Trygve Roberts of Mountain Passes South Africa delves a little into the fascinating history of what is today known as Die Hel.
Most of the driving in the Die Hel valley is through dense riverine bush and includes several river crossings via stony drifts. The vegetation is surprisingly lush, considering this is officially part of the Klein Karoo, but over the last 200 years, this valley has always enjoyed the benefit of perennial water. The biggest danger is hitting a kudu. These large and sturdy antelope are notorious for jumping in front of vehicles at the last possible moment. At night it’s common to hear them stomping around the campsites.
After 5.5km from the entrance gates, the buildings at the Fonteinplaas Guest Farm pop into view. This is owned by Annatjie Joubert (neé Mostert), who returned to the family farm at Die Hel and set up a shop, restaurant, guest cottages, a caravan park and campsites. Here they are in the process of making honeybush tea, which you can sample at the restaurant. The thatched main building was built using Olienhout, which is quaintly crooked, but incredibly hard wood.
In the shop you can purchase a wide range of homemade jams, pickles, preserves and other delicious farm-fresh produce. The organic eggs have the yellowest yolks – compared to what one normally buys at a supermarket. The hospitality at Fonteinplaas is legendary, and here you can enjoy home-cooked meals at the restaurant or have it delivered to your cottage or campsite.
The property is surrounded by an eclectic collection of very old cars, a moped dating back to the 1960s, a vineyard, a succulent garden and a red Border Collie called Koejawel that plays a neverending stalking game with a rescued rooster – one of Annatjie Joubert’s many pets. Annatjie is the last of the true “Kloovers” (Canyon dwellers), who chose not to sell the family farm, and instead decided to return to the kloof to set up the facilities you see today. Only two footpaths were used to enter the valley from the north. One was through the Gamka River kloof whilst the other was over the top of the mountain. On rare occasions the self-named Kloovers made their way up the riverbed to Gatplaas (the previous name of Calitzdorp) to trade their produce. This was an extremely tiring and tough journey and was dependent on low water levels. In the 1960s, when the Gamkapoort dam was constructed, it blocked this path off completely for the Kloovers at the narrow point where the wall was built.
The other route was a few kilometres further west over a very steep footpath with many switchbacks up an almost vertical cliff. This route was known as Die Leer (The Ladder) and was even too steep for mules to traverse. The kloof has many stories written into its folklore and one of these is that a born and bred Kloover, Gustav Nefdt, once lugged a Dover coal stove strapped to his back from Prince Albert to the kloof via Die Leer – a feat of extraordinary strength and endurance.
The area was the original Gamka Poort farm which was granted to Petrus Swanepoel in 1841. The Boer commando leader, Deneys Reitz, entered the valley in 1901 during the Anglo-Boer war whilst attempting to evade British forces. He wrote an interesting account of their short visit: “As we approached the huts, a shaggy giant in goatskins appeared and spoke to us in strange outlandish Dutch. He was a white man named Cordier, who lived in this valley with his wife and a brood of half-wild children in complete isolation of the outside world… We were received with uncouth, but sincere hospitality and applied ourselves to the goat’s meat, milk, and wild honey that was placed before us… He told us that no British forces had ever penetrated the valley and that we were the first Boers to do so”.
Today’s visitors to the Swartberg Nature Reserve, Fonteinplaas Guest Farm or Boplaas, can hire a meticulously restored cottage and savour the dark starry nights and tranquil days. The Kloovers used to refer to the Boplaas farm as Die Hel. It is located in a separate side kloof of the Gamkaskloof, and happens to be the place where the infamous footpath, known as Die Leer, reaches the valley floor.
This footpath can still be walked today and is an officially recognised trail of the Swartberg Nature Reserve. Early visitors were enchanted with the wild-sounding name of Die Hel, and soon began calling the entire valley by that name, much to the chagrin of the locals. Amongst the many mammals in this area, you will more than likely see Klipspringers and Grey Rhebuck. Nocturnal animals include the porcupine, Rooikat and Cape leopard. There are interesting places to see in the kloof, including several historic houses, a school, a cemetery, and an old Norse watermill.