The Hell

When a young Dirk van Zyl was working for a government department in the Oudtshoorn area in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, he often travelled by South African Railways buses. 

On one such occasion the bus stopped at a remote spot between Calitzdorp and Ladismith to drop off mail. Dirk enquired from the bus driver who the mail was destined for and was told about the Gamkaskloof (Gamkas valley) and the people who lived there. The mail service was the only way for them to communicate with the outside world.

The Gamkaskloof in South Africa is also known as The Hell, or Die Hel in Afrikaans. It is a narrow isolated valley, 600m wide and 20km long, along the Gamkas River in the Swartberg mountain range. The Gamkas, meaning “lion”, was named by the Khoisan bushmen. 

The “valley people” lived in isolation for many years; the only contact with the outside world being when they loaded their donkeys with their produce and travelled to the township of Prince Albert, a treacherous 60km slog through the mountains, to sell their products and buy essential provisions. The towns of Calitzdorp and Ladismith are closer, but no less difficult to reach.

Several of the inhabitants had never left the valley and had no contact with the outside world during their entire life. There was no road into the valley, and no access except five donkey trails. What couldn’t fit onto the back of a donkey would not make it into The Hell. It was recorded that about 20 families, making up a population of about 120, were living and farming in the valley at that stage.

Dirk van Zyl was fascinated by the story and convinced his twin brother Ben and a friend Izak Burger to visit the Gamkaskloof during September 1958, to see if all this was true. During this visit they befriended several of the valley inhabitants, especially Martiens Snyman and his family.

The reference to the Gamkas valley as The Hell didn’t please the inhabitants, who referred to themselves as Gamkaskloofers, or “Kloofers” – valley people. 

The origin of the nickname Hell isn’t clear. I visited there in the February (late summer) and the heat discomfort almost convinced me that with the little wind movement in the narrow valley, this must have been the reason for the name. 

Apparently, though, it is not so simple and many other explanations are on offer. Possibly the difficulty in reaching the place was reason enough for the name. Whatever the explanation; The Hell it is. 

The hospitality that Dirk, Ben and Izak received from the kind Kloofers distilled into a genuine desire to return the kindness in the form of doing something that they perceived would make life easier for those living in the valley. 

Their solution was to bring a car to the valley – which was to prove a monumental task.

A damaged 1938 Morris Eight, which appeared to have been rolled over, was bought for the princely sum of £15. In order to get the car to Gamkaskloof, it would need to be as light as possible so all of the bodywork behind the windscreen was cut off. 

On 11 October 1958 the trio met eight Kloofers and their four donkeys at the point where the Gamkas River enters the narrow Gamkas Valley from the north. They began their journey into The Hell at about 9:30am, with high hopes to deliver the first car to this remote settlement. 

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