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Gamkaskloof - Heaven or Hell?
To answer this question you have to pay us a visit and decide for yourself. Mean while, please follow the links to read and see more of this fascinating place.
The Gamkaskloof, 100 kilometers from Oudtshoorn in South Africa, also known as ("Die Hel" or "The Hell") is surrounded by the Swartberg Nature Reserve.
Fonteinplaas, one of two privately owned farms in the Kloof offers visitors overnight facilities both in two historic farmhouses as well as on shaded campsites. You can read more about the Fonteinplaas accommodation options on the accommodation page.
At Fonteinplaas you will find Annetjie Joubert (néé Mostert), the only remaining live in, born and bred Gamkaskloofer at her Kiosk, where you can get anything from firewood, mampoer, cold beer and cooldrinks, to a variety of Gamkaskloof curios and organically grown fruit, both fresh (in season) and as preserves.
There you can chat and listen to Annetjie and relive the rich history of the Kloof, illustrated by various photo albums, books, magazine articles and of course the Kloof itself....
"Heaven or Hell" a travel article by Sam Reinders.
"The lure of an isolated valley" by Engela Duvenage.
Visit our links page
Visit our activities page : http://www.diehel.com/activities.htm
Visit our activities page : http://www.diehel.com/accommodation.htm
The Gamkaskloof can be reached from Oudtshoorn by following the Cango Caves road. Turn of towards the scenic Swartberg pass. The Kloof can also be reached via the picturesque town of Prince Albert, via the Swartberg Pass. to the turn-off to Gamkaskloof approximately 25km from Prince Albert.
Near "The Top" on the Swartberg pass, a signboard will direct you to the Gamkaskloof. The turnoff is approximately 50kms from Oudtshoorn and 25kms from Prince Albert.
Please note that there is no thoroughfare through the Gamkaskloof. There is also no fuel available.
From the turnoff it is a 2 hour, never to be forgotten, journey into the Gamkaskloof. Travelers will marvel at the mountain vistas, the rock formations, the clear mountain air as well as the vegetation.
The vegetation range from fynbos at the higher altitude to Karoo succulents as one descends into the valley. The valley floor is covered with dense riverine shrubs, thorn trees and the spectacular "Klapperbosse".
After 37 kilometers the traveler will see the Gamkaskloof extending into the distance with the road dropping through a series of hairpin bends to the valley floor 1000 meters below. Engage low gear and let the gearbox slow you down on the descent.
At the bottom of the Kloof the road winds through the dense riverine bush until one reaches the Gamka River crossing.
These are but a few images that could be accommodated on our webpage. Why not visit us and see the rest?
At Annetjie Joubert's Kiosk visitors will find numerous interesting items specific to the Gamkaskloof for sale.
Apart from the usual refreshments and curios there is farm produce and books about the Gamkaskloof on offer.
A wide variety of local, organically produced homemade jams and fruit preserves are for sale.
Witblits and Mampoer made from local fruit as well as a selection of liqueurs can be tasted and bought.
Upon request meals ("Helse Lekker Kos") are served to guests in the licensed Bush Restaurant.
Braaiwood as well as braai packs, beer cooldrinks and other items normally required by visitors are also available.
Accommodation is available in two historic farmhouses, that of Oupa Piet Mostert and Pietjie and Hester Swanepoel. Guests will experience the way the Gamkaskloofers lived and will also see the architecture and building methods used in the Gamkaskloof since the same materials and building methods were used when restoring the house of Pietjie and Hester Swanepoel presumed to be the oldest house in the Gamkaskloof.
There are also 7 equipped caravans at "Piet se Staning" as well as numerous tent camping sites with running water. Two ablution blocks with flush toilets and gas hot water systems service the camp sites.
There are 7 equipped caravans available as well as numerous tent camp sites. The camp area, "Piet se Staning" is serviced by two ablution blocks with flush toilets and gas warm water systems. At night the ablution facilities are lit by solar powered lights.
Magazine Articles About the Gamkaskloof or Die Hel
Die Hel is the colloquial name for Gamkaskloof, a
remote settlement in a fertile valley between the Klein and Groot Swartberg.
From the summit of the Swartberg Pass the 37-kilometre access road to Die Hel
leads off to the left, so you have the pleasure of driving what is arguably
South Africa's most awesome pass to its least visited settlement (note that
caravans and trailers can't be towed here).
Approaching from the Ladismith side, you pass another mountain gateway well worth exploring: Seweweekspoort, a good 17-kilometre dirt road which follows the ravine carved by the Seweweekspoort River through the Swartberg.
The Swartberg Pass is a masterpiece of engineering, and the last work of legendary roadbuilder Thomas Bain. It features wide loops, switchback curves and stunning views - including of the pass itself - as it snakes up to a height of 1 585 metres.
