On top of the world: The views from the Swartberg Pass are magnificent. It was designed by Thomas Bain and built in the 1880s. Picture: SUPPLIED
On top of the world: The views from the Swartberg Pass are magnificent. It was designed by Thomas Bain and built in the 1880s. Picture: SUPPLIED

Prince Albert is an iconic town with a mouthwatering array of eateries. But we tear ourselves away; we have harder things in mind — riding our bikes up the Swartberg Pass, which was designed by Thomas Bain and built by more than 1,000 convicts in the 1880s.

Near the top we take a right turn and head down (and in places up) the road to Die Hel/Gamkaskloof, built in the 1960s at the behest of Otto du Plessis, then administrator of the Cape Province. It provided the first vehicle passage into Die Hel, an isolated but fertile valley in the heart of the Swartberg which was then home to about 30 families. Before the road was built, everything had to be carried by man or beast (donkey mainly) in and out of the valley.

The valley is not hell, it is close to paradise. The people who lived there produced a cornucopia of many kinds of produce, including grains that were ground by water mills.

The last of the original inhabitants left in the 1990s. Die Hel is now a national monument and part of the greater Swartberg Nature Reserve and an increasingly popular destination for visitors (most in SUVs).

We sleep in one of the many original houses that have been revamped into modern bush lodge pastiche. Because we will be sleeping in guesthouses on this trip, we have cut our luggage to about 7kg per bike.

The next morning we experience what had kept the community so remote: the old way out of the valley via Die Leer (The Ladder). There is a dispute about access to Die Leer so if you want to climb it, you have to stay in the estate below.

Perfect place to wander: On the road to Seweweekspoort there are hidden valleys, beautiful mountains and a number of lodges at which to stop. Picture: SUPPLIED
Perfect place to wander: On the road to Seweweekspoort there are hidden valleys, beautiful mountains and a number of lodges at which to stop. Picture: SUPPLIED

We push, lift and manhandle our bikes with increasing exhaustion up the steep slope, rising about 500m. The original inhabitants would climb it, carrying eggs, honey and other produce to barter and sell to traders who gathered at the top.

Die Leer was a potent barrier to the development of a consumer society. Hardly any of the community’s houses had glass windows — glass was too heavy and fragile to carry down.

Three hours later we mount our bikes to ride over upland Swartberg landscape to the R323. There we take a right towards the Bosch Luys Kloof Lodge, at the bottom of the pass of the same name.

The Bosluiskloof Pass is a smaller edition of the Swartberg Pass. We ride down its slope, delayed by short stops to marvel at the rock formations and strata which are the Swartberg’s selling point. The pass was built in the 1860s by Thomas Bain’s brother in law, Adam de Smidt. Did the family have inside contacts which helped them win tenders?

Bain’s description of the pass in 1871 still holds true today: "A scene burst upon us I shall not forget in a hurry. Breathless I gazed down the valley on the boundless sea of blue mountains, cones and peaks, table tops and jagged lines of hillocks tingled with the faint blush of glowing rays of the unseen sun."

The lodge has a beautiful nature reserve. The name Bosluiskloof derives from the many fossils found in rocks dug out by the convict road builders. The fossils looked like ticks (bosluise) but were in fact trilobites — one of the earliest arthropods (insects and other creatures with exoskeletons) from the Early Cambrian period more than 500-million years ago.

Viewing some of the fossils at the lodge induces a feeling of otherworldliness.

The next day, we reverse direction and what was a whizz of a ride down the pass becomes a winding morning slog requiring all the determination we can extract from a big breakfast.

But after reaching the top it’s all downhill for 15km to the western mouth of Seweweekspoort, the most dramatic passage through the Swartberg. An hour-long ride of wonderment takes us through the poort with its folded, mangled, multicoloured strata on both sides of the mountain.

The pass follows a stream at an even gradient downwards so cyclists can spend most of their time lifting up their eyes to the glorious rock faces.

We sigh as we resume cycling up and downhill before joining Route 62, the scenic, tarred alternative to the N2 highway. The traffic proves to be light as we hit tar for the first time since Prince Albert and we motor through the spectacular countryside to Calitzdorp — our next stop for the night and a delicious lunch the next day at one of the town’s wine estates.

Next morning we are back on our favourite surface — gravel – heading up the Nelsrivier-Kruisrivier road that winds past fertile valley farms surrounded by dry Little Karoo slopes.

Many art devotees live along the route. Peter Coe, who hails from New Zealand, built a full gallows on the front lawn of his house. We stop to marvel at the work of Roger Young, a renowned photographer and carpenter, in the same way that we marvelled at the natural beauty of the places we passed through.

Winding on, the hills become steeper as we reach the skirts of the Swartberg proper. We pass enormous private nature reserves. Our last night is spent just before Kobus se Gat.

Fresh on the fifth day, we assault the eastern Swartberg Pass. We get to Die Top after three hours of sweat and ever-improving scenery.

A bitter wind propels us back to our bicycles to whizz down the 30km back to Prince Albert.

Before leaving the area we stay at Numbi Farm near the other great Swartberg passage, Meiringspoort. Numbi, a permaculture farm, decisively disproves the proposition that smallholders cannot make a good living in the face of competition from large commercial farmers.

With relatively little capital but a lot of knowledge, the owners have rendered a barren and overgrazed plot into a highly productive operation, primarily through tents with chickens which are moved every few weeks after fertilising and turning the soil.

• Payne is a route scout for Spekboom Tours.