Down the Ladder into Hell
Words and 35mm film photos by Stan Engelbrecht
I don’t remember when I first heard of ‘Die Hel’ (The Hell). It’s the kind of thing that comes to you like a mysterious rural legend – a rumour of a tiny community of farmers living for decades in complete isolation in an impenetrable valley paradise. More than anything, I wanted to go to ‘Die Hel’. Places and people like this have always fascinated me. South Africa has for many, many years had a complex social and political landscape, and I always like to imagine that these individualist pioneers left whatever country they came from to escape some kind of governmental or religious ideology, and when faced with the same developing in their newfound home, they were driven further into the natural world. To live simply, in peace, with nature as their surround.
A few months ago I got an email from John Watson – of this very site, of course – mentioning that he was thinking of coming to South Africa. This was in the leadup to my new all-dirt gravel bike race – KAROOBAIX and I quickly fired back with a ‘why don’t you enter?’. He wasted no time. An hour later John had booked his ticket! And to make his trip halfway around the world worthwhile, I promised him we’d go on an adventure after the race. Some weeks passed and while arranging everything for KAROOBAIX myself and a few friends started putting together a route for a touring trip after the race.
We wanted to leave directly from Matjiesfontein where KAROOBAIX would end. This would mean that after a grueling two days and over 400 kilometers of racing through the arid Karoo, we’d grab all our kit and set off into the wilderness for a couple of days of wild camping and adventuring. We looked at a few routes, maybe heading to the coast. The descent from semi-desert expanse to forested coastline seemed appealing in its contrast. But we had only 4 or 5 days, and riding more that 400 mountainous kilometers fully-loaded after the racing KAROOBAIX might be ambitious. While staring at the map one day it hit me… ‘Die Hel’.
Part of the legend of ‘Die Hel’ is wrapped up in one of the oldest known routes down into this valley – The Ladder. While there is limited information, and quite a bit of secrecy, about ‘Die Hel’, these is even less out there about The Ladder. All we knew really is that it’s tough, steep, and difficult. It used to be a route followed by local farmers to carry whatever they needed to in and out of the valley, by foot. Rumours have it that pack donkeys were used, and one would assume that horses and other livestock would have had to be moved long this way. That was about all I could find out, but getting down The Ladder would put us right into the deepest, furthest western end of the Gamkaskloof, commonly known as ‘Die Hel’.
This is a storied place. Humans have dwelled here for millennia – the first known nomadic inhabitants were the indigenous San people, and it was in the 1830s that the first white settlers came across this narrow Arcadian valley. At about 20 kilometers long but very narrow, and with an abundance of fertile soil and streams flowing year-round, this impervious hidden valley was a perfect refuge for those with perhaps nonconformist attitudes to the emerging governmental authority at the time. The families that settled there lived in relative isolation for more than 130 years, existing simply and in tune with nature, and blissfully unaware of the turmoil of the advancing outside world.
It was only in the 1960s that a road was built into Gamkaskloof, exposing ‘Die Hel’ to the world, and vice versa. It is unclear whether the inhabitants wanted this road, or if it was the nationalist government’s attempt to finally thwart their independent disposition. However, this new road still didn’t make access easy. The 40 kilometres dirt road to the t-junction, before following the also-dirt Swartberg Pass to either Prince Albert or Oudtshoorn, has never been an easy traverse. It’s a series of steep climbs and descents, multiple river crossings, and some very bad road conditions. Even today – in a modern 4×4 – it’s a 2-hour plus drive, and that excludes the Swartberg Pass. This this is where we were headed – down The Ladder, into ‘Die Hel’, and out up a series of passes towards the east.
But first – there was KAROOBAIX. It was tough. Brutal. A blur. The distances were huge, especially considering the road conditions and insane headwinds. Then there was the Ouberg Pass climb 175 kilometers into our first 221-kilometer day – steep, mean and nasty. It broke many of us racers. That first day also destroyed John’s knee. He would not ride the second stage but fortunately was able to continue his fantastic photographic coverage of the event (https://theradavist.com/2017/10/a-complete-south-african-immersion-at-the-karoobaix/#1). The rest of us managed to make it through the second day and tumbled into the crisp linen and a deep sleep in the old-world Lord Milner Hotel after celebrating our KAROOBAIX victory. The next morning the racers and crew packed up, and still reeling from the race, boarded the shuttles back to Cape Town. Amongst them was John, sadly. As we feared, his knee was in no state to join us on our touring adventure. Myself, Sven, Cameron, Craig and Bregan waved them off. Now joined by two friends from Cape Town – Clayton and David – we were packing and getting ready to head out for more…
Packed, but probably not as ready as we wanted to feel, we headed north into the wind along the tar. I had my trusty Contax G1 over my shoulder and a couple of rolls of film in my bag. Those of us who’d raced KAROOBAIX were sore and tired, but as soon as we turned east onto the dirt road leading Laingsburg, the side-tailwind pushed as along at a speed that made us feel revitalized and suddenly invincible. Before we knew it we were in Laingsburg. But racing over the last days had left us continuously ravenous – the kind of hunger that a cyclist can understand – and we headed into a tiny coffee shop for some amazing toasted sandwiches (with beers from the off-sales next door) and to lay out our plans for the next few days. With the race and all the preparations for it, we hardly got to have any proper discussions about our trip. Level-headedly we agreed that probably the most important thing was carrying enough water, taking enough good food, and being as flexible as possible over the next few days since we really had no idea of what was in store.
