The journey to hell and back

Published Feb 3, 2015


Die Hel – At the turn-off in the Great-Karoo’s majestic Swartberg Mountains leading to Die Hel (The Hell) in the netherworld of the Gamkaskloof, the road sign conspicuously warns that the travelling time to cover the 37km is two hours.

First-time visitors had better beware: you don’t have a snowball’s hope in hell of beating the clock!

Negotiating the hairpin bends, and hemmed in by a stack of steep precipices along this rocky and sometimes treacherous road, is no joke.

One is reduced to a snail’s pace – and if you, like me, suffer from acrophobia, the journey can be nerve-racking.

Later, while savouring the kloof’s tranquillity in dim solar-powered lighting under a pepper tree in front of Pietjie and Hester Swanepoel’s pioneer home, built more than a century ago, with the only sound the sizzling of the Karoo lamb chops on the fire, you know the arduous journey has been thoroughly worth your while.

Definitely, another tick on the bucket list.

The following morning we met Pieter Joubert, Hell native, restaurant and kiosk owner, farmer, and one of only a handful of permanent residents, along with his wife, Marinette, and their two children.

A walking encyclopedia, and referring to himself as “the fire of the hell”, Joubert thoroughly entertained us with anecdotes about his forebears and the challenges they faced in this remote part of country.

Among other things, he tells us that The Hell has suffered seven “death blows”, one being the road – officially opened on August 9, 1962 – as it led to the exodus of many young people.

Unlike his mother, Annetjie (née Mostert), who briefly ventured into the outside world, but returned in 1998, Joubert has never had the desire to leave the valley and to this day continues to farm the family’s 57 hectares, as his great-grandfather did in 1841.

What keeps them in The Hell? “Well, you see, I do marketing for the devil, that’s why I live in The Hell,” he quips, eyes twinkling.

Then, on a more serious note: “It’s simply in my blood. Even as a toddler, when I heard my parents talk about selling the farm, I cried my eyes out. The absolute tranquillity of the place and freedom to live your life as you please will keep me here for as long as I live.

“The Lord knows where to put people. If I were to (live) in, say the Swartland, with a R12 million debt, I would have been dead and buried long ago.”

Yet, living in The Hell can be tough, Joubert says.

Besides birds ravaging the fruit trees, nature’s harshness and whims can cause havoc with crops.

Joubert also has to deal with trekking up and down the kloof to Oudtshoorn and its surrounds three to five times a week to buy supplies for the restaurant.

Despite the tricky road, for many a daredevil and adventure-seeker The Hell is the place for special occasions, from tying the knot to celebrating milestone birthdays.

More often than not, over weekends, the restaurant – and the nearby dance floor – are jam-packed with visitors who descend for a party or simply to enjoy the sumptuous home cooking.

Another hidden gem we discovered during our marathon journey of close to 6 000km on the country’s highways and byways last month and this, was the unpretentious guest farm, Groenfontein, nestling in the evergreen Groenfontein Valley in the foothills of the Swartberg, about 18km north-west of Calitzdorp.

Tucked away on Route 62, on the banks of the Nels River, Groenfontein and its lovely Victorian house are home to eighth-generation cattle, tobacco and ostrich farmer Hendrik Oberholzer and his wife, Martli – who welcomes us to a sumptuous, full-house late morning breakfast, including scrambled ostrich egg.

As in The Hell, life can be tough in this valley, particularly for the women who have to make do without electric stoves and microwave ovens, and who need to travel long distances to take their children to and from school, Martli tells us.

As the valley is not serviced by the national electricity grid, farmers must make do with solar panels and other methods of generating power.

On the lawn in front of the house, Martli proudly shows off her “solar stove” where a large black pot of chicken and lentils with a heavenly aroma is being prepared for lunch. A birthday gift from her husband, this indispensable device is used regularly to prepare delicious casseroles, without fuss.

In this beautiful, secluded valley one can enjoy long walks into the mountains, cycle through the valley on a mountain bike, braai beside the river or watch the daily farming routine and bird life.

You can also venture further afield and undertake daily trips to the Garden Route (the farm is only 115km from George), the Cango Caves (40km away), Prince Albert, and the Little Karoo. And from the horse’s mouth, you can learn more about the sweet and sour reality of living in the Groenfontein Valley.

Accommodation consists of two cottages with appealing Oregon pine ceilings and doors: the larger Oupa Piet takes up to six people, and Oom Kleinbaas up to four people. Each cottage has a full bathroom, fully equipped kitchen, towels, linen, braai wood and TV.

Following Martli’s advice, our next stop was a smallholding just outside Calitzdorp where we were allowed into the orchards, each of us to fill a box to the brim with delicious Oom Sarel yellow cling peaches – for as little as R25! A visit to a cellar to taste Calitzdorp’s world-winning port and wine is also worth your while.

Last but not least was our whirlwind visit to the volkstaat Orania, yet another destination off the beaten track and, for various reasons, off democratic South Africa’s radar.

Not knowing what to expect in Orania, the town pleasantly surprised us: our stay at the town’s Oewer Hotel, on the southern bank of the Orange River, was most enjoyable and the service excellent.

Also highly recommended is a (free) guided microbus tour of the town to see some of the innovative houses built from freight containers, straw bales and other eco-friendly materials, a visit to the humble Verwoerd museum, the nearby Koeksuster Monument, and the “heroes acre” overlooking the town. Also on offer are free bicycle rides through the town.

Whether or not you agree with the residents’ ideals and political views, some of Orania’s achievements are not to be smirked at: not only do its schools rank among the best in the country, but Orania’s economic development has been quite impressive. Since 1991, Orania’s matrics have consistently achieved a 100 percent pass rate.

About 20 years ago, Orania was bought for a mere R1.6 million; today this investment is worth more than R500 million, according to our tour guide.

Initially, only 500 hectares were used, today more than 8 000ha are being developed, with agriculture – pecan nuts, maize, almonds, olives, lucerne and livestock – the main thrust.

Combined with a drive through the scenic town of Prince Albert and a beer at the hotel, two-day visits to the Karoo and Addo national parks, a week in the Strand and the winelands, the destinations richly contributed to an unforgettable and uniquely South African holiday and experience.

In fact, we unanimously agreed this trip was only the beginning. A few more, mostly off the beaten track, are in the making.

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