As the Dutch boeren trekked ever eastwards in order to escape from authority, they encountered an enemy of a different kind: a series of rivers in steep defiles. The one solution was to bypass them by traversing the Langkloof route. The final challenges were the Gamtoos and Van Stadens Rivers. The Gamtoos was the easier foe as it could be crossed by making a turn to the north. The Van Staden river was a foe of superior mein.
Van Stadens Pass is a passage through the gorge of the Van Stadens River and is locally known as the iPospathi – the post road, for it was with the opening of the pass that post was conveyed by way of the road for more than a century.
Main picture: Crossing the drift in 1870
The original pass was named after one of the area’s pioneer farmers – Marthinus van Staden, who was the first person to plot a rudimentary track through the Van Stadens River Gorge.
First proper pass constructed
During July 1852, White – presumably the same Henry Fancourt White who constructed White’s Road in Port Elizabeth – surveyed the road over the Van Stadens Heights and a new pass was built. The road between Jeffreys Bay and Port Elizabeth was at this time described as “execrable”. In November 1854 Andrew Geddes Bain reported on the roads in this area and stated that it would be best if a new road could be built following the line laid out by Mr. Bird, but warned the authorities that it would be costly.
By 1860, the Cape Government, no doubt after much cajoling by irate road users, decided to rebuild the pass to acceptable standards for wagon traffic. From the end of 1863 employment was found for 30 “distressed labourers” on a new road across the Van Stadens Valley laid out by P.M. Pfeil. During 1864 and 1865 the new pass was built but with a drift across the river. George Apsey was the Road Surveyor and Pfeil the Inspecting Engineer from 1865 to 1867. When travelling from Port Elizabeth the remains of the second pass may be seen in places to the left of the existing road.
In 1866 the road was handed over to the Uitenhage Divisional Council. Two years later in November 1868 a massive flood washed away major sections of the pass and bridge, resulting in it having to be completely rebuilt.
In May 1902 the construction of the earthworks for the narrow-gauge railway line between Port Elizabeth and Avontuur was begun. Although it carries the narrow-gauge line ( 4 inch – 60 cm), the bridge was built to take South African standard gauge (42 inch – 105 cm) traffic. It is the highest narrow-gauge railway bridge in the world. The House of Assembly passed the necessary Bill on 29 September 1902. In 1904, steelwork for the bridge began to arrive at the Port Elizabeth harbour. The Resident Engineer, C. Bodtker, was killed in 1904 and F.H. Rees took charge. This bridge was officially opened on the 18th April 1905. During November 1905, a daily mixed service was initiated between Port Elizabeth and Humansdorp on weekdays with one train in each direction.
During July 1902, a successful negotiation of Van Stadens Pass was made by the first motor car in Port Elizabeth, a 4.5 hp Benz owned by W. Alcock, a future mayor of Walmer. One mishap which this vehicle would not have experienced is punctures as it had wooden tyres. It is possible that more than one vehicle was involved as it has been widely reported that Mr. JA Gordon, in a 9 horse-power De Dietrich phaeton, became the first local motorist to travel through the pass. The actual driver of Mr. Gordon’s car was Herr Below, “one of the most experienced of Continental drivers.”
On 31st January 1936 the Woodridge Preparatory School, with its spectacular view of the Van Stadens Gorge, was opened by L.J.A. Carter in the buildings of Cadle’s Hotel, Van Stadens Heights.
In 1938 a new pass was constructed as well as a bridge across the river. Up until this time there had not been a bridge but merely a drift. In December 1939 this concrete bridge across the Van Stadens River was completed and put into use. The pass remained a dirt road until the road was finally tarred between 1950 and 1953.
Bridge over the gorge
The pass through the Van Stadens River might have been a god-sent as it created a more direct route to Port Elizabeth than travelling via Uitenhage, but it was tedious. With its narrow single lane roads, the speed through this pass was a function of the slowest vehicle.
Frustrated motorists had long been dreaming of a bridge over the gorge itself to bypass the pass. During the 1960s, a plan was unveiled which proposed to build bridges over the most notorious passes in the Southern Cape. These included the Storm’s River, Blaauwkrantz as well as the Van Stadens.
The present bridge, crossing the gorge, was completed on 12 October 1971. It was the longest concrete arch bridge in South Africa and the sixth longest in the world, with a main span of 198m. It is 125 metres above the gorge. The two halves of the arch were constructed simultaneously from both sides. The engineers were an Italian firm, Impresa Ing, A, and P. di Penta. In November 1948 the Divisional Council made the Van Stadens outspan available for a wild flower reserve.
|Beginning of works:||1967|
|Completion:||11 November 1971|
|Structure:||Deck arch bridge|
|Function / usage:||Road bridge|
|Material:||Reinforced concrete bridge|
|Construction method:||Cantilever construction using temporary cable-stays|
|Location:||Eastern Cape, South Africa|
|Crosses:||Van Stadens River|
|Coordinates:||33° 54′ 33.30″ S 25° 11′ 49.25″ E|
|Arch span||198.10 m|
|Height above valley floor or water||140 m|
The 1971 bridge was commissioned to span the 140-metre-deep gorge. The pass starts at 229m at the eastern side and descends 140 vertical metres to the old bridge [89m ASL]. From here, in a single frame, you have a good view of the lovely old bridge as well as the towering concrete structure of the new bridge, commissioned in 1971. The ascent up the eastern side of the gorge is almost the same height as the descent. The average gradient works out at 1:15 with nothing steeper than 1:10.
Today it takes only about 30 seconds to drive over the gorge on the N2. This is fine if you are in a hurry, but the charm of the old pass is still available to those with some extra time to spare. The downside of the tall new bridge is that it saw its first suicide victim soon after being built. One suicide followed another and soon the new bridge became known as the Bridge of Death. The authorities have subsequently erected cages along both sides and a call centre is on standby to help desperately depressed people.
Gazetteer of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Divisions of the old Cape Colony, compiled by Bartle Logie and Margaret Harradine (2014, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)