Cango Caves and Swartberg 230km

Cango Caves.

CANGO WILDLIFE RANCH

Originally established as the first crocodile show farm in South Africa, the Cango Wildlife Ranch is also famous as a breeding centre for cheetah. Visitors on South African holidays can view lion, cheetah, leopard and jaguar from the Cat Walk, an elevated walkway that leads through enclosures resembling the animals' natural habitats.

The reptile park has a variety of local and exotic snakes, while the crocodile breeding centre has over 400 crocodile and a large population of American alligator. Regular guided tours are conducted to give visitors a better understanding of these much-maligned reptiles.

Among the unusual animals here are emu (the Australian relative to the ostrich), capybara (the largest rodent in the world), pygmy hippo, wild dog and racoon. Visitors can take a trip around the ranch aboard a mini-train, and there is a mini-farmyard and play park for children.

SCHOEMANSPOORT

This is an 18-km-long defile carved by the Grobbelaars River through the foothills of the Swartberg, links the Cango Valley with the fertile Olifants River valley. The road initially makes its way past smallholdings with ostriches, lucerne fields and tobacco-drying sheds, and then meanders through the scenic poort. A pleasant detour is a drive to the Rus-en-Vrede Waterfall, which cascades 61 m into a pool hidden in a lush forested kloof.

CANGO CAVES

The magnificent caves in the southern foothills of the Swartberg range were formed over millions of years by rainwater seeping through fissures in the limestone. The water gradually dissolved the limestone, forming an extensive network of subterranean caverns and tunnels. When the acidic oxygen in the rainwater comes into contact with the calcium carbonate in the limestone, a crystalline solution is formed, which hardens and eventually accumulates as stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones.

From the entrance, a flight of stairs descends to Van Zyl's Hall, an enormous cavern that is 107 m long, 54 m at its widest and up to 17 m in height. Other well-known formations include the 10-m-high Cleopatra's Needle - with an estimated age of 150 000 years - the Organ Pipes, the Ballerina and the Frozen Waterfall. Visitors can choose from a 30-minute scenic tour, 60-minute standard tour or 90-minute adventure tour on South African holidays, all of which are conducted at regular intervals daily. The adventure tour snakes along narrow passages and tunnels with appropriate names like Lumbago Walk, Devil's Chimney and the Letter Box.

SWARTBERG

Rising to a height of some 2 326 m, the Swartberg range stretches for 200 km from near Matjiesfontein in the west to Willowmore in the east, where it merges with the Baviaanskloof Mountains. Its western outlier, the Klein Swartberg, is separated from the Groot Swartberg by the Seven Weeks Poort. Among the outstanding features of the range are the spectacularly twisted and contorted greyish-white and reddish-brown sandstone strata, formed some 150 million years ago when the Cape Folded Mountains were pushed up by immense forces in the earth's crust.

SWARTBERG PASS

Of the numerous passes built by Thomas Bain, the Swartberg Pass is widely regarded as one of his masterpieces. The steep gradients provided the brilliant road engineer with a formidable challenge; after carrying out a survey in 1879, Bain wrote to the Chief Inspector of Public Works that he had to try four different lines before he succeeded in finding the correct one. Work started on the Prince Albert side of the mountains in 1881, but construction ground to a halt just over a year later when road-builder John Tassie was declared insolvent. Construction of the pass resumed in November 1883, when Bain took over the work.

Using between 200 and 240 convict labourers, Bain built sweeping zigzag curves and dry-packed stone retaining walls to support the road where the slopes were too steep to excavate. The pass, the last to be built by Bain, was completed in 1886 at a cost of £14 500, excluding the cost of the convict labour. Some 19 signposts indicating places of historic interest have been erected along the route, among these the ruins of the Blikstasie (Old Jail) where the convicts slept at night and the site of the Old Toll House, which came into service on 5 May 1888.

PRINCE ALBERT

Lying on the northern foothills of the Swartberg range, Prince Albert is a picturesque farming village with an old-world charm. It is renowned for its variety of well-preserved architectural styles, and for its 'Prince Albert gables', which date from 1840-60. This unique gable features the outlines of the 'holbol' gable with a narrow pediment, while horizontal mouldings connect the outlines of the gables. Other building styles include Karoo houses, with their symmetrical façades and flat roofs, as well as Victorian and Georgian-style buildings.

Also of interest is the historic water mill built in the 1850s. It is the only remaining one of five built in the Prince Albert area during the 19th century. The Fransie Pienaar Museum depicts the natural and cultural history of the area, and has an interesting display on the brief but frantic gold rush which took place following the discovery of alluvial gold in the area in 1890.

Prince Albert was laid out in 1842 on the farm De Queekvaleij which was granted to Zacharias de Beer as a loan farm on 12 February 1762. Originally named Albertsburg, it was renamed after the husband of Queen Victoria in 1845. The arid area is ideal sheep farming country, but Prince Albert is also known for its apricots and figs, as well as for its olives, which are fêted at the annual olive festival held in May.

MEIRINGSPOORT

Meiringspoort is one of the two original links you will come across on self-drive South African holidays between the Little Karoo and the Great Karoo, the spectacular poort carved by the Groot River through the Swartberg created a natural passage ideally suited to a road link. Building of the road started in August 1856 and the official opening took place on 3 March 1858. It was named after Petrus Meiring, a prominent farmer who had campaigned vigorously for the construction of the road to facilitate commerce between the wool farmers of the Great Karoo and the traders in Oudtshoorn, George and Knysna.

Because of the narrowness of the poort, the road had to cross the river numerous times; Langstraat, the longest section without a river crossing, measured 2,4 km. The road was frequently washed away by the river, and after the floods of 1885 it was rebuilt by Thomas Bain. Each of the drifts (crossings) was named after a particular feature or event. One of these, Ontploffingsdrif (Explosion Drift), recalls an incident when a wagon carrying dynamite exploded. Perskeboomdrif (Peach Tree Drift) was named after the peach trees that once grew at the ford.

Among the points of interest along the route is the 60-m-high waterfall 3 which cascades down a steep cliff face into a 9-m-deep pool, and Herrie se Klip, where the well-known Afrikaans writer, CJ Langenhoven, chiselled the name of his imaginary elephant, Herrie, into the rock. Although Bain eliminated some of the crossings, the tarred road built between 1966 and 1971 still crosses the Groot River no fewer than 25 times.

DE RUST

This typical Karoo village with beautiful Victorian houses 6, lies at the southern entrance of Meiringspoort. Established in 1900, the village owes its name to the farm De Rust (Dutch for 'the resting place'), which was acquired in 1822 by Petrus Meiring - for whom the route through the Swartberg was named. The Mons Ruber Estate is celebrated for its white dessert wines (jerepigo), port and witblits, while Domein Doornkraal produces a wide range of red and white wines and a sparkling wine bottled under the label Tickled Pink.

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