The last part of the road to Die Hel drops 579 metres in just over three kilometres (watch out for klipspringer and grey rhebuck). It's a very narrow road, and at the bottom we met a truck taking some of the conservation staff to De Rust for the weekend; I'm still trying to figure out what would have happened if we'd met them half way.
Die Hel is 20 kilometres long and 600 metres wide. It features the Gamka River, a camp site, picnic site, several houses and outbuildings, a school, a cemetery, an old Norse water mill, a landing strip - and a curious history.
The valley was initially discovered by a trekboer after his cattle strayed down there. In the mid-1800s quite a few pioneering families were living in Die Hel - in peaceful isolation until Boer guerillas fleeing the British lost their way and eventually stumbled into the canyon.
Here they found the long-haired Cordier family and others, living in mud huts, speaking High Dutch, clad in goat skins and only vaguely aware of the Anglo-Boer War.
After a road was constructed in 1962 the 'Gamkasklowers' gradually left the valley and Cape Nature Conservation moved in; the last active farmer sold his farm to Conservation in 1991 (although a syndicate of four doctors from Cape Town own what's been described as some of the best land there). There are now only two permanent residents who live in the largest house in Die Hel, Ouplaas. They are conservation official Zani van der Walt and his wife Anita.
Zani climbed from his tractor to extend greetings and an invitation to braai. "You are most welcome, but you must please excuse me while I finish this ploughing." "We've got salads, leftover potjie and wine, what should we bring?" we asked.
"Bring it all, we'll put it together and see what we get," grinned Anita.
The sunset changed the colours of the Swartberg from rust to gold to purple, while Dave and Zani described the unexpected birding opportunities.
"People think there's black eagle and a few sugarbirds and that's it, but so far we've recorded 211 species in the Swartberg," said Dave, "and 153 can be seen in Die Hel."
"We even have fish eagle," called Anita, busy making potbrood.
Zani has a wide general knowledge and told us of the history, geology and agriculture of the area. He's also something of a raconteur and kept us well entertained with anecdotes about people who'd become lost in Die Hel - such as a Frenchman who came out to monitor the 1994 elections and got stuck in Die Hel with car trouble. "He didn't know much about cars but he knew something was wrong when he saw his wheel running in front of him.
"The first thing we ask is always, 'Is there anyone with you?' You'd be amazed how many people stagger up to our door, have something to eat, something to drink, tell their tale of woe, and only then remember the wife and kids in the car!"
We overnighted at Tant Lenie se Huis, now a self-catering cottage which still boasts its original Dover wood-burning stove. The story goes that Lenie Marais built the house, decorated gables and all, while her husband sat on the stoep drinking witblitz.
This potent brew can still be tasted in Die Hel, as we discovered when Zani poured us each a small glass to ward off the night chill. An American in our party took one sniff and threw his on the fire; the flames immediately shot a good metre into the air.
"That's Protea lorifolia but you also get Protea neriifolia so don't get confused," advised Dave the next morning. He's an avid member of the Protea Atlassing Project (a monitoring project under the auspices of UCT's Botany Department) and has 1 093 site records to his credit (only two other people have passed the 1000 mark).
"That there is Protea punctata, it doesn't occur in the Western Cape. And here's Protea canaliculata."
Soon after the sunrise had suffused the sky with pink, we reluctantly departed Die Hel, stopping at one of several picnic spots on the Swartberg Pass for sustenance and more protea spotting.
At Eerstewater (just past Tweedewater, we were obviously going the wrong way) you'll see stunning rock formations, many with yellow lichen, including a cross-shaped structure on which an ardent believer had daubed the word 'Jesus'.
We eventually hit tar and came across a sign 'Prins Albert welkom u' (now in the Great Karoo) and 'urban area drive carefully'. Unlike rural children, urban children don't wave.
Prince Albert, named for Queen Victoria's consort, retains a 19th-century charm with its broekie lace, uniquely square gables, water furrows and flower-adorned police station (there was even a house with a model of itself for a postbox). A beckoning 'i' sign in Kerkstraat held the promise of information but unfortunately it was closed (on a Saturday morning).
It really is a great feeling when on a Friday
afternoon, at 5 minutes to 5 o'clock, as you're shutting down Windows on your
computer, your colleague asks you what you're doing for the weekend and you can
say: Going to Hell. And mean it!
