Plaatbos forest and Storms River Pass

The Tsitsikamma is one of my happy places. It is where I go to recharge my soul and get close to nature and that is what we as a family did a couple of week ago. It wasn’t a comprehensive charge, but a quick visit one just to breath in the fresh Tsitsikamma air and get away from lockdown at that stage.

One of our stops for the day was the Plaatbos Forest section of the Garden Route (Tsitsikamma) National Park next to Storms River Village. The nice thing about Plaatbos is that it’s right by the village so you can take an easy stroll from your accommodation, it offers free and easy access, and there are various beautiful walks in the indigenous forest. 

You can either follow the different marked trails (green – 5km, red – 7.5km and yellow – 8km) through the forest or just walk along the historic Storms River Pass. 

The Tsitsikamma (or Zitzikama as it was known back then) was first surveyed by the famous pass buyilder Thomas Bain in 1879. He found it consisted of almost impenetrable forests and steep gorges eastwards of Plettenberg Bay, but he followed the ancient elephant trails through the forests to find the best way to traverse these gorges. Using convict labourers, the pass through the Storms River gorge was completed by 1884. By then the village was surveyed and laid out around the Duthies of Knysna’s hunting lodge which became an inn for travelers using the pass and still exists as the Tsitsikamma Village Inn today.

Walking through Plaatbos is more than just enjoying the indigenous forest with its trees and streams. If you keep your eyes open you will spot the little things. New growth on a fern, a little frog in a stream, fungus and mushrooms growing under a dead branch, a butterfly making its way from flower to flower or a Knysna loerie overhead in the treetops.

Suddenly I feel like hopping in the car to go and plug in my soul.

A Sunday morning drive up the Montagu Pass

The Garden Route has many iconic passes.  Some crossing over mountains and others through gorges.  Some are part of main routes and are accessible to all, some are off the beaten track and only 4×4’s are recommended while others are only accessible on foot or bicycle.  The Montagu Pass outside of George is one that would fit in between the first two of the options above.  A dirt road over the Outeniqua Mountains, not a main road but accessible to all.  The last time I drove over the Montagu Pass was probably before the KidZ were born so a long weekend in George was the perfect excuse to grab an hour or two and go exploring.  And just to prove that you can do it in a normal sedan we took it on in the Aveo.  Not that I have a 4×4 to do it in otherwise anyways.

Construction on the Montagu Pass started in 1844 under the charge of Henry Fancourt White – yes, the same one of Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate fame – using 250 convict labors. The pass, named after Sir John Montagu who was the Colonial Secretary of the Cape in the 1840s, opened in 1848 and replaced the old Cradock Pass (a hiking trail these days) which used to take travelers three days to get across the mountains into the interior.  
The first stop our our journey wasn’t too far up the road at The Old Toll House.  I actually got a “Are we getting out already?” from the KidZ.  The historic building, built of local stone, have just been restored and work was still being done on it when we passed by.  This is where early travelers had to pay their toll to use the pass.  The toll used to be 2 pence per wheel and one penny for each pulling animal, 2 pence for a horse, cow, ox or mule and 1 half a penny for a sheep, goat or pig.  Wonder what the toll keeper would have said about the traffic using the road these days? 
Dropping down into the valley we stopped at the old stone bridge over the Keur River.  The bridge was designed and built by Charles Mitchell, another prolific South African road builder of the time.  I climbed down the side of the bridge for two reasons.  First to see it from the side and secondly to find the Geocache hidden there.  What’s any road trip without a spot of Geocaching anyways?   
Looking down from the bridge the Keur River could be seen below with the brown coloured water that is to typical of the rivers in the Garden Route region.  The brown colour is from tannin the river picks up as it flows through the forests and fynbos of the region.  All the leaves and plant material that drops on the ground acts as a teabag of sort as the water flows through it, giving it this colour.  The water is still perfectly clean though and used by many straight from the rivers.
We passed through Die Noute, the narrowest part of the pass, and traveled along the valley before starting to climb out and up the mountain.  It’s great to see how the original stone work is still visible on the side of the pass.  No wonder as the pass is said to be the oldest unaltered pass in South Africa.

