3 Fantastic Western Cape Mountain Passes

South Africa is not only famous for its amazing wildlife but hosts some absolutely spectacular Western Cape mountain pass drives through the dramatic passes of Montagu, Swartberg and Meiringspoort. If you’re ready to ogle some stunning landscapes, escape for some solitude and taste some mountain adventure, then you should seriously consider these fabulous Western Cape mountain pass drives.

Swartberg Pass

Northern side of the Swartberg Pass

The town of George, a town roughly four hours from Cape Town and at the western end of the famous Garden Route, makes for the perfect launch point when driving north for one or all of these mountain pass drives. And why not drive all three mountain passes, they can be enjoyed in just one day.

We spent 5 months living in Prince Albert, a small Karoo town just north of the Swartberg Pass and had the pleasure of driving these 3 mountain passes more than once on our route to and from the coastal town of George.

Where are These 3 Western Cape Mountain Passes?

What Type of Vehicle do I Need for These Western Cape Mountain Passes?

Meiringspoort is driven on tarmac whereas Swartberg and Montagu Passes are gravel roads and might require extra ground clearance to easily pass over any rough stuff but generally, all passes can be driven with a 2wd vehicle. We had purchased our 4×4 in South Africa when we arrived as we are Overlanding Africa and needed something heavy-duty. 

Shelley and Hilux on Swartberg Pass

Swartberg Pass Views  

It pays to check road conditions at https://www.aa.co.za before attempting the drive over the Swartberg or Montagu Pass as heavy rains can wash out the gravel roads making them dangerous if not impassable. If you’re not yet savvy on driving in South Africa then you need to get up to speed – excuse the pun. 

Best Route to Complete all 3 Western Cape Mountain Passes in One Day

These routes can be tackled driving from either the north or the south. The quickest option in each direction is included.

Starting in the South at George, driving North

  • Montagu Pass: Depart George and pick up the start of the Montagu Pass going north on the outskirts of town. The Montagu Pass drive is 17 km taking roughly 1 hour without stops. The town of Herold is the official start/endpoint of the Montagu Pass drive.
  • Swartberg Pass: Continue to and drive north from Oudtshoorn past Cango Caves following R328 and signs to Swartberg Pass. The Swartberg Pass drive is 24 km and takes roughly 1.5 hours without stops. Finish the Swartberg Pass drive and have lunch in Prince Albert, Little Karoo. (The Lazy Lizard is a good option).
  • Meiringspoort: Depart Prince Albert following the tarmac road (E407) towards Klaarstroom and continue to Meiringspoort Pass. The Meiringspoort Pass is 16km in length and takes about 15 minutes without stops. Backtrack to Oudtshoorn and south to George.

 

Swartberg Pass

Amazing views are guaranteed on any of these three mountain pass drives

Starting in the North at Prince Albert, Driving South

  • Swartberg Pass – Starting Prince Albert, complete the Swartberg Pass drive and continue to Oudtshoorn.
  • Meiringspoort Pass – From Oudtshoorn, follow directions on the N12 to De Rust and then continue a further 15km to Meiringspoort Pass.
  • Montagu Pass – Double back to Oudtshoorn on the N12 and follow the N12/R62 south to a junction and follow the R62 east towards Uniondale for approximately 8km, then turn south on the Montagu Pass to Herold, the official start of the Montagu Pass. The completion of the Montagu Pass drive lands you in the outskirts of George.
montagu pass sign at the George end

Start of the Montagu Pass drive near George

Details of these Amazing 3 Mountain Passes in the Western Cape

Meiringspoort (Afrikaans meaning ‘Meirings pass’)

Length: 16km

Surface: tarmac road

Drive Time: 20 minutes

GoPro Highlights of the Meiringspoort Drive

Meiringspoort, a world Heritage site, is the easiest of the three drives and is driven on a sealed and relatively level road in amongst the mountains.

Construction of the pass began back in 1856 taking 223 days to complete. The oficial opening took place in 1858. In contrast to the other two passes mentioned in this article, only paid labour was used to construct Meiringspoort Pass.

Meiringspoort Falls

Meiringspoort Falls

The road engineer who oversaw construction kept costs to a minimum by burning the cleared vegetation which was piled on top of rocks. The hot rock was then doused with cold water causing it to fracture. Ingenious.

