Gifberg Pass (P2203)

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Approaching the Gifberg Pass from the north Approaching the Gifberg Pass from the north - Photo: Photo: Trygve Roberts

The Gifberg (Poison Mountain) Pass is a challenging gravel pass (with two short tarred sections over the steepest parts) that ascends the Matsikamma mountain and connects the mountain top farms of the Gifberg with Vanrhynsdorp about 20 km to the north. The pass offers outstanding views, hiking trails, San rock-art, wildflowers, rockpools and waterfalls. It is the source of the Troe-Troe river which flows northwards through Vanrhynsdorp. The pass was originally built in 1917 and improved, widened and partially hard-surfaced over the years in an effort to improve safety.

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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:

The pass is seriously off the beaten track and unless you're a local farmer, or a pass or rock art hunter, there is little reason to be on this road. It is possible, once you have gained the summit, to follow the road to the east for 18 km of slow and convoluted driving over the mountain plateau and descend via the much smaller Ouberg Pass and head back to Vanrhynsdorp along the eastern side of the Matsikamma mountain.

The Gifberg  derives its name from the gifboom (poison tree), endemic to the area. Long ago local San hunters used the gifboom to poison their arrow tips. The mountain is well known for the many bushman paintings.

Northern approach road to GifbergThe approach to the Gifberg from the north / Photo by Trygve Roberts The name of the Knersvlakte (the huge plain that stretches from Vanrhynsdorp to Bitterfontein) is accurate and clever - so called by the early settlers because of the sound the wheels of their wagons made as it crunched over the quartz gravel. Kners in Afrikaans is grit or grind, which conjures up the sound one hears when grinding one's teeth.

You can visit the Gifberg Rock Art Site, which forms a part of the West Coast Rock Art Route. San Bushmen lived throughout Southern Africa for thousands of years, leaving a remarkable legacy of art. Paintings at this West Coast rock art site depict shaman (healers) and animals bleeding from the nose. The Shaman  (healers) often bled in this way after entering a 'healing trance', which they regarded as death and a return to life. They believed the largest antelope, the eland, provided healing power through the healer in a trance, induced by ritual dance and chanting.

The Gifberg has lush vegetation with a variety of plants, including a number of protea. The mountain has many waterfalls, clear river pools and beautiful rock formations with over forty rock-painting sites.

Oil on canvas by Dietrich VivierOil painting by Dietrich Vivier based on an MPSA photoThe artist Dietrich Vivier has begun a project of painting some of the better known passes. This is his rendition of the Gifberg pass. His gallery can be viewed on this link: Dietrich's Art

Getting there:
From the N7, you can either drive into Vanrhynsdorp vor refreshments and fuel, or you can turn to the right (east) off the N7 at GPS S31.660667 E18.710758 and cut the visit to Vanrhynsdorp out altogether. This little gravel section heads due east for 3,5 km where it forms a T-junction with the main gravel road between Vanrhynsdorp and Gifberg. Turn right here and head for the pass, which is about 8,5 km away on an arrow straight road. If you elect to go to Vanrhynsdorp first, then head south out of the town on Troe-Troe Street - cross the river and the caravan park and you're on your way. The pass lies 16 km along this road.

Looking north from the steep sectionThe gradient here is 1:3! Select 1st gear at the beginning of the tar and remain in 1st gear to where the tar ends / Photo: Trygve RobertsThe approach to the pass is dramatic, despite the wide plain and straight road. The Matsikamma (to the east) and Gifberg (to the west) mountains welcome the road  in a range that forms a wide arc with two arms.  If you look carefully, you will be able to see the pass far ahead snaking its way up the steepest part of the mountain. These become progressively closer as the road becomes hemmed in and the mountains appear to loom larger and larger. Towards the end of this long, straight stretch a fork in the road appears. Keep left. The right hand fork leads to the farm Wiedouw.

From the fork the road swings gently into the south-east and starts ascending at a gradient of 1:11 via a substantial cutting. The Google earth satellite imagery clearly shows the convoluted route of the oId road slightly higher up the slope on the left (north-east). If you look up ahead, three prominent outcrops adorn the top of the mountain, which are each approximately 750m high.

Looking south up the steep gradientThe steepness of the gradient can be seen in this photograph / Photo: Trygve Roberts

The road bends into the south for a few hundred metres, then curves around the side of a foothill, climbing steadily towards an S-bend, where a large farm dam, fed by the Wiedouw river can be seen to the right and below the road level. The last 600m of the S-curve is tarred to assist with traction as the gradient is steep here. This is the first of two tarred sections on the northern ascent. The final corner of the S-bend reveals a hairpin bend into the south-west, but the radius is not that tight. At the outside corner of this bend, is another lesser road leading off to the farm Koornlandshoek.

