Thursday, July 25, 2019


Michael - Thursday

Driving through the Meiringspoort pass on the way down to Knysna, my friend Sam Stern commented: ‘Wow. This is world class. How come people don’t know about it?’ It’s a good question. It’s one of the most spectacular drives in South Africa. Perhaps its disadvantage is that it isn’t close to one of the tourist magnets like Cape Town or the spectacular wildlife regions of the north east. It takes one through steep gorges with colorful folds and patterns for a distance of about ten miles. It’s regarded as one of the best accessible view of folded mountains in the world.

Old road in the foreground
Petrus Johannes Meiring
It has an interesting history too. The Swartberg (Black Mountains) form a second line of the defence of the arid Karoo interior of the country from the coast. The first line is the Outeniqua Mountains. Both are the result of the massive stress and folding that resulted from the lifting of the eastern side of the country. The Swartberg formed an almost impassable barrier between the Little Karoo and the Great Karoo—the former being a less harsh area with good soil (especially for South Africa’s Cape Vintage, the local port wine equivalent), sandwiched between the two mountain barriers. Of course, the San people knew these mountains intimately and have wonderful caves with rock art all through the Swartberg, but the first settler to explore a possible mountain pass there was Petrus Johannes Meiring in the early eighteen hundreds. He decided to follow the course of the Groot Rivier and found his way through. Later, he constructed a rough bridle path that allowed the more adventurous travelers to make their way through the mountains. Eventually, it became known as Meiringspoort. (Poort means a gateway.)

Crossing one of Bain's drifts
In 1856, Thomas Bain, one of the great engineers of the day, set about building a road through the poort. The general feeling was that the 5,000 budgeted for the project would be hopelessly inadequate. But, in fact, the overrun was only 18. (Why don’t I know builders and engineers like that?) A toll house was constructed (perhaps to repay that 18) with a small shop. The plan was to connect the large sheep farms of the hinterland with the port of Mossel Bay for export. It worked. Twenty years later, an eighth of all the South African wool exported made its way through the pass.

But it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing. The good thing about following the Groot Rivier is that it’s cut a reasonably passable gorge through the folded sandstone of the mountains. But the road crosses the river some twenty times. The bad thing about following a river is that when it floods, it washes away the road! That’s happened multiple times—the last time was in 1996, but even today the road becomes impassable if the water level is too high.

Meiringspoort seems to be almost supernatural in its structure and colors, so I suppose it’s not too surprising that it developed legends of ghosts and other strange happenings. There was a period when the focus was the mermaid who apparently lived in a deep pool at the foot of the waterfall. The legend goes that she needs to be treated with respect and offered gifts lest she become angry and destroy the road and the travelers on it with flooding. This she has done multiple times. After the huge flood of the late nineties, the mermaid was supposedly washed out to sea where a fisherman caught her near Mossel Bay. Much excitement ensued, and eventually she was returned to the pool in effigy—a doll with a fish tail. A good time was had by all.


  1. It is a beautiful drive, and there are other things to do nearby: drive the dirt road of the spectacular Swartberg Pass (if it is open), built by convict labour well over a hundred years ago; Nearby is Die HeL (The Hell) one of the most isolated spots in South Africa - and the source of myths, stories, and truths; also nearby are the amazing Cango caves and the ostrich farms that became so famous a hundred years ago when boas were in. Definitely worth a visit.

  2. What an extraordinary road. The rock formations and colors are otherworldly...or, I guess one could say, South African!

  3. Fascinating, Michael. I am fantasizing about driving it in my little car with the top down. Wish I could.