You get mountain passes and you get mountain passes. Most are spectacular, and most are relatively short, unlike the fascinating Prince Alfred’s Pass in the southern Cape, which has enough scenery, history and characters to warrant a lengthy visit.
Built in the 1860s to link Uniondale in the Little Karoo with Knysna on the Garden Route coastal plain, it’s a remarkably diverse pass. At one end you get thick forests and at the other there’s the semi-arid scrub typical of the Karoo landscape. In between you’ll find river crossings, mountains, valleys, modern-day plantations and vistas of red-brown sandstone.
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In its heyday, it would take roughly two days on horseback to complete the trip. These days its role has been usurped by the N2 and N9/N12 national roads, but Prince Alfred’s Pass – officially designated as the mostly gravel R339 – remains a scenic and adventurous alternative for those who enjoy the road less travelled.
“I’ve been here for 20 years and I love it. I don’t want to be anywhere else. We live in a different world,” says Ingo Vennemann, who runs the Outeniqua Trout Lodge deep in the pass, about 55 kilometres from Knysna. “There’s no crime here and you can leave things unlocked. It’s beautiful. It’s quiet.”
A former fishing industry executive, he used his pension to create a trout farm that worked well until the disastrous flood of 2007 washed away his tanks and about 50 000 trout valued at R2-million. The flood also wrought such massive changes to the Keurbooms River, which runs through his property, that it became impossible to commercially farm trout again. The flood made the river wider and shallower and removed some of the protective foliage. It became too hot in summer as the temperature can reach 29 degrees, and cold-water trout die at 26-degrees.”
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Undeterred, he and partner Gizelle Dobbin turned the hatchery into a tourist destination, offering cottages and a tented camp. The next step is to offer retreats. “It’s about relaxation; finding yourself, letting go of city life and walking about,” he tells us. “We’ve got hiking routes all around the mountain and you can swim and enjoy nature. It’s possible to do something different every day for ten days.”
What stands out about the pass is that it feels so out-of-the-way and lost in time, yet is close to some of the country’s best tourist destinations. From the centre of Knysna to midway along the pass is only about 55km. Plettenberg Bay is about an hour’s drive away, as is George and the Baviaanskloof.
This means that, while remote, it’s far from inaccessible. “All sorts of people travel the pass,” says Adri van Rooyen, who runs Die Plaaskind Padstal at the northern end of the village of De Vlugt, at about the midway mark of the pass. “There are those who have grown tired of doing the national road and want a change; and we see increasing numbers of foreign tourists who hire a 4×4 in order to see South Africa’s back roads.”
Grab a bite to eat
Young and bubbly, Adri grew up along the pass, left to live in New Zealand and returned home to open her tea room and farmstall. The last time we visited she was using the public payphone across the road as her only link to the outside world. Now technology has come to her little corner of the R339 and she has her own landline and even a solar-powered credit card machine.
The farmstall is one of the few places along the winding 68km mountain road where you can stop for a meal. There’s also a restroom which is actually a long drop quaintly called the ‘poeff doeff’ (use your imagination on this one) and is much photographed by visitors. Adri laughs. “We wanted to put in a more modern toilet, but people said a long drop was part of the charm.”
Her menu is basic but reflects the pass and its farming heritage. Eggs are free-range, the buns are home-made by Adri, the goat’s-cheese burger is to die for and the cheese comes from a smallholding just up the road.
Nearby, we come across a fascinating piece of local history – the home once occupied by legendary road engineer and builder of mountain passes, Thomas Bain. He lived here between 1863 and 1867 while supervising the building of Prince Alfred’s Pass.
The home stands on the farm of Danie van Rooyen and is now abandoned, although he hopes to return it to habitable condition for tourists. The affable Danie has been here since 1970 and farms with cattle, sheep and vegetables. A sprightly 67-year-old, he operates probably the last commercial farm of its kind in the pass and takes pride in the fact that he still works his fields with his labourers.
“I use hand-farming techniques taught to me by my father,” he tells us. “My vegetables are all organic and we use no pesticides. I sell my veggies in Plettenberg Bay, where there’s strong demand for organic products.”
