The Story of Kaaimansgat

Kaaimansgat

Kaaimansgat is the name given to the place where the Kaaimans and Swart Rivers Join.
“Kaaimans” is often thought to translate roughly as “crocodile” probably because it is similar to the word “cayman” (an alligator) But these reptiles never occurred here.

It is more likely that the word derives from the Khoisan belief in a spiritual Water Snake. For fear of drawing the Snake to one, it is believed that one should use another term (such as ‘big man’) instead of ‘Snake’. The Nama still refer to the Great Snake as ‘groot man’, Nama: kel oab. So Kaaiman derives from Khoisan kei=great, plus Afr/Eng man.

Kaaimansgat has historical importance as being one of the few places between the mountains and the sea where it was possible to cross the Kaaimans River with a wagon. It is likely that in the prehistoric times this crossing served both as a game trail and as a crossing for the Khoisan inhabitants bit there is no clear record of this.

The first recorded crossing was that of Ensign A. Beutlier in 1752. He crossed the Kaaimans on the 13th of October with horses heading east on business for the Dutch East India Company.

It was another 26 years in October 1778 before we find a record of a wagon crossing. This was when Gov J. van Plettenberg crossed with 3 wagons heading west. He was returning to the Cape from an inspection tour of the Eastern districts and had crossed over the mountains further eastwards. It is unlikely that the governor would have been travelling on a route never previously used by wagons, but any earlier crossings were not recorded.

Nearly 100 years later, in 1869, a local newspaper, the George Phoenix was still writing of the “renowned Kaaiman’s Heights, with their rough decent, dangerous with even the utmost precaution.”
In the eighteenth century Outeniqualand slowly opened up but the Kaaimansgat had a fearsome reputation. It was known as the “Keerom” (Turn around) for a time, because wagons were left behind on the west or sent over the mountains behind Mossel Bay. The actual crossing point was in the area between the causeway and the N2 bridge. The route then lay more or less straight up the hills on either side as a span of oxen worked most efficiently on a straight-pull.

After 1870 this route was much less used as the well-known road engineer, Thomas Bain had put through the upper Knysna road (now the Seven Passes) nearer the mountains. In the 1920s a gravel road was built round Dolphin’s Point to Kaaimans where it crossed the causeway and linked on the other side of Woodifield, opposite Saasveld. This became a popular way to the Wilderness.

The N2 Road was built in the late 1940s with the main Kaaimans bridge being opened on the 20th of January 1950. The ceremony was performed by HJ Raubenheimer, a George lawyer who was then chairman of the National Road Board. A speech was also made by the recently elected young MP for George, PW Botha, later to become President of South Africa. Apparently this was the first bridge in the Cape Province to be officially “opened”. It was also the first in the country to vary in three dimensions – it is both curved and cambered and the southern end is lower than the northern.

Finally a second, parallel bridge was built in the 1980s as part of an upgrading of the pass. The original Kaaimans River Pass had been designed with the road traffic of the 1940s in mind. By the 80s things had changed out of all recognition, not least because most of the rail freight had shifted to long haul trucking. As a result the whole pass was converted to a four-lane highway which necessitated not only the doubling of the bridged but also cutting further back into the cliff faces. This finally obscured the route of the original wagon trail up from the eastern bank of the river.

Fortunately we are reminded of our early history by the deeply incised grooves made by the old wheels which can still be found higher up the slope.

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