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Historical snippets from Graham Ross: From bridle paths to jeep tracks, and Of highways and freeways.



The paper considers the use and development of bridle paths, and considers the origins of the terms highways and freeways.
Graham Ross
Retired padmaker; now a researcher
and sometime author
Photos from The Ronsnce
of Cope Mountain Posses
Historical snippets from
Graham Ro
From bridle paths
to jeep tracks
Some of the earliest crossings of our moun-
tain ranges followed animal tracks, the
most obvious being the paths trodden out
by elephant as at Attaquas Kloof, Du Toit's
Kloof and Franschhoek Pass. When the
Dutch East India Company expeditions
pushed lnto the interior in search ol stock
lor visiting ships, they generally followed
the tralls used by rhe local tribesmen wlth
whom they wished to trade, as at T'kana
Ouwe/Elands PadlHottentots Holland
Kloof, and at Attaquas Kloof.
During the great age of pass-buiiding by
Governors Sir Lowry Cole and Sir George
Grey, Colonial Secretary John Montagu
and Surveyor-General, Civil Engineer and
Superintendent of Works Charles Michell,
formal government had arrived - which
meant bureaucracy and reports, reports and
again reports (for which the historicai re-
searcher git'es thanksl). Conan Doyle once
wrote (Scandal in Bohemia) 'It ls a capital
mistake to theorise before one has data.'
and this very definitely applies ro mounrain
pass work. So we find that, although the
finai recommendations were made by select
committees sitting on padded chairs in
Cape Town, someone had to get out into
the field and eyeball the proposed route
before writing a report. Which is where
bndle paths became popular.
Bridle paths made three major contri-
butions to these investigations. First, in the
age before aerial photography and GPS rhe
existence of a bridle path proved that there
actually was a way from one side of the
mountain to the other. Second, it showed
that there were people wanting to get from
one srde to the other, so that there would be
users lor a pass if it was constructed. And
third, it made it much easier for the report
writers to inspect lhe route - and also ena-
bled them on occasions to persuade people
) Above: Du Toit's Kloof under construction, circo 1948
(Tronsnet H eritoge Libro ry)
lnsert: Aeriol view of Du Toit\ Kloof Pos (VKt fnginun)
of influence to come and see for themselves
Thus we find that Andrew Bain managed
to get Sir John Molteno - then MLA for
Beaufort West and destined to become the
Colony's first prime minister - to take part
in a horse-back inspection along the bridle
path through Meirlngspoort in 1854.
We fi.nd that in 1660 there was a
bridle path Piquiniers Kloof, in the
mid-I700s a bndle path was in use over
Ruyterbosch Pass, in 1772 there was
one over Paardekop and Prlnce Alfred
passes, and a bridle path was put through
Meiringspoort rn the early 1800s. There are
many more examples, but these wrll suffice
The opening up of bridle paths pre-
ceded the construction of roads through
a pass in a number ol instances. as is per-
lectly logical. lnitially the requiremenr was
lor 1ocal communication, or for a link in a
travelled route. Then, goods and produce
could be carried, in smallish quantities;
in pack trains. As the I'olume of trade and
the size ol articles carried lncreased, so the
Civil Engineering I September 2006 E
\Mhere the mountain slopes are
steep, the choice of routes t'or
\vagons was constrainedby the
necessity fo cross the contours pretty
tuell at right angles, as the top-
heavy waglns were otherwtseliable
to topple over. So much tuas tlds the
case that on certain passes where
the klooJs werc rlnpassahlebecause
of topograpW, orhecause they were
heavily wooded, or because they
were t'ull af a river, the tuagons in
facthadto go aver the st"mmits of
the mountains
need for a wagon road became obvious. The
next stage, although not directly connected
to the bridle path, was the improvement ol
the wagon road to accommodate the faster,
lighter horse-drawn vehicles which came
into use in the mid-1800s, and later.
Of course the subsequent wagon roads
did not necessarlly lollow the bridle path
route (except through territory such as
Meiringspoort, where there was no op-
tion!), any more than the motor roads
constructed later followed the wagon roads
rrn'hich preceded them.
The bridle paths were generally more
direct than the wagon roads, as illustrated
by this description by Alfred Gordon-Brown
of travelling in 1832 on horseback between
Avontuur and Knysna (the present-day Prince
Allreds Pass just over the way to the east):
Rode the short or foot path to Knysna a
most diffrcult and tiresome succession
ol steep hills and tongues ol hills among
immense mountains which continued
all the way to Kochi van der Wat's
- the waggon road whrch we crossed
several times being apparently also
excessively steep and circuitous beyond
description ...
But again, where the mountain slopes are
steep, the choice of routes for wagons was
constrained by the necessity to cross the
contours pretty well at right angles, as the
top-heavy wagons were otherwise liable
to topple over. So much was this the case
that on certain passes where the kloofs
were impassable because of topography, or
because they were heavily wooded, or be-
cause they were full of a river, the wagons
in lact had to go over the summits of the
mountains (like over Paardekop behind
) Left: Meiringspoort: The 1858 road con be seen obove the
1971 rood (Molcalm Wotters)
Plettenberg Bay) absurd as that may seem ar
first glance! And here of course the bridle
paths had much greater freedom of choice,
could ciimb at lesser gradients, and could
cross ln the necks.