As we climbed out of the valley and up the mountain vegetation quickly change to the fynbos that covers the surrounding mountains and one can’t but help to marvel at the variety of plants and flowers visible right next to the road.

Drama Princess even had me stop at one of the spots where a stream flowed down the mountain because she wanted to feel how cold the water was and taste it.
There are four passes that cross the Outenique Mountains in this area.  The original Cradock Pass, the Montagu Pass that we were on, the modern Outeniqua Pass and then the railway pass.  As we approached the top of the mountain we got to the first of two railway bridges you get to see while on the pass.  Until about a decade or two ago there were still steam trains using this line, but these days the best way to see it is by going up the pass on the Outeniqua Power Van.  Or stopping under it like we did. 

The bridge is located at Stinkhoutdraai (Stinkwood Corner) which was named after the Stinkwood Trees that used to grow here very prolifically.  There are still some left these days, but many were cut down during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Pulling over here wasn’t just about the bridge but also for us to have a closer look at the wooded cove just behind with another stream flowing down it. 

Near the top of the pass we passed below the second of the two railway bridges.

We decided not to drive out the back of the pass towards the Langkloof and back to George over the Outeniqua Pass, but to rather backtrack for a second taste of the Montagu Pass.  You get to see different sights and things at different angles that way anyway.  Our turning point was at Amanda’s Grave near the top from where we could look back down the pass we just came up on and was about to return back to.
It really is a pity that most people are always in such a hurry to get to their destinations that they just rush along the fastest route possible.  In this case the Outeniqua Pass.  But next time you are in the area, do pinch off an hour or so extra and take a leisurely drive up or down the old pass.  I promise you won’t be sorry.

Driving between Wilderness and George along the back roads

Last Thursday morning I did a presentation at a tourism stakeholder workshop in the Tsitsikamma and after lunch moved on to George for a weekend exhibit.  Having had some time on my hands I decided to veer off the main road and pick up a few Geocaches along Bo-Langvlei Road, the dirt road running behind the lakes between Sedgefield and Wilderness.  The plan wasn’t to do the whole road but only the last section of it starting between Bo-Langvlei and Island Lake.  My plan was just to Geocache and explore a bit so my camera was securely packed away in the boot of the Polo and I was just snapping pics with my phone along the way.  
Turning off the N2 I hit the first stretch of dirt road which was nice and smooth with only a few bumps to negotiate.  The second cache on my list was located at the old Duiwerivier Railway Station.  It’s really sad to see how the railway infrastructure along the line has deteriorated over the ten years since it was closed due to flooding.  It’s going to take a bit more than just cutting back a few bushes and pulling out some weeds to get the train running along this track again.
Leaving the station I started heading west and the next cache located at the back of Island Lake.  Standing on top of a beacon next to the road the view across the lake was stunning and although I could probably have spent a lot more time there it was time to get moving again.
I passed the Hoekwil Road turnoff and proceeded along Waterside Road at the back of the Serpentine section of the river.  The next stop was at the bridge over the Touw River, one of the only bridges in the country that is shared by both the road and the railway line.  The bridge is located inside the Wilderness National Park with both the Ebb and Flow campsites located to the left and right of it.  While I was searching for the cache under the bridge a number of holiday makers passed by in canoes on the river.  I’ve still gotta do that.  The beautiful surroundings just reminded me again that Ebb and Flow is still on our list of campsites we want to stay at in future.
At this stage my plans changed slightly and I decided to backtrack a kilometer or two and take the Hoekwil Road.  This tar road took me way up the hill from where I could see the lakes district below, past the community of Hoekwil and onto the Seven Passes Road.  I’m kinda embarrassed to say that I’ve never driven the Seven Passes Road although I’ve heard how scenic it was.  The Seven Passes Road is the old road between Knysna and George and traverses, yes you guessed it, seven passes along the way.  The majority of the road was tar with bits of very good dirt road in between.  Along the top between river valleys were mostly open areas with farms while the valleys are covered in pockets of indigenous forest. 
The first pass I drove through led down to the Touw River with an old steel bridge spanning the whiskey brown water that is so typical of the rivers and streams of the Garden Route.
The whiskey coloured Touw River with it’s surrounding forest
The second pass took me down to the Silwer River…
… and by now I was well and truly convinced that I had discovered one of the lesser known but truly worth discovering gems of the Garden Route.
The last pass took me down to the Kaaimans River, well known for the pass on the N2 between Wilderness and George as well as the railway bridge spanning the river mouth.  But here I was away from the hustle and bustle rush of the N2.  The sun was about to go under although it was getting dark very quickly at the bottom of the valley.   
I parked just past the old bridge built in 1904 and followed a path down the river for about 50 meters or so towards the last of the caches for the day.  After a bit of a tough search I found what I was looking for with the help of my phone torch and on my way back to the car I just realised again how often Geocaching can take one off the beaten track and to places like this.  Places that you would often not have seen if it wasn’t for a cache being located in the area. 
At the top of the pass the road spit me out close to the Saasveld Campus just outside of George with the silhouette of the Outenique Mountains beyond the town as my horizon.  It had been a very interesting and, frankly, relaxing afternoon and in my opinion a much better option that if I had just barreled along the N2 and sat around the guesthouse for the rest of the afternoon waiting to go and get dinner.  All thanks to a few containers forming part of a global treasure hunt game hidden along the way.

