There are many ways to see this wonderful country of ours and we chose a road trip that took in eleven of the many passes we have in South Africa and we chose to do the trip by motorcycle.
As we were riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, what we decided to do on this trip was to make it a scenic tour where we would take in, not only the eleven passes, but also part of the coast as well as part of the whale route during whale season.
The seven bikes set off from Johannesburg on the N1 towards Bloemfontein early on a Saturday morning but for our own reasons we took the decision not to overnight in Bloemfontein, choosing instead to stop over in the charming little town of Smithfield just 130km further on the N6 in the direction of the coast.
SMITHFIELD TOWN HALL
Smithfield is a small town founded in 1848 in the Orange River Sovereignty (as the region was then named). The town situated in a rural farming district, and is the third oldest town in present-day Free State, (after Philippolis and Winburg).
From the 1830’s onwards, numbers of white settlers from the Cape Colony crossed the Orange River and started arriving in the fertile southern part of territory known as the Lower Caledon Valley, in which the commonage of Smithfield would later be established. The Lower Caledon Valley, named after the Caledon River that runs through it, was at that time occupied by herders and their cattle and under the authority of the Basotho king, Moshoeshoe. In 1845, a treaty was signed between Moshoeshoe and the British colonial authorities headed by the Cape Colony governor Sir Harry Smith. The treaty recognised white occupation in the area, though no boundaries were stipulated.
In early South Africa, European notions of boundaries and private land ownership had no counterparts in African political culture. To the local African chieftains, customary tribute in the form of horses and cattle represented acceptance by the reigning chief of land use under his authority. To both the Boer and the British settlers, the same form of tribute was believed to constitute purchase and permanent ownership of the land under independent authority.
According to historical accounts, Moshoeshoe was under the impression he was authorising temporary grazing land to the settlers, while the settlers believed they had “bought” permanent land rights.
This apparent misunderstanding still forms the basis of the land issue in South Africa today, as far as that particular area is concerned.
The following day being a Sunday we decided on a short ride to Queenstown a total distance of just under 250km so we left Smithfield at around 10am for a leisurely ride to our “brunch” stop in Aliwal North at the Riverside Pub & Grill on the banks of the Orange River.
It’s also on this stretch of road between Aliwal North and Queenstown that we travelled our first pass, the Penhoek Pass.
The PenhoekPass is a well-engineered, high altitude tarred pass (all the passes we travelled were tarred) forming part of the N6 highway between Aliwal North and Queenstown. The 5.6 km long pass traverses through the aptly named Stormberg to assert itself as one of South Africa’s dangerous tarred passes.
We arrived at our guesthouse in Queenstown at around 3pm and being a relaxing Sunday afternoon our hosts provided us with a very pleasant “braai” for dinner. There are a fairly large number of guesthouses in Queenstown and many of them will provide an evening meal on request but several who do provide an evening meal won’t do so on a Sunday. The owners of Bellevue B&B where we stayed were more than happy to provide a very good braai for us.
Queenstown, now called Komani, is a town in the middle of the Eastern Cape. It is currently the commercial, administrative, and educational centre of the prosperous surrounding farming district.
Its former nickname of the town, ‘Rose Capital of South Africa’, comes from the large gardens and open places for flowers (especially roses) in and around town.
The town was founded in early 1853 and it was named after Queen Victoria. Work on its railway connection to East London on the coast began in 1876, and the line was officially opened on 19 May 1880.
In the 1960s, the majority of the black population was moved east to the township of Ezibeleni as part of the attempt by the government of the day, to move black people to so-called “homelands”. Each year, around the beginning of June, the town holds an art exhibition with the emphasis on paintings and sculpture. Perhaps inspired by some of the most interesting Bushman paintings in nearby caves, which are accessible to the visitor.
Close to the town is a nature reserve with numerous antelope, white rhinoceros and spectacular flowering plants together with panoramic views from the mountain summit.
After leaving Queenstown the following morning we found ourselves on the R67 that takes us all the way to Grahamstown where the R67 joins the N2 but two more passes.
