Pluto’s Vale is quite unique, in that it consists of a combination of a genuine poort and a steep pass. These follow one another along the gravel DR02039 road that extends eastwards from the R67 near Grahamstown to Committees Drift and Breakfast Vlei. Like the adjacent Queen’s Road to Fort Beaufort and the nearby Ecca Pass, the route was constructed by Andrew Geddes Bain during the Frontier Wars in the mid-19th century. Despite diligent research, no clue as to the origins of the unusual name of this pass has come to light.
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 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.
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.
There are several similarly named passes spread around South Africa - at least 4 in the Western and Eastern Cape alone - so make sure you are not heading off to the wrong pass! This Ouberg Pass, or more accurately named the Oudeberg Pass in the more traditional Dutch style, lies 20km north of Graaff Reinet on the R63 tarred secondary road that connects with the town of Murraysburg.
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.
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.