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Remains of the Day

Remains of the Day

May 2017

Words and pics Romi Boom

Going into and out of Die Hel is really slow. It takes two hours to cover the 37km distance.

The mountain reedbuck stood stock still in the road ahead of us. Travelling slowly, we were negotiating the hairpin bends, s-turns and switchbacks of the Otto du Plessis road, the legendary Swartberg Pass now merely a dim memory. The antelope did not budge. Nor did we.

So remote is this World Heritage site that the reedbuck felt completely unthreatened. Descending into the fertile Gamkaskloof valley with its many streams and fountains, the dirt road appears not to bisect the mountainous terrain. Its ruggedness blends instead with the rocks and boulders, forming part of the animal’s cover. 

By the time we had dropped almost 1000m to the valley floor, we had enjoyed a replay of our remarkable sighting, this time featuring two very chilled klipspringers. The nonchalance of the animals was a joy to behold, especially since hunters were once so active in the Gamkaskloof (“lion” in Khoisan) that the mountain lion was hunted to extinction by 1860. 

 Like sentries on the slopes, bitter aloes (Aloe ferox) greet visitors to Gamkaskloof. From May to August, this aloe bears eye-catching red flowers.

For over a century the community remained cut off from the outside world. The road less travelled that descends into Die Hel – and nowhere else – was built only in the 1960s. Before then transport consisted of donkey trains. If the farmers wanted to barter their raisins, oranges and pressed figs for coffee, salt, tools and textiles, they used a 10km river trail through a gorge to Prince Albert.

We reached Ouplaas, the far end of the 20km-long valley, late on a Sunday afternoon. Understandably CapeNature’s office and adjacent museum were closed, but our presence was soon announced by a barking dog. 

Gingerly we approached the home of Elmaree and Martin Botha, Swartberg Nature Reserve manager. For more than a decade the Bothas have lived here, almost as isolated as the “kloofers” of yesteryear, happy with their own company and the entertainment provided by this wildly enchanting place. “They will have to carry me out of here,” Elmaree enthused, chattering non-stop about the privilege of escaping the rat race. 

Of all the resilient characters who populated Gamkaskloof, the most formidable was Lenie Marais. Her very own cottage, among all the historic houses in Die Hel, was where we would stay. As we walked through the museum, Elmaree told us more about this erstwhile inhabitant who was the pivotal figure in the close-knit community. As a young bride Lenie walked into the kloof from Calitzdorp with her husband, Willem. With a grade eight certificate – an impressive education at the time – she was to be a teacher. Before long she was the stand-in doctor and midwife, based on her knowledge of medicinal plants. 

The dynamic Lenie used her hands for literally everything. Due to Willem’s ill health, she built most of the house herself, using local stone, unbaked clay bricks and poplar rafters. The decorative gable, unique in the valley, recalls the elegant homes she had seen in Prince Albert, and her creativity is evident from the river pebbles used to edge the windows and doors. The couple moved into the cottage in 1928.

The charming cottage of Lenie Marais, an early Gamkaskloofer.

The pride of Gamkaskloof, Lenie’s house was one of the first to be rented to visitors. During the restoration in 1992 a tree trunk she could not move was found inside one of the walls. We were delighted to discover it has been left in situ, to be witnessed behind a glass panel.

Sunday evening on her stoep, we marvelled as millions of stars lit up the night sky and reflected on basic needs. A century before the same unpolluted expanse had sheltered pioneering families. Their labours yielded bounteous rewards, they harvested nuts, fruit, vegetables and honey, their livestock thrived and goats provided milk and butter. Life was simple then.

Make it happen

Historic houses for self-catering, from R380 a night. Gamkaskloof has 12 traditional cottages. Lenie Marais’s house sleeps up to five people in three bedrooms (one with two single beds, one with a double bed and one with a single bed). It is equipped with a gas stove, gas fridge, outdoor braai facilities and a plunge pool. Cutlery, crockery, bedlinen and towels are provided. Wood can be purchased at the reserve office. 

Camping from R150. Each of the 10 shaded campsites is named after the donkeys that did the hard work in the valley when it was originally settled. Each site has solar-powered lights, a tap and a picnic table, but there is no power. Hot water showers and flush toilets. 

Conservation fee: R40 an adult, R20 a child, free with a Wild Card. 

Bookings:  CapeNature 021-483-0190

Source: Wild Magazine

Die Hel (Gamkaskloof)
Swartberg Nature Reserve
Swartberg Pass MTB Trail


Article provided from WILD - Wildlife, Environment and Travel Magazine.