The Swartberg Pass between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn in the Karoo has been widely described as engineer Thomas Bain’s masterpiece. In a way, that’s not surprising. Bain was the Graaff-Reinet-born son of Andrew Geddes Bain, himself an engineer, and junior’s apprenticeship was long and thorough.

By the time he took over the construction of the Swartberg Pass it was late in his life (he died at 63), and he was in his professional dotage. He wasn’t to design another...

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