Sidebar · 26 January 2022


One needs a certain fortitude to drive on a gravel road—a skill that is not unlike riding a horse. In both cases you need a light touch and an instinct for what is an appropriate speed. This knowledge is of course of no practical use for those who never leave the relative safety of tarred road surfaces, but then driving in town or anywhere else is not an exact science. There is nothing more unsettling than lurching into a pothole that has mysteriously appeared out of nowhere in an otherwise perfectly sound tarred road surface. 

For those who are prone to complain about deteriorating road surfaces, I can only suggest they try driving a busy backroad after a heavy downpour.  It is a matter of picking a somewhat erratic course through potholes and kidney-jarring sinkplaat, then breaking erroneously for what looks like a small drift, only to plunge seconds later into a donga.

Centuries ago there were of course no roads.  Migrating antelope, zebra and elephants created tracks. Pastoralists herded their cattle and sheep along the same tracks, and over time the tracks became paths and roads. Spare a thought for those early settlers trying to transport their grain and wine to Table Bay. The journey through the Drakenstein Valley across the Cape Flats to the sea was arduous and expensive—it took up to four days by ox wagon. 

The larger wine producers would make the trip 50 times—just to get their wine to the market. In 1839 those transport costs amounted to a third of the market value of their wine crop. The main reason for this slow progress was the sandy Cape Flats. They needed between 18 to 20 oxen to pull wagons loaded with barrels of wine across the Cape Flats at a mind-blowing speed of just over a kilometre an hour. In late summer the south-easter and shifting sand dunes would make the route impassable.

Authorities experimented with all types of vegetation to keep the sand off the road. They planted grasses, renosterbos, wild olives and even fined people for using the undergrowth for firewood, or allowing their animals to graze on it. When all else failed they imported Australian myrtle and Port Jackson. The alien plants brought temporary relief, but had a disastrous long-term impact on the Cape’s indigenous vegetation.

Roadworks in the 1845s

In 1845 a major and hugely expensive civil engineering project was undertaken to improve the road. Embankments were built, and in places the road was raised by as much as five metres.  The new road was a vast improvement, and its success was measured by the fact that it was now possible to drive a buggy drawn by only two horses through the Cape Flats.

In the Drakenstein valley the authorities also tried to cope with a increasing need for better road surfaces. Some of the earliest photographs of Paarl show wide, deeply rutted roads with prominent ditches on either side. The town’s roads were muddy in winter, and covered in a fine powdery dust in summer. Of course Paarl’s inhabitants complained about the dust, and in 1864 the municipality had a dedicated water cart to wet the roads and keep the dust under control.

In 1905 the municipal authorities imposed speed restrictions—cars were not allowed to exceed a maximum speed of just under 13 km/hr. This was presumably to curb the dust and not to scare the oxen and horses, which of course explains why some people still adhere to that rule.

Gravel from the town’s granite quarries were later added to improve the road surface. One can only guess at the impact of those gravel surfaces on car and bicycle tyres. Crushed granite was of course readily available and a byproduct of the granite being quarried in Paarl to supply Cape Town’s booming construction industry. It is interesting to note that off-cuts and smaller boulders were often used to make curb stones, hence the many granite curb stones in Paarl’s older streets, especially in southern Paarl.

In the early 1900s the road between Paarl and Cape Town was still a gravel surface. It was not uncommon to stop as many as six times during the trip to fix punctures.


In the 1800s there quite a few tollgates—presumably to pay for the expensive upkeep of the roads. One can only wonder how effective they were, because travellers were known to take detours through the open veld to avoid paying. There were was a tollgate outside Paarl on the road to Stikland, another near Kraaifontein, and one at the Wellington Bridge. Tolls were also collected on Bains Kloof Pass, Franschhoek Pass, and earlier on the rudimentary track through Du Toits Kloof.

To cross Paarl’s Lady Grey Bridge in 1858 you had to pay a penny for every wheel on your vehicle, and a penny for every draught horse or mule, and half a penny for every ox. If you planned to herd animals across the bridge, it was a quarter penny for every sheep, goat or pig.