Gamkaskloof: Never Judge a Valley by Its Cover

Far from the beaten track, hidden between the towering peaks of the Swartberg Mountains, lies a remote valley. Those who wish to travel to this fabled vale have to leave the comforts of tar roads behind and endure the dusty hair-bend turns of the seemingly endless dirt road that meanders river-like down the mountains. It is a slow and often hair-raising descent into the Gamkaskloof, but those who brave it are rewarded by breathtaking views of an African Eden, unspoiled and uncorrupted. Surrounded by the Swartberg Nature Reserve, Gamkaskloof is, much like the mythical garden itself, a protected and isolated ecological haven. For many, however, Gamkaskloof is paradoxically recognized by only one name, “the Hell.”

Immortalized in the imaginations of South Africans as a place of isolation, incest and horror, “the Hell” has been the topic of many dreadful stories and myths, the most famous of which is probably André P. Brink’s Duiwelskloof. In reality, those travelers who go looking for “the Hell” are much more likely to stumble into Gamkaskloof. If ever there was place where myth and reality did not meet up, it is at this lonely little hamlet run by Annetjie Joubert, the last real Gamkaskloofer. Visitors can expect home-cooked meals instead of hillbillies, preserves instead of poltergeists and a hand-painted sign that reads “Kiosk” – nothing particularly horrific about that.

It is on Annetjie’s farm, Fonteinplaas, that travellers can unpack and explore the legendary valley for themselves. There is a campsite, a restaurant, and two historic farmhouses that offer dinner, bed and breakfast. It is also from Annetjie that curious visitors might learn more about the real and equally fascinating history of Gamkaskloof and the people who lived in it. Of particular amusement might be the tale which explains the name “the Hell” as having neither supernatural nor seedy origins. Instead the name is said to owe its existence to that very same ‘hellishly’ difficult trail that Gamkaskloof tourists have to brave in order to reach the bottom of the valley and Annetjie’s little retreat.

In spite of the rumours, Gamkaskloof’s true appeal lies in the fact that it can offer visitors a genuine escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In this sense, its isolation is its greatest asset, making it an ideal destination for eco-tourists eager to disappear from map. The fact that it has such a fascinating alter ego, simply gives Gamkaskloof that little bit of something extra and has more than likely been the reason for many a tourist’s decision to take the road less travelled and descend into the beautiful depths of what they imagine to be “the Hell” of legend.

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