Latest News! 24th December, 2015

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The late Dr. Graham Ross - Padmaker extraordinaire The late Dr. Graham Ross - Padmaker extraordinaire - Photo: Ross family

It's Christmas Eve and the first time since inception that one of our news releases has coincided with December 24th.
We wish all our 60,000 readers a very merry Christmas and safe holiday season.

Today we offer what is probably the most significant news release of the year. We pay tribute to a very special friend, mentor and road engineer in this issue, who passed away last week and being the humble man that he was, would probably not welcome such recognition.

Dr Graham Ross had a profound influence on the birth and growth of this website from infancy into maturity. We pay a special tribute to him in this Christmas Eve issue of MPSA News and feature one of the big Cape passes where he was the chief consulting engineer involved in the design and construction.

[To read the rest of this story and access our pass of the week, expand this page by clicking the photo, the title or the green READ MORE button]

In 2012 a friend loaned me a copy of Graham's book "Romance of Cape Mountain Passes" - a meticulously researched and enjoyable book to read. It was the one of the defining moments in the conception of this website. I contacted Graham who was at that time 87 years old and he immediately welcomed me into his world of road engineering with wisdom, guidance, some stern words and his trademark slick humour. Graham was a highly principled man, yet kind, thoughtful and respectful of others. We got on well and soon he was checking on our passes data with an eagle eye and sending me corrections and advice via email. He took a keen interest in the cyber passes project and we became regular correspondents. In time we went to meet him in person and were welcomed into his immaculate home in Somerset West.

Graham Ross' book on passesThe book that inspired us! / Photo: Sunbird PublishersIn September, 2014 I invited Graham to join me on a gruelling 13 hour pass filming trip which included traversing Gysmanshoek, Seweweekspoort and Bosluiskloof passes. He was 90 at that time and on invitation was quite happy to manhandle the big Land Cruiser through the narrow corners of the passes and thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was on that journey that I got to know Graham Ross really well.

An obituary was written by the SOUTH AFRICAN INSTITUTION OF CIVIL ENGINEERING and we publish extracts from that document here with kind permission of his family and colleagues:

Graham Lindsay Drury Ross - 18th July 1924 to 2nd December 2015

Graham Ross, doyen of South African road engineers and transportation historians passed away in December after a short illness. He was born in Cape Town and attended Christian Brothers’ College, Green Point (a school which has produced several other notable engineers). Within a few days of matriculating in 1942 he volunteered for active service and was delighted to find his classmate John Clark (later Chief Engineer of the Western Cape Regional Services Council) next to him in the recruitment queue. Together they were posted to the Navy and Graham saw action in minesweepers off the Cape Coast, and later around the Indian Ocean islands and the Bay of Bengal, reaching the rank of sub-lieutenant.

After the war he enrolled at the University of Cape Town – he would become one of the last surviving students of the renowned and beloved Professor Snape – and joined the Cape Provincial Roads Department on graduating in 1948. His first job was to help put the finishing touches to Du Toitskloof Pass, which was the beginning of his long love affair with the routes through the Cape Mountains.

Huisrivier PassCyclists enjoying the easy gradients of the Huisrivier Pass / Photo: Panoramio

Early in his career he was sent to Namaqualand to take charge of a special construction unit which had been formed to build a unique, ultra-heavy-duty road between the copper mines at O’kiep and the smelter at Nababeep. Controlling a disparate group of rough and ready “padmakers” in a remote location on a new type of construction could have been a considerable challenge to a young man in his twenties, but Graham’s naval experience in dealing with equally tough trawlermen stood him in good stead. Despite the demanding workload - besides being Resident Engineer, he acted as surveyor, unit clerk, typist, stores superintendent and headmaster - he found time to be fascinated by the old transport systems, engineers and roads of the district, which he would later put to good advantage.

