|Copyright: Steve Coetzee (SteveCoetzee)
|Date Taken: 2008-05-04|
|More Photo Info: [view]|
|Photo Version: Original Version|
|Date Submitted: 2012-04-11 6:17|
|[Note Guidelines] Photographer's Note|
|I could not help to appreciate the beauty of nature during a visit to a place called "Die Hel" or Gamkaskloof near a town called Prince Albert in the Western Cape, South Africa.|
Gamkaskloof - Paradise or Hell
Writers Club Article written by Sam Reinders
It really is a great feeling when on a Friday afternoon, at 5 minutes to 5 o'clock, as you're shutting down Windows on your computer, your colleague asks you what you're doing for the weekend and you can say: Going to Hell. And mean it!
Gamkaskloof , or 'Die Hel' as it has become known, is a hidden valley deep in the heart of the formidable Swartberg Mountain range. The fertile valley runs in an east-west direction and is approximately 20km long but only 600 meters wide. It is the stuff legends are made of - in the Conan Doyle 'Lost World' tradition, a story of a community of hardy people cut off from the rest of the world for more than a century. Here was a community that had missed the Boer War as well as both World Wars, and although most of the original inhabitants had left, I had to see this 'Lost World'.
From the quaint town of Prince Albert one climbs the spectacular Swartberg Pass (one of our most underrated scenic wonders) and just before the summit the road to Gamkaskloof veers off to the right. For some 30kmthe dirt road climbs, dips and winds through majestic , floral rich mountains. Evidence of geological anger is everywhere to be seen in the convoluted rock strata, but the effect is softened by the soft wisps of cloud creeping over the mountain ridges. The silence is palpable.
Apparently the San Andreas fault runs through these mountains and at the time of the Tulbagh earthquakes there was considerable action up here. Looking around at the twisted, towering peaks, I felt very vulnerable and insignificant at the thought of these rocky bastions shifting and swaying!
Finally, suddenly, you find yourself at the summit of Elandspass - and there, spread in front of you, lies the green ribbon that is the Hell. But what grabs your immediate attention - and rather dries the mouth - is the sight of the ridiculously convoluted zigzagging narrow strip of road that is the only way to the floor of the valley 1000 meters below. Even the hairpin bends seem to have hairpins in them. Peering vertiginously over the edge, I could see 3 or 4 strips of road below me - all within a stone's throw. One way traffic, good nerves, a dry road surface and reliable brakes were obviously the order of the day.
The kloof gets its name from the Khoisan word for lion - Gamka - also the name of the river that enters the valley from the west. This 'Ravine of the Lions' is truly cut off from the world by the natural barrier of rocks and high peaks. Rock paintings and other archaeological finds suggest that the valley had been known to the Khoisan for some time before they were displaced by the white farmers. The first permanent European farmer to put his roots down here was Petrus Swanepoel. This was in 1830. Other families, which became synonymous with the Hell were the Marais, Mostert, Cordier, Nel and Joubert clans.
But why did these people settle here in the first place? There is no doubt that the total isolation and the physical difficulty of reaching the 'civilized' world must have posed huge logistical problems - even to a breed of people where self-sufficiency was second nature. Some say that the valley appealed to the group of Afrikaners who chafed under British rule, or even that it was a way of escaping taxes ( perhaps I should consider this more seriously) . An even more colourful legend has it that a young boy called Danie Hartman was apparently kidnapped by the Khoisan and taken to Gamkaskloof. After managing to escape he spread the word about the fertile paradise he had seen. The more probable story is that the kloof became known when nearby farmers followed their cattle that had strayed along the Gamka River, and that some of these hardy farmers were attracted by the idea of an independent life in a fertile haven, away from magistrates, rules, regulations and taxes.
Another enigma is the origin of the rather negative name -'The Hell'. A popular story goes that a stock inspector, one Piet Botha, was sent down into the kloof in 1940 He descended by way of 'die leer' (the ladder) - a notoriously steep footpath. Not surprisingly, he described his experience as "hell". However, some forty years before, a Boer commando who sheltered here, recorded that the word 'die Hel' was used to describe the area.
This negative name has always been unpopular with the 'Kloovers' - as the locals were known. And who could blame them; their paradise was peaceful, fertile, had a beautiful, sub-tropical microclimate and water aplenty from natural springs and rivers. They grew their own wheat, fruit, vegetables, tea and tobacco - and they produced their own witblits and wild-honey beer. Many a humorous and sad tale is woven around these local brews. They even had their own school and schoolmistress. For a church they used the school, and for a minister they used the teacher. Perfect. Medical emergencies proved a problem, but for the common ailments there was Tant Sannie Cordier and many like her. Tant Sannie and her black doctor's bag (an old tin trunk) was a common and welcome sight. Inside the trunk was the usual old 'Dutch remedies' as well as a few of her own 'specialties' - such as axle grease, cow dung and peach leaves. Inflamed chests were simply wrapped with a warm, wet skin of a specially slaughtered cat.
Some evidence of how the locals felt about the derogatory name can be seen in the story told by Brian du Toit in his book: "People of the Valley". Apparently a Mr.Mostert, collecting his post at Prince Albert, found a letter from the Receiver of Revenue - addressed to him at "The Hell, P.O.Box Prince Albert." Not amused, he took up his pen and covered the envelope with the words: "First find out whether people in the Hell also pay taxes!" and returned it to the mailbox.
Although proud of their independence, the Kloovers longed for easy access to Prince Albert, and petitioned for a road. Ironically, however, the eventual opening of the road in 1962 was the death knell for the Gamkaskloof of old. Children attending secondary schools out of the kloof rarely returned for long, and the old people either died or moved to old age homes out of the valley - never to return. Farm after farm became derelict. As far as I know, Mrs. Anna Joubert, on the farm Mooifontein, is the only Kloof-born local still living in Gamkaskloof. A visit to her farm-store is a treat of witblits and dried-fruit, but more importantly, a rich source of colourful stories about a unique way of life - a living thread with the past.
The Cape Nature Conservation, to their credit, realized that the valley is a treasure house of flora and fauna as well as a unique cultural microcosm. At present they own much of the land and have done much to restore some of the buildings.
Todays visitor will be rewarded by an approach to the kloof through a geological and floral wonderland, while the descent into the valley should be excitement enough for anyone. Besides the lushness of the vegetation in the narrow valley, and the rich bird life (Black eagles are commonly seen riding the thermals), it is the silence and obvious isolation that gives the place a primitive but appealing ambience. Perhaps the old grave stones and ruined farm houses add a slightly sad note - a reminder of what happens when the modern world invades what was almost a paradise. A Hell worth visiting.
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