The road to hell and back
A lost world in a remote South African valley
In October, 1901, during the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, a Boer commando of seven men stumbled on a hidden valley deep in the Great Black Mountains, a craggy wilderness in the Western Cape. To their surprise, they were greeted by a tall, wild-looking man dressed in goatskins and speaking an old Dutch dialect. He was Koot Cordier, one of a small community of pioneering Afrikaners whose families had been farming in the valley for almost 70 years, oblivious to the world around them.
The narrow, fertile defile bounded by towering mountains was known as Gamkaskloof, Ravine of the Lions, and was accessible only by rough footpaths.
In 1940 a livestock inspector who reached it on a donkey trail declared it was “Hell to get to” and it has been known ever since in Afrikaans as Die Hel. The story goes that an income tax return once arrived at the post office in the nearest town of Prince Albert, addressed to Mr H. Mostert, Die Hel. Unimpressed, the farmer scrawled on the envelope: “First find out whether people in Hell pay income tax,” and returned it to the mailbox.
The incident says much about the independent spirit of a community of hardworking, God-fearing farmers who lived in a valley lost in time and space for more than a century, content to remain cut off from a world embroiled in two world wars and the madness of apartheid.
Then in 1960 it was decided to build a road to Die Hel. The road was paved with gravel, and good intentions that backfired. When completed two years later it was hailed as a lifeline, but instead it was a death-knell.
Young folk began leaving, and gradually advancing years and a severe drought compelled their elders to follow. Within 30 years, everyone had left, and farms were abandoned. In recent years, life has returned to the valley in another guise, as a mecca for adventurous tourists. The Groot Swartberge (Great Black Mountains) have been declared a World Heritage Site, and Die Hel a National Monument, the jewel in the crown of a huge nature reserve with bush camps and accommodation in the old farm cottages. But getting there is still a challenge.
From Prince Albert, a dirt road winds 20km up the mountains to a turn-off, where the road to Hell meanders and plunges another 37km.
A video commentary on the Gamkaskloof website gives fair warning: “This road is not to be trifled with. It is dangerous and awe-inspiring. The drop-offs are sheer and extreme. There are no safety barriers.” It adds helpfully that the road is barely wide enough for a single vehicle, and the best places to pass are on hairpin bends. After the stick, the carrot: “This is a place for the unhurried traveller, a place to restore your soul.”
A confession. I have suffered from vertigo since a parachuting accident, and would no more drive this road than jump off it. Which is where Lindsay Steyne comes in. He runs a guest farm in Prince Albert and day tours to Die Hel. A big man with a taste for adventure, he knows the road well after tackling it more than 700 times, and is well versed in the old tales and folklore of the valley. “It’s only dangerous if you drive fast or hit your brakes hard,” he assures me as we climb the approach road to the Swartberg Pass between rock faces that look as if they are screaming, grotesque geological monsters seared in the agony of their creation.
We pause at a viewpoint called Teeberg (Tea Mountain), where ox wagon drivers of yesteryear would rest on their treks over the pass. The vista is of the dawn of time, a cataclysmic landscape rising from an endless panorama of the Karoo desert shimmering in a heat haze. We could be on Mars. Shortly afterwards we reach a battered old sign by the turn-off that says: Gamkaskloof: 37km. Travelling time: 2 hours.
The first part is fairly level, following the contours of a broad valley, a tenuous thread of humanity in a wilderness of hills where black eagles fly and leopards roam. A recent survey with motion-sensor cameras around Die Hel detected seven of these big cats, all sleek and well fed thanks to abundant baboons, their favourite takeaway food. Leopards are notoriously secretive, but we encounter more docile creatures, such as dainty klipspringer antelope that gaze at us with soft eyes as we pass. They look like they are auditioning for a Bambi sequel.
Eventually the road snakes up a steep gradient, dubbed Heartbreak Hill by cyclists, and crests a rise. There it is. We gaze down at Die Hel and the lush, narrow valley is like a giant green snake slithering through scrubby mountains rising abruptly on either side. From high above, it exudes an air of profound peace, and the highlands wreathed in cotton wool clouds are like ranks of massive bodyguards shielding its solitude from a turbulent world. It is a vision of an African Shangri-La.
But the final descent into Hell is worthy of Dante, a devilish corkscrew plunging 650m down a vertiginous cliff. “This is where the road builder earned his money,” Steyne remarks. “The rock is very brittle, so it’s pretty dangerous.” I close my eyes and pray for the gates of Hell, which come soon enough, with a welcoming sign and a sweet thorn tree in full bloom of bright yellow flowers.
In its heyday, the valley was home to 120 people who made a decent living from fertile soil and fresh spring water that produced everything from wheat, fruit and vegetables to tobacco and honeybush tea. Cattle and goats grazed the lower slopes and donkeys pulled the ploughs.
Every few months the “kloofers” would load a donkey