Gamkaskloof… Heaven or Hell: Part 1

The famous Gamkaskloof, approximately 100 km from Oudtshoorn, is one of the most iconic gravel roads in South Africa, holding almost pilgrimage status amongst gravel-road devotees. As we advise travellers not to take this impressive pass on in a single drive, Trygve Roberts from Mountain Passes South Africa will talk about Gamkaskloof.

Gamkaskloof is surrounded by the Swartberg Nature Reserve and winds through 37 km of rugged mountain scenery, culminating in the vertigo-rush, single-width Elands Pass. It ends in the Gamkaskloof – reminiscent of a lush oasis and paradoxically nicknamed Die Hel (The Hell). We discourage anyone from attempting to complete this as an out and back drive in a single day due to the slow average speed of around 25 km/h. Besides the time issue, it would be a shame to have to rush through this magnificent part of South Africa and not have the time to allow the Gamkaskloof to work its magic on you.

Drive up the magnificent Thomas Bain built Swartberg Pass from either Prince Albert in the north or via Oudtshoorn in the south. In the middle plateau section of the pass, about halfway between the summit and the Teeberg view site, a narrow gravel road heads off into the west along a long valley. The signboard reads: “GAMKASKLOOF / DIE HEL: 37 km = 2 hours”, sadly plastered with stickers from road users. As a side note: Please don’t put stickers on road signs – it ruins things for travellers that follow after you!

The Swartberg is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world and scientists have calculated that it was originally more than 7 000 m high, but erosion has worn it down to the current height. Together with the Swartberg Pass, this drive will provide the finest views of the geology, flora and fauna.

This is the eastern start of the Gamkaskloof. The route is a dead end, so allow five hours to complete the journey there and back as the road is sub-standard, slow and convoluted. It is possible to complete the trip in a regular sedan vehicle, but a bakkie or SUV is a much safer option.

The Gamka River carves its way through the Swartberg range several kilometres north of Calitzdorp, along the north/south axis. Other than the Seweweeks- and Meiringspoorts, it is the only other ground-level poort through the mountains in that region. However, due to the geological complexities of the poort in terms of its almost vertical cliff faces, narrow width, convoluted path and propensity towards frequent flooding, the building of a proper road through it was deemed not to be feasible.

A long and winding road

Truly a long and winding road, it contains 201 bends, curves and corners along that 36.6 km. This averages out at 18 bends per kilometre – and those statistics exclude the 8 km flat section along the valley known as Die Hel. The road will climb a total of 1 049 m and descend 1 854 m over a series of small and big passes in a general trend from 1 441 m above-sea-level in the east to 570 m above-sea-level at the bottom of the Elands Pass.

It is normal for drivers to become fatigued on this road and motorcycle riders usually end up exhausted – such is the concentration level required. Accidents happen when drivers become tired. We recommend stopping regularly along this road for a leg stretch, taking some photos or marvelling at the serenity and breathing in the clean mountain air. There is certainly no shortage of beautiful places to take a rest. More importantly, we suggest spending at least one night at Die Hel or more if time permits. If you have the luxury of picking a perfect time to drive this route, springtime is undoubtedly the best. The mountain fynbos and proteas will be in bloom, and the streams and waterfalls will be on full display. At the start, you can enjoy a full 360-degree panoramic view of the ancient Swartberg mountains. Within a hundred metres, you will see a stone obelisk on the left-hand side of the road. The inscription (translated from Afrikaans) reads:

“Otto du Plessis Road – unveiled by the Administrator Mr. N.J. Malan on the 9th August 1962”. Amongst several signboards near the start, there is one informing you that you are entering a protected area – namely the Swartberg Nature Reserve. It would be best if you familiarised yourself with the rules and regulations about the reserve. Besides the obvious rules around littering, noise, vandalism (stickers and graffiti), not removing any plants or other material, perhaps the most important rule is that no fires are allowed. Mountain fires can have devastating consequences to the whole region, so please never break this rule.

