Whilst we live in a very beautiful country, it is interesting to note that its main history is fairly recent, only really going back to about 1850. Before that date the hinterland was largely unknown and unexplored and tended to be the bailiwick of various African tribes who fought one another for territory; even the Voortrekkers made only a small impact on the land beyond the Witteberg mountains as they ran to escape the rigours of British rule. Those that headed eastwards along the coast towards Grahamstown had other problems, but this article is too short to deal with those.
Until 1850 the Great Karoo and the lands beyond the Orange River remained largely untamed and only intrepid botanists, missionaries, and other explorers ventured so far afield from civilization. There was a reasonable road from Cape Town north to Paarl and Wellington, and thence a wagon trail along the mountains and through the old Roodezand pass to Tulbagh, where a small farming community had laid out a village at the head of the Bree River Valley, then by an even more tortuous route over the Witsenberg into the Warm Bokkeveld, through which the wagon trail led towards what is now known as the Theronsberg Pass. The trail crossed this pass, continued through Hottentotskloof, and entered the poort known as Karoopoort, described by W.J.Burchell in 1811 as ‘the door to the desert’, since it marked the exit from the Warm Bokkeveld into the Ceres Karoo.
Somewhere between 1827 and 1848 the course of the road was changed when Mostert’s Pass was opened through the gap in the mountains made by the river as it flowed down from Ceres, just a small settlement in those days, past the peak known as Mostert’s Hoek, to join the Bree River; this pass was later re-surveyed and engineered to become the present Mitchell’s Pass, which was opened in 1848. With each new development the road to the interior became easier and more frequented and in 1850 an inn was opened in Karoopoort.
There had been a farm in the poort which was noted as far back as 1774 by Thunberg, a Swedish gardener from Kew Gardens. The farm consisted of a thatched homestead, some cornfields, a fruit orchard, and a stream set about with oaks and poplars. The inn was a very basic structure built to the south of the present house and provided little more than overnight shelter to the weary traveler. However, it was an inn which was destined to offer its limited hospitality to many well-known people such as Rhodes, Le Vaillant, Dr.Livingstone et al.
In 1852 Bain’s Kloof was opened and this year really marked the beginning of the period in which the road to the interior became a highway. Travelers would take the train as far as Wellington (which was in those days the end of the line) and then would continue by wagon or on horseback through Bain’s Kloof, Mitchell’s Pass, and Ceres to Kafferskraal (where there is still a farm of that name) where there was an outspan. They would then carry on to Leeuwfontein (which still exists, but not under that name) where they could overnight, and then over the pass to Hottentotskloof, where there is still a picnic spot with water. The next stopping place would be at Karoopoort, where they could stay the night, before continuing into the Ceres Karoo, where there were outspans at Platfontein and Smitswinkel.
In 1870 the diamond fields of Kimberley were discovered and for a brief time the road, now known as ‘the Forgotten Highway’, became exceptionally busy. A weekly service between Cape Town and Kimberley was started by a company known as The Diamond Fields Transport Company and diggers, fortune-hunters, speculators, and traders in their thousands passed through the poort on their way to make their fortunes. Soon afterwards, a coach service was begun from Wellington via Beaufort West to Kimberley. At times there were as many as thirty wagons, nose to bumper, travelling through the pass, carrying wine, brandy, hardware, mining equipment, tobacco, biltong, dried and fresh fruit, vegetables, and skins. They were not only headed for Kimberley as there was another road which led eventually to Calvinia and thence northwards to Gordonia and Namaqualand. This road fell out of favor in 1877 when the Pakhuis Pass was opened, offering a more direct route from Cape Town; in the same year, the railway line had reached Touws River, making road transport less attractive and effectively beginning the decline of the Forgotten Highway through Karoopoort.
By 1895 the road was all but deserted, and in 1900 the inn closed. The Forgotten Highway was passing into history, overtaken by the railways and the need for speed and comfort. Parts of the highway can still be seen: Bain’s Kloof remains largely unchanged except for the tarred surface, and until 1948 it was still the main road from Cape Town to Johannesburg; Mitchell’s Pass, although much wider than the original, is still the only road from the coast to Ceres; the farms Kafferskloof and Leeuwfontein still exist and their outspans are still clearly visible; Hottentot’s Kloof is still there and still used; there is still a road through Karoopoort to Calvinia and Sutherland, and the original farmhouse, inn, and fig orchard are still very much in existence, as is the outspan under the poplar trees by the river; in 1981 the fig orchard was made a National Monument, and even today there is still a clause in the lease over the farm (it is still owned by the Sate) stipulating that free overnight accommodation must be offered to travellers; the farms Platfontein and Smitswinkel are still there for those who care to look, but the road with its motley crowd of hopeful travellers, has long since disappeared into the mists of time.
When next in the area, pause awhile under the poplar trees by the river, switch off your engine and you might hear the beat of hooves and grind of wagons as they toil through the poort; imagine how what is now a quiet and lonely spot was once the Forgotten Highway to the riches of the future.