Swartberg Pass in a Mercedes-Benz 350 SE | Inspire
Swartberg Pass in a Mercedes-Benz 350 SE

Swartberg Pass in a Mercedes-Benz 350 SE

An iconic car – driven by international visitor Philipp Wente – manages the breathtaking Swartberg Pass in the Western Cape with unsurprising ease.

Chrome trim, baroque wheel rims, wonderfully discreet colour and simple contours lend the iconic 350 SE an elegant, glamorous appearance – even after 38 years. 

I stow away my suitcase in a boot the size of a cellar, open the driver’s door, sit down in the armchair-like seats and adjust the mirrors. I start the V8 engine that snarls distinctly for a moment, then turns over rhythmically and almost without vibration. The adventure begins.

Leaving Cape Town on the N2, the monotonous humming sound of the V8 is interrupted only by short solos consisting of aggressive snarls when overtaking. 

Close to the Strand, I take the R44 in the direction of Betty’s Bay. On the left, steep mountains, towering up into the heavens. On the right, turquoise ocean. On the horizon, far beyond the Atlantic blue, the Twelve Apostles shimmer in the haze of the day. 

Baboons squat by the side of the road. The older ones gaze stoically towards the cliffs. After stretches of sand and sea, of white and turquoise, I am drawn inland.

From the top of the Tradouw Pass, the road inclines steeply down to Barrydale. Once I shift this automatic into ‘N’, the downhill race begins. The 350 SE starts rolling. And gets really fast. The tight bends allow a maximum of 120 km/h. A brief speed rush. And then I arrive in the valley, where I quickly shift back to ‘D’. 

I drive and dream at around 70 km/h for what seems like an eternity without seeing a single soul. The road shimmers and my thoughts are clear.

The next morning, the highest peaks of the valley are just being caressed by the first light of the day. To the left, the Swartberg Pass in the direction of Prince Albert. 

I begin the journey. Gravel. The whole way, uphill, downhill, gravel. For 27 kilometres. Dassies doze alongside the road and gemsbok are startled by the 350 SE’s impressive engine. 

The last clouds disintegrate above the mountain range. The sky becomes stark blue. It’ s cool up here. It’s an ancient mountain landscape – rough, barren, brown and black, untouched and overwhelmingly beautiful. Zig-zagging steep bends, sometimes bordered by stone walls, sometimes not. And then again and again, there is the view. It must be one of the most enchanting roads man has ever built.

In Prince Albert, I treat myself to a sunrise breakfast. 18th century houses decorate the main road of the cosy, small town. Before setting off, I drive to the only fuel station. Here in Africa the following rule applies: always start your journey with a full tank, with enough oil and at least 5 litres of water. So, back to the Swartberg Pass.

I take a break at Eerste Water, a crystal-clear, cold, mountain river. The freshwater crabs, as big as a man’s hand, and the small fish show no reaction to my feet in the water. Refreshed, I drive uphill, straight into the sunlight: the three-pointed star on the bonnet seems to melt into the grey-coloured gravel. I’m enjoying every moment.

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