The area beyond Sir Lowry’ Pass – known as the Elgin Valley – today presents a seemingly endless vista of deciduous fruit orchards, vineyards and forestry plantations. Three hundred years ago, however, it was completely treeless, covered only by fynbos shrubs, and early European travellers had to find shade under their wagons.
The old wagon route ran some distance to the north of the present N2, crossing the Palmiet River where the town of Grabouw was later founded in 1856.
Here the traveller may leave the N2 and drive through a rural landscape of orchards, through Viljoen’s Pass and past the Theewaterskloof Dam (popular for water sports), to Villiersdorp, established by Field Cornet de Villiers in 1843. The town may also be reached over the Franschhoek Pass.
Or stay on the N2 with its fine farm stalls, continue on the old wagon route over Houw Hoek Pass, to the village of Botrivier and the historic Compagne’s Drift. From here one can take the Van der Stel’s Pass (gravel road) to Villiersdorp, and from there the Genadendal/Greyton road (part gravel) along the scenic Sonderend River.
For those who do not want to take back roads, the N2 continues over the hills and meadows typical of the Overberg. A tarred road to Genadendal and Greyton turns off the N2 just before one reaches Caledon, the administrative centre for the area.
Caledon, at the foot of the Klein Swartberg, was established because of the mineral springs, one cold and six hot, that generate 2-million litres of water a day at 49°C. The first bath house was built in 1797. In 1810 a church village was established and called Swartberg; three years later it was renamed in honour of the Earl of Caledon. A spa with a sanatorium and hotel were built early in the 20th century but destroyed by fire in 1946. In October 2000 the Caledon Casino Hotel & Spa was built, but the Victorian bath houses at the hot springs are still open to the public.
The annual wild flower show, first held in 1892, now attracts thousands of visitors each year. The Caledon Wild Flower Garden against the slopes of the Swartberg was established in 1899, and feature a walking trail which leads to the famous “window rock”.
Caledon lies in the heart of farmland that produces barley, wheat, canola and wool. Blue Cranes, South Africa’s national bird, may be seen amongst grazing sheep. Caledon has preserved a core of historic buildings and the museum has a collection of historic photographs.
Spend some time in Genadendal ('Vale of Grace'), established as a Moravian Mission in 1738, the first mission station in South Africa. The mission, at one stage the second-largest settlement at the Cape, was home to the first teachers' training college and its people excelled at crafts – it is said that every Voortrekker who ventured into the interior in search of a better life, had with him two items produced at Genadendal: a book of Bible texts printed there, and the locally designed herneuter knife. History seems to be alive here, with fields still ploughed with horses and classical music often to be heard around the church square.
Stop over in Greyton, a village that grew around irrigation channels and market gardens. Today it is a tree-lined retreat that epitomises sophisticated country life, with art galleries, regular music recitals and an annual Rose Festival. Follow the gravel road that was once part of the Old Cape Wagon Route along the Riviersonderend mountains, past Het Ziekenhuys and Lindeshof, to rejoin the N2 at the village of Riviersonderend.
Alternatively, return to the N2 at Caledon and on to Riviersonderend, which was laid out in 1925 as a 'dry' town, i.e. no liquor was sold there. The area offers wonderful natural beauty in its mountains, ideal for hikes and quiet stays. At Tygerhoek outside the town one can see one of the original Dutch signal cannons along the Old Cape Wagon Route, used between 1695 and 1806 to call up the burgher militia in the event of an attack on the Colony. The system was used effectivlely during the British attacks of 1795 at Simon's Town and in 1806 at Blaauwberg. It took about 8 hours for the signal to reach Swellendam from Table Bay, whereas a messenger on horseback would have taken several days.
From Riviersonderend (often abbreviated to RSE) the N2 continues to the hamlet of Stormsvlei, where a road turns off to Bonnievale, and on to Swellendam.