Cape Town - O die donkie, O die donkie, O die donkie is ’n wonderlike ding.
This became our mantra as we climbed up and over the Swartberg and into Die Hel. We’d heard that it’s a tough hike, but with the help of some beasts of burden and capable guides we made it. We also found out why it’s called Die Hel.
Leaving Calitzdorp, we received a warm welcome from Erica and Hans Calitz, the owners of Groenfontein, now called Living Waters.
“Way up there near the top,” said Hans, pointing to where we could just make out a zigzag path almost lost in the vastness of the mountain.
A few days earlier we had been playing in the snow on top of the nearby Swartberg Pass. Brrrr, I thought, imagining sleeping up there.
“Not to worry, it’s not nearly as steep as it looks, and besides, the donkeys will be carrying most of your gear,” smiled Hans.
Before supper, Erica told us the story of Die Hel.
Between 1830 and 1962, the inhabitants of the isolated valley of Gamkaskloof, Die Hel, had no road access into the valley. The only possible way was via footpaths that crossed the mountains connecting the valley to Calitzdorp and Prince Albert. These paths were used for transporting their produce from the valley to the markets and for bringing supplies to the area.
Donkeys carried the items along the Wyenek route to Calitzdorp.
Groenfontein was the original access point to the trail from the south and to revitalise this culturally historic route, CapeNature and the Calitz family agreed to open, manage and operate this route jointly as a formal guided tour for hikers. Erica said we would be following the original trail accompanied by people from the community who had been trained as guides and donkey handlers.
Packing was a complicated affair requiring two bags, one for on top of the mountain and the other transported to Die Hel.
This and a 5am call meant sobriety and an early night was needed, spent in a comfy three-bedroomed house. Next morning, dark and cold, we met Marmite, Buddy, and Goldie – all “rescue” donkeys. They are sad and soulful, quite unlike the ebullient donkey voiced by Eddie Murphy in Shrek.
Nourished by a delicious breakfast and still in the dark we were off towards Wyenek, 1 000m above us. Each donkey carried a 20kg pannier containing our allocated weight of 5kg each. It was only later, on top of the mountain, that we found that the balance of my companion’s 3kg and my 2kg was a whack of donkey feed.
The pace was leisurely, and we stopped often; the guides clearly had been instructed not to overextend us. Lunch was a highlight with camp chairs next to a stream.
Finally we reached Wyenek after stopping often to photograph flowers, the views and rock formations.
From here the route flattened out before arriving at our camp, camouflaged against the rocks and next to a river, which one or two crazy people swam in.
Supper was al fresco and prepared by the guides. Wearing everything we owned and warmed by hot water bottles, we slept well. Next morning we were welcomed with hot water for tea and coffee before we said farewell to the donkeys, which would return to Living Waters. The gradual descent into “hell” wasn’t as bad as expected.
Stopping often, we photographed a dassie midden and wind-worn skewed rock formations of Cape Folding, the red colouration highlighted by the morning sun. Soon we reached the main road from the Swartberg Pass leading to Die Hel.
Lunchtime was approaching, but where was the food? We must walk for it. Makkie, our driver, cook and guide, told us the only way to enter Die Hel was on foot. And so we did; along a winding never-ending road, sign-posted as Gamkaskloof. Our reward was a big packed lunch in the campsite below.
Magdalena “Makkie” Nel turned out to be a fantastic cook and skilled Kombi driver, and a great local guide, whose husband was born in the valley. She showed us a tall old aloe and explained the valley habit of sweethearts cutting their names into a leaf. Hers is now high and out of reach. She also told us how she attracted a suitor from Die Hel. Dogged fellow that he was, he trekked repeatedly over Wyenek to see her – it’s a loooooong way, uphill and down dale, taking two days. Once he came to visit for tea, but she was out. So back he went on another long walk home. As Makkie got a little older the couple were allowed to spend “kers-tyd” together… her father would light a (shortened) candle, and they could be alone for 15 minutes before the candle burnt out.
Lunch was followed by a tour of the valley, after which we were dropped at our comfortable accommodation. Supper was a delicious braai of Karoo lamb chops, chicken kebabs and salads under the stars and before long it was time for bed.
On our final day and after a hearty breakfast it was time to begin the long drive to Calitzdorp via the Swartberg Pass. We were all impressed by Makkie’s tremendous skill at manoeuvring sharp bends on the long winding gravel road.
A highlight of the journey was the sighting of a klipspringer ewe and lamb. They allowed us to pass close by.
Exiting the road and entering the Swartberg Pass we drove a short way to the top of the pass.
What a dramatic ending to a wonderful trail. - Cape Times
l Watkins is the author of Adventure Hikes in the Cape Peninsula and Off the Beaten Track. To book for the trail, call Erika at 083 628 9394, or see www.donkeytrail.com