The road to Die Hel

Cape Times

This is the road that Koos built. In 1960 the provincial government gave Koos van Zyl a bulldozer and eight labourers and instructed him to force a road from the Swartberg Pass into Die Hel, or Gamkaskloof, an isolated valley that could then be reached only by a winding, tough donkey track.

It is an exhilarating view from the top of the Elands Pass just before plunging down more than 500m into Gamkaskloof – the ravine of lions.

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LOST VALLEY: Farmers lived in splendid isolation in Gamkaskloof from Trekker times until a road was built into the valley. Then they left, ending a way of life. About 100 people lived in Die Hel at it's most populous.SWITCHBACK: Koos van Zyl built the road to Gamkaskloof in two years.RESTORED: The Skool Meester Huis was built in 1938 for teachers.

The road goes romping down in a series of tight switchbacks, the valley in front of you a giant wedge stretching from east to west for about 25km; its spine a green ribbon sitting astride the Gamka river (Gamka means lion in San).

Cape Nature’s delightful pioneer cottages lie in what is perhaps one of the more remote getaways in the country.

Even now the road is not a gravel highway but, provided it has not been raining too much, and the driver exercises due caution, Die Hel can be reached in just about any sedan with a reasonable ground clearance.

While you do not need a hardcore 4x4 for your trip into Gamkaskloof, ideally a bakkie or a more rugged SUV will do it in comfort.

The cottages are named after the original owners who inhabited this valley from the 1830s.

Largely cut off from the outside world, the road that would eventually make them part of a bigger world also served as the catalyst that would lure the handful of families to pack up their belongings and leave for greener pastures outside the kloof.

There were the Kordiers, the Snymans and Lenie Pretorius, who arrived in the valley to teach the schoolchildren and met her future husband, Andries Marais, there.

However, by the 1980s most of the original inhabitants had left and only one, Annetjie Joubert and her family, would later return to Fonteinplaas.

With Boplaas, a farm at the western end of the valley owned by a consortium of medical doctors and a lone engineer, it is the only property in Gamkaskloof still in private hands.

In 1997 the entire Gamkaskloof valley was declared a world heritage site.

After the exodus most of the cottages quickly became derelict and in 1999 Cape Nature co-opted several organisations and individuals to start restoring some.

Cape Nature must be commended for taking pains by sticking to the original plans and building materials.

The only concession was to slightly modernise the cottages with the addition of solar power (for electric room lights only) and gas for the fridges and hot water systems.

We stayed at Freek and Martha for the weekend.

Freek and Martha is one of two self-contained and separate flats in a house called the Trappiesgewel (stepped gable) complex.

The other section goes under the moniker of Piet and Bellie – in homage to the last Klowers who lived there.

The complex with its separate apartments is ideal for two families.

Each flat consists of two bedrooms, a kitchen, living area and bathroom.

When you want to see your friends you can simply walk out to the shared stoep, a delightful place for breakfast in the early morning sun or a braai in the afternoon.

There is a cement dam with crystal clear water for cooling off in the sweltering summer months and even the oddity of an outside oven at the rear. It is still functional, although the gas stoves inside the cottages are a lot more practical.

The coal and wood-fired stoves still found in some of the kitchens are brilliant at heating up the cottages, which can get terribly cold in winter.

The real charm of Gamkaskloof lies in its desolation and in being rustig, in the feeling that you are cut off from the hustle and bustle of the world, in watching the stars at night and in being part of a real wilderness.

It is about throttling back, doing some reading, catching up with good friends or taking a leisurely stroll up to Annetjie’s restaurant and kiosk for a bit of home cooking and some home-made preservatives.

For the more active there are short hiking trails meandering across the steep walls of the valley, one of them a 6km slog to the Grootkloof waterfalls. Possibly one of the more rewarding walks would be along the road stretching down the spine of the valley.

Most of the pioneer cottages are dotted along the side of this road, some a mere 200m apart and others up to 3km from the next one. An information plaque in front of the houses gives the history of a particular dwelling.

With a permit fishing is allowed in the Gamka river.

Too soon, it is time to go home.

A last consolation awaits as you grind up Elands Pass and look back at the prettiest piece of hell you will ever see – and you know you will see it again soon enough.

l Accommodation: Contact CapeNature Cottages cost from R440 for two and R880 for four persons.

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