Uphill to Hell (With a donkey at my side)

In Adventures, Articles by Dale MorrisLeave a Comment

I was in the Western Cape at Living Waters Farm in the foothills of the Swartberg Mountains, peering up at mighty peaks. And how grand and beautiful they looked with their ominous and slatey gray walls of sheer sided immensity.

Beautiful, but a bugger I bet.


“Way up there near the top” said Erika Calitz, proprietor of the slack-packing* Donkey Trail  “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 enormity of the mountain.


“But don’t you worry yourself about it” she said in a jovial tone “Its not nearly as sheer as it looks from down here; and besides, the donkeys will be carrying most of your luggage. 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.


Eleven years ago Erika Calitz and family moved out of the city and into the Klein Karoo in the hopes of finding rural peace and a better lifestyle.

And that’s exactly what she discovered when she chanced upon the  pretty little valley of Groenfontein.


“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 that our land was once the starting point for historical donkey trail leading to Gamkaskloof; a famously secluded mountain valley where a community of Afrikaans settlers lived in isolation from the rest of the world. Outsiders called it The Hell”


“Prior to 1960 there were two fruit farms in this area which were owned by the brothers Nel” said Erika “One was here on what is now our property, and the other one was way up there in De Hell. Old photos from the 1800s show that up to 40 donkeys at a time would be tethered, loaded up with apricots or whatever, and then sent, often unaccompanied to the other farm over the mountain pass”


Eventually, after 130 years of seclusion, the folk from Hell got a present from the outside world; a road to Oudtshoorn, which, when completed in 1963, offered the residents an escape route.

It wasn’t long before the valley was abandoned.

But that’s when Cape Nature (a national conservation organization) began buying up deserted farms and buildings and incorporating them into the much larger Swartberg Mountain Nature Reserve. Now a world heritage site.


When Erika learned of all this astonishing history right there in her own back garden, she decided to approach Cape Nature with a proposal to reopen the trail.


“I suggested that it be a guided fully catered tourist route, donkeys and all, and much to my delight, they agreed. So here we are today, leading people over the mountains with pack animals just like in the olden days”


On the following morning after breakfast Erika introduced me to those donkeys that were to accompany us on the trail; a rag tag brigade of amiable animals with very big ears.

They snuffled  and ‘hee-hawed’ like penguins with fish on their minds.




A summers sunrise in the Western Cape Mountains is a rarely less than splendid, and on this morn, as we trudged in single file up towards the peaks, there was a refreshing bite to 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 nearby De Rust” said the local guide who had been assigned to me .

“Most had been abused, overworked and underfed, but now they are here with us and their lives are much better”


J-Z, the donkey responsible for carrying my spare socks, pack lunch and water bottle up the mountain, had had a tough life before finding a home at Living Waters Farm. Discovered exhausted and half dead beneath an overburdened cart, the poor creature was kept alive by authorities only so that he may be presented as evidence in a court case against his odious owner.


“He was due to be put down” Erika had earlier told me “But then, much to everybody’s surprise, he gave birth.”

Obviously ‘he’ was a ‘she’ and the resulting hullabaloo brought J-Z’s plight to the attention of the donkey sanctuary.

She now lives and works on the Swartberg Mountains, a nice place for donkeys indeed, and despite having to carry hiker’s gear on her back, she has a pretty good life.


About half way up the mountain, our merry little band of hikers stopped beneath the shade of a tree situated next to a delightful waterhole and ate a lunch provided for us by the guide. There we lazed awhile and watched black eagles soar like gliders above the Klein Karoo before we stripped down to our undergarments and jumped like kiddies into the water.

We splashed and hollered and sent unsuspecting frogs leaping for their salvation, and then we gasped and leapt like frogs ourselves for the water was colder than Mugabe’s dark soul.


“Refreshed?” asked our guide rhetorically “Clean spring water direct from the chilly Swartberg peaks. Cant beat it can you?”

And before I had time to respond, we were off again,  slowly ascending the zigzagging trail.


It took as far less time and effort to reach the top, and although from down on the farm, the terrain had looked hellish and sheer, it really hadn’t been all that hectic.

Not quite a ‘walk in the park’ but neither has it been torture.

The fantastic views, the pretty proteas, the wildlife, our guides witty commentary and the general assistance from  the donkeys with our luggage had all combined to help turn an uphill climb into a pleasant stroll.


Atop the mountains, our team of camp hands had already erected a huddle of tents for us; all of them equipped with comfy beds and nice fluffy pillows; essential items to keep chilly winds at bay.


“No camp fires tonight I’m afraid” announced our guide as we sat down to eat “Its all highly flammable fynbos up here, and with these strong 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 on cue, the camp staff showed up with steaming mugs of cappuccino coffee and bundles of fluffily clad hot water bottles.

One of those shoved up my shirt soon took the chill from the air.


The following day’s hike was more or less down hill all the way, and hence it was a bit of a doddle.  We ambled easily through wide open dales and then made our way down the very same road that facilitated the abandonment of Gamkaskloof back in the 60s and 70s.

I am not sure why they all decided to leave this idyllic hidden sanctuary. 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 after his cattle strayed down there by accident.” reads one account I have seen “Others eventually followed and settled and lived in peaceful isolation until Boer guerillas fleeing the British lost their way and stumbled into the canyon. There they encountered long haired people who spoke high Dutch and lived in mud huts and wore goat skins and knew nothing of the Anglo-Boer war. A local medicine woman there cured some of the soldiers of a chest infection by use of a freshly peeled house cat.”


Apparently, only 10% of what you hear about the Gamkaskloof is true, but nobody knows which 10% that is.


On our last night on the Donkey trail, we stayed at one of the old residents renovated homes, one Mrs. Sankie Marais, who other than having no teeth (there’s a photo of her on the wall) looked quite normal and was not wearing a goat skin loin cloth nor was she boiling a cat.

The house was a lovely traditional Dutch thatched affair (as were all of the other buildings in the valley) and there we ate heartily at the braai, drank copious local wine and then slumbered in downy beds with nice fluffy pillows.


This was ‘slack packing’ at its best.


The journey over the mountain to Gamkaskloof had been a rewarding and pleasant one. I had made new friends along the way (with JZ the donkey) and I had learned a great deal from the guide about the wildlife and the history of the Swartberg Nature Reserve.  But perhaps the nicest thing of all was that I had found a heaven of sorts..  and this I had done by walking straight to Hell.


* Slack Packing is a term used to describe a hike in which the hiker is not required to carry heavy bags and tent.  The organizer provides accommodation and meals as well as transport for heavy bags and gear.


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