Gamkaskloof Secret Routes: 4x4 adventure to Die Hel

2018-09-03 15:04 - Gabi Zietsman
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River with swartberg mountains in the background

Gamkaskloof - also known as Die Hel - is one of the most off the grid places in South Africa. (Photo: iStock)

There are few places in South Africa as off the grid as a 4x4 drive down Gamkaskloof - also known as Die Hel - where the road ended up being the demise of a century-old community.

In 1830, settler families descended into the inaccessible kloof for its fertile valley on the banks of the Gamka River, and became a self-sustaining community for over a hundred years. While there's no official story on how the name Die Hel got stuck, its origin is not as devilish as you might think. Most of the settlers were Dutch and 'helling' means incline, thus the name rather referred to its steep hills rather than a certain hot place.

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Donkeys were the only form of transport at that time, until a petition was made to the government to build a road, and only in 1962 did Gamkaskloof gain its link to the outside world. This newfound freedom from the kloof also meant that the children and young people of the isolated village gained the opportunity to go to school and work in bigger towns, and slowly Gamkaskloof emptied out.

Today, it falls under the management of CapeNature's Swartberg Nature Reserve, who has renovated the abandoned cottages into self-catering units for those willing to tackle Die Hel 4x4 road. The old school, cemetery and old Norse watermill are also still around to bring to life a forgotten history of the Kloovers, as well as San rock art and artefacts of those that came before the settlers.

The area has now become a cultural heritage site part of the wider UNESCO World Heritage Site, and getting there is not for the faint of heart, or the small of car. Temperatures are extreme in the valley, easily reaching a scorching 40 degrees Celsius or dropping low enough for snow to dust the mountains that tower over the pass.

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The 37km meander through the rocky terrain might not seem so long, but it's an incredibly slow drive with an average speed of 25km/h. While it may sound like an easy day trip from Calitzdorp or Prince Albert, it is strongly advised against this, and that you should rather spend a night at the bottom of the valley to let you take your time on the road and truly appreciate the scenery. While a 4x4 vehicle isn't mandatory, a high-rise mode of transport is a must, but it's also a popular route with bikers.

Its remoteness however doesn't mean that animals haven't made their home here. While tackling the challenging gravel roads, you always have to be on the lookout for roving baboon troops or a surprise kudu that could come out of nowhere - and those can easily take out a bakkie. Cervals and Cape leopards are also known to prowl the mountainous areas, but they are quick to disappear at the sound of a diesel engine.

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If you're more interested in the flora, the best time to go is during spring, when the proteas are in full bloom and a bit of colour is sprinkled through the arid landscape, dotted by a few dassies here and there. If you feel like stretching your legs after a long drive, you can also try and find the rare protea venusta high up in the Swartberg mountains, but this is for serious hikers only.

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Besides the cottages of bygone settler families, there's also camping options if you want to go all-out tough, or you can find out more about the people that used to live there at Fonteinplaas, owned by the only remaining Kloover born and bred in the valley whose family never sold their farm to conservation authorities. The Gamka River provides a refreshing dip after a long, sweaty drive in the spring heat.

It's mostly recommended that you bring everything and your life with you if you are staying for longer than a night, as there's only one shop, but almost everything is homegrown and homemade, living up to the legacy of self-sufficiency of those that came before.

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For more technical advice on the route, Mountain Passes South Africa has a handy video guide that will take you through the whole route and provide tips on making it an easier ride.

The first part of the video series gives a quick overview of the pass that will help orientate yourself:

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