The Van Staden’s River west of Port Elizabeth is the boundary of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro and a major landmark in the area. Most people cross the gorge on the N2 in a couple of seconds using the arch bridge while others take their time and drive through the old pass. But where does the name Van Staden’s come from and when were the different bridges built?
Van Staden’s got it’s name from Marthinus van Staden who obtained grazing rights on the farm Kabeljouws a few kilometers from Jeffreys Bay in 1744. From here he moved further east across the Gamtoos River and established himself on a farm by the next river. This being the river that was later called the Van Staden’s River. Marthinus plotted a rudimentary track through the gorge and in 1852 the first crude pass was built. In 1865 a new pass was built but with a drift across the river.
The current pass was constructed in 1938 with a bridge across the river. Up until this time there had not been a bridge but merely a drift. To the right (looking east) of the bridge is the remains of a short bit of tar that may have been where the drift was located. The pass was eventually tarred itself between 1950 and 1953.
Things changed drastically when the arch bridge over the gorge was completed on 12 October 1971. It has a main span of 198 meters and is 125 meters above the gorge. Interestingly the two halves of the arch were constructed simultaneously from both sides.
It’s a weird feeling standing under the Van Stadens bridge. It’s not an angle many see it from and you get a much better idea of the size and magnitude of the bridge when you are underneath it. Then add the “kadoef kadoef” as the cars and trucks pass overhead. Definitely a weird feeling.
It’s an easy walk to get below the bridge from the bridge lookout picnic spot so you don’t have to do one of the longer trails to get to it. Go for it and go and check it out.
Last Saturday we went for a walk at the Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve and followed the River Walk up to the point where you walk under the Van Stadens Bridge. It truly is a sight from below, but I think I’ll keep that photo for a second post.
The bridge was completed on 12 October 1971 and stretches 198m across the gorge and is 125m at its highest point. The bridge was designed by Italian engineers and the two halves of the arch were constructed simultaneously from both sides. As one walks up next to the bridge on the northern side there is a cement block that was used as the point from where all the measurements were done.
A CCTV system was installed in 2005 with a 2,7m high steel mesh pedestrian barrier constructed on both sides of the bridge in 2013 to deter suicide jumpers. You aren’t allowed to stop on the bridge to enjoy the view, but you can view the bridge from the bottom of the Van Stadens Pass as well as from the wildflower reserve.
The Van Stadens River is about 35km west of Port Elizabeth and you can either go over or through it to get to the other side.
The river and original pass was named after one of the area’s pioneer farmers, Marthinus van Staden, who was the first person to plot a basic route through the Van Stadens River Gorge in the 1850’s. In 1867 Thomas Bain was brought in by the Cape Government to rebuild the pass so that ox wagon traffic could safely travel through the pass. In 1868, barely a year later, a massive flood washed away major sections of the pass and bridge, which resulted in a complete rebuild. Over the next eighty years the pass saw regular improvements and widening and it was finally tarred between 1950 and 1953. In 1971 the N2 bridge over the gorge was opened. It took 4 years to complete (1967 – 1971) and is the 1st of 5 large concrete bridges along the N2. The bridge is an arch bridge design with a height of 140 m and a span of 198.1 m. The concrete remains of the original drift over the river can still be seen among the rocks and boulders.
Taking the old road through the pass may take a bit longer than flying along the N2, but its really worth the extra time, especially if you stop at the bottom by the old bridge.
My normal route through the Karoo Heartland of the Eastern Cape when heading up north is over Cradock and Steynsburg towards Venterstad and then a short left to the Gariep Dam before hitting the N1 for Bloemfontein. Before my last trip to Johannesburg I had a closer look at the Geocaching map to see if there are any possible alternative routes that will take me to cache locations I haven’t been to. A couple of green dots around the town of Bethulie in the southern Free State caught my eye. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more distance, just a right at Venterstad and a loop via Bethulie towards the N1. The one thing that really caught my attention though was that one of the caches was called The Longest one in SA. Longest what? It turns out that the (now second) longest bridge in South Africa spans the the Orange River, connecting the Eastern Cape and Free State, just outside the town.
The arched D.H. Steyn Bridge (also called the Hennie Steyn Bridge) is 1,152 km long and 51,5 meter high above the river below. The bridge was built in the 1970’s and was named after the then chairperson of the Orange River Development Project Advisory Council.
Another unique aspect of it is that the bridge isn’t just a road bridge but also acts as railway bridge with the railway line running parallel to the road. Approaching it from the Eastern Cape side is probably best with a great view of the bridge, but I have to be honest, standing on the bridge itself it doesn’t look very spectacular. The view to both side are beautiful though (in a Karoo way) and just the fact that I can say I have visited the (second) longest bridge in South Africa made the detour worth while. Just a pity that more people don’t venture off the beaten track to come and discover places like this.
Oh yes, and I did find the Geocache in case you were wondering.
