History of Gantouw Pass (Elands Path)

View of the tollhouse by the Kloof to get from Hottentots Holland to the Overberg

After our recent walks up Gantouw Pass, I have got very interested in the history of the area. I found this interesting article and early sketches by Jan Brandes that gives some insight to the kloof crossing, Gantouw Pass.

It is not surprising that Jan Brandes drew two views—a panorama and a close up —of this pass through the Hottentots Holland mountains during his stay on the farm Vergenoegd. Although hardly the most dramatic vista to be seen from the coastal plain between the mountains and False Bay where Brandes was staying, the Hottentots Holland Kloof would have been a focal point for anyone traveling eastward from Cape Town.

The passage on both sides was treacherous for draught animals and wagons alike. A graded road was not built until 1830, leaving travelers to manage the steep and rocky terrain as best they could. The lower reaches of the pass were of soft red clay, which accounts for the multiple approaches to the pass shown in Brandes’ drawing. Despite its limitations as a thoroughfare, the Kloof was the only means of traversing the imposing mountain range which divided the more developed districts of the Cape and Stellenbosch from the frontier regions known generally as the “Overberg,” or “over the mountain.”

Although the pass was difficult to traverse, the appeal of the open, rolling land that lies to the east of the Hottentots Holland mountains made the effort worthwhile to farmers and grazers who required ever increasing amounts of land. As the colonial population at the Cape grew through the eighteenth century, the most desirable land near Cape Town was entirely claimed, occupied and utilized by settlers. New arrivals and younger sons were forced to strike out farther and farther from the administrative and trading hub of European settlement; the Overberg district was a particularly popular destination.

The pass connecting the Cape District and the Overberg was called Gantouw or “Elands Path” by the indigenous Khoikhoi. It was used as a regular migration route by wild game, hunters, and the pastoralist Khoikhoi prior to the arrival of European settlers.

Well traveled by Europeans in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the pass was a well-known landmark to locals and visitors. The Overberg district on the far side of the mountains offered rich pasture and fertile soil for farming.

Swellendam, the third district established by the VOC, was designated as a drosdty, or magisterial district, in 1745. Colonial settlement in the Overberg increased from that time onward, and the Kloof saw increasing traffic in farmers, frontiersmen, livestock, and communication between the Overberg on one side and the Cape and Stellenbosch districts on the other.

To make these drawings, Brandes would have had his back to the broad expanse of False Bay about five kilometers distant. The scene depicted by Brandes is the view travelers would have had as they approached the Kloof from the Cape. It is a little more than 50 km from the heart of Cape Town to the foot of the Kloof, but the trip was not a quick one. Earlier in the century Fran├žois Valentyn crossed the Cape Flats from the Castle of Good Hope to the Hottentots Holland district in about six hours: he went as a guest of the Governor in a carriage with a team of horses, which were changed for fresh animals half-way through the trip. The more usual method of travel by ox wagon was much slower.

Depending on the size of the party and the state of the river crossings, travelers from Cape Town would already have spent one or two nights along the way before camping at the bottom of the Kloof to prepare for an early-morning ascent. Anders Sparrman traversed the Kloof from the Hottentots Holland district to the Overberg a decade prior to Brandes’ stay at the Cape, and described it thus:
“The next day...we got up at day-break, in order to take our journey over Hottentots Holland’s Mountain, in the cool of the morning. The way up it was very steep, stony, winding, and, in other respects, very inconvenient. Directly to the right of the road there was a perpendicular precipice, down which, it is said, that waggons and cattle together have sometimes the misfortune of falling headlong, and are dashed to pieces.”

Although travel was frequent, there were no inns and carriage houses to accommodate travelers at the Cape for most of the eighteenth century. Thus farmers, explorers, and visitors like Brandes or Sparrman would have needed to equip themselves with animals, wagons, and provisions, or to journey as members of a larger party.

The plodding pace and frequent rests necessitated by oxen could stretch Valentyn’s comparative sprint into a two-day journey. Various travel accounts of the era mention Meerlust, on the Eerste River, as the first stopping point between Cape Town and the Kloof. The Myburgh family at Meerlust frequently hosted travelers, who could rest after a long day’s effort, then cross the River early the next day. Although it was not a full day’s journey from Meerlust to the Kloof, it was common for travelers to stop again and to accept a night’s hospitality at the Morkel family farm, which was located nearer to the base of the kloof, though it does not appear in Brandes’ drawings.

At the Morkels, a hearty meal and a good night’s sleep would stand the traveler in good stead for the difficult ascent up the pass. Sparrman makes careful note of the skill required of wagon drivers to give the oxen adequate encouragement for the arduous task at hand without overtiring the beasts or allowing the wagons to bog down on the rocky, uneven surface of the tracks up the mountain.

On horseback, Brandes could easily have ridden from his lodging at Vergenoegd to the foot of the Kloof and back as a pleasant day-trip. He made these drawings in December, at the height of the hot Cape summer, so he would have had ample daylight for drawing and exploring near the Toll House, even allowing for a leisurely trip back and forth.

The tollhouse, may have been new when Brandes sketched it in 1786. Sparrman makes no mention of it in his 1775 account, giving instead an explicit description of sleeping in the rough. An educated and affluent visitor, the impression given by Sparrman’s writing elsewhere in his Cape journal leaves little doubt that he would have sought the relative comfort and shelter of such a building if had it existed.

From at least 1788 through 1795 Jan de Vos served as the Cloevermaker, or tollkeeper, of the pass. In 1795 he established an inn for travelers at the foot of the pass. The inn buildings have since deteriorated, but the remains of the toll house are still standing.

These views of the toll house and the pass do not incorporate the most dramatic peaks of the Hottentots Holland range. The range near the pass ascends to about 600 meters, less than half the height of the peaks less than 10 km to the northwest of the pass itself. Brandes does, however, capture the stark contrast between the rugged granite peaks and the vegetated lower reaches of the mountains which is typical of the Hottentots Holland. The scrubby fynbos and protea which grow on the undeveloped slopes today were documented by Sparrman. In summer they are green, only sparsely flecked with flowers, if any remain from spring. At the distance from which Brandes was drawing, the vegetation would have appeared as a broad and unbroken band of color, contrasting sharply with the grey or “alabaster” tones of the rocky upper faces, which are not in fact the marble Brandes suppose them to be.

See post Gantouw pass to see the wagon tracks groved into the rocks....


  1. How does one access the Gantouw Pass by foot ?

  2. Hi There, you drive to the top of Sir Lowry's pass and you will find a parking spot on the left hand side opposite the old dam entrance. Park there and follow the signs...


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