Declared a National Monument in 1972, it is the oldest unaltered pass in South Africa, and links George with the village of Herold. Until the building of the Outeniqua Pass it was the main route between Cape Town and Grahamstown. Before that there was only the notoriously difficult wagon trail over the mountains – the Cradock Pass. This was the first road between George and Oudtshoorn. The Montagu Pass was opened in 1848, having taken 3 years to build by some 250 convicts at a cost of 36,000 Pounds Sterling. It lays claim to being the oldest, unaltered pass still in use in South Africa and covers 17,1 kms of magnificently scenic narrow, gravel road driving, ascending from the tiny hamlet of Herold, on the northern side of the Outeniqua Mountains up and over the summit and then all the way down to the outskirts of George.
The road compresses 126 bends corners and curves into its length and gradients reach a maximum of 1:6. The road is suuitable for all vehicles in fair weather, but please drive slowly and due to many sections being only single width (especially on the southern side) it might be necessary to reverse back to a wider point to allow passing oncoming traffic.
The pass was built to replace the highly dangerous and extremely difficult Cradock Pass, which still exists today, but as a tough hiking trail. The pass was named after Sir John Montagu, who was the colonial secretary of the Cape at the time.
Named for the chief of the Central Roads Board, John Montagu, and planned by engineer Charles Michell, work began in 1844 with H.O. Farrell as superintendent. In 1845 he was replaced by Henry Fancourt White, a qualified surveyor recruited from Australia as a road inspector. White’s name is perpetuated in the town of Blanco and Fancourt Estate. The former, originally called Whitesville, developed at White’s headquarters, and the change in name was apparently due to the fact that the modest White was embarrassed to have the settlement named after him. His home – Blanco House – was renamed Fancourt by his son Ernest Montagu White, and is now a hotel and part of the Fancourt golf estate.
The Montagu Pass was the first to be built utilising mainly convict labour, and was completed in 1847 at a cost of almost £36 000. It was hailed as “…one of the greatest works ever undertaken in this colony for the benefit of the community at large”. Veteran traveller Anthony Trollope enthused that it was “…equal to some of the mountain roads through the Pyrenees”. A wagon with a single team of oxen could ascend the pass in three hours, compared with the three days it had taken to negotiate the old Cradock Pass.