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Building the Swartberg Pass 

Prince Albert’s story teller, Ailsa Tudhope, The Story Weaver, tells tales of the Swartberg, including the building of the Pass. 



As you cross the draft at Eerstewater watch out for all that is left of a metal support which once anchored a concrete bollard along the causeway. When they were built, drivers knew that if the bollards were covered by water the stream was too deep to drive through. Massive floods have washed away the concrete and most of the supports but one remains and its curve reveals its provenance. Many moons ago Helena Marincowitz told me that discarded pick-axe heads, tools used by the convicts who worked on building the Swartberg Pass, were used to anchor the bollards.

The kloof would have echoed with banging and crashing as those men used hammers, chisels, pick-axes and sheer muscle-power to break and dress the rocks which support the road across the mountains. Sometimes they gathered scrub and built fires around huge rocks and once they were red hot they doused them with water, causing them to crack, after which the convicts attacked them with sledgehammers to break them into yet smaller pieces.

The great road engineer Thomas Bain supervised the entire job.  He walked and rode the pass hundreds of times, directing the convicts in laying the dry stone walls which act as support for the road as it winds up and down.  One section of wall is 2,4km long and the walls range in height from ½ a metre to 13m. They carry the road up incredibly steep gradients and through twisting zig-zags, which, from the base of the pass on our side of the mountain, look like mediaeval ramparts.

The convicts who built the pass came from diverse backgrounds and their crimes were just as varied. There was a lawyer from Cape Town and numerous stock thieves and smugglers. Forty policemen, some with dogs, and twenty prison officers, ran the Zwartberg Convict Station, guarding them. The convicts were divided into different gangs, according to their sentences: the “coffee” gangs received extra provisions of coffee, sugar and tobacco while the “chain” gangs had to make do with standard rations.  They were chained together and never worked far from one of the little stone prisons they built in the pass. They were only loosed from their chains when strictly necessary. 

A newlywed couple, the Stockenstroms, came to live in the Pass, to provide food for the convicts, the police and other workers.  They slaughtered an ox and sixteen sheep each week to provide meat, and baked tons of bread.  Mrs Stockenstrom gave birth to her first child up on the mountain with only menfolk to help and the family lived on site for seven years. Towards the end of the construction period there was such a big community near 'Die Top' that Mrs Johanna Herbert from Prince Albert ran a school for the children.

Fickle weather conditions brought problems. The intense heat of summer meant that great quantities of water had to be transported. In winter cruel winds and snowstorms held up work. A group of convicts died when the roof of their hut collapsed during a snow storm. Heavy rains and mudslides almost destroyed the northern convict camp in 1885. Entire sections of the road simply slid down the side of the mountain.

Yet, the Pass was eventually completed and Bain’s use of convict labour meant that it cost less than the originally anticipated £18 120. The final figure was £14 500, one saving being that the local communities of Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn had supplied fruit, vegetables and beans and the government paid for the balance of the food consumed by the convicts. 


The official opening of the Swartberg Pass 10 January 1888

The CP Nel Museum in Oudtshoorn holds archive copies of the Oudtshoorn Courant so we have an insight into the ceremony:  All businesses and offices in Prince Albert closed for the day and a procession moved along Church Street beneath banners which proclaimed: “Success to the Zwartberg Pass” and “céad míle fáilte.” More than fifty men on horseback accompanied numerous pony-traps and carts on their way up the mountain. Flags were paraded, some bore the words: Labor Omnia Vincit – work conquers all,  Aanhou Wen and my favourite: Never Despair. Colonel FX Schermbrucker, the Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works officiated at the ceremony. 

The Oudtshoorn Courant reports as follows:

“Colonel Schermbrucker, in a pronounced German accent said: “Mr Bain is a wonderful man. Show him an easy place to make a road, he shakes his head and says: “No”, but show him a place where a monkey can’t get out and he will jump at it like a cat!”

“Mr Bain’” asked the Colonel: “Are you ready to hand over the road?”

 “I am ready.” was the reply.

A bottle of champagne, smashed against a rock, ‘launched’ the Pass and a volley of shots echoed across the mountains. It seems that some larger armaments might have been discharged too, since a rockfall was reported.

Colonel Schermbrucker said: “We stand here conquerors today – we have conquered nature, which at one time appeared insuperable!”

Then the guests of honour sat down to a slap-up breakfast in a marquee, after which they started down the Pass on the Oudtshoorn side, towards Boomplaas. When they arrived, expecting luncheon to be served, they found the food had not yet arrived from Oudtshoorn, the meal was finally served at 4.00pm. The following day the festivities continued when the official party and other guests visited the Cango Caves and partook of another banquet. 


Boomplaas farmhouse, the venue for the luncheon after the official opening of the Pass on 10 January 1888




Helena Marincowitz, Swartberg Pass – Masterpiece of a brilliant Road Engineer, 1998. Available from the Fransie Pienaar Museum, Prince Albert.

Patricia Storrar, A Colossus of Roads, 1984, pub. Murray and Roberts/Concor, Cape Town. 

Extracts from issues of The Oudtshoorn Courant, February 1888