Gamkaskloof (Road to Die Hel)

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Start point Gamkaskloof Start point Gamkaskloof - Photo: Trygve Roberts

This has to be one of the most iconic gravel roads in South Africa, holding almost pilgrimage status to gravel-road devotees. It winds through 37km of rugged mountain scenery, culminating in the vertigo-rush, single-width Elands Pass, and terminates in the very hot, low-altitude Gamkaskloof - reminiscent of a lush oasis and paradoxically nicknamed Die Hel (The Hell).

 

There are five videos covering this amazing and iconic road. We have embedded each one in the appropriate section.

Part 1: Orientation & Overview - A Google earth 3D animation clip ideal for first time drivers of the road to help in orienteering with the road from east to west. There is not much detail in this clip as it is merely an overview. Watch the other four videos for history, tourism, safety and other detailed information.

Part 2: Eastern start to 15 km mark - A more detailed look at the first 15 km with landmarks like the Schotlzkloof Waterfall and Oom Koos se Klip and several smaller passes contained within this section.

Part 3: From 15 km to 30 km - A detailed focus on the second half of the road, with its deeper water crossings and steep mini-passes where considerable altitude is lost. This section includes the tricky water crossing where non 4WD vehicles often have traction problems.

Part 4: From 30 km to Die Hel - This section features the descent down the Elands Pass to Die Hel and is without question, the highlight of the whole trip. With 52 bends including 5 hairpins and near vertical, unprotected drop-offs, this road is bad news for acrophobia sufferers. For the rest, this is gravel road heaven!

Part 5: Die Hel - A closer look at the cottages and campsites at the foot of the pass at the Swartberg Nature Reserve's facilities as well as some of the private options further down the 12 km long valley.


Part 1: Overview and Orientation - Recommended viewing for first time visitors

It is recommended to watch this video in HD. (Click on the "quality" button on the lower taskbar of the video screen and select 720HD.) Wait a few seconds for the video to display.....



[Video cover photo courtesy of Bipin Prag Photography]

FULL-SCREEN MODE: Click PLAY, then pass your mouse over the bottom right corner of the video screen. The outline of a square will appear. Clicking on it will toggle Full Screen Mode. Press ESC to return to the original format.

Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.


Digging into the details

Getting there: 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 plateuas section of the pass, about halfway between the summit and teeberg view site, a narrow gravel road heads off into the west along a long valley. The signboard reads: "GAMKASKLOOF / DIE HEL 50 km = 2 hours"

This is the eastern start of the Gamkaskloof. It 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 normal sedan vehicle but a "bakkie" or SUV is a much safer option. This route is not recommended to be driven in a single day. Rushing through here is sacrilege.

Near the start the road climbs to a neckNear the eastern start the Gamkaskloof valley is about 4 km wide / Photo: Danie van der MerweThe Gamka River carves its way through the Swartberg range along the north/south axis several kilometres north of Calitzdorp. Other than the Seweweeks and Meirings Poorts 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.

This is truly a long and winding road. It contains 201 bends, curves and corners along that 36,6 km. which averages out at 18 bends per kilometre.  The road will climb a total of 1049m and descend 1854m over a series of small and big passes in a general trend from 1441m in the east to 570m ASL 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, take some photos or just marvel at the serenity and breathe in the clean mountain air. There are no shortage of beautiful places to take a rest.

More importantly, we suggest spending at least one night at Die Hel and more if you have the time. To drive or ride this road out and back in a single day is not sensible and will greatly detract from its many attractions.



Part 2: Eastern start at the Swartberg Pass to the 15 km point



[Video cover photo by Trygve Roberts}

The first 15 km contain 52 bends and corners, a waterfall, several small streams, amazing Swartberg scenery and the first half of what will be a 'never to be forgotten' journey into one of the most remote mountain destinations in South Africa.

Photo collage by Lisa RobertsPhoto collage by Lisa RobertsThe road faithfully follows the valley formed by two towering east-west 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 single bulldozer.

About 3 km from the start, a short waterfall plunges down the mountainside on the southern side of the road. This is the headwaters and source of the Scholtzkloof river. In rainy periods it's easy to spot the waterfall about 1,2 km from the left hand side of the road at a higher elevation than the road.