Danie has no thoughts of retiring and certainly no ambition to leave. He laughs. “When I’ve been in town for an hour, I want to come home. There are too many people.”
While the gravel road through the pass is reasonably maintained, you probably won’t feel comfortable in a family sedan and caravans are a definite no-no. Rather opt for a 4×4 or a higher-clearance 4×2 vehicle.
Bikers are also common and a popular stopover with the two-wheel crowd is Angie’s G Spot, found on the banks of the Keurbooms River at the southern end of the village of De Vlugt. Run by biking enthusiasts Harold and Angie Beaumont, it greets you with a sign proudly announcing ‘Hot beer, lousy food, bad service and kak accommodation’.
Laid-back Angie answers the obvious question about the name, “It’s because it’s a great spot,” she explains. The Beaumonts have been here for about ten years and offer basic facilities, simple accommodation and a menu that includes such culinary delights as Road-kill Burger and Jou Pa se Rotti.
The G Spot came into being by coincidence. “We were living in Plett, came biking one weekend, found this spot and loved it,” says Harold. “Later I met someone whose friend was selling a property in the pass and it turned out to be this one. We bought it immediately and woke up one morning to find 12 bikers wanting breakfast, so we started selling breakfasts from cooler boxes.”
Last year the George High Court ruled that buildings on the property were illegal and had to be removed. But at the time of writing Angie’s G Spot continued to trade.
But what are the roads like?
Down the road we discover two-wheel enthusiasts of a different kind. Struggling along a muddy uphill are Canadian cyclists Frank Seier and Lindsay Simmonds. They’re on a cross-Cape cycling holiday and have just spent the night camping along the pass in the company of some curious baboons.
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“We had a great night sky and the views are spectacular, but the problem is the road is so rutted that you concentrate on your bike and don’t enjoy the views as much as you would like to. The going has been tougher than expected,” Frank tells us.
The characteristics of the road vary markedly, depending on where you are in the pass. Higher up, on the Uniondale side, there are sweeping vistas of the Langkloof Mountains and plenty of sharp bends and steep gradients. Lower down, closer to the sea, the terrain is flatter, easier to traverse and surrounded by the lush Knysna forest.
The latter is my favourite section. With trees forming a dense overhead canopy, the road meanders through ancient forests made famous by author Dalene Matthee. Peering into the dense foliage, it’s easy to imagine the early woodcutters living here in near-isolation from the outside world.
One of the best ways to find out about their tough and often tragic lives is to turn off the R339 to the Diepwalle Forest Station, operated by SANParks, and visit the excellent Forest Legends Museum. Apart from detailing the daily existence of the woodcutters from the 1800s until the 1930s, the museum also houses a spectacular skeleton of one of the famous and elusive Knysna forest elephants, which were present in great numbers until being hunted to near-extinction.
“There’s a rich sense of history here,” says Megan Taplin, who manages the Knysna section of the Garden Route National Park. “In 2016, we launched the Rooted in Time Cultural Route, which takes in ten historically significant aspects of the area – including the woodcutters, the elephants, the historic tea garden, the 800-year-old King Edward Big Tree and the old steam train that used to transport timber from here to the port of Knysna. You can also find evidence of the Khoisan people in the forest.”
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But Diepwalle is well worth visiting for other reasons too. Among the trees are lovely picnic sites, a small guest house operated by SANParks, a delightful camping deck and a range of walking trails that include part of the well-known Outeniqua Hiking Trail. “This area is magnificent, set in one of the largest indigenous forests in the country. It’s a part of South Africa you shouldn’t miss,” Megan tells us.
You can travel Prince Alfred’s Pass in a few hours but it’s really a back-route travel experience that’s a great daytrip, or even a longer journey. Stop, savour the views, enjoy the solitude, discover the history and meet the people. You won’t be disappointed.
Where to Stay
Words Mike Simpson
Photography Jeanette Simpson, OlivePink Photography
A journalist by trade, features writer on occasion and now the digital editor of SA Country Life. The first chance she gets, Leigh will tell you about a podcast she was recently listening to and how you simply have to make the move from radio. In a previous life, she once taught English on Jeju which left her with an insatiable craving for kimchi.