Gamkaskloof , or 'Die Hel' as it has become known, is a hidden valley deep in the heart of the formidable Swartberg Mountain range. The fertile valley runs in an east-west direction and is approximately 20km long but only 600 meters wide. It is the stuff legends are made of - in the Conan Doyle 'Lost World' tradition, a story of a community of hardy people cut off from the rest of the world for more than a century. Here was a community that had missed the Boer War as well as both World Wars, and although most of the original inhabitants had left, I had to see this 'Lost World'.
From the quaint town of Prince Albert one climbs the spectacular Swartberg Pass (one of our most underrated scenic wonders) and just before the summit the road to Gamkaskloof veers off to the right. For some 30kmthe dirt road climbs, dips and winds through majestic , floral rich mountains. Evidence of geological anger is everywhere to be seen in the convoluted rock strata, but the effect is softened by the soft wisps of cloud creeping over the mountain ridges. The silence is palpable.
Apparently the San Andreas fault runs through these mountains and at the time of the Tulbagh earthquakes there was considerable action up here. Looking around at the twisted, towering peaks, I felt very vulnerable and insignificant at the thought of these rocky bastions shifting and swaying!
Finally, suddenly, you find yourself at the summit of Elandspass - and there, spread in front of you, lies the green ribbon that is the Hell. But what grabs your immediate attention - and rather dries the mouth - is the sight of the ridiculously convoluted zigzagging narrow strip of road that is the only way to the floor of the valley 1000 meters below. Even the hairpin bends seem to have hairpins in them. Peering vertiginously over the edge, I could see 3 or 4 strips of road below me - all within a stone's throw. One way traffic, good nerves, a dry road surface and reliable brakes were obviously the order of the day.
The kloof gets its name from the Khoisan word for lion - Gamka - also the name of the river that enters the valley from the west. This 'Ravine of the Lions' is truly cut off from the world by the natural barrier of rocks and high peaks. Rock paintings and other archaeological finds suggest that the valley had been known to the Khoisan for some time before they were displaced by the white farmers. The first permanent European farmer to put his roots down here was Petrus Swanepoel. This was in 1830. Other families, which became synonymous with the Hell were the Marais, Mostert, Cordier, Nel and Joubert clans.
But why did these people settle here in the first place? There is no doubt that the total isolation and the physical difficulty of reaching the 'civilized' world must have posed huge logistical problems - even to a breed of people where self-sufficiency was second nature. Some say that the valley appealed to the group of Afrikaners who chafed under British rule, or even that it was a way of escaping taxes ( perhaps I should consider this more seriously) . An even more colourful legend has it that a young boy called Danie Hartman was apparently kidnapped by the Khoisan and taken to Gamkaskloof. After managing to escape he spread the word about the fertile paradise he had seen. The more probable story is that the kloof became known when nearby farmers followed their cattle that had strayed along the Gamka River, and that some of these hardy farmers were attracted by the idea of an independent life in a fertile haven, away from magistrates, rules, regulations and taxes.
Another enigma is the origin of the rather negative name -'The Hell'. A popular story goes that a stock inspector, one Piet Botha, was sent down into the kloof in 1940 He descended by way of 'die leer' (the ladder) - a notoriously steep footpath. Not surprisingly, he described his experience as "hell". However, some forty years before, a Boer commando who sheltered here, recorded that the word 'die Hel' was used to describe the area.
This negative name has always been unpopular with the 'Kloovers' - as the locals were known. And who could blame them; their paradise was peaceful, fertile, had a beautiful, sub-tropical microclimate and water aplenty from natural springs and rivers. They grew their own wheat, fruit, vegetables, tea and tobacco - and they produced their own witblits and wild-honey beer. Many a humorous and sad tale is woven around these local brews. They even had their own school and schoolmistress. For a church they used the school, and for a minister they used the teacher. Perfect. Medical emergencies proved a problem, but for the common ailments there was Tant Sannie Cordier and many like her. Tant Sannie and her black doctor's bag (an old tin trunk) was a common and welcome sight. Inside the trunk was the usual old 'Dutch remedies' as well as a few of her own 'specialties' - such as axle grease, cow dung and peach leaves. Inflamed chests were simply wrapped with a warm, wet skin of a specially slaughtered cat.
Some evidence of how the locals felt about the derogatory name can be seen in the story told by Brian du Toit in his book: "People of the Valley". Apparently a Mr.Mostert, collecting his post at Prince Albert, found a letter from the Receiver of Revenue - addressed to him at "The Hell, P.O.Box Prince Albert." Not amused, he took up his pen and covered the envelope with the words: "First find out whether people in the Hell also pay taxes!" and returned it to the mailbox.