At the 4,7 km mark the maximum altitude of 1444m ASL is reached as the road climbs at a gradient of 1:18. Just before the summit a large (100m x 100m) square clearing can be seen on the left hand side of the road. This is where gravel was collected for the construction of the road. there are several other smaller quarries still visible along the length of the road.

At the 6 km mark, the first of several small passes is encountered. This one drops through a 170 degree left hand hairpin followed immediately a double S-bend and crosses a small stream in a side ravine. It last for just 800m, then climbs briefly to begin another drop into the next side ravine, where the river crossing often has water flowing over it. Most of the stream crossings are simple drifts with minimal concrete support, if any. At the 10 km mark the third stream crossing is encountered, which is usually nothing more than a tyre wetting.

Soon the road descends steeply through a number of sharp bends and at the 12,3 km mark a large rock juts precariously out over the road. A sign in front of the rock proclaims it to be" "Oom Koos se Klip" [Uncle Koos's Rock]. He was the bulldozer driver responsible for the main construction of the road and clearly this chunk of rock proved to be his nemesis.

Oom Koos se KlipOom Koos se Klip / Photo: Willie KoortsFromThe scenery on either side of the road is absolutely stunning with proteas, heather, ericas and restios in full bloom towards the end of the winter. For those interested in geology, the rock formations change constantly as progress is made into the west. This is the Swartberg - one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Scientists have calculated that it was originally more then 7000m high, but erosion has worn it down to the current height. 

Keep a look-out for klipsringers, Cape vervet monkeys and baboons. There are also leopards and caracal here, but the lastnamed are seldom seen, being nocturnal hunters. The klipsringers often stand completely still on the roadway and will remain like that despite a vehicle approaching. In our video we were able to film them from less than 2m away.

There are two small passes contained within the first 15 km. The last kilometre plunges down sharply into a deep ravine which marks the 4th river crossing at the 15 km mark and also marks the end of this first section.


Part 3: 15th km to 30th km of the Gamkaskloof route documents the second 15km of this rugged and dangerous road, starting from the 15th kilometer and terminating at the 30th kilometer, just before the dramatic descent down the Elands Pass to Die Hel. Take it slowly and stop frequently to enjoy the spectacularly dramatic mountain scenery all around you. This section starts at S33.344449 E21.899245



[Video cover photo 'Klipsringers' by Trygve Roberts]

Cyclists have crowned a summit along this section and looked despairingly at the next long section of winding roadway, disappearing over the next neck in the far distance and wondered if this really is like being in hell.

Gamkaskloof a long and winding roadGamkaskloof a long and winding road / Photo: Trygve Roberts

 At the 16,4 km mark, the road sweeps down into full horseshoe bend simultaneously crossing a side stream. This is the first of 5 mini-passes along this section. The road continues laboriously westwards and crosses another three side side ravines, before reaching the next small pass at the 22,7 km point. This small pass drops rapidly down into a deep side ravine, then climbs out the far side via a double hairpin. This is one of the steepest parts of the entire road with gradients at 1:5. It's a good place to stop and take a break as there is usually birdsong in the air as the little stream cascades over the road and down the mountainside.

After another kilometre, the road bends gently to the left and here the view ahead is nothing short of dramatic. many first time drivers of the road have mistakenly thought they have arrived at the Elands Pass. This third small pass in this section falls away quickly into the ravine at a stiff gradient of 1:11 via two very tight hairpins (30 kph) then loops over the next river. It is here that non 4WD vehicles are likely to get stuck, as this tributary is substantially bigger than all the previous streams. The bottom consists of hundreds of thousands of small, loose stones. It is this which causes loss of traction and many vehicles have had to be recovered from this stream in the past.

gamkaskloofThe never ending zig-zags with a trio of klipspringers in the foreground / Photo: Marius KrijtShould you find yourself marooned here, we suggest that you first try deflating your tyres down to 1,2 bar and try again. This lengthens the footprint of the tyre and creates additional traction. The river is not very deep, but it is the loose stones which cause the trouble. keep deflating your tyres by 0,2 bar increments until you are down to 0,6. If that doesn't remedy the situation, you're going to need a push from a lot of helpers or a tow by a 4WD vehicle.

