Many of South Africa’s most spectacular mountain passes were constructed by Thomas Bain.

His innovative and often daring road construction methods resulted in roads that opened up links between the Cape Colony and the country’s interior – and the majority of these roads are still in use today, more than a century after they were first constructed.

In Part 1 of a two-part series, we consider four of Thomas Bain’s most incredible mountain passes. Which have you driven, and which Bain pass is your favourite?

Michells Pass – 1848 – Tulbagh to Ceres

michells pass 1848 tulbagh to ceres

One the first projects Bain was involved in – as chief assistant to his famous road engineering father, Andrew Geddes Bain – was Michells Pass.  The road, which follows a precipitous route up the Breede River Valley, took 240 convicts two years to build, at a cost of (then) £22 834.

michells pass train line

According to early reports, more than eight kilometres of the road was almost entirely “scarped” out of solid rock.  Retaining walls up to 12 metres in height were constructed from stone, and culverts, viaducts, and several drains were integrated into the build to offset the risk of flooding.  

Bainskloof Pass – 1853 – Wellington to Ceres 

bains kloof pass

Bainskloof Pass was undoubtedly the most adventurous and arduous road-building project of 19th-century South Africa.  It was a collaborative effort between father and son, and is a befitting tribute to both men.  The 30-kilometre pass often teeters on vertical cliffs overlooking the Witte River, and features several impressive rock cuttings.

bains kloof pass wellington to ceres
bains kloof pass wellington

Massive granite boulders were either moved by hand using steel bars or rollers, or split with wedges and gun powder.  The pass, which Bain lined with 300 young oak trees, is still supported in places by the original dry stone retaining walls that reach up to 20 metres in height.  It took more than 1 000 convicts, £50,000, and four and half years to achieve one of the most complex engineering feats of the time.

Meiring’s Poort – 1858 – De Rust to Klaarstroom 

meirings poort pass

Meiring’s Poort is a magical low-altitude pass that twists and turns through a sinuous crack in the Swartberg Mountains.  It was yet another joint project of Andrew and Thomas Bain, designed to link the port of Mossel Bay with the Great Karoo in the interior of the colony. 

It was during the construction of Meiring’s Poort that Bain senior developed the technique of using fire and water to split rocks, an innovation that saved time and money.

meirings poort pass swartberg mountains
meirings poort pass swartberg

This 16-kilometre pass crosses the same river more than 20 times. It was built in less than two years at a cost of £5,018 and using the labour of 91 hired workers.

Meiring’s Poort has been damaged by flash floods on dozens of occasions.  Although much of the original route plotted by Bain remains, the road itself has been reconstructed.

Swartberg Pass – 1883 – Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert 

swartberg pass

Due to regular flooding of Meirings Poort, Bain was commissioned to find a new route over the Swartberg Mountains.  After four attempts, he settled on a line that could practically traverse the steep rocky gradients and tortured edifices of the natural barrier between the coast and the Great Karoo.

The pass was constructed entirely by hand. Convict labourers used pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows, and Bain’s trademark fire and water method of cracking huge boulders. Dressed rock retaining walls were constructed in the dry-wall technique along most of the route that consists of a series of perfectly cambered switchbacks to and from the summit.

swartberg mountains pass
swartberg pass mountain

Today, the sweeping gravel gradients and handcrafted support structures of the Swartberg Pass – now a national monument – are almost exactly as they were when the pass was officially opened in 1888.  The remains of the old convict stations are still visible, and signposts mark sites of historical interest.

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