Prince Alfreds Pass (R339)

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A section of dry-walling Bain style A section of dry-walling Bain style - Photo: Trygve Roberts

The Prince Alfreds Pass on the R339 gravel road between Knysna and Uniondale is probably Thomas Bain's greatest work. Not only was this an extremely long pass, but it also presented almost every possible technical obstacle to the pass-builders. Due to the length of the pass, we have filmed this pass in a 6 part series. At 68 km it is the longest (publicly accessible) mountain pass in South Africa by a considerable margin, as well as being the second oldest unaltered pass still in use. There are various measurements of it's length, but most seem to be in the vicinity of 68 km. Our measurement using GPS and Google earth agreed on 67,4 km. Over the years some of the southern parts were rebuilt and tarred, which could account for a small distance variance. The video footage focuses on the northern section starting at Avontuur and ending at the Buffelsnek Forestry Station, but the full pass starts at Avontuur and ends at the junction with the N2 just east of Knysna. 

We recommend watching the series of videos to gain a complete picture of all this wonderful pass has to offer. All six videos follow below and are placed in the correct sequence amongst the relevant text section. The pass is Thomas Bain's Opus Magnum - a work of monumental proportions carried out with rudimentary equipment and convict labour, but with science, ingenuity and Bain's "can do" attitude making it all possible. Bain constructed 29 passes mainly in the Cape colony in his lifetime. This pass epitomises all of his unique touches, but especially his exceptional dry walling method of construction.

The first video is an overview of the entire pass and will help first time drivers of this big pass to orienteer themselves with the salient features. It is recommended to watch all the videos in HD. Click on the "quality" button on the lower taskbar of the video screen and select 720HD. Wait a few seconds for the video to display.....




FULL-SCREEN MODE: click PLAY, then pass your mouse over the bottom right corner of the video screen. The outline of a square will appear. Clicking on it will toggle Full Screen Mode. Press ESC to return to the original format.

Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.


Digging into the details:

Getting there: Prince Alfreds Pass can be driven in either direction. If you're driving it from the Knysna end, head east out of Knysna on the N2. At the crest of the first big climb out of town, take the turn to the left and drive north through the township that sprawls over the mountain. This is the southern start of the pass. If you're driving it from the north, take the R62 to Avontuur and turn south at the village onto the R339, which is the northern start of the pass.

Bain PlaqueBain Plaque on the pass / Photo: Trygve RobertsPart 1: Overview and Orientation

Much of the narrative in the six part series deals with Bain's techniques and his impact on South African history - and especially so on the development of the Cape Colony. Bain was in many respects a self taught man, who posessed a range of skills including engineering, geology, cartography, art, writing and accounting. He was the son of Andrew Geddes Bain,a Scottish immigrant, from whom he first learned pass building techniques. He drew his own maps and plotted his own lines - either on foot or on horseback.

 Over time he earned himself the nickname of "The man with the theodolite eye" due to hus uncanny ability to visualise the line a pass should take withhis naked eye. 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 triangular pieces. These would then be stacked up at an inward tilting angle of 15 degrees and backfilled from the top.

Plenty of sharp cornersOne of hundreds of sharp corners on the pass / Photo by South Africa.netThe more backfill that was added, the stronger the retaining walls became, utilising the scientific principles of friction and cohesion. There are many kilometers of his original walling still supporting this road. Many sections of this pass have been declared a national monument. Bain's contribution to South Africa as a developing nation was profound.

The commemorative plaque in Bains honour is featured in Part 5. The videos follow an historical pattern, so for the entire route to make sense, it is best to watch the videos in numerical sequence. The first video is an animated Google earth clip which covers the entire pass as an overview, purely to orienteer the first time viewer. We chose to film the pass from north to south for maximum scenic value and optimal camera angles.

