An Incredible Mountain Drive Hidden in Plain Sight
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
South Africa’s Route 102 was replaced by a modern highway decades ago. But here’s why you should take it anyway.
By Nick Dall
I have some wonderful memories of Skank, the pea-green 1979 Ford Escort I bought from my great-aunt. But none more wonderful than the 1,000-mile road trip we took up South Africa’s east coast in the summer of ’02. Initially, we avoided the main toll routes for financial reasons, but as the dramatic hairpin bends, centuries-old stone bridges and pristine swimming holes added up, it became clear that we’d unearthed a strip of history worth a great deal more than the few pennies we’d saved.
The Garden Route, a land of primeval forests, rugged white beaches and vertiginous coastal cliffs, is one of South Africa’s biggest tourist magnets. Most people see it from the N2 — an admittedly gorgeous modern highway that glides over the frequent ravines via a series of impressive, arched concrete bridges. But those in the know drive the old Route 102 (R102) and its various offshoots, which snake their way in and out of every single valley (often passing directly below the fancy bridges), and see hardly any traffic.
The R102 goes all the way, with a few interruptions, from Cape Town to Durban, but it’s on the 200-mile section between Great Brak River and the Van Stadens Pass that the real magic happens, says Trygve Roberts, who’s driven and documented 750 passes for his website Mountain Passes South Africa.
The pass isn’t in great condition, but if Skank and I could do it, your rental car should manage it easily.
The Groot Brak Hoogte Pass cuts under the stream of ignoramuses on the N2 and up into the mountains (splendid Indian Ocean views) en route to the busy inland town of George, the starting point of the Seven Passes Road. You’ll barely notice the first pass, but the next six are all stunning. Asked to pick a favorite, Roberts eventually chose the Homtini Pass, a narrow gravel gem through ferns and forest, although the asphalt Silver River Pass was a close second.
Once you reach Knysna, follow the Gouna Pass up into the forest and take a long loop on Kom se Pad through scenery torn from the pages of Dalene Matthee’s epic woodcutters’ novel Circles in a Forest. At Harkerville the R102 disappears for a while, so you’ll be forced to slum it with the masses on the N2, but you can get back on the R102 at Kurland just before the tollbooths.
The Groot River Pass will take you down into the mystical village of Nature’s Valley, nestled between forest and ocean, where the real fun begins. The signage and 48-gallon drums strongly suggest that the Bloukrans Pass is closed, but “you can easily get around them,” says Roberts, before warning that “you are breaking the law, so you’re on your own.” The pass isn’t in great condition, but if Skank and I could do it, your rental car should manage it easily. At the far end there’s a sand barrier, but it’s been driven over so many times that it’s now “a glorified speed hump,” Roberts notes.
From there, the R102 remains on the northern (inland) side of the N2 before coming out at Storms River Village. The old Storms River Pass is (genuinely) off-limits to cars as it’s in a national park, but it makes for a great hike or cycle. You can pick the R102 up again near the Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures center and carry on all the way through to the major city of Port Elizabeth. The last section of any note, however, is the Van Stadens Pass, the curvy 1867 alternative to the modern “Bridge of Death,” a popular suicide spot that’s now home to a staffed counseling center.
Not that you’ll be needing it. If your experience on the R102 is anything like Skank’s and mine, you’ll be filled with the will to live.
Also check out:
- Groot Brak: Grab a bite at the Transkaroo Restaurant (the slow-roast lamb neck is quite something) in the old railway station.
- George: Trygve strongly recommends taking a detour on the Montagu Pass — an 1848 gem that is the oldest unaltered gravel pass in the country.
- Bloukrans: Adrenaline junkies may want to check out the N2 bridge of the same name. It’s home to the world’s highest commercial bungee jump.
- Nature’s Valley: Break the journey for a few days to explore the forests, beaches and rivers. Read Alistair Morgan’s haunting novel Sleeper’s Wake while you’re there.
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall