Snowy Swartberg Pass

There was no other option than the Swartberg Pass. The weather looked anything but promising, rain and cold temperatures for the day of departure, rain and cold temperatures for the next day as well.

I had two choices: stay behind and cancel one of the highlights – or probably the biggest highlight – of my road trip, or, continue as planned and make my way towards Gamkaskloof (often referred to as “Die Hel”/The Hell).

The little voice in my head kept telling me, “You’re here now, when will you be in this area again? When will you be in this area again with a high-clearance vehicle?”

To stay or to go?

Needless to say, I chose the latter.

I filled up the bakkie with diesel, got the basics to chew on and slowly but surely I made my way up the Swartberg Pass where the mist played a game of ‘now you see me’, now you don’t, with the mountains.

Swartberg Pass 1

Every now and then I got out to take a photo or a timelapse and lost all sensation in my fingers while doing so.

The possibility of snow never crossed my mind.

The first time I saw the aftermath of snow was in 2008, near Rhodes in the Eastern Cape. Then I moved to Korea for four years; we had snow every winter and I developed a love-hate relationship with it. I loved it year after year because it looked beautiful and I hated it year after year because walking to and from work in snow was not the best, most dry of safest experience, especially a few days after the snow when it was all just blocks of ice and you slip, slip, slide as you go.

Even when the Isuzu KB300 told me that it was 3°C outside, it gave me a little snowflake symbol above the temperature, I thought: “Ag what a drama queen, it will never snow”.

Swartberg Pass 11

My thoughts were not even cold when the first snowflake tumbled gracefully onto the windshield. Then came a second one, a third and after the fourth one I apologized to the Isuzu for calling it over-dramatic and gave it a pat on the back for being so darn clever.

As I reached the turn off to Gamkaskloof I got out once again for a photo (as one does at the sign that tells you that you’ll spend the next 2 hours driving 37 km), but jumped back quickly after a snap or two.

Swartberg Pass 10 (1)

It was cold.

Very cold.

But somewhere along the curves of the 37 kilometers into “the hell”, the heavens cleared up and blue skies showed the never-ending allure and wonder of the Gamkaskloof (more on this unique and beautiful place later).

Swartberg pass 10

The day came, the day went, the rain came, the rain came again, and again.

In my little cottage, Hendrik se huisie (which dates back to a time long gone), I threw some more wood onto the fire to combat the cold and in my mind I played a game of would you rather; would you stay or would you go when there is only one way out, through a muddy road, a wet road and a nail-biting curvy road. 

I drifted off.

The night came, the night went, the rain came, the rain came again, and again.

The next morning I packed my things, gulped up the last bit of coffee and said my goodbyes to the people of Fontein Guest Farm (also more on this later).

Martinette Joubert, daughter-in-law of Annetjie Joubert (the only remaining “born and bred” inhabitant that has retained property in Gamkaskloof), advised: “ Be careful when you go down the Swartberg Pass, it will be slippery. Stay in first gear and don’t stay on the brakes.”

With an “okay” and a feeling of unease at the pit of my stomach I climbed into the bakkie and after about a kilometer, I saw Piet Joubert, son of Annetjie Joubert.

“Be careful when you go down the Swartberg Pass, it will be slippery. Stay in first gear and don’t stay on the brakes.”

The nervousness must have shown in my face.

He gave the bakkie one look and said, “You’ll be more than fine. You’ll get some nice photos up there after the snow.”

Only then the reality – yet still not quite believable – hit home: I might see snow. And I might also mudslide into the unknown (and here I thought the Isuzu was the only one being overly dramatic).

And then I saw some snow.

Some more. And then some more.

While it only stayed on the ground here and there, the beauty of the snow-capped Swartberg Mountain range grabbed my attention around every corner and every bend. I simply – like a true South African – could not get enough of it.

After the 37 km Gamkaskloof stretch the road I’ve been warned about started and the mist came out to play again, but this time it was only a case of ‘now you see me’.

My phone beeped. The signal came back.

I called my father.

“It’s so cold, it’s so beautiful, it’s apparently very slippery. Should I put the bakkie in 4 wheel drive? What does the difflock do again?”

“No, don’t worry about the difflock”, he said, “but put it in 4 wheel drive. You will just have more control over the vehicle”.

Swartberg Pass 7

At “Die Top” (The Top) of the pass a guy from Oudtshoorn ran to the front of his bakkie as his kid posed in the snow.

“How’s the rest of the road looking?” I asked.

“Sunshine is just around the corner,” he answered as the kid picked up a some snow to make a snowball.

Around the corner at “Skelmdraai” I could see sunshine and blue skies in the distance while the mist played the ‘now you see me now you don’t‘ game again with the mountain tops behind me.

I took a timelapse.

10 minutes.

Another timelapse.

Another 10 minutes.

My fingers went numb again but it was just too can’t-get-enough-of-it-beautiful, I took one more timelapse.

Another 10 minutes.

My legs also went numb.

But of course I needed one last timelapse.

Swartberg Pass 2

I had a gas stove, coffee, water and a plunger in the bakkie, I could’ve made coffee, but no, I made another timelapse.

Eventually, after being in pain from the cold, I got in the bakkie and continued with ease (thanks to the beast of an Isuzu) down the slippery pass until I reached the tar road.

Swartberg Pass 5

More photo stops happened.

More body parts went numb.

More timelapses took place.

More sensation left the spots exposed.

At Kobus se Gat restaurant I stopped one last time before I descended down into Oudtshoorn for the night and put the views, the snow, the road, the silence and the experience on replay in my mind while the mist and mountains still played hide and seek.

Swartberg Pass

17 August 2017
Distance travelled: 100 km.
Time: 8 hours.
Scenery: Flippen priceless.

To stay or to go?

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