train with dried fruit and beans and trek 15km along a riverbed to trade for cloth, sugar, tools and coffee.
Cape Nature, a conservation body that now controls most of the valley, has renovated cottages for self-catering stays, retaining original features of mud-brick walls, rafters hewn from olive and poplar trees, and thatched roofs. By moonlight, they are like Hansel and Gretel houses under a star-filled African sky.
The kloof extends for 20km but is barely 600m wide, yet there is no sense of claustrophobia. Rather the feeling is of a refuge in harmony with nature. Deer and antelope roam the bush and in early autumn banks of flowering proteas attract sugarbirds and sunbirds. At the far end, a stretch of level ground on a promontory was the scene of an incident that has gone down in local lore when Manie Coetzee, a one-legged flying doctor, came in a Tiger Moth to save a farmer severely bitten by a donkey.
When the doctor arrived, the patient took one look at the red biplane and steadfastly refused to set foot in it. Coetzee then produced his biggest syringe and threatened to inject the man, who was eventually persuaded to board the plane after solemnly bidding final farewells to family and friends. He survived the flight and the bite. Guide Lindsay Steyne is at firstname.lastname@example.org. More: gamkaskloof.co.za; capenature.co.za/ reserves/swartbergnature-reserve.
Inevitably nature is reclaiming the cultivated land, and the remnant citrus orchards are overgrown with acacia and riverine scrub. For all the renaissance of the valley, there is a lingering sadness. “It would be so nice if people were still living here and working in the fields,” says Steyne. But one family descended from original settlers has returned to earn a living harvesting tourists.
Annetjie Joubert, the only remaining born and bred “kloofer” in the valley, opened a small cafe and shop which has grown into a guest farm, a rustic restaurant, and camp sites run by her son Pieter and his wife Marinette. With their two children, and a Cape Nature warden and his wife who operate a small visitor centre, the resident population stands at seven.
Visitors can expect comfortable lodgings, good homecooked food and hiking trails through spectacular scenery, but the outside world remains as remote as ever. The Gamkaskloof website warns there is no electricity, petrol, cash machine, mobile reception, public telephone or internet. The Jouberts do have intermittent phone and Wi-Fi connections that fall prey to local hazards.
Last time their phone died, an engineer found a baboon swinging on the line, and shortly before I arrived searing temperatures fried the lens in their satellite dish. Pieter is a small, stocky figure who sports a baseball cap, a shock of red hair and an impressive beard to match.
“It is incredible that people could live here,” he says. “The kloof was like a unique gem, a place where time stood still. The modern world never came into Gamkaskloof. The modern stuff that came in with the road was too fast for people who were poor and humble.” He is content to be back in the “lost” valley of his ancestors, but seems haunted by images of the past. “You see the valley and you think it’s wonderful, but it’s a ghost valley. The only thing that is keeping it alive is the visitors.”
Nostalgia is common among elderly “kloofers” who retired to Prince Albert, a quiet, quirky town in the semiarid Karoo that attracts visitors with guest lodges, family restaurants and art galleries. Years ago I met a young man whose father had been among the last to leave Die Hel. “My father doesn’t want to go there any more,” he said. “He is unhappy because he left to look for a better life outside, and he didn’t find one.”
Gavin Bell is the author of Somewhere over the Rainbow: Travels in South Africa (Little, Brown, 2000).
Pieter and Marinette Joubert in Die Hel, far left; Swartberg Pass. left