I am a firm believer in the saying, the joy is in the journey. When I travel I don’t just focus on getting to my destination, but I like to enjoy the trip as well. To that end, whenever we go on vacation I try to spread at least one leg of the trip, either coming or going, over two or more days.
With the help of Google Maps I then plot us a route that strays off the beaten path, as it were. I avoid the main highways, stop over in little towns along the way, and sometimes take a road simply to see where it goes. (Once when I did that the “road” turned out to be a quad-trail and I had to go off-road in my bakkie to get back on a proper road, severing the speedometer cable in the process, so not necessarily a good idea.)
This time around I decided to try the Prince Alfred’s Pass between Knysna and the small town of Avontuur (Afrikaans for “adventure”. I don’t know why they chose that name. It’s one of those places you’ll miss if you were to sneeze while driving through and I spotted nothing particularly adventurous.)
This pass, named for the second son of Queen Victoria, was built in the 1960s by Thomas Bain who was responsible for many of the beautiful passes through South Africa’s mountains. A quick online search told me that, even though untarred for its entire length, the pass is driveable with a regular vehicle and our route was decided.
For around seventy kilometres the pass winds through the Outeniqua mountains, first through lush indigenous forests, then pine and eucalyptus plantations which eventually make way for grass and shrubs as you near the Karoo. The gravel road is in better condition than most tarred roads in my home town, but for large sections it’s so narrow as to accommodate only one lane of traffic. Add to that hairpin bends and some very steep inclines with sheer drops on one side, and you have a recipe for a very adventurous drive. But the views are worth the temporary stress of some wannabe rally driver slamming into you around a single-lane blind turn.
Actually it’s the same road, in opposite directions, but the poem so nicely summarises my driving philosophy, don’t you think? The Knysna Forest pictured here used to stretch from west of Mossel Bay almost all the way to Port Elizabeth but was decimated by the logging industry in the late nineteenth century. All that remains today are a few patches of unspoilt forests, the biggest one in the mountains north of the town of Knysna. This particular pass also crosses the Outeniqua hiking trail that winds through the mountains (that you’ll see in a while). Can you imagine hiking through these woods, early morning with the sun just rising? I really need to do that again soon.
Many of the trees in this forest grow nowhere else on earth and are, in fact, on the endangered species list. This forest is in particular home to the Outeniqua Yellowwood, South Africa’s national tree. The forest used to be the home of a quite large population of elephants – one very famous Afrikaans book, Kringe in die Bos by Dalene Matthee, is about a woodcutter who is tracking a rogue bull through the woods and faces his own demons in the process. It has also been translated into English and adapted into a movie under the title, Circles in the Forest. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the history of this region.
Unfortunately, there are no more elephants here, the last ones removed to wildlife preserves when I was still at school. However, this pass was built following natural elephant trails through the mountains. Roundabout here we did spot the elusive Knysna Loerie as it flew across the road (the wife was so excited, we almost rolled the bakkie…I was driving). I’ve only spotted one three times in my life, each time in flight. As you can see from the photo they are perfectly camouflaged for this environment.
There are several beautiful rest stops in the forest where you can stop for a picnic, a spot of bird watching, a short hike or even a braai (just please don’t start a forest fire). About a kilometre from here is also one of the several “Big Trees” – Yellowwoods that have grown to incredible size and age, almost (but not quite) rivalling California’s Redwoods.
A short distance from the picnic spot I saw a sign saying “Spitskop Viewpoint” and thought, why not? I checked very carefully for signs warning that the road is for four-wheel-drive vehicles only and saw none. The gravel road made a short climb and ran along the ridge – no problem for the bakkie. Then it suddenly narrowed and started twisting up the side of a peak, the angle sometimes getting steeper than thirty degrees. The wife became very quiet beside me and I have to confess I started worrying a bit myself, especially about what I would do if another vehicle were to appear coming in the opposite direction or if the road became so bad that I couldn’t go forward anymore. I did not relish the thought of driving in reverse on this particular road, but there wasn’t room to turn around either so I pushed ahead. Thankfully we reached the top shortly thereafter to be greeted by this magnificent view.
In another of her books, Fiela’s Child (also adapted into film), Dalene Matthee described these mountains as a mountain on a mountain on a mountain. They’re not as high as the Rockies or even the Drakensberg Mountains in eastern SA, but they go on forever, covering three vegetative zones – broadleaf forest, fynbos and Karoo shrubbery. We had cell reception up here, so I gave my dad a call while enjoying the view – I inherited my love of these mountains from him and he was very jealous.
There were other people at the top, driving a Range Rover or something. I did notice them giving me some very strange looks when I pulled in next to them in my bakkie. Just to be on the safe side I made sure to leave the viewpoint before them, in case I ran into problems on the way down. The bakkie did scrape bottom a few times on the descent and I had to reverse, up an incline, around a hairpin turn, when another four-wheel-drive came up as I was going down, but we were soon on our way again.
About two thirds of the way through the pass you reach the tiny hamlet of De Vlugt. It’s really nothing more than a few houses and a shack full of preserves advertising itself as a tea garden (without a public restroom, which we felt was quite a serious deficit at this point in our journey). The wife and I really won’t mind living here, but we would have to get a cow and learn to bake bread because nipping out to the store would be hell – from Knysna to here was almost two hours’ drive on a road that will not be passable in wet weather.
While thoroughly enjoying the scenery, we were starting to wonder at this stage how far we had left, especially as there was a couple of frozen snoek wrapped in newspaper in the back (as well as the aforementioned lack of restrooms) and the pass seemed to just go on forever…