Adventure and nostalgia meet in the primeval forest of Tsitsikamma’s Storms River Pass…
Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead
The pace of an ox wagon is slow and lumbering. You have plenty of time to look around and enjoy the scenery and, in the thick Tsitsikamma Forest on the old Storms River Pass, there is plenty to see – giant yellowwoods compete with towering Cape ashes, lush ferns crowd the verges and delicate little Cape primroses produce pretty blue trumpets while clinging to rock faces in the cuttings. The soundtrack is bird calls, with the Piet-my-vrou in full throat.
This old pass is the last of the series on master road builder Thomas Bain’s epic 185-kilometre Tsitsikamma road that pioneered a way through the dense forest bisected by steep gorges, and finally linked Knysna and Humansdorp in 1885. The other biggies are Bloukrans and Groot River passes. As an avid pass chaser, I’ve been wanting to do it for ages, but it’s not open to motor cars as it’s now within the Garden Route National Park.
So I hitch a ride with Stormsriver Adventures in a modern version of an ox wagon – a big all-terrain truck with open sides, and seats on the back under a canopy. Of course, we could have hiked or cycled this pass, but then we wouldn’t have had guide Pam Zondani to tell us stories about the creatures inhabiting this magical corner of the forest.
“When Thomas Bain surveyed this pass in 1879, he basically followed the elephant migration route from west to east. The elephants didn’t live in the forest, but passed through it in search of better grazing as the seasons changed,” she explained, pointing out a remaining section of the elephants’ path beside the road. “But mostly our road is on their path.”
These days, Storms River Village is a renowned adventure destination with its canopy tour, black-water tubing, superb hiking and mountain-biking trails. Choosing the more sedentary Woodcutters Journey tour means I get to explore the old pass built by convicts under the supervision of Bain, who engineered so many of the Cape’s early routes.
Reaching the bottom of the Storms River gorge from the plateau 150 metres above was quite a challenge but, as is typical of Bain’s passes, he made the gradient easy enough for a horse-drawn buggy to trot along. Our truck trundles slowly down the increasingly steep side of the valley. In the early days, the route was far narrower and so treacherously slippery that wagon drivers had to lock their back wheels to prevent their wagons from overrunning the oxen. “Traffic was one way only: one day up, the next day down,” elaborates Pam.
The pass has its spook stories too. “My grandmother told me that when they used to walk here in the dark, they’d hear the sound of the convicts’ chisels on the rock,” says Pam, who grew up on a nearby farm. “But when they got to the cutting, there was no one there and it went silent. After they had walked past, the sound started again, but this time behind them.”
But the road opened up access to woodcutters and hunters too. In the days before the forest was protected, the biggest trees were felled using simple hand tools. “It took them seven days to fell one big tree.” Pam related how the timber merchants exploited the woodcutters so they remained poor and uneducated, reliant on ‘good-fors’ credit.
At the bottom of the pass, we stop at the old outspan where travellers camped. We have no oxen to water, so while the staff lays out our picnic, we explore the Storms River crossing. Bain’s Drift, built on carefully packed boulders, has been superseded by a low-level causeway bridge, built to carry one-way traffic when this was still the main road to Port Elizabeth. Debris from the last flood, piled against the bank, serves as a grim reminder of how quickly the ‘river of storms’ can become deadly.
The river is the tour turnaround point, but Pam explains that cyclists and hikers can continue for another few kilometres up the steeper, eastern side of the pass to a clifftop lookout with stunning views of the Indian Ocean crashing against the rocks 200 metres below.
On the way back to the village, we spot a family exploring the forest on Segways. These two-wheeled personal transporters look like a lot of fun, so I book myself a forest tour with a guide. First my guide Chester Boezak teaches me to ‘drive’ the thing, showing me how to lean forwards and backwards to control the speed of the battery-powered engine. He instructs me to zigzag through a row of poles and I go at it like a border collie at dog-training class.
Then we glide through the village on our Segways and join the pass at the Plaatbos gate. There’s nothing between me and the forest, and its exhilarating sounds and smells. We dodge puddles and catch a thrill fording a small stream I never noticed from the back of the truck earlier, then branch off onto a little-used side track that gets narrower the further we go – much like the original pass must have been before it was widened for vehicles.
It doesn’t take long to master Segway driving and by the time we return to the office, I’m quite confident. The big surprise when I climb off is my legs – they’ve grown lazy and don’t want to work anymore.
A stroll back to my cosy room at the Tsitsikamma Village Inn soon sorts out my personal perambulation. I’m fascinated when my host, co-owner Chris Sykes, tells me the inn is on the site of what is believed to be the oldest building in the village, harking back to 1841. “Captain Thomas Duthie and his friends from Knysna used to come and shoot wild pigs in the forest. They walked on paths from the Crags and he built a shooting box here – today it’s our Hunters Pub.”
Once the pass was built, accommodation was needed for travellers waiting for the up or down day, according to the direction in which they were travelling. “Duthie’s Shooting Box became every traveller’s chosen place to rest at the end of their frightening and dangerous journey across the Storms River,” relates Chris. He and his partner, Irma de Villiers took over the Tsitsikamma Village Inn in 2010 after part of it was rebuilt to reflect the different styles of traditional Cape architecture.
A keen amateur historian, Chris has named one of the beers he brews at his Tsitsikamma Micro Brewery Bain’s Black Ale in tribute to the master road builder whose passes carried main road traffic between Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay until the modern N2 was built in the 1950s. “Once the Paul Sauer Bridge over the Storms River was completed in 1956, the old pass was closed,” says Chris.
Bain was known for treating his convict labourers well. They were a mixed bunch: black, white and coloured; errant soldiers and sailors, stock thieves and even murderers. He always ensured they had a good supply of meat and bread, because in those days they really did do hard labour. He laid out Storms River Village and built a dam to provide them with fresh water via a furrow that you can still see at Armagh Country Lodge.
“The furrow is shown on old maps,” says co-owner Johan Brink, “and this sparkling water quenched the convicts’ thirst at the end of a long day’s hard labour.”
Johan takes me bushwacking along an old path to the graveyard, where some convicts found their final resting place. It’s a peaceful spot under tall forest trees. The graves are little more than mounds in the leaf litter, most without so much as a simple headstone. “Some died while working on the pass – of disease, hard work, you name it. There were no antibiotics in those days and medical care was minimal,” says Johan, bending down to remove a broken branch from one. “The convicts are really the unsung heroes of the old pass.”
The trees nod gently in the breeze. Their hard labour is our heritage.