstal is a stand on the side of the road (pad)

The road into de Vlugt, just before the pass winds its way into a more mountainous section

Some stats on the pass

A typical section of Thomas Bain's rock work walling

Another view of the pass winding its way through the mountains

At the intersection of the road which leads to Plettenberg Bay, there is a sculpture called "Calling the Herd" by Strijdom van der Merwe.    The sculpture consists of interactive trumpets that symbolically call the elephant herd along a mountain ridge overlooking the valleys in the Keurbooms Corridor, encouraging them to return and call as they once did. Here Dave tries to get hold of some of them!

We summited a peak called "Spitskop" viewpoint and enjoyed stunning scenery at the top

Another beautiful view from the Spitskop viewpoint

As we exited the pass we found ourselves on a flat plateau between two mountain ranges, the Outeniqua Mountains and the magnificent Swartberg mountain range. This plateau is called the “Kammanassie”, and it was typical Karoo landscape, beautiful in its own way, with flat, dry land covered in “feinbos”. We saw tortoises trying to cross the road, and soon we began to see ostriches pecking away at the ground! Before long, we found our turning off the tarred R 62 road and we were once again driving on another dirt road. Carefully following the instructions we’d received from our hosts, Kath and Ross, we soon found our destination: Numbi Valley Permaculture Farm. The setting was absolutely stunning, and we took the rest of the afternoon to enjoy our surroundings and relax after the long drive of the day. Kath and Ross farm here, and practice permaculture, which, without delving into depth of the philosophy basically means they practice sustainable agriculture, working with nature, rather than against it. The farm is totally off the grid, using solar power for electricity. They have a grove of olive trees, and a small garden with every type of vegetable you can imagine. A few fat, healthy chickens lay eggs, and some fruit trees produce plump fruit. It really is a little oasis in an arid desert! Our accommodation was once the laborer’s cottage, and it has been beautifully transformed into a 2-bedroomed, self-catering cottage. We loved our 2-night stay here, waking up to stunning mountain views, and watching the stars in the pitch dark night.

A small sign welcomes us

Our pool area.  The water comes from a natural spring they have on the property.  

The cottage blends in so well with the surroundings

The views from the cottage and pool area were stunning!

Fresh veggies growing in the desert!

The following day, after a bit of a slow morning, we drove towards Oudtshoorn, with the primary goal of visiting the Cango Caves. However, on the road there, we passed the Cango Ostrich Farm, so we thought we might as well tick that box too, and stopped for a quick visit. We were lucky to see a baby ostrich in the process of hatching, and Gaby was the only game one in our group who volunteered to give an ostrich a hug!

Traffic Jam...Karoo style!

Did you know that an ostrich's eyes are bigger than their brain?!

Gaby gives an ostrich a hug

The baby ostrich hatching from its egg

An ostrich family:  mom in the front, dad, with his black feathers at the back, and a group of kids in the shade

Gaby gets a neck massage!

Dave stands on ostrich eggs

Then it was on to the Cango Caves. We had visited these caves on our last visit to South Africa in 2012, but the kids were smaller then, and we just did the “Heritage Tour”, which takes you through the main chambers. This time, we signed up for the “Adventure Tour”, which takes visitors deeper into the caves, and requires a bit of climbing, slithering on tummies, and negotiating some narrow tunnels! The caves have spectacular examples of stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations, and are believed to have been formed by an underground river. There is continuous exploration of the caves, and they continue for many kilometers, but only a small section is open to the public. We had a great time, and the caves continue to be jaw-droppingly spectacular!!

Stalactites and stalagmites that are millions of years old

Incredible formations

That's me exiting "The Postbox", a tiny slit in the rocks

Gaby in one of the tunnels

Dave negotiating another tunnel

The group of people in the center of the photo show the scale of the caves.  This is the first and main chamber

Speaking of jaw-droppingly spectacular, our drive back to Numbi Valley was just that. We decided to take the long way back, and negotiated the Swartberg Pass in our little rental car. This quote from pretty much sums it up: “The Swartberg Pass is for many South Africans, the rubicon of gravel road passes. There is an allure and a mystique around this old pass, coupled with its status as a national monument, which elevates this pass to the very top of the list. It was Thomas Bain's final and best piece of road building.”. We were lucky to be able to drive it, as it had only recently been re-opened after some serious rain and flooding had damaged the pass quite dramatically. The scenery once again rivaled anything we’d seen so far, even surpassing, in our eyes, New Zealand, which, up to this point had the most spectacular scenery we’d ever seen.

Half way up the pass, Dave and the kids look down onto the valley below

A view of the Valley

At the top of the pass, you reach "Die Top".  Apparently people feel quite an accomplishment at having reached this pinnacle, and feel the need to put stickers on the sign

And now we have to go back down...

Looking back at the pass, you can see the road zig-zagging down
The Swartberg mountain range is regarded as one of the finest exposed fold mountain chains in the world, and the Northern end of the pass shows this especially. We were absolutely amazed at the rock, and how it has buckled over the millions of years. Much of the Swartberg is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Can you say great geology lesson, anyone?!
Upon our return to Numbi Valley, (through yet another pass, the Meiringspoort pass), we enjoyed the evening with Kath and Ross, who made delicious pizzas for us in their outdoor pizza oven, topped with lots of fresh ingredients from their garden. The next morning Dave and I took a long walk around the area, hoping to see some of the wild antelope or small mountain cats that are known to roam around the area, but unfortunately did not manage to spot any wildlife. We did see fresh droppings and tracks, but the animals themselves eluded us!

We saw many, many fields with this crop growing on them:  we found out they were onions!  The farmers harvest the seeds
Our drive back to Knysna took us through our final pass, the Outeniqua Pass, but unfortunately the clouds has started descending upon the mountains, and we saw nothing but white fog! We drove back along the Garden Route through George, along the coast and finally back to Knysna. We were happy to find our floating home happily swinging on her anchor, waiting for our return! We spent a few more days in Knysna, exploring the town and surrounding area, before deciding on a weather window to take us to Cape Town.

Gaby psyched up and ready to go to Cape Town!


  1. Wow, such great pics and lovely description. Was so good to see you guys

  2. Your homeland breathtakingly beautiful. I'm awfully glad we managed to lure you away.
    Mary O