I love road trips and especially when they involve mountain passes. Whether with clients or friends I never tire of the thrill when I know I’m going to travel along a road that provides breathtaking views and cliffs with amazing rock formations. Luckily, I live in a mountainous region with many exciting mountain passes.
The many passes of the Western Cape are a road tripper’s delight. At once daunting and awe-inspiring, these high-altitude crossings are not only an amazing scenic drive; they also have important historic significance because they opened access between the Cape and the rest of Africa during the time of ox-wagons. They offered hope to traders and farmers who could now reach ports to sell their produce and buy necessities. Today, we use them for leisure in comfort, our biggest concern being to get the right angle for the best photos, but most travellers don’t give much thought to the man who built most of them – Thomas Bain, 1830 – 1893.
Thomas learnt the trade from his father Andrew Bain, a Scot, a road engineer who built 8 of our famous passes in the first half of the 19th century and who also became known as the father of South African geology after discovering the richness of the Karoo. The spectacular Bain’s Kloof near Cape Town is named after Andrew Bain. Thomas went on to build a further 24 passes and roads in the second half of that century.
Bain Jnr was a busy man throughout his 63 years. He fathered 13 children and the family was kept on the move all the time as he worked on various projects. His wife couldn’t have been happy about not settling down in one fixed spot until very late in their marriage, and then he died soon after. Thomas Bain also found the time to become a noted botanist, archaeologist, Karoo water researcher, magistrate and artist, producing fine maps and tracing ancient San paintings he came across during his work.
Bain was known for working on at least 3 projects at a time, travelling between them on horseback. Not an easy feat in those days. The work on the passes was hard – no dynamite, no modern equipment, a scarcity of labour and very little respite from the harsh surroundings. Bain would explore, on horseback with a theodolite and compass, the area where he wanted to build a pass, making sketches that eventually became passes. He liked following rivers, as he believed rivers know best. Two of his wonderful ‘poorts’ (canyons) – Seweweekspoort and Meiringspoort – each cross a river about 20 times as they snake through the mountains with towering cliffs on either side.
Some of these roads are still supported by dry stone walling built by Bain and his teams more than 130 years ago. His famous dry-walling method of construction to support roads on mountain faces, involved breaking large rocks up by means of fire, followed by cold water, to create manageable smaller pieces. Bain devised this method as the only other option was gunpowder which was very expensive. I wonder what we can build today, without modern technology, which would last as long?
Here are some of my favourite Thomas Bain projects.
Many thanks to MountainPassesSouthAfrica for some information and use of some photos.