The road to hell and back

A lost world in a re­mote South African val­ley

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GAVIN BELL

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

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