Meiringspoort rocky hills

Access to Meiringspoort Falls

There are three dedicated vehicle parking spots, one at each end of the pass and one more or less in the middle of the pass which provides access to Meiringspoort Falls. There is no other parking available. Hidden behind the hill and accessed by stairs behind the rondavel lies the inviting Meiringspoort Falls.  A welcome sight in the dry desert landscape.

Meiringspoort Rondavels at parking spot

Parking and Rondavels near Meiringspoort Falls

A couple of rondavels near the parking showcase some interesting old photos from the time of the original road construction. A tribe of baboons frequent the water holes through the pass so something to keep your eyes open for.

Swartberg Pass

Length: 23.8 km

Surface: gravel road

Drive Time: 90 minutes

 GoPro Highlights of the Swartberg Pass Drive

Running through the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Swartberg mountains, Swartberg Pass is an absolutely enthralling drive. Built between 1881 and 1888 using convict labour, its construction is still sound evidenced by the original dry rock retaining walls.

Swartberg Pass

Dry Rock Retaining Walls Along the Road

The southern side of the Swartberg mountains offers views of verdant countryside greeting the eye all the way to the southern ranges.

Crossing to the northern side of mountains; sun-burnt rocks, scrubby bushes and dry, dusty winds proclaim your arrival into the semi-desert climes of Little Karoo. A completely contrasting scene.

Make sure you take advantage of the many opportunities to pull over, park and gaze at the stupendous views. We did the drive a few times and more often than not, we were the only ones on the road.

Swartberg Pass sign

Mandatory photo on Swartberg Pass

Not far from the summit, descending the northern side, a side road leads to Die Hel, an isolated valley in a remote part of the Swartberg Range which is a relatively popular off-the-beaten-track spot.

At the very northern end of the Swartberg Pass, the road cuts through towering rock formations of quartzite that have endured the forces of being pushed and folded over a millennium. A small river crossing is obviously a favourite spot for the tall gum trees.

Swartberg Pass

Mind-Boggling Geological Formations

Soon after, the mountains are left behind and the town of Prince Albert beckons, a few kilometres away. This rocky, mountainous land is a favourite of the Klipspringer and you’ll often see them grazing just off the road.

Montagu Pass

Length: 17.1 km

Surface: gravel road

Drive Time: 70 minutes

 

 GoPro Highlights of the Montagu Pass Drive

The Montagu Pass was built between 1844 and 1847 using convict labour over the Outeniqua Mountains. It replaced the dangerous Craddock Pass and reduced travel time over the mountain range from 3 days down to 3 hours. These days, the newer Outeniqua Pass is the favoured route boasts a multi-lane tarmac road and can be seen from the retired Montagu Pass road.

Montagu Pass seen from above

Montagu Pass as seen from the new Outeniqua Pass

To this day, some vestiges of the past are still able to be seen on the Montagu Pass road such as the original tollhouse which used to extract a penny for each wheel and for each ox that passed by.

Towards the top of the pass there was only room for a single cart and the drivers had to call ahead to agree passage. You’ll also find the remains of an old blacksmith’s workshop and the original stone walls fringing the road. All add a piece of the puzzle and the story of this iconic route.

montagu pass and original stone walls

The Original Stone Walls – a testament to the build quality of that time

Part of the road, named Die Noute, passes under the overhanging cliffs. About halfway along the Montagu Pass road, an arched railway bridge makes for a good stopping point although the views are blocked by the heavy undergrowth.

Montagu Pass at a bridge

Railway Bridge

Mostly, the road is a single lane although in parts the road widens allowing for two cars to pass in relative safety. Near the summit of Montagu Pass, the best views to Outeniqua Pass and the surrounding rolling mountain passes can be admired. It looks like someone has fluffed a blanket – smooth gentle undulations.

Montagu Pass 1 lane road

One lane passage at times on the Montagu Pass

3 Great Western Cape Mountain Passes Wrap Up

All of these fantastic mountain drives are steeped in history. Each one different to the next. Choose one or choose them all. Any of these three western cape mountain passes will certainly bring new respect to those that forged the way through this tough mountain terrain.

You’re sure to have a great day and come away with a great story or two to remember your journey. Enjoy.