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7 Passes

(Extracted from THE ROMANCE OF CAPE PASSES by Graham Ross 2002)

Knysna Phantom Pass to Saasveld George | 75 km | +/- 1 Hour, 30 min driving time

Directions Upon exiting Knysna on the N2 towards George, drive over the white bridge and turn right immediately after the bridge. This road will take you past Lightleys holiday Houseboats and on to the Phantom Pass. At the top of Phantom Pass you will reach a t-junction connecting you with the Rheenendal Road. Turn right. This road will continue to take you past Rheenendal village (Tottieˋs eatery, petrol station, shop and postal agency is your landmark on the left hand side) and on to where the tar soon gives way to gravel (landmark is Homtini Guest Farm on your left), the road winds down to an concrete bridge across the Homtini River. After the bridge, the road climbs out of the gorge, passes through farmlands, then drops again to the Karatara River. After crossing the Karatara River on a single-lane bridge, the road passes the Karatara forestry settlement. The next pass leads through the gorge of the Hoogekraal River, and the one after this takes you across the Diep River. You reach the tar again roughly 35 km from Rheenendal, and soon after this you pass the small settlement of Woodville. Turn right onto the gravel road signposted ‘Big Tree and Picnic Spot’. Return to the tarred road and turn right, taking note of your kilometres. After a little over 3 km, turn right onto a gravel road for ‘Saasveld’. The road now negotiates three more river-valley passes. Note your kilometres as you cross the Touw River, and 4,6 km later keep straight, onto the tar, for George. You then cross the Silver River, and after this the Kaaimans River. The old stone bridges over the Silver and Kaaimans Rivers have been built in 1903 and 1904 respectively and proclaimed National Monuments.

The history of the passes This 75 km historic road was completed in 1883. Rivers generally flow in deep gorges on their way from the mountains to the sea, therefore there are seven passes along the way, hence the name of the route. These are the passes crossing the Swart-, Kaaimans- and Silver-, Touw-, Hoogekraal- and Karatara rivers, the Homtini gorge and the Phantom pass.

Before the Passes Road were constructed, there was no good overland route between George and Knysna. Thomas Bain moved to Knysna in 1860 to build the streets and roads in that area. In 1862 he constructed a low-standard road to provide access for foresters to the Zuurvlakte Crown Forest on the western side of the tidal Knysna River. It was not much of a road, built on a foundation of river boulders. The road up from the river became known as the Phantom Pass, named, it is said, after the white Phantom moth found in the area. This pass and the complementary stone causeway across the river at its foot, were most probably the first bits of the Passes Road to George. It had to be upgraded in 1882 when required to carry heavier traffic.

From 1862 Thomas Bain and Adam de Smidt, his brother-in-law, battled for a number of years through forests and across river gorges, trying to locate a route between George and Knysna. De Smidt favoured a route closer to the Outeniqua foothills were the gorges were shallower, but Bain did not agree with him, and this difference of opinion resulted in the fact that they never spoke to one another again.

In 1867 the project was approved and Adam de Smidt began construction at the George end, working towards Knysna. It was a difficult and long job, and was eventually completed in 1882, but only handed over to the Divisional Council in 1887.

The first pass was down to the Swart River and up again on the other side. There existed a crossing of some sorts, known as Zwart River Hoogte on the old road, and on the other side this old road turned south towards the dreaded Kaaimansgat crossing, and was typical of the unplanned tracks of that time. The first wagon track slithered almost straight into the valley and with their wheels braked with blocks, the wagons wore the road into a channel more than 2 m deep and so narrow that a man could not pass between the banks and the side of the wagon.

To build a decent road on a new alignment through this pass took considerable side-cut, with blasting in the order of the day. The result though, as usual with Bain’s and de Smidt’s work, was an engineered road of an entirely acceptable standard. By 1869 de Smidt’s construction had reached Kaaimans River and adjacent Silver River gorges, but work here was only finally completed in 1875. By then a detached section of road between the Silver and Touw Rivers had also been built. Because of the nature of the terrain and difficulties to access, the whole of the construction on the 75 km was very fragmented, with bits being done here and there as was the most convenient and economical.

The main camp was situated where Saasveld is today, between the Swart and Kaaimans Rivers. Another sub-camp with 50 convicts was opened near Ginnesville. Other camps were established as construction progressed towards Knysna.

The next river pass to be tackled was at the Touw River. This river had to be crossed by those travelling the old road between Kaaimansgat and Duiwelskop Pass, apparently straight down one side and straight up the other with every ox and person ‘pulling on the rope’. Bain and de Smidt, with their construction facilities, were able to build a road angling across the contours at a steady and acceptable gradient on both approaches to the river. Up on the eastern slope of this pass, 20 km from George, is the second link to the Lakes, via Hoekwil. Six kilometres further on is the forestry road leading to the old Duiwelskop Pass in the north.

The first gold nugget was found in the Karatara River bed in 1875. In February 1879 after an in situ meeting, the Ruigtevlei line was abandoned at Ruigtevlei and Bain’s efforts were redirected to a new route, starting from the original line at Lancewood and heading initially eastward. This higher route, which is said to have been favoured by Bain all along, would serve the new gold field on its way to Knysna, but it had to cross some river gorges to do so. Thus the road ducks down to Hoogekraal and Karatara River valleys – the fifth and sixth links to the Lakes – they join the previous road on its way to Ruigtevlei – take off, on each side of the Karatara river. (These roads links are mentioned to assist the earnest seeker in determining his position should he wishes to inspect the passes road).

The route then turns south-eastward toward Knysna and the crossing of the dreaded Homtini gorge. This pass was a major construction feat, with the road curling down two and a half kilometres to the bottom of the gorge and up the other side, through dense indigenous forest. This most attractive pass was effectively completed in 1882, but was only opened for traffic the following year.

Construction continued to join Phantom Pass on the western slopes above the Knysna River. Bain’s 1862 foresters’ road was renovated to take the main traffic now directed along it 20 years later. However, the basic concept of the design needed revision and in 1889 Thomas Bain had surveyed a new route and in October that year construction started on the new pass. The Passes Road was completed in 1883, sixteen years after work commenced on it. It was the main road between George and Knysna for almost 70 years, until the National Road (N2) was completed in 1952, and still serves the area through which it passes.