UPDATE: Thanks to Grant Stater for the information in the comments. The longest bridge in South Africa is now along the John Ross Parkway along the N2 near Rochards Bay in KZN. A 1.2km long bridge spanning the Enseleni floodplain and Nsezi River was completed in December 2009 at a cost of R270-million and is now the longest bridge in the country.
Road tripping means discovering new places, often places you will never see otherwise. This was once again the case when I had to drive to Bedford for a meeting and decided to take the scenic route via Grahamstown. About halfway between the two towns I passed over the mighty Fish River and pulled over to have a closer look.
This spot really is in the middle of nowhere with not much to see yet beautiful in it’s own way.
The original bridge was built in 1863 but washed away soon after in 1874. Two years later a steel bridge was built on the same spot and this one stuck around a little longer but was once again destroyed in a flood in 1932. The current bridge was built in 1933. The plaque doesn’t say who the bridge was named after, but according to the South Africa Heritage Online website it was probably named after John Carlisle who, in 1822, led a party of thirteen settlers from Staffordshire to settle in the area.
Just something I left out in the intro. Discovering places like this isn’t just about road tripping. It’s stopping along the way and not just rushing to your destination.
I have a special connection with the Tsitsikamma forest. It is where I go to plug in my soul for a bit of a recharge. It doesn’t even have to be an extended recharge. Just a couple of minutes sitting in the forest next to a stream taking in the forest with all my senses is enough. There are various ways to explore the forest with trails being the most effective way to leave everything behind. One of these “trails”, the biggest one actually, is the old Storms River Pass starting from Storms River Village.
The Tsitsikamma (then known as Zitzikama) area was first surveyed by the famous pass builder Thomas Bain in 1879. He found impenetrable forests east of Plettenberg Bay with access made even tougher by deep gorges. During the planning process of building a pass through the Storms River gorge, Bain followed the ancient elephant migratory routes down to the river and as elephants find the easiest way down, decided to build his pass along those routes. Labour for this difficult task was provided by convicts and some of their graves can still be seen on the outskirts of the Village. The pass itself was completed in 1884 and until the N2 and Storms River Bridge were built in 1955 was the only way to get through the gorge. Today the road is closed for traffic and can only be access on foot, bicycle or on Storms River Adventures’ Woodcutters Journey tour.
The Woodcutters Journey takes one down the pass in a small truck with a guide telling you more about the history of the area as well as the ecology of the forest. The tour tops quite often for the guide to point our specific trees or plants and explains the role it plays in the forest and those who have lived in it in the past. The tour also allows for you to hop off if you want and walk a section of it.
I had been down the old pass a number of times, but on this specific trip the guide showed us something I have never seen. He took us along a path next to the road and showed us some of the original stonework done by Bain and his workers. In this case a small tunnel under the road to channel water away.
At the bottom of the pass the forest opens up and while the guide unpacked a picnic lunch, we took a walk to the low water bridge over the Storms River. I’m sure I was told at some stage that the bridge were built by soldiers after the first World War, but please don’t quote me on that. I can’t seem to find any info on it on the internet.
The trip down the Storms River Pass really is an alternative way to explore the forest and learn a bit more in the process. I need to be alone to recharge though and the batteries are starting to run low. I think a return visit is just about in order.
Driving along the N2 through the Tsitsikamma you have to pass over the Storms River Bridge with most visitors stopping at the Petroport for a view of the bridge from the view site or into the gorge from the bridge itself. To get to the walkway on the southern side of the bridge you have to first go under it giving you this slightly different view of it.
Geocaching is about so much more than using multi billion dollar spy satellite technology to find hidden Tupperware. Its also about exploration, going to and discovering places you may not otherwise have gone to. One of these is the highest narrow gauge railway bridge in the world spanning the Van Stadens Gorge outside Port Elizabeth. Years ago when the Apple Express was still running it used to stop before the bridge and passengers could walk across and get a photograph of the train crossing with smoke billowing and steam blowing. This time around I walked in from the closest road to find two containers placed on each side of the bridge.
This narrow gauge line from Port Elizabeth was authorised in 1899 and construction commenced in 1902, reaching the town of Avontuur in the Langkloof late in 1906. The line was built to connect the scenic Langkloof with its fruit growing industry to the port of Port Elizabeth. The official opening of the line was in 1907, with a main line track length of 284km (177 miles) from Port Elizabeth to Avontuur. The 30km branch line from Gamtoos Junction to Patensie was completed in 1914 to serve this citrus producing area. The establishment of the deciduous fruit industry in the Langkloof, and the use of the Narrow Gauge to transport fruit to the cooling sheds in the Port Elizabeth harbour for export, led to the popular name for the narrow gauge, namely the Apple Express. It was also the name of the little tourist train that we so badly would like to have back running again.
The Van Staden’s rail bridge is the second highest railway bridge in South Africa, and the highest narrow gauge bridge in the world. Construction on the bridge was completed in 1905 with it being 156m long, 77m high and containing 1 112 cubic metres of concrete and 574 tons of steel. I peeked through a gap down to the bottom of the gorge and snapped this last picture. Hectic to think what it must have been like building this.