Gamkaskloof is situated in the heart of the Karoo and is part of the Swartberg Nature Reserve. More commonly, this area is known as “Die Hel.” No one is sure of how this name came to be.
The most popular story told is that of a livestock inspector from Calitzdorp who had to inspect the dipping of sheep during an epidemic in the 1920’s. He is reported to have said, “It’s a helluva place to get into and a helluva place to get out of. We’ll call it Hell.”
The hole in this story is that it was already being referred to as “Die Hel” when Deneys Reits stumbled upon it about 20 years earlier.
On entering Gamkaskloof and observing its beauty one realizes how inappropriate the name really is. More likely it was so named for the very steep sides (Afr. “hellings” referring to gradient) of the kloof.
Gamkaskloof has a rich ecological record, with over 4000 recorded plant species, 153 of the 211 bird species found in the Swartberg and numerous animals, ranging from rare rodents through aardvarks and honey badgers to kudu and leopard. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1997 and has also been declared a Cultural Historical Site.
The San were the first inhabitants of the kloof. Their paintings can be seen in numerous caves. The Khoi later came to the Kloof and clashed with the San who as a result moved out of the Kloof. The first white people to enter the kloof were farmers who, in around 1820, moved from Swellendam to Graaf-Reinet as the Cape Colony moved its frontier post.
Reportedly, the farmers found the route into the kloof by accident, when their cattle broke from the kraal and found a way into the kloof. The farmers followed their tracks and discovered this isolated area and started squatting there. (As with the name, there is more than one story. Another purports that a young boy by the name of Danie Hartman was kidnapped by the Khoi, but managed to escape and reported the fertile and virtually inaccessible valley.)
Many tales have been told regarding the first settlers. Some say they were ranging from tax evaders to horse thieves. The total number of people living there varies with according to sources, but it is believed to have been around 120 with a peak population of about 160.
As with the population, it is unknown when exactly the first people moved into the area.
Daniel Petrus Swanepoel received the first transfer of land in 1833 and it was later granted to him by Governor Sir George Napier in 1841. On 15 April 1841 the land was registered to Gert Johannes Gouws and was bought by Johannes Hendrik Mostert in 1875.
The first discovery of this isolated community was made by chance during the Anglo Boer War, when Deneys Reits, a Boer spy, decided to cross the Swartberg Mountains into the Karoo. He came upon Gamkaskloof and the Mostert and Cordier families. It was very clear that these concealed people knew very little about the civil war and the outside world.
ENTERING THE GAMKASKLOOF
The only way to enter Gamkaskloof is through Swartberg Pass, which is one of the most formidable passes in the world.
Sign board to Die Hel.
This road is not for the fainthearted.
In November 1959 the Divisional Council of Prince Albert received permission from the Administration to start building the road to the kloof, after many years of petitioning from the kloof inhabitants. Koos van Zyl was in charge and with the help of 8 labourers and his bulldozer, completed the road in 1962. It was named after Dr Otto du Plessis, the Administrator of the Cape at that time, who, after a visit had promised the locals that a road would be built.
The road, which they believed would make their lives simpler, turned out to be the beginning of the end for this community. They never foresaw the arrival of tourists and later the construction of the Gamka dam. This shattered the privacy of the remote inhabitants. Children were sent to nearby towns for their education and chose not to return.
Journalists started writing stories of the residents which weren’t always true, exploiting their simplicity. They have also been portrayed as “wild barbarians” who run away from strangers. This was not true and the people of the Gamkaskloof found a way to live in utter isolation, while upholding strong moral standards through their belief in their Maker and hard work alike. They spoke colorful Afrikaans and were sociable people who would always find a reason to get together in celebration.
Telephones were finally installed in 1965, 80 years after the first phone rang in South Africa, removing another bit of the kloofs’ isolation. It was only in the mid 1990’s that Gamkaskloof was added to the national electricity grid.
Piet and Magriet Swanepoel were the last of the original “Kloofers” to move out in 1991. Now one of the Gamkaskloofers, Annetjie Joubert, has returned to the valley and shares tales of the old days with her guests.