Extreme Passes

This page deals with the phenomenal contribution to road building of the father son team of Andrew and Thomas Bain. We list all the passes that both these men built or assisted in building and provide direct hyperlinks to those passes. There are very few complete lists in existence of all the works including railway construction, bridges and other roads (other than passes). The most comprehensive research on this subject that we could find, was that of Dr. Graham Ross - a noted 'modern' padmaker himself, who has spent many years of his retirement researching the history of South African roads. Much of what you read here has been adapted from Dr Ross's meticulous research.

Andrew Geddes Bain was born in Thurso Scotland. He was a pioneer engineer and geologist and earned the tag of "Father of South African Geology". He arrived in the Cape in 1816 aged 19, originally as a saddler in Graaff-reinet, and later set about finding employment in the construction of roads. See the tables below (at the bottom of this page) for his list of passes built. He also built a bridge over the Fish River during that period. Bain Snr. then tackled the Gydo Pass near Ceres (1848) which he did as a side job, whilst constructing the considered masterpiece at that time, the Michells Pass just south of Ceres. The most famous pass built by Andrew Bain, was of course his opus magnum, which still stands today and named after him - the Bainskloof Pass (1853). He also built the road north out of Graaff-Reinet  which included the Lootsberg Pass and a series of smaller passes. His final pass was the Katberg Pass (1854), which he was unable to complete. It was completed by Adam de Smidt. 
Andrew Geddes Bain00Above: Andrew Geddes Bain

Andrew Bain had 11 children, of which his famous son, Thomas Charles John Bain, was the second son and the seventh child. Many people confuse him with John Thomas Baines (1820-1875) - a traveller and explorer in South Africa who was also a prolific artist who died in Durban in 1875. Note the spelling of his surname is different to our two padmaker heroes. For the purpose of this page, we can put Baines the artist to one side.

Born in Graaff-Reinet, to Andrew Geddes Bain and Maria von Backstrom, on 29th September 1830, Thomas Bain died, after a full and energetic life, on his 63rd birthday, 29th September 1893, at his last residence “Woodside” in Rondebosch, Cape Town.

Thomas Bain x UCT Libraries and Lister Family G.RossAbove: Thomas Bain / Lister Library

On 26th June 1854 Thomas married Johanna Hermina de Smidt, ninth child of Willem de Smidt, the Secretary to the Central Road Board, later to become a Member of the Cape Parliament. They had a long and happy marriage, being devoted to one another and to their thirteen children. Johanna's brother Adam de Smidt was also a road builder and worked for many years under Thomas' supervision. The two men did not see eye to eye - a result of a dispute in the routing of the 7 Passes Road, which turned into bitter acrimony, which would last a lifetime. The family followed Thomas where his work took him, and this entailed moving every few years, so they had nothing which could be called a “settled residence” until they bought “Woodside”, standing in 90 acres of ground in Rondebosch, a suburb of Cape Town, for £1,300 in the 1880’s.

Thomas was essentially a quiet and gentle man, beloved of his family. At the same time he was able, as his works attest, to control large construction crews in remote areas and, when more senior, to guide and control work on a number of sites, often hundreds of kilometres apart. He was religious and a teetotaller.

Thomas was basically a road engineer and surveyor, with strong geological links. He was apprenticed to his father for five years on the construction of Michell’s Pass and Bain’s Kloof Pass, whereafter he sat for and passed top of the entrants the examination in Civil Engineering, set under the direction of the Colonial Engineer and the Superintendent-General of the Colony. He obtained his AMICE in 1877. He earned the nickname of "the man with the theodolite eye" for his uncanny ability to visualise the perfect routing for a pass with the naked eye.

In 1848 he was appointed an Assistant under the Central Road Board, and Superintendent of Convicts; then from 1854 Inspector of Roads for the Western Province, holding on several occasions the appointment of Visiting Magistrate of the convict gangs employed under his supervision. In 1873 he was lent to the Railway Department for eighteen months as District Engineer in charge of construction and he also surveyed three proposed railway routes. He then returned to the Road Office of the Department of Public Works until 1888, when he was appointed Irrigation and Geological Surveyor of the Colony.

On the geological side, Thomas was from time to time engaged in making collections of reptilian remains from the Locustrine beds of the Karoo for the British and Cape Museums, and reporting on the mineral resources and discoveries of minerals in the Colony, such as the Knysna, Prince Albert, Barkly West and Namaqualand Gold Fields, and the Coal Fields of the Eastern Province and the Free State. He also discovered new botanical species, collected other fossils and artefacts, made copies of pre-historic rock art – and played a variety of musical instruments.

