Don’t let a hike into the Outeniqua Mountains become a backbreaking footslog. Just take the Power Van…
Words and Pictures: Elaine Smith
We leave from the Outeniqua Transport Museum in George, our two-carriage Power Van comfortably seating 20 of us. Our group is up front in the second van, which really brings into focus the mountain wall as we pass through numerous cuttings.
The Indian Ocean shrinks behind us as the Power Van easily chews up the steep incline, swerving sharply around the bends, and skirting the mountainsides for a close-up of the George (1337m) and Cradock peaks. Just shy of 1580m above sea level, Cradock is the highest peak in the Outeniqua mountain range.
Today’s mist lends the summit a feathery outline. Montane fynbos thrives on the south-facing peaks while, on the northern side, you will find karroid and renosterveld scrubland. From the window we see ericas bowing to and fro in the breeze, making a perfect colour photo.
At times we travel alongside the old Montagu Pass, and can photograph the unique engineering feat as it snakes its way up and around the peaks. It’s also a time to reflect on this more than 100-year-old rail system that was built by convicts, and which lays bare the laborious task of slicing into the mountain side and churning out tunnels with explosives, when an external track was too dangerous to pursue.
The railway line passes through the Varingkloof and Power tunnels, which are not far apart, with Tierloof, Cradock and Outeniqua the final burrows before Topping tunnel. The more recent Outeniqua Pass became a project for Italian prisoners of war in the early 1940s, but was left unfinished once they returned home after the war. Only in 1951 was it finally opened.
What we also see is the old gravel trail, evidence of life before the established passes, when the farmers’ trek to market was a hazardous, five-day journey between George and Oudtshoorn, on cattle-drawn ox wagons.
The Van ends at the summit after Topping tunnel, where everyone takes photos, breathes in the freshness and exchanges seats for the downward journey. My front seat has now been flipped around and is at the rear of our van, which now leads the way. The driver is at the controls, now from the van behind me.
We float down past the Witfontein Forestry pine plantation, the fern gardens and timeless fynbos, slowing down for a pair of klipspringers on the railways line, and on towards the tunnel mouths that swallow the daylight as we approach.
A bring-your-own-picnic stop at rustic benches on the slopes of the Outeniquas, in the company of a giant tortoise, is almost a fantasy. Guessing the age of the grand reptile is a riddle, and he sneaks us a watery glance, making sure we know it’s his secret.
The final stage of the two-hour journey resumes, the van tooting hoarsely as it enters George, where friendly folk stop their chores to wave us visitors on our way.