Pulled over some 500 metres up from the well-known hairpin bend on the pass famed travel author TV Bulpin referred to as “a classic piece of old time road making with dramatic views and the indefinable elegance of its curves…” the Forest was dense, bathed in dappled summer dawn light and full of things with names like Mountain Waxberrys, White Stinkwood, Kamassi and the beautifully flowering Cape Chestnuts. Somewhere a Knysna Turaco hollered its raucous kok-kok kok-kok.
It was difficult to believe that not too many kilometres away on the N2 highway, holiday makers in fully-loaded SUVs where snarling at each other as they made their way home from summer holidays – trailers, caravans and who knows what else in tow. Perhaps though, we should return to that same N2, for it is there where the context to all of this lies.
The Garden Route N2 between Mossel Bay and Port Elizabeth has been an integral part of my life from early memory. There were the family holiday trips early on, heading from home in the Eastern Cape to go fishing with grandpa in Hermanus. In high school it was associated with contest surf trips – stressfully competitive missions down to Vic Bay and Cape Town. Then, as student at Stellenbosch University, it was the way home during vacations – each landmark a step further away from the books and lecture halls.
The older I got and more I drove it, the more I started wondering about the backroad routes on the same stretch. I’d always been taken by the area’s history and haunted by the Forest (which should always be spelled with a capital T, as in Dalene Matthee’s works). I found myself seeking forays and glimpses without having to make a real effort, or stretch out the the trip home too much.
After a lot of detours I realised it was just about possible to travel the Garden Route all the way by staying off the N2 (with the odd short transfer here and there). Bloukrans Pass near Nature’s Valley became a favourite detour. As did the historic Seven Passes Route between George and Knysna.
At first I drove the Seven Passes purely for adventure’s sake – to be making a part of the journey so many holiday makers are, on a dirt road – now as a resident of the Garden Route once again after too many years in the big city, this 75-kilometre road which traverses Phantom Pass and the Homtini Gorge (of which I speak above) and crosses the Karatara-, Hoogekraal, Touw-, Silver-, Kaaimans- and Swart rivers as they drain the Outeniqua mountains to the sea, has become a favourite day trip.
Instead of the usual 90-minutes it takes to drive if you just go, my young family and I often now spend an entire day on the route. Here’s why:
Driven from east to west the route starts with a right turn off the N2 immediately after you’ve crossed the bridge over the Knysna lagoon. It doesn’t take long to realise you’re off the regular tourist rush and even though you’re not quite onto the first pass yet (and the road is still tar) it’s obligatory to slow down – downshift – so to speak from driving with ‘getting from point A to point B’ in mind to pleasure cruising.
Rather than a ghost, as most would suspect, Phantom Pass was named after the white Phantom Moth found in that area. However, the pass is charmingly wound in mythology anyway.
The 7,4 kilometre route from the Knysna River to the top of the pass and the regional tar road to Rheenendal takes more-or-less 10 minutes to drive. The pass is gravel and narrow with glimpses into the beautifully forested Knysna river valley on some of the hairpins.
Portland Manor, Barrington’s old estate is now a luxury lodge and lies off the road to Rheenendal. We always make time on this tar section to stop at Spookasem, a delightful farm stall and the home of the Kamma Kamma (for ‘make believe’ in Afrikaans) rag dolls. Then we have brunch at The Red Barn at Fern Gully Farm (www.theredbarn.co.za) a little way down the road, where the kids can run wide-open while artisan cappuccinos follow free-range bacon and eggs.
After Rheenendal you reach the Homtini Pass, my favourite of the seven and the one where I always take time to pull over and wind down the windows to let the Forest and its sounds and smells, in. Aside from the bridge (all the timber bridges were replaced with concrete in the early 1900’s) the pass is as it was almost 150-years ago when constructed by master road engineer Thomas Bain and his brother-in-law, Adam de Smidt.
If the river is not flowing too fast, the brown waters of the Homtini (stained so by the ubiquitous vegetable matter and roots) are ideal for a dip. The best place to stop is off the road on either side of the bridge, from there follow the trail in whatever direction you fancy.
The next pass is Karatara. The wacky name and sad history of the small settlement is enough reason to drive it. Karatara is where the woodcutters settled after the 1939 complete withdrawal of their woodcutting permits. Their descendents live there still.
From here the route follows a pattern of pastural farmlands on the plateau, some pockets of forestry plantations and then the spectacular indigenously forested river valleys. The next valley is traversed by Hoogekraal Pass. The pass was built by Adam de Smidt in 1874 and due to its lesser gradient and depth was perhaps the easiest to construct. Similar to drive.
After Hoogekraal you reach the settlement of Hoekwil, a hamlet fast becoming trendy among urbanites in search of coastal country charm as well as retirees. From here the route takes you on the ‘Forest Road’ to George. It is more than aptly named with the forest starring rather than the passes themselves, as it takes in the Touw River Pass (sometimes confused with the Duiwelskop Pass a 4×4-only trail higher in the mountains) as well as the Silver (which is tarred), Kaaimansgat and Black River Passes (also tarred).
Those all still lay ahead. Right now bugs and beetles of all manner provided an orchestral backdrop as the Forest in the Homtini valley stirred as the day began to heat. The dust two descending mountain bikers had kicked up earlier added to the scene. It all seemed right out of Dalene Matthee’s Circles in a Forest and it would’ve been fitting if Oupoot had walked across the road right then.
Written by: Jazz Kuschke