* This artilce first appeared here on Getaway Magazine.
Backs straining, and breath short, they slowly descend the steep valley side. A gasp as one of the donkeys loses its footing, but quickly corrects itself. Sweat is often mixed with blood on the treacherous almost two-day journey from home to the nearest civilization, only accessible via donkey and horseback.
No one said the road to Hell would be an easy one.
Decades ago a small band of hardy South Africans decided to find for themselves a secluded place in the vast country to make their home. 130 years later they decided to call it in, and all but two remained in what must be arguably one of South Africa’s most inaccessible, but also beautiful spots – Gamkaskloof.
September was both heritage and tourism month in South Africa, and I partnered with CapeNature to highlight some of their uniquely wild escapes in the country. Their dedication to nature conservation, sustainability and providing affordable nature getaways keeps me exploring their reserves.
Getting to Gamkaskloof
Gamkaskloof, known also as ‘Die Hel/The Hell’, lies at the very end of the road, and not just any road at that. One of the most spectacularly impressive series of mountain passes and backroads leads you to this remote location. It is named Die Hel because the Kloof is difficult to access, and also after the Dutch/Afrikaans word helling for incline. A 4×4 or high-clearance 4×2 is recommended for the wild drive in.
I’d read and heard stories about the Kloof for years, often written or spoken about with awe for its natural beauty but also near inaccessibility. Worried that my car wouldn’t cut it, I called “Land Rover Cape Town” to see if they could help. Thankfully they were prepared to, and on the day of our trip, a raving-red Range Rover Velar was waiting for us. Now that I had a vehicle capable of taking me there, and three other travel writers in the car, I’d finally be making the infamous journey to Die Hel.
Soon after Prince Albert, the legendary Swartberg Pass begins its climb, and we were gaping open-mouthed at every turn of this magnificent drive. Naturally, the Velar was having the time of her life – as was her driver on this remote mountain route. Once you turn off the Swartberg Pass, it’s a further two-hour drive through fynbos-flecked mountains to Gamkaskloof
It may be a tough journey, but who’d have thought that the road to Hell would be so beautiful… and also so comfortable.
Layers of History
Archaeological evidence has revealed that area’s first human inhabitants were the Early Stone Age people over 500,000 years ago. Gamkakloof’s modern history began in 1830, when the first Dutch farmers settled in the valley and began to farm. No road existed, and so a treacherous journey, only possible by foot and donkey, would be made to reach the isolated Valley. For 130 years a community thrived here, reaching 120 people at its zenith. The road in was only built in 1960, and for the first time the valley was fully opened to the outside world.
With its arrival it was now much easier for the inhabitants to visit the outside world, and soon the lure of community, churches, schools, etc, outgrew the desire to remain in the valley. Coupled with a debilitating drought in the 1970s, all but one family left. Thankfully the Kloof was declared a National Heritage Site in 1997, and in 2000, in conjunction with various heritage bodies, CapeNature began to restore the original farms’ houses into self-catering accommodation. Around ten of these are now open to the public.
The isolation and break from the world is massively refreshing, and with no cell reception it’s a digital detox of note. Take some books along, and your hiking shoes. The 6km Grootkloof Trail -is a scenic introduction to the Kloof, and a field guide is available from the information centre, giving you an education on the fauna, flora, geology and other finds in the Kloof. The shorter 2,8km Koningsgat trail is an easy walk, with a chance to rest halfway at the widest section of the Gamkaskloof River. Pack a costume in summer. It also makes a good lunch spot.
Thanks again to Land Rover Cape Town for the privilege of taking the Velar on our trip. She was quickly dubbed the Scarlet Rover by one of our team members and it may seem obvious, but not only did the Velar handle the roads effortlessly, but it truly felt she like reveled in them. With a generous heart, ardent sense of adventure and uncompromising luxury, it’s the kind of vehicle you want to take you to The Hell and back.
- Find out more on Gamkaskloof and book here online
- Camping is also available in the area from R150pppn
- Make sure you have enough fuel before driving in and out
- Our cottage was Koot Kordier, a six-sleeper with one of the best views
- There’s a small store in the valley: pay a visit – the fig jam is heavenly