From there the gradient eases slightly, as the road curves around another foothill in a long left hand curve, heading towards an obvious ravine in the mountain ahead. The mountains on the left loom ever larger, whilst on the far side of the ravine, the distinct shape of the aptly named Spitskop, makes for a good photo opportunity. The gravel gives way to tar once more and this is your cue that the very steep section of the pass is about to begin. We recommend selecting 1st gear at this point. Remain in 1st gear all the way to the end of the tar. Keep your revs up and dont stall the engine.

Weathered sandstone formations on the passWeathered sandstone formations can be seen on the pass / Photo: Trygve RobertsThings get distinctly steep here and most vehicles will need to gear down to 1st gear as the gradient ramps up to under 1:3. This would be extreme in a normal car if it wasn't tarred. The road is also quite narrow here and suddenly you are in the ravine with a small stream on the right hand side. About halfway up, if you have the courage to stop and a good clutch for getting going again, you will notice a small concrete and stone water crib (2m x 0.5m) on the left right against the rockface, where a small trickle of pure mountain water keeps the crib topped up and fresh. It is completely potable. Try some! Looking back northwards over the plains of Knersvlakte with its white, quartz based gravel surface, is a sight for sore eyes.

The tarred climb is extreme, but fairly short at 470m and suddenly the gradient eases considerably and the tar gives way to gravel. This is not the summit perse, but the lip of the plateau. It is still some distance before the actual summit is reached. The road still follows the headwaters of the same stream, then makes a 90 degree turn to the right, followed in short order by another very sharp bend to the left. Here in a small level section, surrounded by weathered rocks and a copse of trees, is a tiny farmhouse - Die Kom.

Immediately after this farm, the road bends 90 degrees to the right, then enters a sharp hairpin of 120 degrees. A short sandy climb follows where the road summits at 600m ASL where the road forks. If you intend driving the eastern loop via Ouberg Pass back to Vanrhynsdorp, you should take the left hand fork (dont get confused, this is yet another Ouberg Pass - there are 6 of them in SA -  and is not the more famous one near Sutherland). This route winds its way laboriously via a twisting routing through the mountain plateau and descends back down to the Knersvlake via the Ouberg Pass. This is a slow drive and there are several farm gates which must be opened and closed. To complete this loop and the 2 passes, you will need to allow a full two hours excluding stops. The Ouberg Pass is featured elsewhere on this website. This section of the route from the summit of Gifberg Pass to Ouberg Pass is fully described on the Ouberg Pass page.

Looking north towards Vanrhynsdorp from the steep tarred sectionLooking north towards Vanrhynsdorp from the steep tarred section / Photo: Trygve RobertsThere are a number of roads (4) which radiate from the summit. Shortly after turning left towards the Ouberg descent, a track leads off to the left again, which leads to a nearby farm, Van Taakskom. From there the track follows the spine of the Matsikamma mountain into the north to terminate in a dead-end at the farm Sewefontein, which has large stands of Rooibos plantations, which extend into every possible nook and cranny of the mountain top valley.

Back at the summit - The right hand track forms a number of sub routes which service the farms Kantoorshoek (Office Corner), Onder-Snorkfontein (Snoring Fountain), Ribbokfontein and Kleinplaas (Little farm). Still more farms can be reached via this road heading south, which include Modderfontein, Nuwedam, Puts, Bloubosfontein, Rondefontein, Taaibosdam, Landam and Hottentotsfontein which is the last farm before the big drop down to the Doring River. 

There is another minor track which heads sharp right from the summit and traverses the Bo-Snorkfontein farm, then heads north-west to terminate at the summit of the Windhoekberg [793m]. This is a dead-end road. In springtime the Gifberg plateau provides superb wild-flowers with a combination of succulents and mountain fynbos and proteas. This is one of our favourtite destinations north of the Cederberg and we highly recommend this drive. Dont be in a hurry. Drive slowly and enjoy this natural majesty of nature.

Fact File:

GPS START  S31.736636 E18.776147
GPS SUMMIT S31.776292 E18.764006
GPS END  S31.776292 E18.764006
DISTANCE 6.92 km
TIME REQUIRED 20 minutes
SPEED LIMIT 20 - 60 kph
SURFACE Gravel & Tar
DATE FILMED 20.12.2014
NEAREST TOWN Vanrhynsdorp (15km)

Route Map:

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Route files:

||Click to download: Gifberg Pass (Note - This is a .gdb file which can be opened in most GPS software systems)

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