Three easy on the pocket George attractions

I don’t think George is very high on anybody’s list of possible holiday destinations.  Yes, as part of the Garden Route but not standing on it’s own.  If that is how you think then I’m going to have to tell you how wrong your thinking is.  Spending Easter Weekend in George showed me in four days that George is actually the ideal family destination.  Beautiful mountains and passes, a stunning coastline, a laid back town atmosphere and not outrageously expensive attractions.  We were camping in George and took it easy while we were there (plus I did a load of Geocaches) so chose one attraction to do every day while there.  It turned out that all three are highly recommended and very cheap to do so here are Three things to do in George that are easy on the pocket.
The Outeniqua Transport Museum is a must do while in George and if you do nothing else then you have to try and get here.  The museum used to be the departure point of the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe and has the most magnificent collection of trains (13 locomotives and numerous carriages), vintage cars and other vehicles, railway memorabilia and the most magnificent model train layout.  I thought the family would be totally bored but they were anything but.  You can also have lunch or just a coffee and milkshake in a dining car.  The best of all, adults pay R20 and kids under 12 only R10.  What an absolute bargain.

The one thing we really wanted to do while in town was a visit to Red Berry Farm.  Red Berry Farm offers strawberry picking as well as a host of kiddies activities.  We were there to do the hedge maze.  I knew in advance that it was a proper hedge maze but I don’t think I was fully prepared for what we encountered.  A truly dincum get lost for hours hedge maze.  You get a stamp card and have to look for 7 stations along the way to complete the card which took me an hour and a half.  After having coffee and a chat with friends who came by to say hi, I went back in an hour later to go and find Chaos Boy who was still wandering around looking for his last two stamps.  Would I go and do it again? In a heartbeat.  The cost? A paltry R35 per person.

On our last full day in George the options we considered were to either go down to Victoria Bay or up the historic Montagu Pass.  We opted for the latter of the two and explored this truly scenic pass completed way back in 1848.  The trip up was a combination of beautiful scenes, historic sites and being close to nature.  Although a dirt road that does take a battering from the rain, we drove up to the top and back down without any trouble in the Chev Aveo.  So what would you pay for this little outing? Well, nothing more than your petrol and some snacks for along the way.  Just don’t leave your camera behind.

Looking down the Langkloof from the Potjiesberg Pass

If you drive through the Langkloof from East to West you enter the valley just past Humansdorp and pass towns like Kareedouw, Jobertina, Krakeel, Louterwater, Misgund, Haarlem and Avontuur.  The valley is about 160 km long and the R62 (the road running through the Langkloof) then meets up with the N9 near the town of Uniondale.  Between this intersection and Uniondale travelers will find the Potjiesberg Pass.  The name of the Potjiesberg, directly translated, means little pot and refers to the mountain that resembles a round pepper pot.  It was on this pass that I stopped to look back towards the Langkloof when I took the picture in this post.