A dedicated and extremely conscientious man, he had but one month’s leave in his 46 years in the Public Works Department. The records of his works, his reports to his Chief Inspector, and the near-perfection of the surveys and other maps which he produced bear witness to the excellence of his professional work.

Shortly before his death Thomas undertook a 1,600 kilometre trip, travelling in a small ox cart through the hot and dry interior regions to investigate possible irrigation sites near Upington on the Orange River. This most arduous trip appears to have further undermined his health, which was already suffering from the strain of his work and from worries about the (he considered inappropriate) reorganisation of his Department. He never recovered, and was bed-ridden for the last month of his life, gradually fading away. He was buried in the churchyard of St Thomas’ Anglican Church in Rondebosch. Plaques have been erected in his honour at five different places around the Cape, and his grave stone is housed in the Cultural History Museum in Cape Town.

When Thomas and Andrew Bain commenced working for the Central Road Board there were only three engineered mountain passes in the country, one of which Andrew had built. Andrew was responsible for seven major passes, and Thomas for twenty six. Thomas was responsible for 560 miles of major road construction which included minor passes, as also geological investigations, dams and other water supply works.

It can be said that the Bains, in conjunction with the Colonial Superintendent of Works and Surveyor-General Major Charles Michell, initiated the great age of road-building in the Cape. Thomas Bain especially has made a contribution to road engineering in South Africa which must rank among the greatest made by any engineer.

Sources: Dr.Graham Ross, Wikipedia, Flemingway, Cape Archives.

On this page we reproduce the most popular passes according to the number of page views on the website. Note that passes loaded in 2012 would naturally have more views than those produced in 2016. The statistics below are as at 14th September, 2016. Only the top 40 are updated monthly. The rest of the statistics for this page are updated annualy. These figures are a reflection of your preferences. We list the top 10 on this page.


  01   Sani Pass    133636
  02   Swartberg Pass    117382
  03   Gamkaskloof    89198
  04   Prince Alfreds Pass    82604
  05   Bainskloof Pass    60711
  06   Van Reenens Pass 49759
  07   Montagu Pass   42265
  08   Meiringspoort 38664
  09   Clarence Drive  


  10   Seweweekspoort 38240


Use the hyperlinks below to check out South Africa's most extreme passes and where your favourite pass fits into the bigger picture.

These statistics are continually expanded as we add passes.

The Bain Legacy 

The Longest Pass 

The Highest Pass

The Steepest Pass

The Biggest altitude gain

The Most Popular Pass by page views

The Shortest Pass

The Most Dangerous Pass

Unusual and bizarre statistics

With so much data available to us, we sometimes come across weird names, and odd statistics which we list in this category. For example, there are four Ouberg Passes, as well as six Langkloof passes (the most popular pass names)and as many Rooiberg passes. There are those with short names and long names. This page is a compilation of interesting and unusual passes. We add to these categories as information becomes available.

We get countless requests with the question: "When is a pass a pass?"

The answer is complex and almost impossible to define, but we have come up with a broad enough definition to cover most options : A pass is a pass when a road traverses up or down or down and up, or any variable of down and up or through a kloof, or nek of a mountain or a hill or follows the course of a river through a mountain and complies with certain geographical requirements in terms of distance, gradient, number of turns, geological complexity and also if a government department has named any road officially as a pass whether it complies with this definition or not.

Our favourite "padmaker" Graham Ross submitted this list of names which all describe mountain passes: A saddle, canyon, col, neck, defile, gorge, ravine, gap, notch, bwlch (Welsh). [Yes, there really are no vowels in the last one!]

The pass with the longest name: Wildehondskloofhoogte Pass WC

The pass with the starting and end altitude identical (63m) - Constantia Nek WC

The pass with the most unusual name: Ping Pong Cuttings KZN

The most cursed pass: Suikerbossie/Victoria Road WC

The pass with the most misspelt name: Hessekwas Pass WC

The pass with latitude and longtitude similar: Ping Pong Cuttings KZN

The oldest properly engineered pass: Franschoek Pass WC - 1822

The oldest pass: Clooff Pass (now Constantia Nek) WC - 1657

The newest pass: Langeni Pass EC - 2008

The pass with highest average number of corners: Moordenaarskloof Pass EC (1 bend every 53 metres)

The only pass with a double summit of identical altitudes: Bastards Poort WC

The most popular pass name: Langkloof (6) and Rooiberg (6)

The 2nd most popular name: Ouberg (4)

The only official pass which is not a pass: Rankins Pass in Limpopo and Grey's Pass in Cape Town.