Although proud of their independence, the Kloovers longed for easy access to Prince Albert, and petitioned for a road. Ironically, however, the eventual opening of the road in 1962 was the death knell for the Gamkaskloof of old. Children attending secondary schools out of the kloof rarely returned for long, and the old people either died or moved to old age homes out of the valley - never to return. Farm after farm became derelict. As far as I know, Mrs. Anna Joubert, on the farm Mooifontein, is the only Kloof-born local still living in Gamkaskloof. A visit to her farm-store is a treat of witblits and dried-fruit, but more importantly, a rich source of colourful stories about a unique way of life - a living thread with the past.
The Cape Nature Conservation, to their credit, realized that the valley is a treasure house of flora and fauna as well as a unique cultural microcosm. At present they own much of the land and have done much to restore some of the buildings.
Todays visitor will be rewarded by an approach to the kloof through a geological and floral wonderland, while the descent into the valley should be excitement enough for anyone. Besides the lushness of the vegetation in the narrow valley, and the rich bird life (Black eagles are commonly seen riding the thermals), it is the silence and obvious isolation that gives the place a primitive but appealing ambience. Perhaps the old grave stones and ruined farm houses add a slightly sad note - a reminder of what happens when the modern world invades what was almost a paradise. A Hell worth visiting.
Once upon a time, in a secluded valley zigzagging
the folds of a towering mountain range, a farmer worked his lands and raised his
children within the sheltered confines of a community of 130 souls.
Together with his wife, sons and daughters, he grew everything that the family needed to survive. Goats provided milk and butter, a pig slaughtered in winter added flavour to a hearty bean stew or soup on cold nights. Honey was found in the mountains, they fished in the river and built their home of clay, reeds and wood.
To the farmer, his donkeys were a status symbol, just as 4x4’s are today. They were his means of travel, his tractors, plough machine, his silent companions when he left the valley on foot.
Every few months the farmer would load dried figs, raisins and animal skins onto his train of donkeys and walk a few days to the nearest town to trade these items for coffee, sugar, material and hand implements with which he worked his fields.
The farmer could have been any of a number of people – Jan, Piet or Andries. Maybe he was a Mostert, a Marais or a Cordier, even a Nel or Rheeder, for these were the names of the first families to settle in Gamkaskloof. The Hell, or the Valley of Lions, as it is also called, lies in an isolated valley between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert in the Swartberg mountains.
The legend of Gamkaskloof has all the makings of a fable, of a real Afrikaner "spekskiet" story. However, the tale of how its people struggled for more than 150 years to tame nature and to cement a community with its own social structure, school and cultural traditions, is one of perseverance, but later also one of dreams abandoned as the area became depopulated.
The Gamkaskloof story
According to legend, a herdsman found the fertile valley when he went in search of missing cattle. By the 1830s, families came to settle here.
There was no highway to the Kloof; rather, it was a road less traveled, and for more than 100 years the area was only accessible on foot or on horseback through the river gorge or over the steep mountains. Now and again journalists and other adventurers ventured into the Kloof, only to add more stories – some far from true - to the growing folklore that surrounded this isolated community.
Nearly 60 years after the first automobile arrived in South Africa, a group of men carried in a Morris over rugged terrain to bring the Kloof its first vehicle. But it was only four years later, in 1962, that a proper gravel road was built, a real "highway" compared to the means of travel the Kloof’s people were used to. Another part of the Kloof’s former isolation was lost after telephones were installed in 1965, nearly 80 years after the first telephone rang in South Africa.
Severe drought over the years, the challenges that modern life had on a subsistence lifestyle, the lure of life in a town, with churches, schools and entertainment, took its toll on the Kloof’s population. By the 1980s, many farms that had remained in the hands of the same family for decades were sold.
By the 1990s, the greater part of the valley was incorporated in the Swartberg Nature Reserve and is now managed by Cape Nature Conservation.
Many of the raw clay brick houses stood empty for years, slowly becoming ruins that seemed beyond repair. But in 1999, restoration work to the vernacular Karoo-style houses started in earnest. The plan was to convert the old homes into self-catering accommodation for visitors to learn about the spirit of this conservation tourism venture that lies within the Swartberg Nature Reserve.
After an initial bumpy start, the Kloof seems to be back on the road to success. "The biggest challenge, however, is to conserve the soul and character of the Kloof," says Eureka Barnard, chair of the Gamkaskloof Advisory Committee
The story of Gamkaskloof is the ideal teaser to lure visitors to the area with its natural beauty of fynbos and succulent karoo veld, rugged mountains and the diversity of animal and bird life.
Among the various hiking routes criss-crossing the area is also an interpretation trail, which guides the hiker on a short tour of the history and nature of the Kloof.
Freshwater angling (with a permit) in the Gamka River, bird watching and mountain biking along designated routes are also strongly recommended.
All this makes it worthwhile to tame the steep slopes of the Elandspad road to the Kloof.
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