Die Hel – A Hidden Valley in the Swartberg, South Africa.

by Christian Nielsen,

I have always been one of those people with strange ideas: many years ago I was a steepleholic – if there was a church steeple with a good view I would be the first to climb to the top -,then there would be disused railway-lines and tunnels, or canals from the Industrial Revolution. Since we have few of these in this country it has always been a mission of mine to find places which the average person would overlook. In this series of articles I would like to take you to some of the places hidden away in our wonderful country which the various guide-books hardly ever mention and which, to my mind, are well worth a visit.

Die Hel

Die Hel

Over the years I have crossed the famous Swartberg Pass between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn several times and have always been strongly attracted by the sign at the top of the pass pointing downwards through the mountains to Die Hel. Perhaps the attraction of this road is the warning that there is no petrol available for the entire trip, or it could be that most of the books warn of a road which should not be undertaken by the faint-hearted. That is probably why, on a dreary damp morning in June, three of us sandwiched ourselves and enough supplies to keep an army going for a week into my small Mazda Soho and set out on our voyage of discovery.

We made Oudtshoorn in mid-afternoon; the clouds had lifted and a pale sunlight lit our way as, with a full petrol tank, we started the climb up the Swartberg Mountains. Firstly the road led through the endless tourist-traps (Crocodile ranches and the like) which have sprung up to the north of the town, and then, becoming more scenic wound through Schoeman’s Poort, hills high on either side, towards the famous Cango Caves. Soon after the caves the road changed from a good tar to a particularly slippery dirt and we began climbing the Swartberg proper. The pass climbs 1000 metres in only about 25 kilometres and has changed little since it was built by teams of prisoners over a period of four years, finishing in 1888. The clouds descended once more as we skidded through hairpin bends, climbing steadily all the time, until at the end of what seemed like an eternity we reached the top of the pass and stopped for a breather at the signpost to Die Hel, about 55 kms from Oudtshoorn.

Two stitches, Die Hel valley

Two stitches, Die Hel valley

There was little to see on this relatively flat plateau at the summit, but since the afternoon was rapidly sinking to dusk we headed westwards towards Die Hel, better known today as Gamkaskloof. The road was at first wide and gravely, leading past dark stands of pines and all the time following the Waterkloof River which flowed in the valley to our right. Then it began to climb and become steadily narrower. We crossed a ridge, descended to the bottom of a valley where we crossed a stream, and then ascended again towards the stars which were now beginning to come out. Apart from the fact that many of the bends are steep and narrow, the road, where it crosses streams (and there are five of them in all), is clearly not designed for long wheel-based vehicles as the dongas are narrow and deep. Guide books which actually mention this hidden valley warn that the road is not suitable for busses, caravans, or mobile homes. In the deepening twilight we crossed three long ridges until, cresting the final one, the awesome valley of the Gamaskloof could just be discerned far below us.

The history of this virtually unknown place has always fascinated me. First inhabited in 1830, Die Hel could only be reached by following the Gamka River from Calitzdorp, a trip of at least 35 kilometers through very rough terrain. Official history tells us that the valley was discovered by accident, but local rumor is somewhat different and tells of smuggling and all sorts of dirty deeds from the past. In 1841 the first farm was registered in the kloof and there was no road access until as late as 1962. Until the road was built there were just three routes in and out of the place: the riverbed to Calitzdorp in the south, the riverbed to Prince Albert in the north, and up a particularly hair-raising track (known as The Ladder) to Ladismith in the west. A few families found that this was the ideal escape from civilization (no phones, no tax-inspectors, no police service) and they farmed here successfully for just over one hundred and fifty years. When the children were old enough to go to school they would be tied on the backs of donkeys which would then be slapped so that they trekked over the mountains to Calitzdorp. In later years a small school was opened in the valley. Due to the fact that only a few families ever settled here the problems of in-breeding were well-known; however, as long as one remained reasonably healthy this was an ideal environment in which to live. In 1991 the last inhabitants packed their bags and left and Cape Nature Conservation took over ownership and management of the area.

We ground our way down the precipitous road into the bottom of the valley in first gear, darkness closing in on all sides, and then made our way slowly through the valley to the cottage we had hired on the other side of the Gamka River. We soon had paraffin lamps lit, food cooking on the stove, a fire in the grate, and thought longingly of deep feathery beds under the thatched roof beneath the stars.

