To Die Hel and back by donkey
Weekend Argus Travel 2009
Supplement to the Weekend Argus March 7/8 2009

A historical trail over the Swartberg mountains takes Robin Brown into the isolated Gamkaskloof valley

IMAGINE waking up on a Sunday morning as a 13-year-old in an isolated valley and having to walk 36km up and over a 1 550m mountain to school.

This was a normal Sunday for the high school pupils living in Gamkaskloof, the isolated valley tucked away in the Swartberg mountains high above Oudtshoorn from 1830 up until 1962. On Friday, after having spent the week in the schoolroom in the Groenkloof valley and boarding on the Nel's farm, they would embark on the return journey home to be with their parents. The valley, discovered in 1830 by Petrus Swanepoel, then settled by farmers, boasted a primary school but the high school pupils had to trek to the Boer school in the Groenkloof valley or even a farther 15km to Calitzdorp.

Meanwhile, the Kloovers in the valley would use one of the four donkey routes out of the valley to trade their produce with the outside world.

In 1962, a road was completed, linking the valley to the Swartberg pass, causing life in the valley to change radically with first the high school pupils finding employment out of the valley after completing their education. By 1991, all had left, with the last farmer, Piet Swanepoel, selling to CapeNature. For many years, the valley was almost uninhabited and the farms fell into ruin.

Today, CapeNature has bought up most o fthe farms and their buildings, sharing the valley with the Joubert family descendant Anna Joubert: of the farm Mooifontein. Anna Joubert, who now lives in Oudtshoorn, was the last Kloover to remain in the valley up until a year ago. The other owners are a group of business people who own property at the end of the valley.

I recently joined a small party of eight keen hikers, embarking on the trip from the Boer school in the Groenkloof valley over Wyenek pass at 1 550m, to the first night at Wyenek camp, followed by a 15km walk the following day down into Die Hel.

The route recently opened thanks to Erika Calitz, who bought a farm in the Groenkloof valley several years ago with the full support of CapeNature, which manages the huge Swartberg reserve. It is a historical hike using the exact route and paths created by the farmers. It is designed not only to challenge keen hikers but also to help alleviate poverty among the young farm people living in the Groenkloof valley.

The guides, donkey handlers and guides are all from the Groenkloof valley, born to families of farm labourers and now given the chance to earn valuable money without having to leave their home turf. We arrived at Living Waters, 15km from Calitzdorp, on a Tuesday afternoon and immediately became part of the Calitz family.

After a sumptuous farm-cooked lunch and after introductions were made, it was time to meet the donkeys and the men who would accompany us. The two donkeys chosen for our trail were Buddy and Goldie, to be led by Speedy Johnifer and Davian Ewalts, while Franklin Dido would be the back-up guide who would carry lunch and the important medical kit, as well as extra water. Another party of men with donkeys had trekked up the mountain earlier with clean towels and the provisions required for the top camp.

We were treated to a fine wine tasting of Bo Plaas wines from Calitzdorp at the dinner table, as well as the Peter Bayly port supplied by the Calitz's neighbour. Erika then sketched the route and the idea behind the Donkey Trail. As newcomers to the valley, the couple soon recognised the poverty and the lack of skills the local young men had. Erika, a qualified teacher who home-schools her three children, soon threw her weight behind helping the valley's inhabitants.

She learnt about the trail the Gamkaskloof farmers used, then approached CapeNature to find out if they could recreate the route and turn it into a historical trail, which would create a source of income for the local young men.

Erika, an avid animal lover, takes in abused donkeys and nurses them back to health. Goldie - a donkey which accompanied us - was taken in after collapsing in harness while pulling a cart and beaten into standing up. Today, miraculously, Goldie is a fully recovered donkey and the only sign of her tough life is a few scars on her legs.

All the couple then had to do was persuade the powers-that-be that the trail would benefit all. CapeNature is naturally extremely careful, especially in such a sensitive area, which is one of the world's hot spots when it comes to biodiversity, and a world heritage site. Four biomes overlap on the farm. You can stand and gaze at Renosterveld, succulent Karoo, Cape Fynbos and sub-tropical-thicket.

In September last year, it all finally came together and the dream was realised. Our wake-up call came early on Wednesday morning at 6am for a final briefing, breakfast and the packing of the panniers, which the donkeys carry.

Each member of the party received half a pannier with a total weight of 5kg. Visitors carry small personal items such as binoculars, cameras, a warm jacket, water and sunscreen, in a small backpack. By 7am we hit the trail for a 14km slog up the Swartberg mountains across Wyenek pass to the first night's camp.

At this stage the trail is moderate, but do not attempt it unless you are fit and ready for many hours of uphill walking. The trail takes you up 1 100m with the last 400m zig-zag to Wyenek pass becoming a lung-bursting slog. Also, the heat can get to the unfit and there is only one swimming stream on the ascent. I was fortunate to be walking with a tough bunch and managed to get to camp in five hours and 15 minutes. But, be aware, others have taken anything from seven to 12 hours to complete the 14km. However, the well-trained guides take great care to pace themselves to suit the slowest member of the party. A walker is guaranteed to be in great caring hands as help is a long way off.

Wyenek camp is like a five-star oasis in the middle of a rugged mountain range. The environmentally friendly camp is designed to strict CapeNature parameters and comprises large, two-man tents, equipped with stretchers, sleeping bags, blankets, water, soap, shampoo and towels, as well as a night light and shaker torches.

Being used to sleeping in a cramped, one-man tent or bivvy bag, for me this was the ultimate in luxury, a Mount Nelson high up in the mountains with stunning views.

To make hikers really feel at home, dinner that night was served with a choice of wine, beer and an assortment of cold drinks. Never, have I been so spoilt while hiking. Yet, this site is designed to return to nature within months once broken. Even the toilet with a view is environmentally friendly and all its waste is earned back to base for proper disposal. After a cool night - sleeping at 1 300m it is cool - we broke camp and parted from the donkeys as they returned to base with the refuse.

We proceeded into Die Hel. Beware it is not all downhill, as you cross several valleys before reaching the Elandspad - the road into Die Hel - two hours later. Here Erika met us with her team, as well as cold beers and other refreshments. From the meeting place it is a 5km hike down to the CapeNature entrance to the kloof.

Visitors do, however, have the choice to be driven down, but we all opted to complete the walk. The final night was spent in one of the renovated homes in the valley and, to spoil us further, a huge braai was set up.

Most of the walkers' recollections of the hike were of a complimentary nature as this is a five-star hike, organised and presented as a world-beater. On Friday morning, after an early breakfast, we visited the Jouberts's shop, now run by the son of Kloover Anna Joubert. Two-and-a-half hours later, Erika had us back over the Swartberg pass at Living Waters, having walked in the footsteps of the original 160 Kloovers.


Closest town: Calitzdorp on Route 62.
Duration: Five days, with one night camping on the mountain.
Walking: About 26km split over two days.
Maximum altitude: 1 550m on Wyenek pass.
Rating: Moderate to tough, for unfit people.
Catering: Fully catered.
Cost: R2 500 a person.

For further information, contact Erika Calitz on 083 628 9394 or email her at

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