The Gamkaskloof Afrikaans pronunciation: [χamkasklʊəf][stress?] (also known as 'Die Hel') is a narrow isolated valley about 20 miles long with a maximum of 600 feet wide located in the Swartberg mountain range.
The Gamkaskloof was discovered in the early 19th century by farmers, but the first permanent settler was Peter Swanepoel, who settled in the valley in the 1830s. Later, the Marais, Cordier and Joubert Nel Mostert families settled in the valley, growing to a community of around 160 individuals. The residents used donkeys and walked across the Swartberg mountains to reach Prince Albert and Calitzdorp. Later a school was established, with the teacher also leading the Sunday church.
They farmed grain, vegetables, fruits, tea and tobacco, along with distilling witblits and brewing beer made from wild honey.
The residents had petitioned the government for many years to build a road into the valley. Eventually in 1962 a road was completed which led to the depopulation of the community. The children attended high schools in the nearby villages and most of them did not return to the subsistence life in the valley. The elderly retired to retirement villages outside the valley and the number of residents diminished until all but one person sold their homes to the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board in 1991.
The valley was declared a national monument in 1997 and was included into the Swartberg Nature Reserve. Subsequently the cottages in the valley have been renovated and equipped with solar power and bathrooms.
The pass by which the Gamkaskloof can be accessed drops almost 579 meters very steeply, before it gets to the valley settlement, and it is believed that the name 'Die Hel' therefore came from the Afrikaans word "helling or hel" ("steep dip/incline down").
It is still not entirely certain where the name came from though, and several folk etymologies have developed. One popular story is that a Piet Botha (an animal inspector) visited the valley in the 1940s and used a particularly difficult route known as the 'die leer' into the valley. He described the experience as "hell". The residents consequently do not like the name, and prefer to refer to themselves as 'Kloovers' (canyon dwellers).
Gamkaskloof's isolation makes it popular among sports enthusiasts. Apart from hiking there is the popular To Hell & Back mountain bike race and the trailrun known as the MadScientists' Midnight Hell Run (formerly the Moonlight Hell Run). A number of adventure races also used Gamkaskloof as part of their route.
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- IOL Originally Published in the Cape Times 19 May 2003
- Website of the To Hell & Back MTB race
- MadScientists' Midnight Hell Run was cancelled in 2011