Peering up at the cliff, I could just make out the narrow and infamous ledge called Die Leer. The Ladder. It looked preposterous. “I don’t think anybody’s fallen off and died,” said Richmond MacIntyre encouragingly. “Although several people almost have.” With that, he hoisted his bike onto his shoulder and scrambled up the rock band, leaving Fiona McIntosh and I to exchange grimaces and follow.
By way of introduction, I call Richmond a friend, albeit that he seems intent on killing me. Previous excursions with him include crossing the Drakensberg on foot and kayaking the River Thames. This one was a two-day, 160-kilometre round-trip on bicycle from Prince Albert, taking in the Swartberg Pass, Die Hel and Die Leer. It had sounded relatively benign, but I should have known better.
Away before the moon
Two days earlier, Fiona and I had driven across the sun-bleached Karoo into Prince Albert, at the foot of the Swartberg mountains, where we met up with Richmond at Dennehof Karoo Guest House.
As we exchanged greetings, I warily looked him up and down. Having broken his neck, pelvis, foot and wrists on prior misadventures, Richmond is now held together by more metal plates and pins than the Tin Man, and our only hope of keeping up with him was if he was nursing a new injury.
He disquietingly confirmed that he was fit and well, before gratuitously mentioning his training regime. Four hours’ cycling each weekday, double on weekends. The obvious questions aside on how he maintained a job and a wife, this was clearly alarming. So we went for dinner.
Superciliously googling ‘best restaurants in Prince Albert’ (population 7 054), I was taken aback to discover half a dozen to choose from. Indeed, it transpired that this remote, ex-gold rush town was now a culinary Mecca, and we had to beg a table at the Gallery Restaurant.
My final task that evening was to negotiate our start time. Whereas Richmond likes to be away before the moon has fully risen, I’m allergic to alpine starts. With some pleading, I wangled 5.30 am, and even managed to be almost up by then, by which time Richmond was cycling in circles on the crunchy gravel drive outside our bedroom.
Leaving Prince Albert under headlamps, we headed towards the looming Swartberg, taking a gravel road into a narrow ravine. As the first sun touched the sandstone cliffs, it felt like entering the ancient city of Petra. Daybreak also revealed the task ahead and I cricked my neck looking up at it.
Heart-breaking ascents, even worse descents
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I wasn’t in the most appreciative of moods, but we were grinding up a 19th-century engineering masterpiece, courtesy of Thomas Bain. In a highly energetic career as a road engineer and inspector of roads for the Western Cape, Bain constructed more than 20 major roads and passes, of which the 25-kilometre Swartberg Pass that links Prince Albert to Oudtshoorn was arguably his magnum opus. With the rugged mountain range considered impassable, Bain hiked over it four times, before unleashing 200 convicts armed with pickaxes, crowbars and gunpowder to build the road. In January 1888, a procession of 100 horse-drawn wagons rode up to the 1 585m-high pass to crack open Champagne and fire a 21-gun salute. (The first car ventured over it 16 years later.)
After two hours of sustained slog, we wobbled to a look-out point where we could appreciate Bain’s work, with views across the concertinaed rock folds to the Karoo. A bit further on, just below the pass, a dirt road branched off right, past a sign cautioning ‘Dangerous Road for 48km! Use at own risk!’ The road to Hell.
We’d expected it to be gently undulating, but it was a roller coaster, with heart-breaking ascents, even worse descents, and a corrugated, gravel surface as unforgiving as a cattle grid. To keep us alert, startled reedbuck sporadically sprang out from the bushes, in front of our wheels. Our bikes took a hammering and, since Fiona’s had just been serviced, it was the first to fall apart. The shock absorbers collapsed.
On Eland’s Pass down to Die Hel, we got our first view of its valley that looked more like Paradise, an oasis hemmed in by steep mountains. To get there, however, we had to plunge several hundred metres down dizzying switchbacks next to a precipitous drop. “Cycle defensively. We can’t have any accidents here,” advised Richmond, disappearing around the first zig in a cloud of dust.
Just a few minutes later, we plummeted out of the sky to the valley floor, where a sign welcomed us to ‘The Hell’, otherwise known as Gamkaskloof. (The origin of its name is unclear, though some say it refers to the experience of getting there.)
Sparsely settled by San Bushmen and then hardy trekboere, Die Hel remained splendidly isolated for centuries. When Deneys Reitz and a Boer commando dodged British soldiers and snuck through in 1901, the goatskin-clad residents were oblivious to the ongoing war.
The arrival of the gravel road in 1961 changed that, however, and ironically precipitated an exodus that eventually left
Die Hel empty. Fortunately, it was resettled in 1998 by one of the original families, who now runs Fontein Guest House, the only source of sustenance in the valley.
