Originally published in Cape Etc magazine
Chapman's Peak Drive
First opened in 1922 and connecting the seaside villages of Hout Bay and Noordhoek, ‘Chappies’ is one of the most dramatic marine drives in the world. Nine kilometres of snaking roadway hug the contours of these sheer cliffs, with the waters of the Atlantic swirling below. Needless to say, the views are nothing short of breathtaking, with lookout points offering panoramic vistas across to Hout Bay and The Sentinel, the most westerly landmass before the open ocean.
We can only imagine the VOC’s Pondicherry Regiment, stationed here at the East Fort gun battery in the 1700s, would have thought the view quite charming too – as long as it remained devoid of British ships on their way to conquer the Cape. With its restored 18th-century cannons, the East Fort is now the oldest working battery of original guns in the world, and is accessible from a slip road 1.2 km from the Hout Bay side.
Tear your eyes away from that awe-inspiring horizon and you’ll notice that Chapman’s Peak Drive itself is a triumph of engineering over nature. The dangerously ambitious work of cutting a road into the cliffs began in 1915, and there has been more than one casualty in its 100-year history. Today sophisticated safety measures such as high-tensile-strength catch fences and cantilevered protection canopies ensure that motorists are safe from rockfalls when travelling on this king among Cape roads.
Take one picturesque wine valley, add one sweeping mountain pass, throw in a nature reserve and a dam sparkling in the distance, and you have pure Sunday-drive perfection. Finished in 1825 – at which time it was South Africa’s first engineered road – the 14.9 km Franschhoek Pass is a gorgeous run of twists and hairpins that rises to a summit 739m above sea level.
Your climb begins at the top end of the town’s main street. Here, the colonnade of the Huguenot Monument commemorates the French Protestants who fled their homeland to settle in this area, where they became some of the country’s first wine producers. The road continues past popular wine estates and restaurants (we suggest a stop at Haute Cabrière for a tasting on your way back), and has numerous spots to pull over and admire the view along the way.
Of course, the best of these is at the summit, where you can see the whole patchwork of Franschhoek’s farms and vineyards laid out below. Here, you’ll also find a gravel path that leads to the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve, with its 30 km of well-maintained hiking trails.
Descending on the wilder southern side, your route will lead you over Jan Joubert’s Gat Bridge, with stairs descending to a stream and a lovely picnic spot – just the ticket for a leg stretch after all those bends!
Andrew Geddes Bain is something of a hero of road-building in the Cape (despite having never received a formal education in engineering). It seems only fitting, then, that this mountain pass bearing his name has enjoyed national-monument status since 1980.
Finished in 1853, the 30 km Bainskloof Pass was for many years the only direct route from Wellington to the more northerly towns of Worcester and Ceres. Today, Du Toitskloof Pass and the N1 offer faster, less hair-raising roads to the interior, but none with the beauty or grace of this historic roadway.
Bainskloof certainly isn’t built for speed, and the 60 km/h limit should be carefully observed. Slow down, keep an eye on those hairpins, and stop frequently to take in the natural beauty all around you – from the gorgeous endemic fynbos to the tumbling Witte River below. Perhaps the most dramatic rock scenery of the pass is Dacre’s Pulpit, a massive, seemingly precarious overhang of rock that makes you suddenly understand the vehicle height restrictions in place.
At the summit, pull over to explore Bainskloof Village, the site of operations from where the man himself oversaw construction of this, his greatest road legacy. Then, when you reach the northern end of the pass, you’ll cross Borcherds Bridge, below which you’ll find the Tweede Tol Campsite. Its sparkling rock pools are a popular spot for picnicking and cooling off.
Like father, like son – Thomas Bain, the son of Andrew Geddes Bain, is another revered South African master builder. Of his 24 projects, Tradouw is considered to be his masterpiece. This winding way follows not just the folds of the mountains that loom above it, but those of the Tradouw River below, too. Inspired by the natural logic of a water-course, Thomas Bain had a good eye for plotting his roads along the path of least resistance.
At the pass’s southern end, at the foot of the Langeberg, lies Swellendam. This Overberg town is actually the third oldest in South Africa, and is a popular getaway and base for those who want to explore the area. From Swellendam, the Tradouw Pass runs 13 km to the Klein Karoo town Barrydale. From here, you can hop on to Route 62, a favourite road-trip stretch that’ll introduce you to local delights, from Ronnies Sex Shop to Oudtshoorn’s Cango Caves.
When it was completed in 1873, Governor Lord Barkley named this roadway Southey Pass, in honour of the then colonial secretary. Those living nearby, on the other hand, had long since dubbed it ‘Tradouw’, translating to ‘woman’s way’ in the local Khoi language. Happily, the name stuck and remains in use to this day.
When your coastal scenery is as good as Cape Town’s, you can’t help but want to show it off. Cue our other jaw-droppingly beautiful marine drive. Just a hop, skip and 70 km from Chapman’s Peak, Clarens Drive connects tiny Rooi-Els to the bigger seaside town of Gordon’s Bay. Its 21 km length offers sea views, local history and a total of 77 magnificent curves and corners.
Let’s talk about those views. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Cape Point in the west, the pristine reserve that many mistake for the southernmost tip of Africa (that honour actually belongs to Cape Agulhas). What else you may spot, come July, are the southern right whales that return here annually to breed. Clarens Drive forms part of the official Cape Whale Route, and there are plenty of spots for you to pull over and wave at these leviathans.
Closer to Gordon’s Bay, you’ll see a car park and the entrance to the Crystal Pools hiking trail, with its series of mountain pools and waterfalls. You’ll need decent walking shoes, but it’s not a long slog, and the pools are blissful in summer. Not up for a hike? Head further into Gordon’s Bay for pub grub at Berties Moorings.