We were fortunate to be assigned to part of the original farm, Ouplaas, where we occupied Snyman’s House, just above the tranquil Gamka River as it gurgles through beds of reeds beneath the road and then winds onwards through the mountains to Calitzdorp. The cottages are comfortable and well furnished and the beds, although one of the bedrooms was only accessible by walking along the stoep, are superb.

Straight after breakfast, which we ate on the stoep so that we could admire the view of mountains and wilderness all about us, we scrambled our way to the deep and silent pool where the river cuts through almost sheer rockfaces as it comes down from the Gamkapoort Dam. The going is particularly tough, so if you have not brought along all your hiking gear you can’t really get very far, but the scenery and the silence was well worth a couple of hours out of the day. The old track southwards along the river towards Calitzdorp has largely been obliterated by flooding over the years but part of this is still visible and can still be followed by the more intrepid hiker.

However, before following the various hiking trails, which are quite well marked, we wanted to have a good look at the hidden valley itself. Before the present road was hacked through the mountains one would come to Ouplaas first in the widest part of the valley; one would then follow the track eastwards along the valley bottom, the mountains closing in steadily until one reached the narrow end where the precipitous ascent to the Swartberg pass disappears into the sky. Although the mountains themselves are largely bare, the bottom of the valley is green and wooded and, in places, so deep that the winter sun never reaches even the roofs of the little clusters of cottages.

Traveling eastwards, then, you would pass Cordier’s house on an open bluff to the right, then Mostert’s house up on the left, then Lenie Marais’ house on a bend up above the road also on the left. The houses were built from whatever materials were available in the valley; the foundations are of packed stone on which the walls of raw brick stand; the roof-trusses are made from poplar or olive-wood and the ceilings were made of reed, on which a clay packing was placed in order to make the ‘solder’ floor, the roof-space being used for storage, usually of foodstuffs and, of course, one’s coffin. The floors were always of packed earth which was then smeared with cow-dung mixed with thorn-tree sap (misvloere). Outside doors were always split horizontally so that the top half could be left open as an extra window and inside doors consisted only of an opening over which a curtain would be hung. Few of the windows were ever glazed, rather consisting of an oblong opening which was closed with wooden shutters; Lenie Marais’ house is the only building in the valley to have gables and it is interesting to note that this tough lady built the entire place herself.

Lenie Marais was the only ‘doctor’ in the valley, having a good knowledge of herbs and Boer remedies. If a conventionally qualified man was required, then Dr. Luttig would ride alongside the river from Prince Albert.

The first school of the valley being on the farm Boplaas, at the Ladismith end of the road and just beneath The Ladder, was erected in 1904. From Lenie Marais’ house the track then leads through Middelplaas where a second school was opened in 1928, the window-glass, benches and blackboard being brought into the valley from outside. This second school was closed in 1980, showing how, gradually, the small population dwindled as it left for the towns and the challenges of the outside world. The school buildings doubled as the local church with the teacher as preacher; local festivals were always held in the valley, but more important happenings such as weddings were usually held in Prince Albert or Calitzdorp.

The track then winds past eight other houses, some of which are almost hidden in the trees; there were only a total of five families in this secret spot, living on either side of the track which stretches for fifteen kilometers along the valley floor.

Anyone who has spent time learning the history of a village will tell you that the best way to un-cover the past is by spending some time in the local graveyard. There is a small and very peaceful one near the school and, although the inscriptions on the tombstones are now a little hard to read and at times very basic, a visit there is well worthwhile.

Thus Die Hel remained basically unchanged from 1830 until 1959 when Dr.Otto du Plessis arrived on horseback and promised the inhabitants a road over the mountains to the Swartberg pass. From that moment onward everything changed forever; bakkies were bought so that local produce could be taken outside and the products of civilization brought into the valley. Tourists began to appear and the tranquility of life in Die Hel became a thing of the past. Families started to leave, beckoned by the bright lights of the towns and the valley fell into dereliction and disrepair.

Die Hel was effectively saved from disappearing into folklore by Cape Nature Conservation, who gradually bought up one farm after another until only Boplaas remains privately owned.

The result is a spot, overlooked by most of the road maps, where time has stood still; it is a spot well worth a visit if you remember to bring everything you need with you (and take everything you don’t need back with you too); the scenery is stupendous, the road frightening and only for the intrepid, and the cottages, most of which can be hired at a very reasonable nightly fee from Cape Nature Conservation, extremely comfortable and well restored. Spend a few nights there – you won’t regret it!

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