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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 ria@den­nehof.co.za. 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

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