We had a basic route, but that was it. And the plan was to wild camp, so we would just have to focus on making some distance each day, and finding a comfortable place to camp. We devoured our lunch while David fixed a flat, filled up with water, went shopping, and promptly headed out of town into the beautiful late-afternoon light. About 60 kilometers into our first day of touring, we turned off onto a dirt road and was quickly rewarded with a dry river bed hidden amongst the trees. Close by was an old water trough – not drinkable, but good enough for Cameron to rinse his seat-pack after discovering the perils of carrying raw eggs on corrugated roads. Most of us had a wash in the trough too, shivering in the cool breeze as the sun was setting. Dinner, wine, laughing, and another deep sleep followed easily.
We got up, and Sven prepared his classic fruit, nut and coconut cream oats with honey. We made better by adding whiskey. Clayton lead us in a quick yoga-stretch routine – really a fantastic idea after long hours on the bike and sleeping on the ground. A couple of coffees later we were packed and left, and soon we were heading into a serious and very cold headwind. Even though we were headed downhill, and still on the last bit of tar, the going wasn’t exactly easy. Things looked up when we turned east and onto dirt. But by this stage, Craig was getting hungry, and I had seen flashes of his quickly deteriorating demeanor when he doesn’t eat as often as he needs to. We spotted a tiny school and decided to fill up on water before finding a spot to prepare some lunch.
I was talking to the teacher about the handful of pupils attending this one-roomed school, the scarcity of water in the area, and of course, she had questions about our cycling trip when she casually mentioned that there was a little restaurant that opened not too long ago just a few kilometers up the road. We had a new mission – lunch! We went in search of the Porcupine Rest Camp and nearly missed it and their ‘cold beer’ sign was covered in a sheet or something. We followed the dusty track through a dry rocky river bed and there is was – the promise of beer and food and Led Zeppelin blasting. Only the owners were there, and the restaurant was closed, but they gave us beer and had the fire going within minutes. They wouldn’t let us go hungry, or thirsty, and the music just got better.
After we ate we had to tear ourselves away from their kind hospitality and Nirvana’s Nevermind. It wasn’t easy. But about 1 kilometer from Porcupine Rest Camp it suddenly looked like we might spend the night there anyway. Sven’s front tyre developed a sudden strange bulging zig-zag in the casing, causing the tread to touch the inside of the fork legs. Two local kids pulled up wide-eyed and hung about while we were poking perplexedly at Sven tyre. Putting a tube in seemed to solve the problem. As far as we could tell the tyre started delaminating internally and the tubeless sealant somehow worked its way in. Anyway, we were rolling again soon, and not worked our way up an unexpected pass as the valley we were in was getting narrower. Near the top, we heard a river and decided to fill up our water bladders and bottles in preparation for the night.
It was getting late, and we still had a way to go before setting up camp, but of course, we were unsure if we would be able to find water. A downhill later we were at the entrance to the beautiful Seweweeks Poort, but we would turn left here along to mountains to find the track turning off towards The Ladder. A few kilometers later we found our turnoff, and an ominous sign that simply says ‘To Hell ‘n Gone’. By now there was a cold wind blowing, it was getting dark, and we set off riding and walking the rough jeep track up an incline. As we were rising higher, we were getting more and more exposed.
Bregan and I were ahead, riding as much of the jaggedy track as we could. The view was just spectacular, and we reached a very slight depression which seemed to offer a bit of wind protection. We lay our bikes down and while the others were still coming up we walk up to the nearby summit to see if there might be a better, more sheltered, spot to camp. The view from the top was 360 degrees of untouched beauty, but there was no shelter to be seen. We hiked back down to our bikes and pitched our tents. We cooked dinner and drank whiskey in the freezing cold mountain air, and all tried to get to bed early.