Most dangerous pass (accidents): In order and mainly proportionate to traffic volumes.
Van Reenen's Pass KZN
Sir Lowry's Pass WC
Kaaiman's River Pass WC
Hex River Pass WC
Most iconic pass: Sani Pass KZN

Most technical pass to drive: Bastervoetpad Pass EC

Most Northerly pass: Masekwas Poort (LPO)

Most Southerly pass: Akkedisberg Pass  WC

Most Easterly pass: Jozini Pass KZN

Most Westerly pass:  Swartpoort NC

The shortest official pass: Grey's Pass (Cape Town) at 97m. This pass also has the smallest altitude variance of 1m.

Strangest requests on our website: (We're impressed that some folk consider our knowledge to be this vast !)
1. How much will it cost to hire the Helshoogte Pass for a wedding for 92 guests?
2. How much are the caddy fees at Fancourt Golf Club? (Outeniqua Pass)
3. We would like to buy some olive trees from you. (Blinkberg Pass)
4. How many neon lights are there in the Huguenote Tunnel (Du Toits Kloof Pass)


South Africa's top 100 steepest passes - expressed in height : distance ratio  (eg 1:8). Note that these are AVERAGE gradients. Sections of each pass could be much steeper. For example Prince Alfred's Pass in the Western Cape is 68 km long and has an average gradient of 1:96, but it has certain sections as steep as 1:8. As a consequence of simple mathematics, the shorter passes present steeper average gradients than the longer passes. Statistics should always be read in context.

We have hyperlinked the Top 10 for your 'one click' convenience


Mpindweni Pass (EC)


Mount Paul Pass (FS)


Buffelshoek Pass (WC)


Arangieskop Mountain Rd (WC)


Sylvias Pass (GTG)


Donkies Pass KZN)


Tom Jenkins Drive (GTG)


Rondevlei Pass (WC)


Ben McDhui Pass (EC)


Oudekloof Pass (WC)


South Africa's top 100 passes ranked in altitude gained (metres):

We have hyperlinked the Top 10 so you can click straight through to any of the passes.


  01   Sani Pass KZN    1332
  02   Mariepskop Pass MPL    1100
  03   Clivia Pass MPL    1047
  04   Matroosberg WC   991
  05   Baviaans-Kouga 4x4 EC   905
  06   Gamkaskloof WC   872
  07   Mzintlava Pass EC   866
  08   Prince Alfreds Pass WC   844
  09   Swartberg Pass WC   838
  10   Bastervoetpad EC   830



South Africa's 100 longest passes in kilometers - listed from longest to shortest. These statistics are regularly updated as new passes are listed.

Please note that although Prince Alfreds Pass comes 2nd on our table, it remains the longest pass as the Baviaans-Kouga is not a proper road in many sections (jeep track only) and it crosses private and state land requiring a permit, therefore does not qualify as a 'publicly accessible road' by definition. We have hyperlinked the top 10 for your convenience and an easy click through.


* 1   Baviaans-Kouga 4x4 EC   73,3
  2   Prince Alfreds Pass WC   68,5
  3   Old Postal Route WC   53,2
  4   Bedrogfontein 4x4 EC   46,6
  5   Mzintlava Pass EC   38,2
  6   Gamkaskloof WC   37
  7   Wapadsberg Pass EC   33
  8   Naudes Nek EC   32,7
  9   Kaapsehoop Pass MPL   31,9
  10   Gwangxu Pass EC   29,8


The top 100 highest passes in South Africa: (in meters above sea level)

We have hyperlinked the Top 10 for your 'one click' convenience

  01   Ben MacDhui Pass EC     3001
  02   Sani Pass KZN     2876
  03   TTT EC      2720
  04   Naudes Nek EC   2590
  05   Volunteershoek EC     2581
  06   Carlisleshoekspruit Pass EC   2563
  07   Ongeluks Nek EC   2541
  08   Witsieshoek Pass FS     2484
  09   Donkey Pass FS     2394
  10   Ramatselitso Pass EC   2298


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Mountain Passes South Africa

Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.

Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.

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Master Orientation Map We are as passionate about maps as we are about mountain passes. A good map is a thing of beauty that can transport you into the mists of time or get your sense of adventure churning. It is a place to make discoveries about deserts and seas, mountains and lakes; of roads leading into places you have not been before; a place to pore over holiday destinations or weekend camping trips. A map is your window to the world.

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