The first 3 km section is easy-going as the road heads westwards over the valley floor. You will have time to enjoy the mountain scenery on both sides of the road. Up ahead at the 11 o’clock position, a prominent peak can be identified. This is the 2 003 m high Waboomsberg. The road faithfully follows the valley formed by two towering eastwest running ridges of the Swartberg range. This valley ranges between 4 km wide at its eastern end to under 1 km at its western end. The road is relatively modern in that it was built in 1962 by a small band of roadworkers and a foreman (Koos van Zyl) in a bulldozer.

About 1.7 km from the start, the road dips down through a left-hand bend, where a short waterfall plunges down the mountainside on the left-hand side of the road. This is the headwaters and source of the Scholtzkloof river. In rainy periods it’s easy to spot the waterfall from the left-hand side of the road at a higher elevation than the road. The stream passes under the road at the apex of this first big bend. The following section is easy as the road heads directly into the west and begins climbing steadily towards the summit, which is reached at the 4.9 km point at an altitude of 1 443 m above sea level. The gradients on this climb vary between 1:20 and 1:14. The climb up to the summit is stony, and non-four-wheel drive vehicles might experience loss of traction and control along this section. If you have not deflated your tyres, do so at this point, as it makes a massive difference to the tyre grip on the road and has the additional benefits of providing a more comfortable ride. Additionally, it reduces the risk of punctures.

Slow down and enjoy the ride

When oncoming traffic approaches, it is etiquette to give way to the ascending vehicle. The road width is not too narrow along this particular section, but it is still necessary to slow down and pull over as far left as possible. Once over the summit point, the heading remains straight into the west, and a long descent of 1.1 km commences, which takes the road down to the first of the 11 passes you will be traversing. None of these smaller passes are named, but we will refer to this first little pass as the Waboomsberg Pass as the peak is directly to the left of the pass for the sake of indexing.

In springtime, the slopes are adorned in yellow flowers with the odd protea bush (or Waboom), adding a splash of pink. You’ll only find the water flowing here after good rains, but the dense growth of restios and other water-hungry plants is a sure sign that water flows here regularly. A short climb follows, and the road soon levels off and starts descending once more down a straight section into the SSW. You are for all intents and purposes on your own here, and you need to be self-sufficient. Traffic volumes are low during the week, where you will be lucky to see one other vehicle, but over weekends that number might quadruple. There is no mobile reception whatsoever, so check the condition of your spare wheel and tools before departure. If you look up to your left, a very tall peak dominates the skyline for the next few kilometres. This is the Kariegasberg with a summit height of 2053 m.

The next section consists of another slack S-curve as the road swings sharply to the left and skirts the second transverse ravine. Here there is often crystal clear flowing water, which sometimes runs over the roadway, but it seldom causes any issues in terms of getting over it. The views to the north are spectacular, and this ravine also marks the western boundary of the original farm, named Paarde Vley, spelt in the old Dutch way. The road swings out of the ravine, once more resuming its westerly heading. The descent continues via a gentle S-curve and enters the third side ravine at the 10 km mark. This is the sharpest corner set of the three gorges on this section, and you will need to bring your speed right down to 10 km per hour as the road crosses the third stream via a very sharp right-hand bend of 110 degrees through thick restios and bushes. There is a beautiful rock pool for cooling off on those hot summer days a short way down the ravine.

*In the next issue, we will head even further west to the summit of the Elands Pass – with its reputation for unnerving vertigo sufferers.

Fact file:

GPS START S33.339753 E22.038251

GPS SUMMIT S33.344532 E21.990721

GPS END S33.352865 E21.743457

AVE GRADIENT 1:42

MAX GRADIENT 1:5

ELEVATION START 1 374 m

ELEVATION SUMMIT 1 442 m

ELEVATION END 570 m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS 872 m

DISTANCE 37 km

DIRECTION – TRAVEL West

TIME REQUIRED 120 minutes

SPEED LIMIT 40 km/h

SURFACE Gravel (P1722)

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