Between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn runs the Swartberg Pass. It passes through the Swartberg range of mountains, the natural divide between the plains of the Great Karoo and the valleys of the Little Karoo, taking in the Swartberg Nature Reserve. Weather depending the trip isn’t always advisable in an ordinary sedan. But then if you’re anything like me, you give warnings such as this little credance and head off along the pass anyway. Besides, anything you can do in a donkeycart, you can do in a car, right? Whilst we’re on the subject, this road, or pass, was built by Thomas Bain and at least 200 convicts (give or take a bit of gunpowder). It’s something of an engineering feat and was completed in 1888. Parts of the drive acquire ‘hellish’ qualities when winding along the corkscrew bends on the way in and out of the valley.
It isn’t difficult to understand why this part of the world is called ‘die Hel’, even if the origin of this pseudonym is unclear. The pass is a series of untarred steep zig-zags and sudden swingbacks that leave one breathless at both the scenery and the sheer dexterity of the masterpiece that is this pass. Just the entrance, on the Prince Albert side, through a narrow Cape sandstone kloof, is worth it for the incredible rock faces and the views.
And so we come to the point of this story. Part of the valley of the Swartberg Nature Reserve is known as Gamkaskloof, or Die Hel. Actually, geographically that isn’t quite correct. Gamkaskloof lies roughly 60 kilometres from Prince Albert via the Otto du Plessis road that turn off from the Swartberg Pass, and if you don’t want to do this part of the pass, then get there via Oudtshoorn – it’s roughy 100 kilometres, but the route is said to be slightly less hairy? But you’ll be sorry.
A stay in Prince Albert is like a breath of fresh air and a welcome interlude before heading into the remoteness that is the Swartberg. The drive via the Swartberg Pass is pretty spectacular and not passed up lightly. Nothing quite prepares you for beauty like this. We’re so spoilt and so inundated with images on a daily basis that sometimes being exposed to the real thing necessitates a pinch on the arm before the reality sinks in.
However, the main drawcard of Die Hel, apart from the incredible beauty (anything but hellish, really), is that for the better part of a century a European community, known as the ‘Gamkasklowers’, lived here in total isolation from the rest of the world. And you begin to understand why, given that, although it’s only 60 kilometres from Prince Albert, it takes at least two hours to reach the valley floor on the road that peels off the Swartberg Pass, given the zigzagging backwards and forwards. The Gamkaskloof is a valley that is but a small section of the Swartberg Nature Reserve.
Because of its remoteness it was home to a small community who remained cut off from civilisation until the 1900s. How they got here, or why, are burning questions that remain largely unanswered, or if they are, it’s sheer speculation. Roughly 120 people eeked out an existence here amidst fruit orchards and fields of rye, most of whom, ironically, left once the road opened up and made travel easier.
Even if the road was meant to make getting to Gamkaskloof easier, not out of it. By 1992 all of the original inhabitants had fled the valley, despite their having been over 70 still remaining in 1937. It’s a fascinating bit of history, though. That a group of people managed to live here, apparently in houses made of unbaked mud brick and rye thatch. The first car didn’t make it here until 1958, and even then it had to be pulled up a river bed or it wouldn’t have made it at all!
Recently there has been a resurgence in the need to preserve this unique history. There is now a resurgence of interest in the history and individuals, like Annetjie Joubert, are there to impart it. She tells of how the villagers used to transport their products of dried fruit, wild honey, lentils and beans on donkey trains, of around 180 donkeys(!), up the course of the Gamka River to Prince Albert. And we think we’ve got it tough when we head along the Swartberg Pass in a sedan… She is also the only born and bred Gamkaskloofer still living in the valley, or rather to return to this beautifully remote valley, that has literally bottled the term ‘old-worlde charm’.
Many of the former dilapidated houses have been renovated, and self-catering cottages, and a campsite, are available for those who can’t face entering and leaving on the same day. So, if wonky walls, wood-burning donkey stoves, solar power, and being hemmed in by mountains on all sides are your thing, then this is the place to escape from it all.
The ‘donkey trail’ over the Swartberg Mountain, connecting Calitzdorp and Prince Albert with the valley, was the only commercial link that the settlement had with civilisation. Today, there is a similar donkey trail from Calitzdorp to Die Hel from the original access point to the trail, from the south. Hans and Erika Calitz now own the portion of the farm called Living Waters (formerly known as Groenfontein) on which the original access point for the trail lies.
In partnership with CapeNature, they have revived this historic route and turned into a wonderful walking tour – a four-day and three-night affair that will allow you to experience the Little Karoo from a whole different perspective.
Gamkaskloof is no longer hidden from the rest of the world. It is, however, quite a feat to reach the little valley and the greater Swartberg Nature Reserve, but well worth the effort, if escaping from it all is high on your list of priorities.