The road to Hell
I put my big toe gently back on the accelerator. There's a sheer drop into the depths of the Swartberg Mountains to my right and a wall of rocks to my left as I go from rocky patch to hairpin-bend to a jawdropping mountain view.
A few kilometers ago I had not more than 10-meter visibility on the Swartberg Pass, it was freezing outside and I shrieked when I realised that the Isuzu KB300's snowflake sign accompanying the 3°C temperature was, in fact, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth after snowflakes made soft landings on the window. Now it is all gone, white clouds play hide and seek poetically with a sky bluer than blue and in the distance, my fate awaits: a narrow dirt road adventurously carving its way through the mountains.
The more kilometers I add on the clock of this legendary 37- kilometers-2-hours dirt road, the more I feel removed from whatever went on in the world when my phone still had signal. It's just me, my camera, the road, and a red Isuzu – the wind beneath my roaming wings as it puts me at ease while tackling the bumps effortlessly.
The Swartberg Mountain folds rise dramatically from the narrow valley, rock layers stood the test of time and vertical slabs are stacked like sardines; a few meters ahead two Klipspringers standstill in a statue pose, and then, as the bakkie gets closer, one hops from rock to rock. They're not alone; there is also other game such as kudus and rhebucks, more than 130 bird species, rarely seen leopards and caracals and it goes without saying that baboons roam here as well. Gamkaskloof forms part of the 121 000 ha Swartberg Nature Reserve, a World Heritage Site since 2004 and it is remarkably diverse, one moment you're surrounded by proteas, and the next you're in the Karoo-veld with a spekboom here and an aloe there.
I stand at the top and peek out of the window to the zigzag road snaking below. For the last time I'm somewhat above, somewhat high; from here on there's only one way and it is down. Down into Gamkaskloof or, “Die Hel”/The Hell as it is fondly known by many yet the reason for this extreme name is still discussed, still unknown.
The road to “Die Hel” gives meaning to the quote, “it's not about the destination, but the journey”. Light rain starts again. I take a last photo, put the camera away, and take one sharp turn after the other at a speed slower than slow.
Down, Down, Down.
I reach a signboard, I'm officially in Gamkaskloof. A mix of rain and snowflakes meet me outside and I look back on the gnarly road I just came from. I think about the rain, the mud, and the slippery consequences for my return. It echoes in my head again: Ag oom, I'll just go slow, everything will be okay.
In the past the kloof residents lived a very isolated life; they had a school, they had a dominee, and a flourishing valley. Before the opening of the Otto do Plessis road, the only way in and out of the kloof was by “The Ladder”, a strenuous cliff path that led to the nearby towns of Calitzdorp and Prins Albert that paved (or rocked) the way forward for the first car to be brought into the kloof in 1958. It took eight men and four donkeys to get the 1938 Morris (bought for R20) into Gamkaskloof and rumour has it that the roar of the engine caused quite a stir for the Gamkaskloofers who have never seen or heard a car before.
Four years later a road opened which connected the kloof with the Swartberg Pass and it changed Gamkaskloof forever; people left, found jobs, and a more modern world outside the kloof. The last remaining farmer waved the kloof goodbye in 1991.
But the kloof is filled with stories.
More than a decade ago you would've crossed paths with Oom Zani van der Walt here in Gamkaskloof, and he always greeted you with, “You're just in time for coffee”. He would then share the most delicious stories; from talking about the old kloof legends to sharing interesting bits from nature. His stories were like a magnet; drawing people back time and again. Oom Zani and his wife, Anita, no longer live in the kloof, but the stories live on at the Fontein Guest Farm.
Gamkaskloof can only be accessed via the Swartberg Pass from Outshoorn's side, from the Swartberg Pass turn-off it is 37 km into the kloof and then another 5.5 km to Fontein Guest Farm, then 7 km to Cape Nature's offices and another 2 km until you reach Boplaas. Even though there are some nail-biting bits and a lot of bumpy and rocky patches, the road down into the kloof is (usually) in a good condition. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, but patience is more important than the vehicle. Do not rush, your tyres will never forgive you.