Sani Pass is the highest pass in South Africa. (Photo: iStock)
If you've ever done a cross-country road trip and decided to veer off the relatively straight and tedious national roads, in search of something a little more exciting, chances are good you've stumbled upon a mountain pass or two.
While researching the most extreme roads in the country, we stumbled upon an incredibly well-curated website called Mountain Passes of South Africa (MPSA).
Run by Trygve Roberts, MPSA is dedicated to the documentation, photography, videography and appreciation of these special routes, which, without exception, have their origins in a necessity for easier access to trade, industry and community. As engineering and technology have become ever more sophisticated, many of these passes have long since been replaced by roads that offer way more convenient travel options, meaning that many could have fallen into disuse and disrepair.
However, thanks to the ever-present adventurers among us, very few have succumbed to this sad fate.
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Either you love them... or you just don't care
According to Trygve there are two camps: those that love passes, and those that don't care.
Intrigued by the idea, we asked him what he thought it was that attracted the lovers to the exploration of mountain passes and he summed it up in a piece of perfectly suited prose:
"I think there is something magical in almost every mountain pass. When you’re on a boring, straight tar road and see a gravel road meandering away up a mountainside, it awakens a sense of adventure – a need to explore. Passes take you somewhere – to an unseen place – a surprise – a new vista – a new discovery. They have gracious curves, inspiring engineering, sometimes they are pure poetry and things of absolute beauty. I think people are attracted to passes by a primordial instinct."
Now, while we'd love to feature every single one of SA's picturesque passes, we think we'll leave that up to Trygve and MPSA, but in the meantime, familiarise yourself with the most extreme:
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Longest: Prince Alfred's Pass, Western Cape - 68.2km
While the Baviaans-Kouga pass in the Eastern Cape is actually the longest in the country at 73.3km, much of it is jeep track and not accessible to the average (4x4less) traveller. So, we decided to go with Prince Alfred's Pass instead.
It is a gravel pass on the R339 and connects seaside Knysna to inland Uniondale. MPSA considers it to be one of Thomas Bain's greatest works, as it presented the builders with a myriad technical challenges. Prince Alfred's is also the second oldest unaltered pass still in use in South Africa.
For more info and visuals, check out Prince Alfred's Pass on MPSA.
Highest: Sani Pass, KwaZulu-Natal, 2 876m
Along with Chapman's Peak drive, Sani Pass between KZN and Lesotho is probably one of South Africa's most iconic mountain passes. Built in the 1950s, it has never been tarred, providing a challenging gravel climb only accessible to 4x4 vehicles. Traversing the Drakensberg range, Sani Pass is awash with dramatic scenery as well as treacherous bends and curves, which become more pronounced during bad weather. Due to its height above sea level, the pass is prone to snowfall year-round, so be prepared for all sorts of conditions when you go!
Biggest altitude gain: ALSO Sani Pass 1 332
The Sani Pass starts at 1 544m and rises 1 332 vertical meters to summit at 2 876m. This altitude gain is almost 300 meters more than its nearest competitor - the Naude's Nek Pass in the Eastern Cape.
For more info and visuals, check out Sani Pass on MPSA
SEE: Road-tripping Africa's sky country, Lesotho
Steepest: Tierberg Pass, Western Cape 6.41
Once again only accessible to 4x4 vehicles, the Tierberg Pass is a rather interesting one, as it actually only starts at the summit of the Koebee Pass, quite a steep pass in its own right. Although the average gradient is 1:6.4, the maximum gradient is a spine-tingling 1:2.7. The pass climbs up to the mountain plateau via a single hairpin, at which point some rudimentary concrete has been laid to aid with traction and services a single rooibos farm at the summit.
For more info and visuals, check out Tierberg Pass on MPSA
Pass with the longest name: Wildehondskloofhoogte Pass
(Photo: Google Maps)
While it may not be that remarkable in many other ways, this pass does boast quite a whopper of a name, containing no less than 21 letters. Roughly translated it would read 'wild dog ravine heights' pass. It is located on the R62 between Montagu and Barrydale and actually forms part of the Op de Tradouw Pass, as you immediately start the descent of the latter when you reach the summit of the former.
For more info and visuals, check out Wildehondskloofhoogte Pass on MPSA
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The oldest pass: Clooff Pass (now Constantia Nek) Western Cape – 1657
When he crossed it on 23 March 1657, Jan van Riebeeck named what we now know as Constantia Nek, Clooff Pass. Back then it was mainly used to transport timber form the Hout Bay valley to the settlements at the Castle of Good Hope and Woodstock Beach. The summit of the pass was always an obvious resting point for travellers, and the land leased out for hospitality purposes since the beginning. It is currently home to the highly acclaimed Constantia Nek restaurant.
For more info and visuals, check out Constantia Nek on MPSA
Most technical pass to drive: Baster Voetslaan Pass, Eastern Cape
This rough, gravel pass is located in the vicinity of Barkley East and also known as the Dr Lapa Munnik Pass. There is absolutely no way an ordinary vehicle can successfully traverse the pass and even a bakkie with difflock engaged will probably have some difficulty. You will need a proper 4x4 with low range and high ground to complete the pass. The rolling green hills surrounding the pass are absolutely stunning and reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands.
For more info and visuals, check out Baster Voetslaan Pass on MPSA
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The oldest properly engineered pass: Franschhoek Pass, Western Cape – 1822
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago this stunning pass was known as the Olifantshoek Pass, named after the now mythical elephants that roamed in the area. Stretching between Franschhoek and Villiersdorp, the pass is the oldest properly engineered road in South Africa. Accessible to all vehicle types, it offers exquisite views and remains extremely well maintained.
For more info and visuals, check out Franschhoek Pass on MPSA
The most cursed pass: Suikerbossie/Victoria Road, Western Cape
Okay, well we have no factual back-up here, but we know that the steep Suikerbossie hill is by far the most dreaded part of the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour, making it the recipient of many-a-angry curse word.
For more info and visuals, Check out Suikerbossie/Victoria Road on MPSA
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The most popular pass name: Langkloof and Ouberg
If you're looking for the Langkloof Pass, you're going to have to be quite specific! There are no less than three actual Langkloof Passes in the country and at least another three other places bearing the same name. It can get rather confusing. Second to Langkloof, is the name, 'Ouberg.' There are at least four Ouberg passes - one near Montagu, another near Vanrhynsdorp, another near Sutherland, and then also one in the Eastern Cape.
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