The Skurweberg and Witzenberg ranges posed a real threat to the development of Ceres and also the Warm and Koue Bokkevelds. These ranges were formidable and only after Andrew Bain drove Michell’s Pass up the Breede River Valley, did this area start to realise its potential.
Farmer Jan Mostert had laid a 13-kilometre road up the valley in 1765. This road served travelers for over 80 years, although to get over the mountains, ox-wagons had to be unloaded, dismantled, and taken over piecemeal on the backs of the oxen.
Two other routes existed, the Witzenberg and Skurweberg Passes, built by Jan Pienaar in 1780.
Two options were available to Andrew Bain when he built the Michell's Pass. One was Mostertshoek, the other the Witzenberg-Skurweberg route, which the people of Tulbagh wanted Sir John Montagu to develop. They encouraged him to take this option, his response being that he would do it on a 50:50 basis. The town of Tulbagh could not afford their half of the deal, and the Mostertshoek route, which Bain favoured, was chosen.
The design for the pass was prepared by Charles Michell. Indeed the partnership of Sir John Montagu in government, Charles Michell in design and Andrew Bain in construction, was to prove the most successful beyond that time.
Bain, together with 240 convict labourers and some assistants, including his son Thomas, completed the pass within two years.
The Governor of the Cape, Sir Harry Smith, opened the pass on 1 Dec 1848 who said, “that this was an undertaking which would do honour to a great nation instead of a mere dependency of the British Crown”. The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes by Graham Ross.
It was named after Charles Michell.
The pass’s benefit was far wider-reaching than just for that of the people of Ceres. It reduced the travel time from Beaufort West by ox-wagon from 20 to 12 days, and also opened the way for the faster horse carriage travel.
The widening and concrete resurfacing of the pass started in 1938. With the outbreak of WW2, completion was delayed. Bitumen was also in short supply because of the war, and a 100mm concrete slab was laid. This was still in use 45 years later.
In 1969, a severe earthquake struck the Tulbagh-Wolesley-Ceres area causing a major mudslide, which closed Michell's Pass. When the debris was cleared, the road was still in place!
Traffic increased over the years and it became clear that the pass had to be upgraded to meet these demands. The challenge was to affect this major upgrade without disrupting traffic too much especially during the fruit-picking season. A closure of the Michell’s Pass involves a detour of 150kms for Ceres road-users.
The reconstructed pass is a very pleasant one. The engineering, which so effectively respects the environmental aspects of the pass, make this one of the great passes of the Cape. Sections of Bain’s original pass have been retained as well as a number of his stonewalls.
Bain’s original pass, sections of which are still in use, was proclaimed a National Monument in 1998.
The wide lanes now make the Michell’s Pass a pleasure to use. The crags, gorges and ravines are magnificent as the river meanders through the mountains, taking the pass along with it.