Part 2: Avontuur to Cloud Cottage (9,8 km)

Part 2 takes one from the small farming hamlet of Avontuur (Adventure) in a southerly direction up the slopes of the northern side of the Outeniqua Mountains. After approximately 4,5 km, you will arrive at the summit, marked us "Die Kruin" (The Summit) at an altitude of 1038m ASL. The top of the mountain is frequently under cloud and heavy mist and rain occurs near the summit with the southern slopes being much wetter than the north.

Clouds billowing over the summit of the Outeniqua MountainsClouds billowing over the summit of the Outeniqua Mountains / Photo by Trygve RobertsThe road narrows slightly after the summit and starts the first big descent towards De Vlugt ,where Bain built a house for himself and his family as a base during the construction of the pass. The small house still stands today and can be rented as a self catering dwelling. The road twists and turns following the contours of the mountain as it carves first towards the west and then back to the south.

The better known landmarks are signposted and the following places are all worth a stop and a few photos. There are few places in the world more attractive than this. Heading south after summiting, you will first arrive at Rooi Els Draai at 1031m ASL (Red Alder Corner) and it becomes  immediately obvious why it was named as such.

At 1012m ASL 'Cold Water Bend' makes it's appearance. There is a lovely perennial stream here where Bain's labourers no doubt drank heartily. Around the next bend the trees open up to reveal a spectacularly wide and sweeping view at a spot named Tiekieliefie Draai at 914m ASL . This is one of those "lost in translation" names which relates to the convicts receiving their ticket to leave on completion of doing their time. This ticket to leave was somehow changed to Tiekieliefie.

The short video clip below shows the views from the summit [1038m]. On our first attempt at filming the pass the summit was smothered in dense white clouds. The clip below was taken almost a year later in 2014

Promo video - Summit views Price Alfreds Pass:



After approximately 14 km from the summit, the road levels off slightly and the road bisects a small farmstead. It is best to slow right down (20 kph) and be careful of animals and children. This is the first point where accommodation is available from the northern descent. The farm has a delightlful chalet, aptly named Cloud Cottage which can be hired. Beyond the farm, the road starts to descend more steeply again as it enters the northern access of the Langkloof (Long Ravine).

Along these upper reaches of the Langkloof, you will find some beautiful examples of Bain's famous dry-walls propping up the road. Rocks were broken up into triangular pieces using, first fire - then cold water. These rocks were then packed by hand in a close fitting triangular format, with an inward tilt of approximately 15 degrees. As the inside section was filled with sand and smaller rocks, the weight increased and made the retaining walls immensely strong - sufficient to last 130 years with vehicles of all sizes driving over the roads they support.



 



Part 3 -
 Die Langkloof (6,1 km) Cloud Cottage to the convict's grave.

Part 3 of the Prince Alfreds Pass (R339) covers a very short distance of approximately 5 km starting from nearby 'Cloud Cottage' and ending at the narrow bridge and convicts grave site. This part of the Langkloof is especially beautiful with very sharp corners and steep overhanging cliffs as the river tumbles by next to the road. The middle section is best appreciated by walking it or taking a dip in one of the many rock pools.

 



There are many perfect examples of Thomas Bain's dry walling methods along this section. Approximately two kilometers south of Cloud Cottage, there is a ruin on the west side of the road. It is speculated that these are the remains of one of the houses Bain constructed to house his convict labourers. Bain was a smart man who treated his labourers well with proper shelter and good food - he understood the value of his labour. The first landmark you will see is signposted as "Die Kerf" (The Slice or Notch). This is a narrow part of the river gorge where there are a series of small waterfalls in a very attractive setting.

Near the summit in the northUpper reaches of the pass offer sublime views / Photo WikipediaA little further another sign beckons marked "Hangkrans" (Hanging Cliff). Bain expertly circumvented this large chunk of mountain by encroaching into the course of the river by building high and substantial retaining walls. He also constructed tunnels under the road, to move floodwaters efficiently from the high side of the road into the flow of the river. His engineering standards were well ahead of his time.

