Five great scenic drives in the Cape
1. Swartberg Pass
Quite possibly the most dramatic gravel pass in the whole of South Africa, this famous 25km pass links Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo with Prince Albert in the Great Karoo, traversing the towering Swartberg mountains that divide the two. Designed by Thomas Bain, the pass was completed in 1886 by convict labourers who took three years to build it. If you approach from the Oudtshoorn side, expect to navigate a steep, switchback incline before gradually winding your way down to the other side. Along the route look out for the dry-packed stone walls that Bain was famous for, and a turn-off to a place called Gamkaskloof, or Die Hel, once a secluded enclave where a small farming community lived in almost complete isolation until the early 20 th century.
2. Chapman’s Peak
'Chappies', a 9km Cape Town road that links the beautiful Hout Bay to the wide swathe of Noordhoek Beach, is one of the Cape’s most famous drives, hugging the cliffs and making some 114 twists and turns as it circumnavigates the mountainside. On a clear day, the views over the sea are well worth the extra toll fee (R36 for ordinary sedan vehicles). The toll road was introduced after special protections where put in place to protect motorists from rockfalls. Even so, after heavy rains, especially in winter (May to August), this road is still subject to intermittent closures. Chappies is also a regular fixture on the annual Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour route, and a definite highlight of this popular event.
3. Clarence Drive
A beautifully engineered 21km road between the mountains and the sea from Gordon’s Bay to Betty's Bay is a favourite among bikers, who like to use this route for a Sunday morning breakfast run for its thrilling camber. On the one side, the mountain tumbles down into the sea where, in spring, southern right whales can often be observed. On the other, the mountains rise up into the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, home to baboons, leopards, Verreaux’s eagles and other wildlife. The road also drops down to sea level along a stretch of beach known as Kogelbaai but, be warned, the beach itself is subject to dangerous rip currents so it's best enjoyed from one of the many viewpoints along here. Something to look out for is several crosses on the rocks that mark the spots where fishermen have been washed out to sea by unexpected swells that rise up suddenly here.
The Cape Folded Mountains are so named for the way in which the rock folds back and in on itself, a geological phenomenon that makes for spectacular scenery in the Western Cape. One way of experiencing these beautiful mountains is to drive through a poort (or canyon) that cuts a path through the rock, which consists mainly of hard sandstone and quartzites. One of these passages is the 17km Seweweekspoort (seven weeks' passage), close to Calitzdorp. There are several theories around how it was named, one of which is that it took seven weeks to catch a stock thief who took refuge here. You’ll be driving at ground level and looking up at the rock formations all around you. Remember to stop every now and then to take photographs. When you get to the other side, turn around drive back again. Another similar route is Meiringspoort near Oudtshoorn.
5. Bain's Kloof Pass
Bain's Kloof Pass, a Provincial Heritage Site, is the work of legendary pass builder Andrew Geddes Bains, and was completed in 1853. This 30km pass links the Boland town of Wellington and Wolseley and was once on the main route between the Cape and the Diamond Fields of Kimberley. Back in the day, the road was built to accommodate horses, but today it's a relatively narrow tar road. Go carefully as the road twists and turns as it climbs up and over the mountain. At the top you’ll see a handful of holiday cottages, used by a fortunate few who come here to enjoy the mountain air and swim in the lovely mountain pools of the Witte River below. Also look out for a rock formation known as D'Acres Pulpit, a rock that overhangs the road by almost 4m and which has proved to be a bit of an obstacle to passing trucks.