We dont recommend trying to walk to the campsite from here as it is still another 12 km of very steep terrain. Sit tight and wait for assistance from the next passing vehicle. You can drink the water from the stream. It's spotless!

There are five smaller passes within this section of the Gamkaskloof, each of which has its own unique geographical and technical challenges. The fourth small pass is located at 26,5 km mark and consists of a single left handed horseshoe bend, where yet another small stream is crossed.

Cllage by Lisa RobertsPhoto collage by Lisa RobertsThe last of these small passes is encountered at the 27.7 km mark. This one is formed by a full horseshoe bend into the left, followed by a short, steep climb up the other side. There is a widening in the road where it turns back into the west at the summit of this little pass. This is a great spot to stop and switch your vehicle's engine off. From here you can look back eastwards, at neck upon neck of twisting roadway as it disappears into a thin white ribbon over the eastern horizon. It serves as a stark reminder to drive carefully as here you are in a remote place.

From this view site, the road climbs quite steeply to the highest point on this section, which occurs at the 31,8 km mark and registers an altitude of 1047m. This marks the end of this section and you are now faced with the descent of the fantastic Elands Pass down into the Gamkaskloof valley and Die Hel.


Part 4: Elands Pass descent into Die Hel 

The Elands Pass is the final descent down into the long, low altitude valley called Gamkaskloof, but more commenly known as "Die Hel". The pass is mostly only single-laned with only a few, very precarious spots for oncoming vehicles to pass by. The road descends 403 vertical metres over 3,64 km producing a very stiff average gradient of 1:9. Mortorcycle riders are advised to stop at the summit and have a good rest before tackling the descent. The views looking west over the valley are indescribably beautiful.



Vehicles ascending have right of way, while those descending have a good view from above and should have ample time to find a space to pull over. The best spots are on the hairpin bends where the road is it's widest. Proceed with the utmost caution. The drop-offs are extremely steep with no barriers at all. You'll arrive at your destination dosed high on good old-fashioned adrenaline!

There are 51 bends, corners and curves on this descent of which 5 are full hairpins, with the final one curling through 270 degrees. The hairpins as well as some of the steeper and unstable sections have been strip concreted for improved traction and safety. Drivers of 4WD vehicles must remember to unlock the centre diff to prevent axle wind-up. It takes about 15 minutes to complete the descent. If you do come across another vehicle on the pass, remember that it is international etiquette to give way to ascending vehicles, but this should never be in contradiction of common sense. the best place to allow a passing vehicle is on the hairpins which are generally wider and not as steep.

Local 'Kloovers' have always disliked the name Die Hel and prefer to more accurately - and less dramatically - call themselves 'kloovers'  and the valley to be called Gamkaskloof. Originally the locals farmed fruit, vegetables, grain, tobacco and tea -- and were famous for their witblits (South African moonshine!) and beer brewed from wild honey.

Photo collage GamkaskloofPhoto collage Gamkaskloof

It is recorded that approximately 20 families making up a population of about 120 souls were living and farming in the kloof circa 1962. Once the new road was built, the younger people left in a steady stream for better opportunities in the nearby towns of Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp. It took just 30 years to deplete the valley of human occupation. The last resident left in 1992 but Annatjie Joubert (a born and bred Kloover) has since returned to the kloof and opened her farm to tourism, where she has camping, a kiosk and self catering accommodation on offer.

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. The self named "Kloovers" (Canyon Dwellers) on rare occasions, made their way up the river bed to Gatplaas (the previous name of Calitzdorp) to trade their produce. This was a tiring and tough journey and was dependent on low water levels. In the 1960's when the Gamka Poort 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 engineer, Louis Terblance, who designed the road lamented that he was saddened that this was the only road he had designed, which had brought about the destruction, rather than the upliftment, of a once thriving community.

Elands PassThe Elands Pass in all it's acrophobic glory / Photo: Trygve Roberts

Don't hurry along the Elands Pass. Take it very, very slowly. There is a game ranger at Die Hel should you need assistance. Once you have successfully negotiated the Elands Pass you will have driven, in my opinion, one of the top three most spectacular mountain passes in South Africa!  

