Take the road less travelled – The seven passes road linking Knysna and George is a far more interesting route than the N2…
Words: Jane Mulder
Pictures: Jane and Peter Mulder
When driving between Knysna and George, my husband and I sometimes take the 75-kilometre Old Road (or Seven Passes Road) as an alternative to the N2. Though winding and mainly gravel – making the journey a lot longer, especially as we often stop at the bridges – we find it to be a pleasant excursion into a bygone era. Each bridge and ravine is quite different from the last so there’s always something interesting to see.
This was the first road to be constructed between the two towns and for 70 years it was the only road linking them. Before that there was no proper route and travellers often had to bundu bash through dense undergrowth. Built piecemeal between 1868 and 1883 by master road-builder Thomas Bain (helped by his brother-in-law Adam de Smidt, the district engineer), the road crosses seven rivers – the Goukamma, Karatara, Hoëkraal, Touw, Silver, Kaaimans and Swart – and passes through indigenous forest and impressive river gorges as it winds along the foot of the Outeniqua range, its meandering course dictated by the terrain.
From Knysna, immediately after crossing the causeway over the Knysna River, take the Belvidere turnoff to the right and continue straight on to Phantom Pass. The road climbs steeply and from the top there are lovely views looking back towards Knysna. I often wondered how Phantom Pass got its name – is it truly haunted or merely spooky when wreathed in mist. However I learned that it is probably named after the white ghost moth (Letho venus) which is endemic to these forests.
A timber mill operates at the village of Rheenendal. I’m not sure whether they still process precious woods, but many years ago we purchased small pieces of stinkwood very inexpensively there. Those were the days when Knysna was small and uncommercialised, its chief claim to fame being the many shops where you could buy classic furniture made from indigenous woods.
After Rheenendal the road passes a number of farms and your senses are lulled by the peaceful bucolic scene. A number of artists and craftsmen live in the area, which has become known as the Rheenendal Ramble, and original ceramic and carved wooden items can be bought directly from them. If you’re feeling peckish, there are also tea gardens and restaurants.
About half a kilometre after Rheenendal a sign on the right points to the Goudveld Indigenous Forest and Millwood Goldfields.
The Homtini Pass – my favourite – cuts through the Goukamma River gorge. Both names are of Khoi origin, the former meaning either ‘difficult passage’ or ‘mountain honey’, the latter meaning ‘Hottentot fig’ (Carpobrotus edulis), which is a common succulent groundcover growing in the area. Being used to the despoliation of once pristine areas we find the ravine, clothed thickly with indigenous trees, particularly beautiful. The pass itself, curving steeply down to the river, is a marvel of engineering.
The next pass is the Karatara. The name is also of Khoi origin and possibly means ‘horse hill’, after a nearby hillock. From here the rural landscape gives way to a plantation and thereafter you enter indigenous forest and the Hoëkraal Pass. At the bridge over the river a stately old yellowwood tree rises, its massive boughs festooned with old man’s beard lichen (Usnea barbata). On closer inspection I was fascinated to see the many ferns, orchids and other epiphytes colonising the tree’s hoary boughs.
The next point of interest comes a few kilometres after the hamlet of Woodville, where a turnoff to the right leads to a Big Tree. We sometimes stop at the picnic site here and take a short walk through the forest. I never cease to be amazed at the size and age of the area’s Big Trees, of which there are, sadly, too few left. Spreading their boughs high above the canopy they seem to exude majesty and wisdom. This particular giant, an Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus), is 31 metres high, has a girth of nine metres and is estimated to be about 800 years old.
There is an enchantment about indigenous forests, not found in plantations. You are aware through all your senses of the life around you. The calls of different species of birds echo eerily through the trees, most notably the kok-kok-kok of the elusive Tauraco corythaix, popularly called the Knysna Loerie.
Shortly before you reach Hoekwil there’s a signposted forest (gravel) road to the right. Be sure to take this as otherwise you’ll go through Hoekwil and find yourself ending up at Wilderness instead of George.
The next pass is Touw River, a shortening of ‘Trek-aan-Touw’, a name descriptive of the manner in which oxen and wagons had of necessity to negotiate the notoriously steep and difficult river crossing in the days before the road was built. The name is also said to be a corruption of the Khoi kradede kau, meaning ‘maiden’s ford’.
At the impressive iron bridge there was once a metal plaque, set up by the Simon van der Stel Foundation, but on our last trip we found that it had gone – perhaps stolen? It bore the legend, ‘This is the last surviving iron bridge on the top road between George and Knysna. The ironwork of the 95ft clear span was built in 1897 by Messrs. Braithwaite & Company of West Bromwich, England, and shipped out to Mossel Bay. It was then conveyed in fourteen wagon loads to the site over two months. The estimated cost of the ironwork was 3850 Pounds and the approximate weight of the entire bridge was 57 English tons. The completed bridge was opened to transport in April 1898.’
The next two river crossings have stone bridges, now National Monuments, built in 1903 and 1904 respectively to replace earlier timber structures. The first crosses the Silver River and a little further on is the bridge over the Kaaimans River – a particularly beautiful spot. It is said to take its name from the Afrikaans word kaaiman which means ‘leguaan’. Bain avoided building the road through Kaaimansgat, which was a notoriously difficult spot to ford.
Wagons sometimes had to wait for days there for the river to subside enough for a safe crossing, or worse, had to turn back. For this reason in 1752 the Kaaimans was known as the Keerom River, or ‘turn-around river’. The last of the passes is the Swart River Pass, after which you soon arrive in the outskirts of George.