Exploring the old Storms River Pass

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.

A quick trip through the Bloukrans River Pass

The Bloukrans River Pass must be one of the most beautiful passes in the Southern Cape and Garden Route areas.  Unfortunately after the 2006 floods part of the road was damaged and rather than repairing it, the road was closed.  Although officially closed it isn’t blocked off and there is nothing stopping cars from driving down it so that is just what I did a couple of weeks ago returning to Port Elizabeth from The Crags.  There are sections where there has been rockfalls and one has to be careful, but nothing so bad that you can’t safely negotiate the road.  The nice part of it is that you are unlikely to encounter any other cars so there is a sense of peacefulness and isolation to the pass.  We stopped at the bottom to have a look at the river, but as it was a rainy day we didn’t stay long.  Also the reason for a lack of more pics from the trip.
I am a huge “Walking Dead” fan and driving along the pass’ leave covered road gave me that feeling of being somewhere in the series.  If you don’t follow the series you won’t get it, but I’m sure there are a few who do.  I’ll hopefull get another chance to drive through again soon and hope to snap more pics while the sun shines.

Sir Lowry’s Pass lookout

The first sighting of the Cape, False Bay and Table Mountain one gets approaching from the east is from the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass on top of the Hottentots Holland Mountains.  The view sight is situated at the top of the pass and about 920 meters above sea level.  The view site gives a beautiful panorama from Gordon’s Bay and Strand on the shore of False Bay on the left towards Somerset West and the Helderberg on the right.  In the distance Cape Town and Table Mountain is visible.   
 
The mountain crossing in this region was known by the indigenous Khoi people as the Gantouw or Eland’s Pass and was used as a stock route.  The Dutch and British settlers at the Cape built a rough pass called the Hottentots Holland Kloof Pass following the Gantouw route.  The first recorded crossing was in 1664 and by 1821 the pass saw about 4500 ox-wagons per year crossing into the interior.  The route was unfortunately so severe that more than 20% of these were damaged.  The ruts left by these wagons being dragged over the mountains can still be seen and was declared a National Monument in 1958.
 
Construction on a new pass, about 2 km to the south of the Hottentots Holland Kloof, was started in 1828 by the engineer Charles Michell using convict labour.  The new pass was opened in 1830 and named after Lowry Cole, the Governor of the Cape Colony at the time.  In the 1930s the pass was widened and tarred with further improvements done in the 1950s and 1980’s to get it to what it is in today.  Something a long way from the rough two track route over the mountain.

Sir Lowry’s Pass view point

After nearly a day on the road between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town (roughly about 800km and normally an 8 hour drive if you only stop once or twice briefly) one starts to be in a hurry by the time you get to the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass just west of Somerset West.  The end destination is within reach after all.  I like to pull over on top of the pass at the view point for a couple of minutes first before heading down into the rush which is the Cape roads – I’m from Port Elizabeth after all.  The view from up there is probably one of the most beautiful sights around with the Strand and Somerset West in the foreground, False Bay on the left and Table Mountain in the distance.

Cogmans Kloof

Cogmans Kloof outside Montagu is one of the famous landmarks on Route 62 through the Klein Karoo.  The Cogmans Kloof Pass passes through a poort (a poort being defined as a path through a mountain range) which runs through the Langeberg between Ashton and Montagu.  The first white farmers in the area were allocated farms from 1725 onwards and the original road through the poort was a dangerous one alongside the Kingna River which incorporates eight hazardous drifts.  To get around Kalkoenkrantz the wagons had to actually travel in the riverbed itself.  This route was very susceptible to flooding.  Authorisation was given to built a road in 1861 with work only starting in 1867, stopping again in 1870.  Thomas Bain, son of Andrew Geddes Bain, surveyed the pass and work was restarted in 1873 with the biggest job being to blast a tunnel through Kalkoenkrantz.  Up to that time blasting was generally done with gunpowder, but the Cogmanskloof tunnel, which is 16 metres long and had a 5 metre high roof, became the first time in South Africa that a tunnel was blasted using dynamite.