The multi-talented Thomas Bain was one of the shining stars of Victorian-era South Africa. Not only did he supervise the building of a score of Cape mountain passes, but his passions spread to botany, archaeology, art, water research, administering the law and raising a large, happy family.

Did you know?

Thomas Bain took one month's of leave in 46 years of employment with the Cape Colony.

The craggy mountain passes of the Western Cape are a road tripper’s delight. At once daunting and awe-inspiring, high-altitude crossings like the Prince Alfred’s Pass, the Robinson Pass, the Pakhuis Pas, the Tradouw Pass and the legendary Swartberg Pass make for easy driving in modern cars. And you can’t help but wonder at the mastery of the man who built them.

Take a bow, Thomas Bain.

Of course, with a dad like Andrew Geddes Bain, chances are you’ll end up with a measure of road-building expertise. AG Bain was a saddler and then a soldier in the Eastern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet, a southern African explorer and a fossil hunter. He was also known as the ‘father of South African geology’ and supervised the building of eight mountain passes in the old Cape Colony of Queen Victoria’s time.

His son Thomas (1830-1893) took the reins from AG and went on to build 24 mountain passes, thereby opening up access between the Cape and the rest of Africa.

Bain Jnr was a busy man throughout his 63 years, 40 of which were spent in service of various Cape infrastructure projects. He and his wife Johanna had 13 children during this time. He also became a noted botanist, archaeologist, Karoo water researcher, magistrate and artist, producing fine maps and tracing ancient San paintings he came across during his project work.

As you drive today on, say, the Swartberg Pass between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn, you cannot help but marvel at the dry stone walling that has held this superb road in place for more than 130 years. Thomas Bain just seemed to have the knack of things.

And yet, as if his worldly achievements weren’t accolades enough, Thomas was also known as an excellent ‘people's’ person’. He was uncommonly kind and thoughtful to the prison gangs who worked on his passes, he was a great father and husband, and a wonderful travelling companion to his fellow-adventurers.

After 4 decades of intense fieldwork – sometimes involving three major projects simultaneously – Thomas Bain settled with his family in their Cape Town home. But he wasn’t still for long. His last major job was to build Victoria Road from Sea Point to Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsula. So as you’re driving, one eye on the road and the other on distant ocean sights, remember the man who built all this – long before the age of motor cars...

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Western Cape Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)21 487 4800

How to get here

Most of the Bain-built mountain passes are within 3 hours’ drive of Cape Town, either through the Little Karoo to Prince Albert or down the N2 to Knysna and then cutting into the interior.

Best time to visit

Spring (September to October) is great for flower landscapes, and the winter months (May to August) make up the 'Green Season' in the Western Cape.

Get around

The best way to see the magnificent work of Thomas Bain is to hire a car and head out into the mountains of the Western Cape.

What will it cost

There is no cost to driving the mountain passes of the Western Cape except the hire of your vehicle – and the picnic you’ve packed for that lunchtime in a scenic setting.

Length of stay

Most of the mountain passes are negotiated within an hour of driving.

What to pack

Pack something warm and possibly waterproof for just in case the weather turns.

Where to stay

The many villages and wine estates at the foot of the mountain passes of the Western Cape have plenty of fine guest establishments.

What to eat

Find a local farmers’ market or deli, pick out some seasonal fruit, local cheese and perhaps a wine – just remember, you need your full faculties to drive through any mountain pass.

What's happening

Check the festival schedules of the various towns along your route – there’s always some local feast, celebration or harvest party on the go.

Best buys

Buy wines from the wine estates, cheese from the farm stalls and fresh bread from the local bakeries.