In this connection, 1et me quote from
a (1961) paper by Nlnham Shand, the
founder of the consulting engineering firm
bearing his name, and president of SAICE
tn 1946:
Recently there has been a spurt of
activity in the mountain areas of
Basutoland. For decades the traditional
mode of transport has been on horse-
back and by mule pack trains. The
narrow bridle tracks zigzaggingtp the
near vertical escarpments have to be
seen to be believed. I sha11 never forget
my initial experience in ascending
them. Seated somewhat insecurely for
the first time in twenty years on the
back of a so-called Basutoland pony
we commenced the ascent. For some
reason best known to themselves
Basutoland ponies always walk on the
extreme outer edge of the two foot wide
niches whlch are g1orlfied by the name
of bridle paths. One look below at the
several hundred feet vertical drop was
enough for me so I leaned well inwards.
With complete aplomb my pony leaned
The overall planning of transport
immediately became Item No I on my
agenda and none too soon we had a
spectacularjeep track right to the top ...
Terrifying at times but at least the Land
Rover did not lean outwards!
Ninham was courteous, considerate, con-
scientious and a dedicated and outstanding
engineer. He was more than a leader of
men: he was a man whom people will-
ingly fol1owed. And as you can tell from
the quote, he had a delightful, dry sense of
humourl I am proud to have worked with
himNow, not all passes went through the
bridle path stage. Where a new alignment
was desirable for some or olher reason
(upgrading of standards; elimination of a
deviation from the more direct line, or an
entirely new route) there was no alternative
but to make an educated guess at a suitable
crossing point over the mountains, and
then to get out into the trackless veld and
see how good the guess had been.
Examples of this type of pioneering
work are Bain's Kloof and Outeniqua Pass.
Another example is Swartberg Pass, which
was mooted to provide an all-weather
connection between the Great and Little
Karoos after both Meiringspoort and Seven
Weeks Poort had demonstrated just how
susceptible they were to damage by floods.
Here Bain investigated four possible routes
E Civil Engineering I September 2006
- and.iust how many which turned out to
be'impossible', I wonder?
But perhaps I am wrong in saying that
these types ofpasses did not go through
the bridle path stage. The sequence was
dlfferent, but indeed one ol the first things
which any pass builder did (after setting up
camp) was lo open up a bridie and footpath
along the construction line to glve access
to the work. In fact, we still do this today,
although the'bridle path'is nowadays a
construction track built to take 4x4s and
suchlike mechanical mounts!
But basically, very little changes, does it?
0f highways
and lreeways
The Romans were the first real road-
builders, and their efforts were spread over
400 years.
There were two main features of their
work. The first was that their roads were
reasonably straight, not only lo reduce lhe
distance travelled, but also because their
baggage wagons had fixed (non-swivelling)
front axles.
Second, they paid great attention to
drainage. (We all remember the story of the
old padmaker who was asked what were
the three greatest enemies of a road, and
who replied 'Water, water - and water'.)
The first task for the road-making legion-
naires was the digging of two ditches,
each about a metre wide, on either side
of the roadway itself. Their road was then
constructed between these ditches, high
above the surrounding ground level: in fact
After the Roman decline, roads in
Europe were allowed to lall into a shocking
state of disrepair. Road building and main-
tenance was sadly neglected for well over
thirteen hundred years.
The first Britlsh Turnpike Act, pro-
viding for traffi.c to be taxed on all main
roads, was passed durlng the reign of
King Charles II in 1663. It was in force in
Britain, with more or less vigour, for neariy
two centuries, and funded the constructlon
of what became known during the Stuart
period as the 'King's Highway'. Between
many important towns the roadways were
on massive causeways, and elsewhere the
more important routes were elevated above
the surrounding countryside -'high ways'
again - while the less important roads
tended to be hollowed out by traffic into
sunken ways and lanes.
Pierre Tresaquet in France, and
Thomas Telford and John Macadam in
Britain, introduced designed and drained
roadbeds, constructed in specified stone
layers, in the early l9th century. A new era
in road building had dawned: Macadam,
for example, eventually had a staff of over
300 sun'eyors working for him. A11 these
pioneers paid great attention to drainage,
and their roads continued to be elevated
At about the same time road building
in the under-funded Cape Coiony got a
tremendous boost when Colonial Secretary
John Montagu sorted out their finances,
and then in 1843 established the Central
Road Board, placing road building on a
more sound and systematic footing. Prior
to this the landdrosts, heemraden and veld-
kornets did their best in the west, while on
the eastern frontier a number of military
roads were being built, but the road net-
work was said in general to have 'ieft much
to be desired'!
