Exploring the Zuurberg Pass

My last two posts were about my adventure with my parents to see the Walter Battiss museum in Somerset East, and then the little deli we visited before moving on from there. After our delicious meal, we hopped back in the car and headed homeward via a very special road.

The Zuurberg mountain pass was built between 1844 and 1847 by 250 convicts as the only road to the hinterland from the Port Elizabeth coast. It formed part of the main road between Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, and remained so for almost 100 years. The project was designed and started by Henry Fancourt White, who subsequently resigned and was replaced by Matthew Woodifield, who saw it through to completion.

Legend has it that Woodifield and his horse tumbled to their death from the road just north of Paterson in 1855. Large lettering reading ‘Woodifield’s Krantz 1855’ is inscribed into the rock-face at this point, recording the event. Mysteriously, however, Woodifields seems to have been very much alive after 1855, so it’s not clear where this legend originated. Some speculate that the inscription could simply have recorded a date 10 years too early, and that his life did indeed come to a tragic end along the road he built. Whatever was his true fate, it is said that his ghost has been sighted visiting the pub at the nearby Zuurberg Mountain Inn on cold windy nights…

Almost 170 years later, the road is still serviceable – a great testament to the engineering of yesteryear! At some points on the road, the hillside is so steep that you feel like you’re driving on the treetops, and it’s easy to imagine Woodifield plummeting to his death. In fact, driving along the road, I couldn’t help imagining all the ox wagons and horsemen that would have traversed these hills en route to the north. My mind projected them onto the road, and I travelled alongside the ghostlike images. Because the road is so remote and there are few signs of modern adaptation, it’s easy to get lost in ideas about the past.

Of course, it’s also the scenery that draws you in. The pass snakes across the tops of the hills between Somerset East and Paterson, with spectacular views over the valleys. The horizon seems to be a hundred hills away, with not a person in sight, and there’s a magnificent calmness in the air. The vastness of your solitude in these hills soothes the soul and makes you feel a sense of connectedness; a sense that everyday concerns are just a distraction from some greater, more profound privilege and purpose.

What a special road indeed, and so quietly tucked away for only the curious to discover it.

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1 thought on “Exploring the Zuurberg Pass

  1. Pingback: An Eloquent Exchange | These Walking Boots

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