Uphill To Hel
South African Country Life
May 2009

I ARRIVED AT LIVING WATERS FARM IN THE foothills of the Swartberg Mountains with trepidation. Those mountains up there, how grand they looked with their ominous grey walls. I imagined they'd be a bugger to climb - and yet that's what I was there to do.

Rising up from behind the pretty little gabled farmhouse at which I was staying, the beautiful peaks reached to an azure sky where they snagged at clouds and held them fast. It was magnificent... but chilling.

"Way up there near the top," said Hans Calitz, proprietor of the newly opened Donkey Trail that I was participating in, "you'll just be able to make out a zigzag path snaking through the fynbos."

I squinted at where he was pointing and eventually saw a tiny series of switchbacks, all but lost on the vastness of the mountain.

"But don't worry," he added in a jovial tone, "it's not nearly as steep as it looks from down here. And besides, the donkeys will be carrying most of your gear You'll love it. I promise. It's going to be a breeze."

I sipped at my glass of wine and took in the sunset scenery around me. Willows wept over a pretty little stream, donkeys sauntered between vineyard rows, and the cold hard peaks above became warm and soft in the evening light. They almost looked inviting.

Eleven years ago, Hans and his wife, Erika, moved to the Klein Karoo in the hope of finding rural peace and a better lifestyle for their family. And that's exactly what happened when they chanced upon Groenfontein farm, now called Living Waters, in a pretty little valley.

"It was the ideal place," Erika told me, "what with the Swartberg Nature Reserve right there in our back garden, so to speak. But the real icing on the cake came when we discovered the farm had been the starting point of the historical donkey trail to the hidden valley of Gamkaskloof up in the mountains where a whole community of people lived in almost total isolation."

"Photos from the 1800s show that up to 40 donkeys would be tethered together, loaded up with apricots or whatever was grown in the valley, and sent, often unaccompanied, over the mountain pass," continued Hans.

Eventually work started on a road to connect Die Hel with the outside world. When it was finished in 1963, all the folk in the valley got up and left. CapeNature then began buying up their farms and incorporating them into the Swartberg Mountain Nature Reserve.

When Hans and Erika learned this astonishing history, they decided to approach CapeNature with a proposal to reopen the trail. "We suggested a guided, fully catered donkey trail for tourists, and they agreed. So here we are, leading people over the mountains with pack animals, just as in the old days."

After breakfast the following morning, Erika introduced me to the donkeys that were to accompany us; a ragtag assortment of amiable animals with very big ears.They sniffed at my pockets (where peanuts were hidden) and hee-hawed like African Penguins with fish on their minds.

Sunrise in the Western Cape mountains is rarely less than splendid and on the morning we set off it was no exception. As we trudged in single file up towards the peaks, there was also a refreshing bite in the air. The sky was pale blue, aloes towered overhead, and the cliffs soaring above us were nothing short of grandiose.

"We got our 13 donkeys from a rescue centre in De Rust," said Hans as we walked past colourful succulent plants and cute furry dassies."Most had been abused, overworked and underfed, but now their lives are much better"

J-Z, the donkey carrying my spare socks, pack lunch and water bottle, was a case in point. Discovered exhausted and half dead under an overburdened cart, he was kept alive only so that he might be presented as evidence in a case against his odious owner.

"He was due to be put down," Erika told me,"but then, much to everybody's surprise, he gave birth."

The resulting hullabaloo brought J-Z's plight to the attention of the donkey sanctuary. J-Z now lives and works on the Swartberg, a nice place for donkeys indeed and, despite having to carry hiker's undies on her back, she leads a pretty good life.

About halfway up the mountain our merry band stopped beneath a shady tree next to a delightful waterhole and ate lunch provided for us by Hans. There we lazed awhile, watching Verreaux's Eagles soaring like gliders above the Klein Karoo, before stripping off and jumping into the water like kiddies. We splashed and hollered and sent unsuspecting frogs leaping for safety, then gasped and leapt like frogs ourselves, for the water was colder than the sea at Clifton.

"Refreshed?" asked Hans."Clean water direct from the chilly Swartberg peaks. Can't beat it, can you? "But before I had time to respond we were off again, slowly ascending the zigzag trail.

We reached the top before I was expecting it, and Hans had been right; the climb had not been so steep. It hadn't exactly been a walk in the park, but it hadn't been hard work either. The fantastic views, the pretty proteas, the wildlife, Hans's witty comments and our luggage being carried by the donkeys had all combined to turn the climb into a pleasant stroll.

Atop the mountains, Hans and his cadre of locally sourced field guides had already erected a huddle of tents equipped with comfy camp beds and nice fluffy pillows for us to sleep in out of the chilly winds.

"No campfires tonight, I'm afraid," announced Hans as we sat at a heavy picnic table which had been flown in by helicopter "The fynbos up here is highly inflammable and with these winds blowing a fire could soon get out of hand. Last thing we want to do is burn down a World Heritage Nature Reserve. But not to worry, we have these ..." and, as if on cue, the guides showed up with steaming mugs of cappuccino and bundles of Huffily covered hotwater bottles. One of those shoved up my shirt soon took the chill from the air.

The following day's hike was more or less downhill all the way and hence a bit of a doddle. We ambled through wide open dales and then down the very same road that had facilitated the abandonment of Gamkaskloof in the 60s and 70s. I couldn't see why the inhabitants had left as it was lovely down there - a beautiful green valley where the rest of the world could easily be forgotten.

"Gamkaskloof was first discovered in the 1800s by a trekboer whose cattle had strayed into it by accident, " reads one account I've seen."Others followed him and they lived in the valley in peaceful isolation until Boer commandos fleeing British troops stumbled into the valley. There they encountered long-haired people who spoke high Dutch, lived in mud huts, wore goat skins and knew nothing of the Anglo-Boer War. A local medicine woman cured some of the soldiers of a chest infection by using a freshly peeled house cat." Apparently only 10% of what you hear about the Gamkaskloof is true, but nobody knows which 10% ...

On our last night on the Donkey trail we stayed in one of the renovated homes. Its original owner was a Sankie Marais who, other than having no teeth (there's a photo of her) looked quite normal and was not wearing a goat skin or boiling a cat.

The house was a traditional thatched affair (as were all the other buildings in the vally) and we ate heartily at the braai, drank copius amounts of local wine, and then slumbered in downy beds with nice fluffy pillows. This was 'slackpacking' at its best.

The journey over the mountain to Gamkaskloof had been a rewarding and plesant one. I made a new friend (with J-Z the donkey) and learnd a great deal about the wildlife and history of the Swartberg from Hans. But perhaps nicest of all was that I found a heaven of sorts - and that by walking to Hel.

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