The main obstacles to communication
and transportation were the long mountaln
ranges in the Colony, Outstanding men
such as Andrew Bain and his son, Thomas,
responded to the chailenge and constructed
a magnificent series of gravel roads over the
mountain passes, opening up the hinter-
land to economic expansion.
In May of 1885, shortly after Thomas
Bain commenced the construction of the
southern approaches to the Swartberg Pass,
there was a flood which washed away most
of the work he had done there. Having
learned his lesson. Thomas rebuilt the sec-
tion at a hlgher level - a highway, in fact.
Nowadays designers grading rural roads
in South Alrica know that the first thing to
do is to measure catchment areas, deter-
mine run-off, and place drainage structures
on the road longitudinal section. Then
grade above these key points. (Of course,
there are a few other things to remember
also, but let's keep it simple for the purpose
of this snippet!)
So historically a 'highway' is a road
with a reasonably direct alignment, which
is raised above the surrounding ground to
facilitate drainage.
(lf you like, you may refer to lesser
roads as'by-ways'!)
You will remember that in Bntain toll
roads, or turnpikes as they were called
then, followed on the promulgation of the
first Turnpike Act ln 1663.
Some years ago my wife and I were
following the hire car's bonnet around
Cornweil, and on leaving one of their
picturesque fishing r.illages up a narrow
Ciuil Engineering I September 2006 @
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b Above: Swortberg Pox (Cope Archives R1680 ond AG1053)
Itt South At'ricawe adoptrd the
name't'reeway' t'or our un-tolled
dual c ar r iagm ay sup er -highw ay s
with access restricted to grade-
sep aratd inter changes. (Exc
ept of
course in Jahannesburg, whue we
talk of 'motarwtys' tn the cig)
one-and-a-half lane road we were stopped
by a gate. Being used to this sort ol thing
in our counlry districts I r,ra' gertlng our to
open the gate when io my ulter amazement
a bloke came out ol a cottage with a ro11 of
tickets and asked for a toll of two pence.
For this he also opened and closed the gate,
which we thought preity good value!
As a matter of rnterest: Briialn has not up
to now levied tolls on any of her motorways.
But this will change soon: work on Britains
very fi.rst toll motorway, the Birmingham
norihern reliefroad, started at the end of
2000. And rn Australia the first section of
toll road on an Australian natronal highway
is planned to be introduced on the 39 km
Western Sydney Orbital Road, which is pro-
grammed lor opening in 2007.
@ Civit Engineering I September 2006
'Motorways' is the term given by the
British and Austrahans to descnbe their
dual carriageway highu,ays, with access
and crossing mol,ements catered for at in,
terchanges instead of at tralfic circles.
But although they aLso had motor cars
- even if they did call them auromobiles
- this term was never favoured in the
United States oI America
In the US there has always been a bit ol a
question as to whether the construction and
maintenance o[ major hlghways should be
financed by to1ls or from taxes. There was
lnitiaily considerable pub1lc support for the
dlrect'user pays' concept, as evidenced by
the lact that Congress passed laws in both
1817 and IB22 to enable tolls to be used by
the lederal government to finance the con-
struction of major intersiate roads. However,
these laws were both initially vetoed, by two
dillerent presidents, who r,vere both chary of
interlering wrth the rights of the indlviduai
states to build roads within their bounda-
ries. (In fact, with the exception of the
Cumberland Road (1803-1818) there was no
real federal highway financing until 1912.)
The 140 mile long Pennsylr'ania
Turnpike, opened on I October 1940 and
now lengthened to 336 miles, pioneered
the construction of tol1ed 'super-highways'
in the US. From that time the pattern
began to settle down there, with most ol
the new motorways in the eastern states
being tolled. But in California, where the
individual's right to freedom of movemeni
was greatly respected, the idea that people
should have to pay every time they used a
road was never accepted, and from the be-
ginning the major Californian molorways
were not tolled - they were in fact 'free-
ways'! And this term was in time accepted
country-wide to descrlbe the genre.
Here in South Alrica we adopted the
name 'freeway' lor our un-toiied dual
carriageway super-highways with access
restncted to grade-separated interchanges.
(Except of course in Johannesburg, where
we talk of 'motorrvays' in the clty.) In a fir
of depression, overawed by the magnitude
of the task involved in converting a1l our
national roads lo freen'ays, we even at one
time talked of and in fact built several rural
'single carriageway freeways' - crossing,
and exiLing or joining traffic was catered
for at interchanges, but no median was pro-
vided to separate the opposing traffic flows.
Most surprisingly they worked, with very,
very few ruggedly individualistic drivers
zipplng off aiong the on-ramp to save a few
metres of travel, and a minimum ol head-
on collisions on the carriageway.
Now, of course, the talk is of tolling our
freeways, because the fuel tax which should
finance expenditure on our roads is belng
used for other purposes. So some of the
'free-ways'won't be free any more.
Perhaps the rest ol the country will
have tojoinJohannesburg in talking of
(LW: The Afrikaans for lreeway is
not 'vrypad'. A vry-pad is usually a low-
standard, secluded by-way.) tr
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