It is well worth stopping at any place where you can get your vehicle off the roadway and walk down the next section (camera in hand). It is truly one of the most beautiful spots in South Africa. It will leave your senses becalmed, yet invigorated. The road winds over to the east bank of the river and soon arrives at the next bridge signposted "Convicts Grave". Looking upstream there are a series of little waterfalls as the river tumbles down towards the Keurbooms River a few kilometers away. This is a burial spot fit for a king and the convict that died here doing hard labour must be having a good rest in one of the most exquisite places on earth. This little river becomes a raging torrent after heavy rains and Bain's stonework and river bank reinforcing still stand firmly in place 150 years on.

It is worth taking the few stone steps down below the little bridge (these concrete bridges were a later addition in approximately 1904) to examine how the road builders cleverly constructed the supports which melt in with the natural rocks below. Bain accorded his labourers more dignity and respect than was the norm with convict labour in those days and the grave site speaks volumes for Bain's ability to work with people in the most efficient and humane manner.

It is worth taking the few stone steps down below the little bridge (these concrete bridges were a later addition in approximately 1904) to examine how the road builders cleverly constructed the supports which melt in with the natural rocks below. Bain accorded his labourers more dignity and respect than was the norm with convict labour in those days and the grave site speaks volumes for Bain's ability to work with people in the most efficient and humane manner.

Our 3rd video ends just over the bridge, where there is a small widening of the road under some indigenous trees - a good spot to take a break and soak in the primordial beauty of this kloof. 


 Part 4: Convicts Grave to De Vlugt  (2,8 km)

This fourth (short) section of the Prince Alfreds Pass starts at the narrow bridge at the convicts grave site and ends at the small settlement of De Vlugt in the Keurbooms River valley, passing through some of the finest, jaw-dropping scenery anywhere in South Africa. It is so much better if you can walk or cycle this section. Besides some lovely waterfalls, the Bain built embankments are most impressive here, having withstood untold torrents of flood waters over 150 years. 

 



The road passes through rugged and spectacular scenery and covers a short distance of only 2.53 km, losing over 100 meters of altitude. You will pass a rock formation signposted as "Tata Riet se Gat" - This is a rudimentary cave like shelter right next to the road. This dates back to when one of the farm hands known as Tata (Outa) Riet used to take the children for walks on Sunday afternoons and spend time in the cave like shelter.

Die Langkloof - a historical part of the passThe section called Die Langkloof is completely original and fabulous to drive / Photo: Trygve RobertsThree hundred meters further, as the road curves through a gentle S bend, a distinctive rock formation comes into view with a solitary column rising on the western side. This is named 'Bain's Pillar'. Bain justifiably has many landmarks and passes named in his honour. It is interesting to note that Bain, as a young man, first recced the pass under the supervision of his father, Andrew Geddes Bain. The son would prove to surpass his father's not inconsiderable achievements by a very massive margin.

A short while later the road drops quickly in altitude to the Keurbooms River, where one crosses the river via a low level concrete causeway to arrive at the charming little settlement of De Vlugt. This is the spot chosen by Bain to build a home for his family, for the duration of the four years constructing the pass. The humble cottage is still intact and can be hired by passing visitors. It is approximately 150 years old and has the original creaking yellowwood floors with an old wood burning AGA stove and the piece de resistance is that there is no electricity. An overnight stay here will definitely put you in a time warp into an era of horses and gravel tracks.

A river runs through it!The narrow road clings to the river bank providing a constant view of tumbling waterfalls / Trygve RobertsThere is more to do in De Vlugt - Visit the information kiosk which is a self-help system and of course Angie's G-Spot (obviously competing with Ronnies Sex Shop near Barrydale) is a laid back country pub.

We have produced a short video clip (below) which adequately describes the story behind the name of the establishment. The little pub has become something of a rite of passage for the adventure biking fraternity and the presence of bikers on Prince Alfreds Pass over weekends needs to be taken into consideration when driving the pass.

One of our readers, Mr. Pieter van Rensburg, submitted this information:

"I own the original house Thomas Bain stayed in for a while at De Vlugt when he constructed the Prince Alfred’s pass. It is called the STASIE (Station) since it was built for the Station Commander who was overseeing the convicts.