In the morning we woke with nervous trepidation. The Ladder was waiting for us. But first, we had to get to the top of it. We followed the rough, sandy jeep track for about 10 kilometers. We hoisted our loaded bikes over a few gates and drank a small bottle of sherry to steel ourselves for the task ahead. Suddenly it was as if the ground in front of us just fell away, and we could look right down into ‘Die Hel’. We were at the top of The Ladder. The first few meters were actually rideable, but then as the incline got steeper out heart rates rose. It turns out that this route isn’t a road, or even a path really – now we were at the top of a super steep 350 meter loose, rocky scramble. For the next two-and-a-half hours we climbed, slid, fell and swore our way down. Of course, we had to walk, carry, pass our bikes down. Not once could you let go of your brakes – the bike would simply fly out of your hands and careen down The Ladder and probably explode into a million pieces.
It got steeper, rockier, and looser towards the bottom. For some sections, rope would have been handy. At one point Craig slipped and his bike fell on top of him, pinning him down. I had to look on helplessly unable to let go of my brakes as he struggled to free himself. The Ladder was way tougher and riskier than I thought. But we made it to the bottom. Save for few scratches and bruises, and some nicks and damaged paint on our bikes, we were all okay. The Ladder drops right into a stream, and sweaty and exhausted as we were we wasted no time, stripped down and jumped in. Our anxiety washed away and we laughed with relief as what we just experienced sank in. After our swim, we filled up with water and ate some snacks, and rode straight up a steep climb until we could see the Gamkaskloof valley spread out in front of us again. After that road was built in the 1960s the slow trickle of people leaving the valley left no permanent residents by 1991.
It was only in 1998 that Annetjie Joubert returned, and since then she’s opened and run a humble restaurant, campsite and a few cottages in ‘Die Hel’. This is where we headed for lunch. Things around here are informal and fairly basic. After our first round of beers and a bit of back and forth about what’s on offer for lunch, I heard Annetjie instruct the kitchen staff to “just make everything and put it on a plate.” We lay on the grass and played with the dog, drank our beers and ate some of Annetjie’s ‘skuinskoek’ (sideways cake) while we waited for our lunch. After we ate our meat, chips, salad, tinned peaches and home baked bread we bought a few things from the sparse shop inside, including some wine and a gift from Annetjie of homemade ‘witblits’ (moonshine) from her secret stash. Then instead of getting on our bikes and heading out, everyone passed out on the lawn.
By the time we got everyone up, it was getting late. We wanted to head out of the valley and camp somewhere on a stream about 25 kilometers from where we were. We made it about 10 or 15 kilometers, to the base of what I think is called Elandspad – the first of many seriously steep passes out of Gamkaskloof. The sun was already disappearing behind the steep cliffs all around us, so we decided to camp at the bottom of the first big climb, and the National Parks campsite just happens to be right there. Soon the tents were up and the fire was going. We were all glad to be able to have a hot shower, and Bregan got onto making us an excellent dinner.
We were up early and started our way up Elandspad in the cool morning shade. What lay ahead was some steep and difficult climbing, many river crossings, a fantastic swim spot or two, fantastically bad stretches of road. But it was 40 kilometers of the most spectacularly beautiful riding any of us had experienced. As far as you could see up or down this narrow valley we were cycling along we could see the road snake and ribbon its way into the distance. Truly awesome, and worth every pedal stroke. By the time we reached the t-junction at the Swartberg Pass road, we were ravenous. Especially Craig, who was pale and mumbling threats. We had about another 6 kilometers of climbing to do towards the south – nice and steep, but the road was in great condition and the view back towards Prince Albert was getting more magnificent as we rose.
Elated to reach the summit, we knew from here on it would be a super fast downhill to a spot we’d heard about for lunch. We paused for a few minutes to take in the view towards the coast and bombed down the southern side of the Swartberg Pass as fast as our loaded bikes could take us across the last gravel of our trip. We hit the brakes when we reached the end of the dirt road, waiting for everyone to regroup, and Bregan fell to his knees and kissed the tar. We shared his sentiment. Let’s roll, lunch is around the next bend!
We ate our fill – Craig ordering not one but two lunches – and drank too many beers. But that was no problem because we were told about a mountainside campsite just a few kilometers down the road. This was downhill, on tar, and really fast compared to the speeds we’d been moving at over the last week. We swung a right and rolled through a poplar forest and reached the 1970s time-warp resort. It was pretty empty, and we had the entire campsite to ourselves. Cameron finally managed to erect the palatial tarp-tent he’d been imagining the entire trip. We cooked our dinner and drank the wine we bought at lunch. We finished the last of our bourbon.
The next morning it was one last group portrait at the pool and a fast 40 kilometer downhill blast into Oudtshoorn where our hired shuttle would meet us. We had one last huge breakfast, then some milkshakes, checked out a few sites, and bought ostrich eggs and a couple of feather dusters – Oudtshoorn is after all the ostrich capital of the world. And just like that, it was all over.
Wish you came to Hell with us John. Next time.
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