Before we had the N2, there was the Seven Passes
Wilderness and Knysna, in the heart of the Garden Route are popular holiday destinations, there’s plenty to do and see. Enjoyed for the array of outdoor activities it’s frequented by mountain bikers, runners and hikers. One of the hidden treasures of the area is the Seven, a 75 km stretch of road that technically has eight passes.
The seven passes are, as the name suggests, seven passes all connected, running from Knysna to George or George to Knysna, whichever way you prefer to traverse it. This majority dirt road is a creation of the pass builder extraordinaire, Thomas Charles John Bain, and was finished in 1883. Bain had help from his brother-in-law Adam de Smidt, and rumour has it the two didn’t get along every day or most days. Back when Bain first built this road, it was the equivalent of the N2. Since the building of the N2 and the extension of the surrounding farms and B roads, the traffic you’ll find on the road are mountain bikers, trucks from the mills and the odd tourist or two.
The general profile of each pass is a descent into a valley where it either crosses a river or runs alongside one before climbing the ascent out. The variations are the gradients of descent and ascent, the amount of tight and twisty corners and the height. The beauty of these passes are that they’re not done at speed, it’s an easy relaxing drive, a dirt road with the forest canopy overhead that clears at the bottom as you cross each bridge.
Beginning the journey from Knysna at Phantom Pass, the first pass that would be built out of the seven. Turning off the N2 before the Knysna lagoon the road runs inland towards the first pass, Phantom Pass. This 75 km stretch of the road reached the Kaaimans River in 1869, and in 1871 was built to reach Woodville near George.
The Belvidere turnoff from the N2 turns into the Phantom Pass, which was ready for business in 1862, with a rebuild in 1882. Named after the ghost moths that call the forest home.
Completed in 1882, opened in 1883, and was the last pass to be completed of the seven. The Homtini name has suggested roots in Khoi, and means either ‘mountain honey’ or ‘difficult passage’. We’re likely to believe that it means difficult passage with 45 corners, of which three exceed 120 degrees and one sharp hairpin. It was the building of this pass that led to the source of discontent between Bain and de Smidt. It’s believed that they disagreed with the path of the Seven Passes road, which led to an argument in the build of Homtini Pass. The argument between the two escalated to the point that they never spoke again.
The finding of gold in the area lead the pass to be further built and heading towards the Homtini area.
Bearing the same name as the forestry village the pass can have a few trucks on it. A gravel track that’s dusty in summer and turns into a muddy clay in winter. If doing this in winter, it would be recommended to go in a vehicle with all-wheel drive as the corrugations can cause a loss of traction.
The first of the passes to be built for dual passage, a lane for each direction of travel. The easiest of all the passes to cross, it was built in 1884. The bridge is similar in design to the Silwer and Kaaimansgat bridges.
This pass remains the same as it was when built by Bain and de Smidt, except the timber bridge was washed away and replaced by a steel bridge in the early 1900s. It’s thought that de Smidt was more involved in building this pass than Bain, who was involved in the Homtini Pass at the same time. Much like the other passes it drops down into the riverbed and is often a victim of flooding in heavy rains.
This short pass of 2.5 km is a national monument, leading into Wilderness Heights. Built by de Smidt the pass has 30 bends, which is quite something considering how short it is. Many consider this pass to be part of the Kaaimansgat Pass.
While Bain worked on the Knysna end of the passes, de Smidt built on the George end of the road. The original bridges were made of timber though succumbed to the elements quickly. In 1902 the concrete bridges were built, and are still standing today, and are national monuments.
A road that crosses the Swartrivier, the original pass was first used in 1853. Now it’s a modern tar road that runs past the Garden Route dam wall and down into the main road of George.
Stay in George, Wilderness, or Knysna for ease of access to the passes. While the passes can be done in just over an hour it’s recommended you make a day of the route. Pack food, picnic blankets, and sunblock. Stop along the way at local craft shops on the route. Stop at each bridge, take photos, and enjoy the flora and fauna at each pass.