Firstly the Nico Malan Pass which is quite spectacular and has recently had roadworks completed on it so it is in very good condition and the scenery is just fantastic. Only one downside is if you find yourself stuck behind a large truck if makes your trip down the pass very slow but there is an upside to that. You get more time to look at the breathtaking scenery.
The Nico Malan Pass is located between Whittlesea and Seymour along the tarred R67 route towards Sada in the east. This is a serious pass climbing a massive 673 vertical metres over 13.8 km, ranking it in position number 25 in the top altitude gaining passes in South Africa.
Not too long after the Nico Malan Pass you reach the Ecca Pass.
The Ecca Pass is located 15 kilometres north of Grahamstown (Makhanda) on the tarred R67. The road links Grahamstown in the south with Fort Beaufort in the north. The pass has great geological and historical value. The name Ecca is of Khoi origin and means “salty or brackish river”.
Grahamstown has very recently changed its name to Makhanda, after the 19th century Xhosa warrior who fought the British in 1819.
You will also notice that the foliage alongside the road starts to change and you start to see more aloes that are a familiar sight along this section of the Eastern Cape coast
After the Ecca Pass you will see Grahamstown (Makhanda).
You know that the coast is not far off as you get onto the N2 which is the main road that eventually leads to Cape Town but first you reach Port Elizabeth.
Port Elizabeth is the 5th largest city in South Africa and is 770 km east of Cape Town. The city is one of the major seaports in South Africa and is the southernmost large city on the African continent, just further south than Cape Town despite the fact that many people believe that Cape Town is South Africa’s most southerly city.
Port Elizabeth was founded as a town in 1820 to house British settlers as a way of strengthening the border region between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa. It now forms part of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, which has a population of over 1.3 million.
Hunters and gatherers ancestral to the San first settled the area around what is now called Algoa Bay at least 10,000 years ago. Around 2,000 years ago, they were gradually displaced or assimilated by agriculturalist populations ancestral to the Xhosa people, who migrated into the region from the north.
The area has a long and fascinating history and is certainly worth a read and there is lots of literature available on the history of the region.
We however didn’t stop in Port Elizabeth choosing instead to overnight in one of the country’s top surfing spots, Jeffrey’s Bay.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jeffreys Bay was known as a “hippie” hangout, where the now-burgeoning surf community originated. Jeffreys Bay has grown from a sleepy little fishing town over the past few years and is one of the fastest expanding urban areas in the country.
Jeffreys Bay is one of the five most famous surfing destinations in the world and hosts the annual World Surf League (WSL) surfing event at Super Tubes during July.
The following morning we set off early from Jeffrey’s Bay as we were going to have a long day in the saddle on what was going to be one of the prettiest days of the trip.
Just 100km from Jeffrey’s Bay is Storm’s River Mouth and it’s certainly worth a visit to the mouth. Situated in a Nature Reserve the turnoff is approximately 10km after you cross the Storms River Bridge. The scenery at the mouth is fantastic even if your stop is just for coffee and to stare at the beauty of it all.
From there, a further 100km will take you through Plettenburg Bay which is also worth a stop if you have time but as we didn’t have the time that day we decided to push on to our next stop which was a little further at Knysna and we turned off to go to the Knysna Heads where the coffee and cake at the East Head Café held our attention for the better part of an hour.
After leaving Knysna we travelled towards the town of George being careful to avoid the speed cameras and rode our only pass of the day, Kaaiman’s Pass between Wilderness and George.
The Kaaiman’s River Pass boasts several records. Although a fairly short pass in terms of distance, the curves are extremely sharp and the gradient is steep. The pass connects George in the west with Wilderness in the east and traverses magnificent scenery with steep mountainsides, where the amber coloured waters of the Kaaimans River are crossed via the first curved bridge built in South Africa in 1952.
At the top of the pass there is a “must stop” place to admire the beauty of Dolphin Point and to take as many photos as one would want. In one direction is Dolphin Point and a slight turn to your left and for as far as you can see the white sands of the beaches of Wilderness and beyond that, Sedgefield.
After our stop at Dolphin Point the ride then took us the 100km to Mossel Bay to our lunch stop and we decided on the Kingfisher Restaurant that sits virtually on the rocks at the edge of the sea and one of my favourite fish restaurants in that part of the world. A warning though. Phone ahead to book a table because very often, even during the week, they are busy.
After a very good lunch we set off for our next overnight stop at Swellendam the 4th oldest town in South Africa
Early travellers and explorers who visited the Cape in the 16th century traded with the Khoikhoi people who lived on these shores and in the interior. When the Dutch East India Company established a replenishment station at the Cape in 1652, trade continued inland as far as Swellendam.
In 1743 Swellendam was declared a magisterial district, the third oldest in South Africa, and was named after Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel,
By 1795 maladministration and inadequacies of the Dutch East India Company caused the long-suffering burghers of Swellendam to revolt, and on 17 June 1795 they declared themselves a Republic.
In June 2011, the Swellendam Municipality area, which includes Barrydale, Suurbraak, Malgas, Infanta and Stormsvlei, re-declared itself a Republic. This “republic” is dedicated to the principles of the New South Africa, and celebrates rural life, racial harmony, respect for nature and wildlife, and aims to promote sustainability and an “unplugged” way of life for all to enjoy.
Leaving Swellendam we head towards Cape Town and take in the Houw Hoek Pass near the Elgin turnoff
Houw Hoek Pass was built shortly after Sir Lowry’s Pass was completed in 1833. The distance between the two passes is approximately 25km and covers some beautiful mountainous terrain. This middle section was known as Coles Pass – so named after the very same Sir Lowry Cole.
A little further along the N2 towards Cape Town is the magnificent Sir Lowry’s Pass.
Sir Lowry’s Pass was named after Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, Governor of the Cape in 1828. Today’s modern, cantilevered four-lane highway is a far cry from the original pass, which was recklessly dangerous and steep. Prior to the pass being built, all wagon traffic from the Overberg routed through the Franschoek Pass.
From the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass one can look out over False Bay and on a clear day makes for a stunning view. A word of warning though. Baboons are found in abundance in this part of the world and they are really not very nice animals at all so probably an idea not to stop at the top of the pass.
Travelling down Sir Lowry’s Pass slowly one can still capture the splendour of False Bay in the distance.
At the bottom of Sir Lowry’s Pass we turned into Gordon’s Bay with the intention of travelling the coastal route to Hermanus which is generally known as one of the best whale spotting areas in South Africa when the whales come north into warmer waters between June and October and sometimes even as late as November.
First though, after leaving Gordon’s Bay you travel one of the most scenic coastal routes on offer anywhere in the world, Clarence Drive that eventually gets you to the tiny hamlet of Rooi Els.
Clarence Drive is one of those roads that I never get tired of travelling whether it’s on a powerful Harley-Davidson or by car.
After Rooi Els you pass alongside Pringle Bay and through Betty’s Bay which is a small holiday town about 100km from Cape Town
After travelling through Betty’s Bay you are now on your way to Hermanus and hopefully if it’s whale season (between around May to late October) a chance to spot these enormous animals and a double spectacle is if you happen to see a whale breach.
We took the decision not to stay over in Hermanus choosing instead to travel another 44kms to Gansbaai which is known around the world for its shark cage diving facilities. The locals in Gansbaai will tell you that some of the best whale watching can also be done in Gansbaai.
Lunch was at “Coffee on the Rocks” in Gansbaai and the whales were very accommodating that particular day and put on a spectacular display we could enjoy from where we were, and a very good view because they are very close in to the edge of the sea at that point.
The following morning we said goodbye to Gansbaai and headed back to Swellendam via Bredasdorp that took us through the charming little village of Elim to pick up the first of the two passes we were going to be travelling that day.
The Tradouw Pass (which means Women’s Path in the old Khoi language) is a 16 kilometre drive through an altitude range of 219 meters through some of the most beautiful and rugged mountain scenery on offer in the Langeberg. This pass is undoubtedly in the Top 20 tarred passes in the Western Cape on an overall rating. The pass joins the towns of Barrydale and Swellendam and was originally built by Thomas Bain.
