It was quite by chance that I recently stumbled on a few articles commemorating the opening of Bainskloof Pass. The articles were published in a 1953 supplement of the Paarl Post and included verbatim transcripts of speeches as well as eyewitness accounts of the events. Today, 162 years later, it is easy to forget just how significant the completion of the pass was for residents of the Cape.
Michell’s Pass (1848), Sir Lowry’s Pass (1830) and the Franschhoek Pass (1825) were the only gateways to the interior. There was no Du Toit’s Kloof Pass (1949) or N1 national road to the north.
Bainskloof Pass became one of the main routes to Kimberley’s diamond fields and the goldfields of the Witwatersrand. It became a national road of sorts that linked Wellington, Sutherland, Fraserburg and Victoria West with the new metropolis of Johannesburg.
Back to Wellington and the Grand Opening of 1853.
A large group of dignitaries and their companions left Cape Town on Monday, 12 September 1853. On their approach to Wellington, they were met by a jubilant crowd of the town’s residents on horseback and in horse traps. Cannons were fired to announce their arrival in Wellington. At Gird’s Hotel they were met by local dignitaries, politicians and a deputation of Paarl’s Municipality before freshening up for a gala dinner.
The following morning huge crowds gathered on the banks of the Berg River to witness the opening of the Lady Loch Bridge. A reporter estimated the crowd to be around 4 000 people and described an outspan of hundreds of wagons, carts and draught animals. Flags and arches of evergreens and orange branches had been constructed over the bridge. On the Wellington side of the bridge, a pavilion decorated with the royal standard, various coats of arms and more flags.
The bridge was officially opened at noon. Speeches were followed by toasts to Queen Victoria, a bottle of wine was broken over the railing of the bridge and then hired omnibuses carried the dignitaries across the bridge to the other side.
The reporter does not say how many people gathered at 9 am the following day to witness the VIPs’ departure for Bain’s new mountain pass, other than to mention the oaks Bain had planted along the route, the many citrus orchards, and the outstanding views from the top of the pass. He was also very impressed by the gradient of the road – an important consideration at a time when there was no motorized transport.
Progress through the 30 km pass must have been very slow. All the bridges and landmarks (decorated with more arches covered in fynbos) had to be toasted and named. At Bayley’s Krantz the dignitaries were honoured with a gun salute. The cavalcade then stopped at the Darling Bridge (also covered in streamers) for a festive lunch before continuing on to Worcester where they stayed for the night. The following day the whole party returned to Wellington via the newly opened pass.
Reading the articles, I thought of Bain’s first impression of the landscape as “repulsive and savagely grand”, the logistics of preparing for the event, building arches and pavilions, picking flowers, transporting flowers, tables and chairs, food, table cloths and cutlery. It must have been a huge and exhausting event that would have involved almost every resident of Wellington.
And what a proud moment for Andrew Geddes Bain and all those who helped to blast and chisel a pass through solid rock, build 20 m high dry-stone walls and more than a dozen stone bridges.
Bainskloof Pass was declared a national monument in 1980. It remains one of the Cape’s grand mountain passes.
© Marguerite Lombard