It is highly recommended to overnight at Die Hel and rest in the tranquility and heavenly beauty of this inaptly named spot. It is important to watch all four parts of this series on the Gamkaskloof to ensure you plan correctly. Most people badly underestimate the number of hours it takes to get there. Motorcyclists should note that this is a very tiring trip. 


 Part 4 - Die Hel/The Hell (GPS S33.352830 E21.743514)

Die Hel is - despite its name - perhaps one of the most heavenly places on the planet.



[Video cover photo courtesy of Mike Golby]

A long and fertile valley cuts through the mountains on the east/west axis. There are various accounts of the length of this valley. As the crow flies it measures 12 km from the Gamka River to the base of the Elands Pass.  This 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 goats 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"

Shop in Die HelShopping in Die Hel / Photo: Belhein
Today at the farm known as Boplaas, you can hire a meticulously restored cottage and savour the dark starry nights, and tranquil days. The kloovers used to call this farm, Die Hel, which is located in a separate side kloof of the Gamkaskloof. It happens to be the place where the footpath known as Die Leer, reaches the valley floor. This footpath can still be walked today and is an officially recongnized 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 kloovers.

The Kloovers were quite content in their total isolation from the outside world - at least until the 1962 gravel road was bulldozed from the Swartberg Pass side by Koos van Zyl, who later became a roads inspector. The engineer always expressed sorrow that a road, which should have brought prosperity to the community in the kloof, instead destroyed the once thriving community and moved one by one to the nearby towns of Oudtshoorn, Calitzdorp and Prince Albert until there was no-one left.

Die hel at GamkaskloofEntrance gate at Die Hel with shady campsites next to a stream / Photo: Trygve Roberts In 1959 requests were received for a road to be built into the valley. Plans were also being discussed at that time to build a dam across the Gamka River. The administrator of the Cape, Dr Otto du Plessis, decided to go and have a look for himself. In the company of several journalists, they scrambled down the Gamka gorge on horseback. The District Roads engineer, Louis Terblanche and other officials from Prince Albert took the top route over Die Leer. It was determined that a road through the poort was not possible.

Some weeks later, Terblanche and roads inspector Van Rensburg hiked from the forestry road to Die Hel and investigated a possible route. Provincial Treasury made a sum of R30,000 available to build the road. The pass was built using an HD11 Allis Chambers bulldozer with a foreman (Koos Van Zyl) and just 12 labourers. It took them from March 1960 to August 1962 to complete the 37 km road.

This spot is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and run smartly by Cape Nature Conservation, offering camping and authentically restored, atmospheric cottages. There is private accommodation on offer as well, which brings us to the farm Mooifontein, owned by Annetjie Joubert (neé Mostert). She is the only remaining "born and bred" inhabitant that has retained property in Gamkaskloof.

Gamkaskloof collage 3Gamkaskloof collage 3She came back permanently in 1998 and skilfully converted the original farmstead into comfortable guesthouses, has a caravan park, camping sites and the only kiosk and licensed restaurant in Gamkaskloof. The farm is today referred to as Fonteinplaas. There is also a beautifully restored cottage at Boplaas, which is privately owned by a consortium.

Gamkaskloof means the Ravine of the Lion in the old Khoi lamguage. Birders will love the kloof with 153 species recorded to date. Even the majestic Fish Eagle makes an appearance occassionally. Amongst the many mammals you will more than likely see are Klipsprigers 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 cemetry, and an old Norse watermill. Cape Nature Conservation offer camping and accommodation under plentiful shade and alongside a crystal-clear stream.

Note that no quad bikes are allowed, but touring motorcycles are allowed with a permit. If you love serenity, absolute quiet and brilliantly starry nights in a faraway place, blissfully cut off from cellphones and civilization, then this is the adventure for you. 


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

1374m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

1442m

ELEVATION END

570m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

872m

DISTANCE

37 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

West

TIME REQUIRED

120 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

40 kph

SURFACE

Gravel

DATE FILMED

17.10.2012

TEMPERATURE

18C

NEAREST TOWN

Prince Albert (50 km)


Route Map:

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Route files:

||Click to download: Gamkaskloof-Die Hel (Note - This is a .Kmz file which can be opened in Google earth and most GPS software)

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Mountain Passes South Africa

Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.
 

Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.
 

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