Devil’s Pass and Fort Watts

Why Visit

The Devil’s Pass is almost unknown to people living in Zimbabwe nowadays.

The construction on the railway line from Fontesvilla, 56 kilometres from Beira began in September 1892. The 222 mile (355 kilometres) link to Umtali (now Mutare) was built with 2ft 0 inch track gauge using 20lb / yard rail and only completed in February 1898 after immense difficulties had been overcome and many lives lost. On 23rd May 1899 the 3ft 6 inch gauge railway link between Umtali and Salisbury (now Harare) was completed; the Umtali Beira line being converted to the same standard gauge by August 1900.

For the period 1890 to 1899 all traffic between Umtali and Salisbury was by ox-wagon mostly through the Devil’s Pass. The altitude at the highest point of the Pass is 1,446 metres, at its base it is 1,286 metres; so the oxen had to haul up their wagons 160 metres over a distance of 2.4 KM. This is a formidable gradient for a span of sixteen oxen harnessed in pairs drawing a wagon load of 4 to 5 tons.

A normal day’s travelling might be 16 KM, but this depended on the rivers and steep inclines that were encountered. At the bottom of the Devil’s Pass one or two teams would be detached from other wagons and each wagon would be double or triple-teamed in order to get to the top of the Pass. This meant that each team of oxen would make two or three trips and needed to be rested when all the wagons were finally up and meant only the 2.4 KM of the Devil’s Pass would be covered in a day. After overnight rain, the trail would be like grease and on these days there was nothing to do but wait for the road to dry.

Returning to Umtali down the Devil’s Pass was usually with a lightly-loaded wagon. They had large wood blocks on the rear wheels which were the brakes and were operated by a handle attached to a large turn screw. In addition to the driver and voorlooper, someone had to walk behind the wagon ready to apply the brakes at a moment’s notice to prevent the wagon from rolling over the oxen pulling it. Sometimes twelve of the oxen were moved to the back of the wagon, leaving four to steer the wagon while the remaining twelve held it back, helping the brakes and in the event of a runaway, reduced the number of casualties among the precious oxen.

The arrival of the railway which followed the watershed to the west was followed by the roads and so the old wagon route through the Devil’s Pass became abandoned and forgotten.

Fort Watts was built and manned in 1896 but as far as I know there are no descriptions of the fort and its location has not previously been recorded. Fortunately Mike Boyd-Clark recalled visiting the site when his family owned Castle Zonga farm. Zimbabwe Scenic Sites