Keurbooms River causeway at De VlugtThe Keurbooms River causeway at De Vlugt - part of the 68 km long Prince Alfreds Pass - the longest pass in South Africa / Trygve RobertsIt was subsequently sold to the Berlin Mission station and our family acquired it in 1928. I recently upgraded the homestead and it looks great now. I also own the adjacent land on which the convicts were housed during the construction of the Prince Alfred’s pass. According to my late father, Thomas Bain first stayed in our house, STASIE, and then built the house where his family joined him, which is now owned by Daan van Rooyen of De Vlught. Bain sadly lost a daughter who fell off the steps of the house when frightened by a turkey
."

There is also the Outeniqua Trout Hatchery a little further to the south east along the river, where there is accommodation and maybe you want to have a replay of "A River runs through it" and try your hand at fly fishing. At the info kiosk there is a clean flush toilet and drinking water available. The conservancy corridor was set up by concerned residents in 2006 and today comprises approximately 50,000 hectares of protected land. There is an ancient Wild Fig tree on the western side of the road which makes for a lovely picnic spot.

 


 

Part 5: De Vlugt to Buffels Nek (23,3 km)

This section features the section from De Vlugt, via Dieprivier Hoogte and ends some 22 kms later at the Buffelsnek Forestry Station. This is the highest point on the southern half of the pass and provides breathtaking scenery. Prince Alfred was the second son of Queen Victoria who was invited to this area in 1867 on an elephant hunt. He hunted successfully (imagine how maligned he would have been today!) and graciously conceded to the new pass being named in his honour. How times have changed in just 150 years....

KeurboomsRiver Valley at De VlugtThe views of the Keurbooms River Valley near De Vlugt / Trygve RobertsThis is the second longest section (at 23,1 km) of the 6 videos featured and rises steeply from  289m ASL, up the western flank of the Keurbooms River valley to produce excellent, sweeping vistas of large tracts of the valley with rank upon rank of blue and gray serried mountains fading off into the distance. After two kilometers, the road turns away from the river and heads resolutely south through beautiful pastoral scenery before plunging into the next pass, where the road can be seen winding its way far below you down the mountainside.

After another 7 kilometers the road descends into a lush corner of the mountain-side where the forest closes in over the road. At the point where the road makes a very sharp hairpin bend to the left, there is a small space to park your car. Here at this tranquil spot next to a small stream in thick riverine forest, you will find the memorial plaque in honour of Thomas Bain. Doff your hat to one of South Africa's greatest men as you allow the birdsong and silence to transport you back in time when horse and cart and oxwagons trundled past this spot in 1867. According to the Knysna Historic Society, the pass was opened to light traffic during 1866 and was re-named during the visit of Prince Alfred (the second son of Queen Victoria) in September 1867. The official opening of the pass was on 29 September 1868.



The road rises steeply from that point to crest a mountain with wonderful views to the east and south over the Dieprivier Hoogte. The road becomes more hilly than mountainous for the next 10 kilometers as it rises steadily towards the Buffelsnek Forestry Station, where this video ends. A little further you will find a turn off marked 'Spitskop View Site'. In dry weather you can take this short track up to a high point with marvellous panoramic views out over an endless vista of crests and mountains. Dont try this track in wet weather in a normal car as it's quite steep - at some stages up to 1:5 !!

Dry stone walling in the passExcellent examples of Thomas Bain's dry stone walling can be seen for many kilometers / Trygve Roberts
Part 6: Buffelsnek to Knysna (26,6 km)

The 6th and longest section of the pass from Buffelsnek to Knysna comprises 26,7 km of driving through some of the finest indigenous forests in South Africa. Whilst this section is not scenically as diverse as the other sections, it nontheless offers a feast of forest driving for those who enjoy being immersed under a canopy of trees.