The top of the pass takes us to Barrydale on South Africa’s famous Route 62. It’s not a very long ride to get us to the now world known Ronnie’s Sex Shop.
Ronnie painted the name Ronnie’s Shop on this cottage next to the R62, planning to open a farm stall to sell fresh produce and fruit. His friends played a prank on him by changing the name to Ronnie’s Sex Shop. Initially angry about the involuntary name change, Ronnie left the name and continued fixing the dilapidated building. His friends would stop by for a chat, having a few beers and throwing a couple of chops on the fire. During one of these evenings, someone suggested: “Why don’t you just open a pub?”
Ronnie’s Sex Shop has had visitors from all over the world, judging by the graffiti, it has also become a regular pit stop for bikers, the local farmers and people travelling this road regularly.
Leaving Ronnie’s we travelled on Route 62 and found our next pass.
The 13.4 km long Huisrivier pass lies on the R62 between two valleys in the Little Karoo between the towns of Ladismith in the west and Calitzdorp in the east. It has 39 bends, corners and curves packed into that distance. Not only is this a fairly long pass, but it has many sharp corners, steep gradients and exceptionally attractive scenery. The pass includes three river crossings.
Just 100km after the Huisrivier Pass we reach Oudtshoorn commonly known as South Africa’s “ostrich country” and also not too distant from the town itself are the world-famous Cango Caves. If you have the time a trip to the Cango Caves is certainly worthwhile. Unfortunately on this trip time was against us so we had to give the Cango Caves a miss
The Cango Caves are situated in a limestone ridge parallel to the well-known Swartberg Mountains near Oudtshoorn – South Africa. Here you will find the finest dripstone caverns, with their vast halls and towering formations.
The following morning leaving Oudtshoorn we travelled some 35kms to the little town of de Rust. You travel through the town and at the “bottom” of the town the road forks. Whilst we took the right hand fork that would eventually get us to Graaff-Reinett, a left turn at the fork gets you into the magnificent Meiringspoort.
If one travels through Meiringspoort the road eventually joins the N1 some 12km south of Beaufort West.
Leaving de Rust we then travel to Willowmore and after a stop to fill the Harleys at the local service station and lunch at the charming little shop/ restaurant called “Sophies” we were on our way to our next pass.
The Perdepoort Pass on the tarred N9 is located 15 km north of the Karoo town of Willowmore and 100 km South West of Aberdeen.
The road enters a natural neck in the mountains after a long straight stretch, then climbs fairly quickly to the maximum altitude of 906m.
We reach Graaff-Reinett but no trip to Graaff-Reinett is complete without a visit to the Valley of Desolation.
The Valley of Desolation, within the Camdeboo National Park is a mere 14 kilometres outside Graaff Reinett and covers 14500 hectares in the Great Karoo, Camdeboo attracts 220 species of birds, 336 plants and 43 types of mammals.
Leaving Graaff-Reinett we went on to get to our final two passes on the tour. THe first of these is the Naudeberg Pass not far out of Graaff-Reinett
After the Naudeberg Pass we reached the Lootsberg Pass which is one of my favourite passes in South Africa.
This pass with its sweeping curves around the buttresses of the Lootsberg, lies in the heart of the Great Karoo some 70km North of Graaff-Reinett on the tarred N9. It is the highest pass in the Karoo and was named after Hendrik Loots who died on the old pass, after his carriage overturned.
The top of the pass offers a parking place where one can stop and admire the view – and what a view. Looking back towards Graaff-Reinett one gets a tiny idea of the size of the Karoo. The silence at the top of the pass and the view make it simply spectacular.
Having enjoyed the stop we then travelled on through the town of Middelburg and on to our final overnight stop in Bloemfontein and on the final day the last 400km back to Johannesburg.
This entire trip covers around 3550km and is all on tarred roads. With the exception of just two days, all our distance covered each day was under 400km, a very comfortable distance which allowed us time to stop and take in the beauty of everything around us.
A trip well worth doing.