I shouldn’t really tell you this…
Our arrival coincided with the weekly shopping run to Oudtshoorn, which hadn’t yet returned, but host Marinette Joubert cheerfully rustled up some home-made bread, chutneys, jams and salad, before settling in for a chat. ‘I shouldn’t really tell you this,’ she started, before divulging where the locals think gold and diamonds might be found, plus more salacious gossip.
As we sat there, two motorbikes pulled up, engines growling, riders coated in dust. When they finally emerged, they recounted how they’d gunned down from Gauteng just to visit Die Hel. “Man, that Karoo was so hot I couldn’t get the needle above 220,” lamented one, who’d best remain nameless. Incongruously, he owned a cycle shop in Benoni and gallantly, if unsuccessfully, tried to repair Fiona’s bike.
We spent the night slightly further along the valley in one of the original settler’s stone cottages, now belonging to CapeNature. Marinette prepared and brought us some dinner, which was helpful since we hadn’t packed any food.
Even I saw the logic of an early start, but it was still a struggle easing my raw seat back into the saddle at five the next morning.
Just a few kilometres in, we reached a locked gate and an electric fence more than two metres high. Richmond, who thought he’d arranged access, prowled off angrily, planning to scout a way up a gruesome ravine. I wandered about, vainly searching for a hole in the fence, while Fiona played with the lock and discovered the combination. She hadn’t exactly cracked the Enigma code, but it probably spared us turning around.
90 ill-humoured minutes
Some climbs and descents later, we reached the head of the valley and were confronted by a cliff. This time, we knew the code – two slender poplar trees on the far bank of a stream signalled the exit via Die Leer, a steep gully once used by locals to lug produce in and out of Die Hel.
Banishing common sense, we threw our bikes over our shoulders and tottered up the rock band. The exposure and risk of a spectacular demise quickly receded, but the track remained steep and loose, with unhelpful bushes snagging our bikes.
It took 90 ill-humoured minutes to reach the shoulder, where we slumped into some thoughtfully placed wrought-iron chairs. We then had to endure a further ten kilometres of more gradual climbing up a sandy trail, slewing about like drunks. When we eventually crested a rise and emerged onto a gravel road, it felt like velvet.
A fast descent with the wind in our faces, wheels leaping over ruts, thumbs jarring on brakes, took us into Bosch Luys Kloof Private Nature Reserve. There followed a surreal interlude, as we stumbled into the lodge to cadge some water for our empty bottles, only to be invited to join a flamboyant German mogul’s birthday breakfast, with magnums of Champagne.
An hour later, we stumbled back into the heat, where the buzz of Champagne quickly evaporated, leaving an acrid mouth, simmering headache and sense of disbelief.
Mind and body were disintegrating
Having experienced Cape Town’s water crisis, the next landmark, Gamkapoort Dam was stark and frightening. Day Zero had long since been and gone. The dam was dry, with not even a splodge of mud. In one of the neglected buildings, we found Fox Ledeboer, custodian of the vacant holiday cottages.
Now in his seventies, Fox was once a keen paddler and, over tea on his stoep, fondly reminisced about epic canoe marathons. He also told us he was perfectly happy out here on his own and couldn’t imagine living again in a big city such as Calitzdorp. We rode off, leaving him on his battered sofa surveying the parched landscape, like the sole survivor of Armageddon.
The dam had turned into the Kalahari, with small herds of stunned buck sniffing fruitlessly for water, and forests of head-high, spiky hakea bushes. Emerging on the far side, we found a vague road that led out of the dust basin, to a jeep track back to Prince Albert. Suffice to say the final 40 kilometres were the meanest and, somehow, still largely uphill.
It was now mid-afternoon, over 30˚C, I was out of water, and my bike, mind and body were disintegrating. I expected Prince Albert to appear shimmering on the distant horizon like a cruel mirage until we broached a hill and were suddenly in town. I wasn’t complaining.
The next morning, Fiona and I breakfasted late in the garden at Dennehof, while Richmond cycled back over the Swartberg Pass. One visit to Hell was enough for me. At least on a bike.
Up to it?
The round-trip from Prince Albert via Die Hel and Gamkapoort Dam is about 160 kilometres, largely on dirt roads. Though not technical, it’s a strenuous trip, that requires carrying your bike up Die Leer for one hour. It’s probably best done over two days, breaking your trip in Die Hel.
Avoid the heat of mid-summer, unless you’re a masochist.
There are several good accommodation and dining options in Prince Albert (princealbert.org.za).
In Die Hel valley are Fontein Guest House (023 541 1107, [email protected]), CapeNature
self-catering cottages (087 087 8250/ 3932, [email protected]) and Boplaas
Guest Farm (062 308 4571, [email protected]).
Cycling through Die Hel requires permits from CapeNature and Boplaas Guest Farm. You can arrange these separately or contact Freedom Challenge (078 702 9178, [email protected]), who can also arrange accommodation.
Cycling on to Gamkapoort Dam requires a permit from Bosch Luys Kloof (023 581 5046, [email protected]).
Pictures Fiona McIntosh and Matthew Holt