The Grootrivierberge, or Great River Mountains, stretch away to the east just to the north of Willowmore and overshadow the last-remaining concrete strip road in South Africa, linking Willowmore with Steytlerville. This is a remote and seldom visited area with a 141-kilometre round-trip providing a glimpse of remote communities in Swanepoel’s Poort and the wide open vistas of the Camdeboo Plain stretching north from the 1579-metre high Witteberge, marking the southern fringe of the vast open spaces of the Great Karoo.
Just to the north of Willowmore on the N9 highway to Aberdeen, take the R329 towards Steytlerville. The road leads east reaching a junction approximately 31-kilometres from Willowmore to Miller and beyond to the railway junction of Klipplaat. The concrete strip road continues beyond this junction for a further 53-kilometres to Steytlerville.
The road to Miller Station via Swanepoel’s Poort follows the course of the old Klipplaat to Willowmore railway line through the Grootrivierberge, crossing the Groot River and passing the tiny railway hamlets of Fullarton and Eensaam (Lonely). The rather forlorn Miller Station marks the end of Swanepoel’s Poort with the wide open spaces of the Camdeboo Plain stretching away into the distance.
Beyond Miller the gravel road continues onwards to Klipplaat and beyond to Jansenville. From the Miller junction turn left towards Aberdeen and after a short three kilometres turn left and left again towards Willowmore, keeping the northern slopes of the Witteberge (White Mountains) on the left.
After 34-kilometres the gravel road terminates on the N9 highway north of the Beervlei Dam. Beervlei Dam is usually empty and was constructed as a flood control mechanism for the vast catchment of the Camdeboo Plains and Eastern Koup that occasionally flooded Willowmore and surrounding areas.
Just south of the dam a gravel road branches off the N9 highway across the shimmering Camdeboo Plain towards the isolated village of Rietbron. Further south the gravel R306 branches off the N9 highway, approximately 20-kilometres north of Willowmore, providing an alternate route to Rietbron and beyond to Beaufort West.
Another wonderful day trip takes in the atmospheric village of Klaarstroom and the spectacular Meiringspoort Mountain Pass. This route is 223-kilometres in extent.
From Willowmore the gravel R407 road hugs the northern slopes of the Swartberg Mountains with the diminutive Boesmansberg (Bushman’s Mountain), Platberg (Flat Mountain), Grasberg (Grass Mountain) and the Droekloofberge (Dry Kloof Mountains) framing the views towards the north. Approximately 38-kilometres from Willowmore the road reaches the largely disused Vondeling (Foundling) Railway Station, where the railway line turns south through the Toorwaterpoort exiting the Great Karoo en-route to the Klein Karoo.
Toorwaterpoort is not accessible by motor vehicle and has become a favourite for hikers exploring the deeply incised ravine through the Swartberg Mountains, with only the largely disused railway line as company. The Poort terminates at the Toorwater Railway Station on the southern slopes of the Swartberg Mountains, accessible by motor vehicle from the R341 in the Klein Karoo linking De Rust and Willowmore.
Beyond Vondeling the R407 continues towards the east crossing the Provincial Boundary between the Eastern and Western Cape and terminating on the N12 highway linking De Rust and Beaufort West. The tiny village of Klaarstroom is an ideal spot for an early lunch or a mid-morning coffee.
Klaarstroom remains one of the very few authentic Karoo villages with the ambience of the 1940s, although little has changed since the days of Queen Victoria.
The village was first settled in 1777 with the trekboere, or nomadic farmers, first attracted to the area by the clear streams flowing down from the slopes of the Swartberg Mountains to the south – hence the name which can be translated as Clear Stream. This clean, clear water was first used to wash the dust and dirt off the wool being transported from the Great Karoo through Meiringspoort to the port at Mossel Bay. A sprinkling of Victorian era buildings were built including the police station in the middle of the village, which was built in 1880 and is acknowledged as one of the most beautiful police station buildings in the country. Beyond Klaarstroom the tarred R407 road continues for a further 53-kilometres to Prince Albert.
Turning south along the N12 highway the road enters the spectacular Meiringspoort. Before the construction of Meiringspoort there were no roads linking the Great Karoo and the Klein Karoo. In 1854 the renowned road engineers Andrew Geddes Bain and his son Thomas Bain together with the irrepressible Sir John Molteno, Member of Parliament for Beaufort West, surveyed the great “kloof” or defile through the Swartberg Mountains, through which Meiringspoort would be constructed.
The road was ultimately surveyed by a number of eminent road engineers including Andrew Geddes Bain and Thomas Bain and the 16-kilometre Pass was constructed in 223 work days, crossing the Groot River 21-times, at a cost of £5,018, just £18 above the allocated budget of £5,000. The engineers had initially requested £50,000 in order to construct a properly engineered road, however this was considered unaffordable at the time.
Unfortunately the sub-standard road was highly susceptible to flooding as it was constructed in very close proximity to the river bed of the Groot River. In 1859, 1861 and 1875 the road was closed for long periods due to flooding and a massive flood in 1885 washed almost every vestige of the road away.
Over the years the road was rebuilt and improved after repeated flooding, however it was only after a major flood in 1996 that the reconstruction of Meiringspoort was begun. This resulted in a spectacular road that sweeps through the narrow mountain “poort” with many opportunities to stop and admire the awe-inspiring scenery and the sheer twisted ramparts of rock that tower above the road.
The rebuilt road through Meiringspoort was opened in 2000. Approximately halfway through the “poort” there is an information centre.
From this facility a narrow footpath leads around a sheer fold in the mountain to a deep rock pool and cascade of water fed by a mountain stream that sweeps over a lip of rock that frames the blue sky above.
The N12 highway exits Meiringspoort and beyond the junction with the R341 road enters the small town of De Rust, nestled below the southern slopes of the Swartberg Mountains. Turning onto the R341 the return route to Willowmore leads in an easterly direction between the spectacular Swartberg Mountains to the north and the Kammanassieberge to the south, with magnificent vistas across the rolling countryside of the eastern end of the Klein Karoo.
Approximately 57-kilometres from De Rust the road reaches the R339 road junction leading south to Uniondale. Just beyond this turnoff a gravel road leads north to the railway station at Toorwater, at the southern end of the Toorwaterpoort. The R341 continues for a further 12-kilometres terminating on the N9 highway linking Uniondale and Willowmore.
Turning north onto the N9 highway the road ascends a long valley through the Ghwarriepoort between the Suurberg (Sour Mountain) to the north and Antoniesberg to the south. Emerging from the protracted ascent the N9 highway passes the R332 road junction to the Baviaanskloof before entering Willowmore.