Continue southwards, passing the Diepwalle Forestry Station as well as the King Edward Big Tree and numerous other historical and interesting sites, before the road terminates at the informal township on the hills above Knysna at the junction with the N2 highway. The final 8 kilometers are tarred. We did not film the southern half of the pass from Buffelsnek to Knysna, as this section of the road is almost totally closed in by the forests, which does not make for good video due to erratic lighting.

A surreal world under the forest canopyDrive through forests like this / Photo: PanoramioWe have never driven this road without experiencing varying degrees of potholes and severe corrugations, both which can easily cause loss of control due to lack of traction. If you have the good fortune of being in a 4WD vehicle, deflate your tyres to 1.2 bar and engage 4WD High range. (In older models, lock your centre diff). If you can attempt to travel at between 60 and 70 kph (where possible and permissable) your vehicle will 'float' over the corrugations, making for an infinitely more comfortable drive. Any slower and it's terrible. Any faster and it's dangerous. For conventional and front wheel drive vehicles, just drive slow enough to maintain control.

From the high point of the Buffelsnek Forestry Station the road continues heading south through beautiful, dense, indigenous forest through more than 200 sharp bends. You will pass various points of interest on your long descent towards Knysna, including the beautiful Diepwalle Forestry Station, which offers rest rooms and several one day hiking options. Very recently (2014) there was a sighting of one of the Knysna elephants here with photos to prove their existence, as they are rarely seen - even by the game rangers.

Afrikaans humourClassic Afrikaans grafitti humour in Die Langkloof sectionThe last few kilometers are on tar and the road bisects a sprawling informal township before the pass officially terminates at the T-junction with the N2. Be particularly vigilant here as there are dogs, cows, children, other pedestrians and taxis darting over the road from hidden points.

If you enjoy history, a visit to the Bakhuisdraai historical buildings is noteworthy as well as the Ysterhoek convict campsite, where Bain had the prisoners camp whilst this section of the road was being built. Another interesting place to visit is the Veldmanspad historical woodcutters cottages.

We don't approve of grafitti on the passes (or anywhere for that matter), but this sign exudes the best of Afrikaans humour and translates into: "And you're still peeping?" It's probably one of the best road signs in South Africa as it immediately draws your attention away from the scenery and onto the very sharp, blind corner coming up.

If you want to avoid the last section through the busy streets of the township, we can recommend a right turn at Diepwalle onto Kom se Pad. This fabulous road forms an east-west traverse through beautful indigeous forests. Click on the hyperling above for details.

It exits at the Gouna forestry station and heads south from there through the technical and stunning Gouna Pass, before descending past the exclusive Simola Golf Estate down to the N2 on the western side of Knysna. This option will add at least an extra hour onto your travel time, but its worth every second of it. 

This section of the descent is utilised for the Simola Uphill Race - where drivers of fast cars annually do a timed run up this steep ascent. This race was moved from the Gydo Pass north of Ceres to Knysna, after a spectator got injured.



This road, once driven will give the observer a good understanding of the difficulty of terrain, lack of technology and a raw and unskilled (and probably unwilling) labour force with which Thomas Bain had to contend. It is mind boggling to think that without bulldozers, pneumatic drills, graders, trucks and dynamite, he completed this incredible pass in under four years.

Thomas Bain - South Africa salutes you!


Fact File:

GPS START 

S33.725674 E23.164733

GPS SUMMIT

S33.757541 E23.163033

GPS END 

S34.041663 E23.105159

AVE GRADIENT

1:80

MAX GRADIENT

1:6

ELEVATION START

878m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

1035m

ELEVATION END

197m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

838m

DISTANCE

67,4 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

South

TIME REQUIRED

120 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

20 - 60 kph

SURFACE

Gravel (R339)

DATE FILMED

23.01.2013

TEMPERATURE

25C

NEAREST TOWN

Knysna (5 km)


Route Map:

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Route files:

||Click to download: Prince Alfreds Pass (Note - This is a .kmz file which can be opened in Google earth and most GPS software systems)

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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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