Driving to Hell in South Africa

Posted on: 24/05/2016

Words by Rinus Hartsuijker and Helga Kruizinga

After shipping our 70 series LandCruiser from Perth, Australia to Durban, South Africa, we head South towards Cape Town. Between Durban and Cape Town, South Africa has some spectacular mountain passes hidden away. Since we haven't seen too many of those during our 16 months exploration of Australia, we decide to take the road less travelled, get off the touristy Garden Route, and head inland to drive these scenic routes.

First up is the Valley of the Baboons, which in Afrikaans is called Baviaanskloof. A very suitable name we later find out.

The Baviaanskloof can be found 120 km. West of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa and is comprised of approximately 270 000 ha. of unspoiled, rugged mountainous terrain. The road through the Baviaanskloof is a narrow, steep, gravel-surfaced, winding four wheel drive track, through breathtaking mountainous terrain.

Our tyre pressure, which we adjusted to the terrain, helps us on the uneven path that we follow, but it doesn't do us any good against the low hanging branches scraping against the side of the car and windows. We're both sitting straight up in our seats and try to follow the movements of the car. Like a compass used on ships we adjust to the angle of inclination. We are startled when a branch scrapes over our roof rack and makes a very loud noise. We push the car through a reedy passage and follow the stream of a shallow overgrown river to the other side where we hit the gravel again. Groups of baboons run away from our giant white car invading their habitat.

Baviaanskloof baboons

In our rear view mirror I can see their eyes looking down from the branches from which they are hanging. As soon as the car leaves the scene, they hurry back on to the track. This track leads us out of baboon territory and up a narrow pass. Halfway up we encounter a group of Land Rover Defenders. Speaking about territory, Land Rovers Defenders seem to be in their natural habitat here in South Africa. I can't recall ever having seen so many of them anywhere else. We try to put our car as far off the road as we can to let them pass. We get strained, but friendly smiles before they drive out of sight.

I hadn't realised how technical this drive would be, otherwise we would have left well before midday. I can feel the sweat trickle down my forehead while I try to steer the car over the best track when a rock hits the inside of the wheel. Immediately we hear a high pitched whistling noise. We stop the car on a slope and I get underneath the car to assess the damage. I feel stupid for leaving this late - we might have to spend the night in between the baboons. A rock turns out to have hit the protective shield for the brake disc. The shield is now pushed against the brake disc which makes the noise. Luckily, with some simple bush mechanics, using a large screwdriver to create some space between the two, gets us back on the road quickly.

We finally drive through the gates signalling the end of the Valley right before dark. We set up camp at the first campsite we come across, an African farm growing limes and tobacco.

Baviaanskloof mountain range

Our next destination was a small town on the opposite side of what's called the Swartberg Pass, which runs through the Swartberg mountain range in the Western Cape province of South Africa. The Swartberg Pass is amongst the best exposed fold mountain chains in the world and can be found in the Western Cape province of South Africa. The pass slices through magnificently scenic geological formations and is the access port to a little small town called Die Hel (The Hell).

Asking around nobody seems to be sure where the 'Die Hel' name came from. One popular story is that an inspector visited the valley in the 1940s and he described the experience as "hell". Another story is that workers that worked at the farms were not allowed to leave once they had arrived in the valley. Up until today the drive to Die Hell stays a hell of a ride. A 48km one-way route. Getting there is possible, but you need a 4WD and nerves of steel to navigate the snaking dirt road that offers the only access to Die Hel.

Baviaanskloof mountain range

A couple of signs on the road tell us that the Swartberg Pass is closed. We were warned about this by a local.  He told us to tell the workmen that we have a reservation in the area and that they would let us through. Helga moves the sign on the middle of the road away and we drive past the first workers. They give us a look of slight disapproval while we pass the first machines. We drive all the way in to the shoulder of the road when a grader passes us at high speed. The two of us just fit on this road. After a few kilometres we see the turn off to Die Hel.

Loose yellow-coloured gravel leads us through a winding road, which is a contrast to the mountain and is strengthened by a low stony wall on the side. The missing crash barrier gives us the opportunity to look down, deep down. Helga moves on her seat to the middle of the car while she leans a little bit to the left so she can just look outside. She's been quiet for a while and she only lets me know she's there by sighing every so often. When I look at my own hands I can see that my knuckles are white from holding the steering wheel too tight. ‘I so would've preferred to drive this road with my motorbike’, I think to myself. If we meet up with another car, there is going to be a serious challenge in passing each other....I follow the road as far as my eyes can see. The big cloud of dust behind us is clearly visible and when I look ahead the sky is clear.

A small, winding strip almost looks like a divide. We try our best to stay on the track, but doing your best is not enough; looking into the enormous abyss we figure that a small mistake is all it takes. Rusty car wrecks deep down show us what remains of small mistakes.

At the end of the long and winding road we reach the highest point and before us the valley opens up. We descend and drive past the remains of some old farmhouses. Just before we reach the end of the valley (kloof) we see a beautiful green lawn with firepits. It gives us the impression that we have reached the oasis in the desert. The owner is a friendly guy who gives us permission to camp.

As soon as it turns dark we really notice that we are all alone, the moon and stars are at their brightest. When we look around us we see a lot of glowing eyes out of the vegetation: baboons, badgers and frogs are hiding all around us.

Baviaanskloof

We build a slackline in between two trees, we go for a jog and build a fire for a hot shower. Or rather, we try to do that last thing. Many places in South Africa where there is no permanent source of gas or electricity use a donkey system. This is a barrel made of steel which is under pressure from a water pipe. Cold water from the water pipe comes in from underneath and hot water comes out of the top when you have a fire under the barrel.

It is already very dark outside when we wait by our campfire for the water to heat up so we can have our shower under the bright stars. Our wait comes to an end when we hear a pipe burst and we see a mixture of cold and hot water come from the ground while the barrel loses its pressure as does the water pipe itself. Like a little fountain the water leaps up at us from the ground. Helga runs to the nearest stream for water to douse the fire under the barrel, while I get the shovel to find the water pipe. Just before Helga comes back with the water I can see the barrel shrinking due to the uneven distribution of heat and no water in the barrel. The plastic water pipe is soon visible and when I close the supply of water towards the donkey the pressure is back up. No shower for us though...

When we inform the owner of the campground what has happened we get a big smile: “Ah well,” he says, “I'll either fix it or build a new one.” Enough time here in Hell.

South Africa Map
South Africa Map