He really earned his spurs while serving as Acting District Engineer at Oudtshoorn, when he was tasked with finding a feasible new route for the Huis River Pass through the very tricky geology of the local mountain range. He had to report that an alternate location would not be possible; some fifteen years later the present pass was built approximately along the line of the old road.

He took a year off in 1963 to attend Northwestern University in Illinois where he obtained an M.Sc. and formal skills in the emerging discipline of transportation engineering under the formidable Prof Jack Leisch, and on his return was appointed Geometric Design Engineer. He came back fired with enthusiasm and poured his new-found knowledge into producing a Geometric Design Manual for South African conditions. This was put together for the CPA but was used as the norm by most provinces at that time. It became the “bible” of local road designers and is arguably his most important professional achievement. He was an excellent teacher and inspired, taught and mentored a generation of South African highway engineers with his expertise, usually leavened by his keen sense of humour.

Monument on the Huisrivier PassMonument at a viewsite on the Huisrivier Pass / PanoramioIn those days there was no CAD (Computer Aided Design) – everything was done the manual way. Road alignments were drawn on rolls of drawing and graph paper which were rolled out on two or three drawing tables. Graham would climb up onto the tables in his stockinged feet, bend down and peer along the alignment, pointing out improvements to be made -
his Google Earth option!

A minor incident in this period had a lasting outcome and Graham was always amused at his role. He accompanied the Provincial Roads Engineer, the feisty Freddie Hugo, to a meeting of the Provincial Executive Committee where the route of a proposed freeway through the Constantia Valley was being discussed. Graham presented a plan on which he had marked three possible alignments in red, blue and green. The politicians opted for the blue line – and fifty years on, although the official title is “The Simon van der Stel Freeway”, the main highway to the South Peninsula is still invariably known as “The Blue Route”.

In 1967 Graham was recruited by Ninham Shand to establish and head up the Roads and Transportation department in his firm, and within a year he was offered a partnership (which turned into a directorship when the firm became a company). He soon brought his former colleagues Peter Thomson and Charlie Glick into the fold and Shands became a formidable player in the field. In time he passed the roads function on to Peter while he concentrated on transportation.

Namaqualand in springGraham loved Namaqualand / Photo: Namaqualand TourismWhen he finally retired in 1993 Graham and his wife Eileen caravanned many thousands of miles around the country, revisiting old haunts and documenting information on the mountain passes of the Cape. Initially his notes were published as a series of articles in the SAICE Magazine which were then collated into a booklet sponsored by the Transportation Division. He then went a step further, collected all the information of his researches into a marvellous database, entitled
Mountain Passes, Roads & Transportation in the Cape: a Guide to Research; this enormously useful document has been updated several times and is the most comprehensive and authoritative collection of facts, figures and references about the history of road transportation in the Cape.

Not resting on his laurels, he enrolled at the University of Stellenbosch and drew on his early O’kiep experiences - and much further research - to produce a dissertation entitled The Interactive Role of Transportation and the Economy of Namaqualand for which he was awarded a Ph.D. at the age of 74.

Graham’s magnum opus concludes with a quote he found on a bridge across the Keiskamma River in the Eastern Cape:

"The tree shall grow, the brook shall glide

The hill shall stand, the bridge shall bide

The builders like the fading ray

Of summer’s sunset pass away"

But Graham’s inspiring example and legacy of knowledge will not pass away for many a year. Farewell old padmaker, you travelled a long and splendid road.

From all of us at Mountain Passes South Africa, we salute you Graham Ross. Rest in peace where you can stand tall amongst the great road builders of this nation.

Graham Ross was the inspiration behind the beautiful curves and steep cuttings on the Huisrivier Pass between Ladismith and Calitzdorp on the R62 route and we feel it more than appropriate in featuring this lovely pass as our main feature this week. Click the link below to access the page.


Trygve Roberts

Thought for the day:
Those moments you fail are not the end, they are periods in which you recollect thoughts, ideas, and ambitions, and change direction - Benjamin Chapin


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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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