Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Vacation" to the Garden Route, Part 4: The Swartberg Pass and the real Karoo

Part 4: The Swartberg Pass & the real Karoo

Summary: The final leg of our trip took us from the Klein Karoo to the real Karoo by way of the Swartberg Pass. Our first stop was Prince Albert and after one night, we headed east along the northern edge of the Swartberg and then back to Plettenberg Bay via an inadvertent adventure route, which we now know was Prince Alfred's Pass.

The Klein Karoo is known for its ostrich farming, and numerous fortunes were made back in the mid-late 1800s when it was all the rage to have ostrich feathers in your hat. Although the Yankee Doodle fad has passed, the birds are now farmed for their delicious meat, leather, and egg shells.

This area is locally referred to as 'Merino Country' and varying percentages of the world's finest wool comes from the Karoo (anywhere from 40%, 60%, to 80%, depending on which tourist information booth you pass). Merino also makes for good eating: these are fall lambs being fattened up for Easter.

In the background of this farm are the majestic Swartberg. No formal pass for these mountains existed until the mid 1800s when the road engineer Thomas Bain began working to connect the Klein and Great Karoo. Bain was a remarkable person who oversaw the construction of 24 mountain passes in South Africa (his father, Andrew Bain, built 8). Bain's work is noted for its attention to scenic detail and for its impressive dry stone walls, almost all of which are still standing and in excellent shape. It's also noted for its use of mostly prison laborers. Bain first constructed a pass at Meiringspoort on the eastern end of the Swartberg in 1858, then put in a western pass at Seweweekspoort in 1862, but farmers in between the passes still faced a day of travel just to reach one end or the other. A pass through the middle of the Swartberg was deemed too difficult, but Bain, who was known for saying "nothing is impassable!" managed to complete the project in 8 short years, finishing in 1888. If you think a PhD is hard, try building a mountain pass with prison labor and no electricity. The completed pass is known as the Swartberg Pass, and it's one of South Africa's finest (plus, it's loaded with Helichrysum).

This is the view from just below the summit of the Swartberg Pass, looking South. You can see the road winding off to the left.

The North side of the Swartberg Pass is steeper and thus has considerably more switchbacks. We've marked some of the route in red here - if you zoom in you can see the dry stone walls Thomas Bain is famous for. As you go down this side of the pass, there is a small sign pointing you to a rough dirt road leading to an area known as "Die hel" (The Hell). We didn't take that route, but apparently it leads to a small town (largely abandoned now) where "people's eyes are a little bit close together," as our cheesemonger friend in Johannesburg put it.

Rather than going to hell, we stopped in for the night at Prince Albert. This farm shed gives you an idea of the distinctive Karoo architecture and its place in the environment - stark whitewashed buildings with green doors set against a reddish soil with bright blue skies.  

And this rather attractive lady gives you an idea of just how enchanting we found that architecture. 

Our B&B (Karoo Kaya) was fantastic. The draped bed isn't for luxury, but rather to deter to the kamikaze mosquito population.

No, this wasn't our kitchen cupboard but rather the sort of enchanting rusted farmware you find festooning walls in charming country towns in South Africa.

The water distribution system in Prince Albert is fascinating. Shallow irrigation ditches like this one line all the main streets, and each home has a small diverter that taps into the main ditches and allows water to flow into the property (usually into a large holding tank). As a landowner with water rights, you get a specified number of days each week during which you're allowed to divert water flow onto your premises. Apparently this sort of system used to be prevalent throughout South Africa (even large towns like Grahamstown still have the ditches, but they no longer carry water). My hypothesis: open irrigation systems and kamikaze mosquitoes are directly related.

We loved Prince Albert because of the amazing artisans there. Above is the interior of Karoo Looms, a mohair rug shop that handweaves incredible, durable rugs from Angora goat hair using a collection of antique looms (and some newer models). The garbage can out front celebrates that history.

Above, Gay's Dairy makes excellent farm-style and cheddar-style cheeses, including one infused with cumin. They also make great yoghurt. All of this from beautiful Jersey cows.

The olive oil industry thrives just outside of town - there are at least three olive oil growers and you can do tastings at each one. These guys also grow apples and almonds, which were both in season while we were there.

With great reluctance, we bid a fond farewell to Prince Albert and all the lovely people we met. We're committed to buying a mohair rug from Sophia at Karoo Looms, so we'll be back soon. Sadly, we'll miss this year's Olive Festival because we'll be stateside.
Our route back through the Swartberg took us through Meiringspoort (Bain's second pass through these mountains). Halfway along the pass, there's a pulloff where you can swim in this waterfall...

...which Kelsey was quite reluctant to do for obvious reasons.

Delirium tremens had set in by the time we reached De Rust, a small town on the other side of the Meiringspoort Pass. This may have led us to make a particularly stupid shortcut just out of town...

So Jonah noticed a relatively straight-looking route that cut off some serious mileage on our way down to Plettenberg Bay. Marked on the map as a relatively straight looking road of little consequence, it turned out to be another of Bain's incredible passes. Driving our little VW rental car, we were alarmed to see only Land Cruisers and Land Rovers taking the pass, but somehow we managed through (although our shortcut took us about 4 hours to go 60km).

Our reward was some nice wildlife, like this Francolin, and some weird local bars.

Down from the pass, we spent our last night on a Percheron Horse Farm just outside of Plettenberg Bay. This place had just opened, and the guest rooms were designed to look like they were stalls (but much more comfortable, as you can see below).

Although we arrived as a rainy dusk settled in, we were treated to a great view of the Indian Ocean in the distance when we awoke. You can see it just to the right of the trees.

And after one more quick trip to the beach, we returned home, resolving to visit again soon.

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