Thursday, December 31, 2009

Little Karoo: Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)

Gamkaskloof, also known as “Die Hel” or “the Hell, is a fascinating, hidden valley in the heart of the Swartberg Mountains where a small, proud, community lived in isolation for more than 100 years. Access was on foot and horseback and harvests of dried fruit and wild honey were carried out by pack animals. The first road into the valley was built in 1962, facilitating communication with the outside world, but also ultimately leading to an exodus of all the valley’s farming families.
Entrance to the valley is through the same dirt road, beginning about half way along the Swartberg Pass, and is a beautiful 50km drive, although not for the faint hearted (nor for those driving their ‘luxury German sedan’ with low profile tires and low front spoilers). The warning sign at the beginning of the road attests to the risks!
Entrance road to Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)
Gamkaskloof (Die Hel) entrance road
Gamkaskloof (Die Hel): winding road through the Swartberg Mountains
Winding road towards Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)
The first part of the drive is a pleasant dirt road winding its way along the valley. A valley edged by kilometers of rock that had obviously been flat a long time ago, but now snapped off and pushed up on one side in tortured formations.
Gamkaskloof (Die Hel): entrance through a tortured valley
Pushed up rocks
Tortured rock formations along the route to Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)
Tortured rock formations en-route to Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)
But then you arrive at the edge of the real Gamkaskloof, and you look down over that narrow strip of green, fertile, farmland. It’s the last chance to stop for a photograph, beyond this the road dives down the edge of the mountain towards the valley in a series of tight, rocky, turns. Often there is only enough road width for one car, and for many cars, some of the corners require 3-point turns. Certainly no place to stop for photos, so I don’t have any of this section!
About to drop down and enter the fertile valley of Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)
Looking down into fertile Gamkaskloof Valley
At the bottom of the valley, one passes some of the original mud brick houses, a few of which have been renovated and now used as cottages for overnight accommodation. This brings us to the Farm Mooifontein, owned by Annetjie Joubert (neƩ Mostert). She is the only remaining "born and bred" inhabitant that has retained property in Gamkaskloof. She came back permanently in 1998 and skilfully converted the original farmstead (Fonteinplaas) into comfortable guesthouses, has a caravan park, camping sites and the only Kiosk and Licensed Restaurant in Gamkaskloof. I came away from the kiosk with a stock of jams and chutney made right there in the valley.
Original mud structures of Gamkaskloof (Die Hel)
Original Gamkaskloof mud homes
Gamkaskloof (Die Hel): Annetjie Joubert's guest house Fontein Gaaste Plaas
Fonteinplaas, home of Annetjie Joubert, in Gamlaskloof
Gamkaskloof (Die Hel) restaurant and shop
Restaurant and kiosk in Gamkaskloof

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Little Karoo: Swartberg Mountains, Kruisrivier and Redstone Hills

Several days were spent at the Kruisrivier Guest Farm in the foothills of the southern side Swartberg Mountains, between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn, exploring the area, including the local landscape, the Swartberg Pass, Die Hel (Gamkaskloof), Oudtshoorn and the Cango caves.
The farm has been farmed by the same family since 1759, and is now in the 7th or 8th generation of Strydoms. Current owners Basie and Mandi make very friendly and down-to-earth hosts, and the accommodation is in restored original buildings. I stayed in the old stables. I think Basie was rather surprised (and pleased) to come across me during his morning farm rounds at 5:30 in the morning enjoying, and trying to photograph, the sun rising and casting a beautiful red glow on ‘his’ part of the Swartberg mountains. He stopped his bakkie, got out and came over and had a chat, had a look at what I was doing, and told me a lot about the farming activities, both past and present - I don’t think he encounters many of his guests at that time of the morning!
Little Karoo: Sunrise on the Swartberg Mountains (Kruisrivier Guest Farm)
Sunrise on Swartberg Mountains
Apart from the Swartberg mountains themselves, an exploration of the Redstone Hills has been been on my to-do list for many years. Being only a few km from Kruisrivier, on the road to Calitzdorp, provided the perfect opportunity to head out before dawn one morning to catch the early morning sun striking the already reddish rock formations. What a bizarre set of shapes on the hillside edges - almost like parasitic rocks - as well as the eroded ‘hole-in-the-wall’ formations. The warm light of sunrise certainly accentuated the already red, hematite rich, hillside colours.
Little Karoo: Sunrise on the Redstone Hills
Sunrise on Redstone hills
More photographs of the farm, including the accommodation, the ostriches and the surroundings can be found in this gallery of the Little Karoo. A short video of the farm can be seen below:
Video: Kruisrivier Guest Farm
Video of Kruisrivier Guest Farm

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cape Town to Johannesburg through the Little Karoo

After spending Christmas with some of the UK and Australian based family in Somerset West, outside of Cape Town, it was time for the long drive home to Johannesburg. It was finally an opportunity to spend a little time visiting and exploring some roads and places that I had read about or heard about for a long time - Route 62, Redstone Hills, Swartberg Pass, Cango Caves, Valley of Desolation and Graaf Reinet.

The objective of the first day’s drive was to reach Kruisrivier, a little north-east of Calitzdorp, using the smaller roads, and routes that I had never had the pleasure of traveling, but without having time to stop and explore those areas.

Departing Somerset West, I headed north to Wellington for an early morning coffee, then over Bains Kloof pass, down towards Worscester, and then through the ever changing agriculture and scenery of Robertson, Ashton, and Montagu. From Montagu one joins the well known R62, heading east. After Barrydale the R62 turns north-east towards the Swartberg Mountains, passing through Ladismith, and then heading through Calitzdorp on the way to Oudtshoorn.

My stop for the first few nights is Kruisrivier Guest Farm, in the foothills of the Swartberg Mountains, and I turn left off the R62 shortly after Caltzdorp, arriving in time to start understanding the area, and getting a sense of potential photo opportunities.