Hell with no handbag

Text and photographs: Leilani Basson

I’d managed to wangle my way onto a Francois Rossouw RSG 4X4 tour as a freelance journalist and first-time tripper, and it promised to be quite something. Destination: Die Hel, aka Gamkaskloof. The only hell I could think of at the time, though, was how I would survive for five days – sharing a car and accommodation with complete strangers – without my luxuries. Or to be more precise, without my beauty bag.

My biggest fear was not sleeping in a road-worker’s tent, showering under the stars, tackling rough terrain with only pebbles between the car and the cliff of no return, or the fear (and irrefutable reality) of “stage fright” leading to complete and utter constipation for weeks after the trip. Oh no.

My biggest fear was bearing it all without any make-up? and only one outfit of clothing per day. I had no idea what to expect or how female-friendly the facilities would be. Although I have roughed it before, it has always been with my family, who are pretty used to my faffing. They also know – and respect – my hair-time and the extra space I need for all those just-in-case clothes.

My hair simply cannot (respectably) dry on its own. But since I was to travel with Francois in his Toyota Fortuner for the entirety of the trip, the pressure was on to minimise, compromise and naturalise.

Not wanting to be re-christened “TT” (Titivating Toots), I started practicing weeks before. I knew exactly what to pack and how, and downgraded my beauty regimen to tinted moisturizer, cream blush and brown mascara. No brushes . No sponges.

The moisturiser and blush I mastered in the dark; the mascara in the reflection of my wrist watch. When D-day came, I had a single tog bag, a camera bag and a khaki knapsack for my notepad, toilet roll, lip-gloss, sunscreen and sunglasses. After careful consideration I had decided that my Kipling backpack, with the fluffy little monkey dangling from the zipper, just might not cut it?

We hit the road for Oudtshoorn a day before the rest of the 33-vehicle flock was to meet at Prince Albert. We had just pulled over for the pre-recording of Francois’ weekly travel insert on Radio Sonder Grense when a silver Pajero passed us, billowing smoke.

A few kilometres further the Pajero pulled over. Francois got out to lend a hand. I got out to satisfy my curiosity. They were part of our group, so I went over to meet them. Mrs. Pajero caught me by surprise: perfectly made-up face, racy red lips and an immaculate hairdo battling to move in the breeze. Holding out my hand, I was greeted by another surprise: bright red nails and dangling bracelets with a stylishly-clad arm and body attached to the hand. “Don’t despair, Toots,” I told myself. “It’s just for a good first impression. By tomorrow, she’ll tone down to camper status with cargo pants, string top and dirty tekkies”.

Mr and Mrs Pajero stayed behind to swop cars with their son for the remainder of the trip, and we went on to pick up Oom Zannie van der Walt (Die Hel’s very own walking encyclopedia who’d be sharing his knowledge via two-way radio on the trip) en route to Prince Albert. The tourist office was buzzing when we arrived: “What is RSG doing in town?”, everyone wanted to know after spotting the branded Fortuner ambling down their streets.

As one 4×4 after the other rolled into town to claim the keys for their overnight accommodation, the grandeur of the Swartberge in the background diminished against the grandness of the ladies in their SUVs. That night at dinner, for the first time in my life, I felt rather underdressed for the occasion. Everyone looked as they assumedly would when not on tour: painted toes and nails, gold and diamonds, visible make-up and dainty outfits. I thought I’d give them another day to let down their defences – the trip to Gamkaskloof was sure to strip them of all dignity.

But the next morning, sitting down for breakfast, none of my fellow females looked anything like GI Jane. I, on the other hand, was toned down for good, my wedding ring the only reminder of the glamorous girl I used to be.

The road into Die Hel was awe inspiring. Oom Zannie added to the scenery with stories of the isolated people who once lived there. He pointed out ruins where weary travellers would rest their horses, where Koos van Zyl (who built the road in four years, finishing in 1961) pushed his bulldozer downhill to start at the bottom, and where the Klowers secretly grew dagga and searched for honey in the folds and crevices of the Swartberge. Rounding off the experience, a fellow traveller shared some of Koos’s sentimental poems over the airwaves.

The Hell itself resembled no hell at all, with yesteryear’s splendour of a more peaceful existence still tangible in the legacy of those who once lived and loved there. The tales and stories are endless and one could easily hang around for a few days. Dinner was a splendid affair in a rather eerie thatched hall with ‘kloof memorabilia studded across the room. In one corner a very spooky mannequin – paging through a Sarie magazine – was perched on top of a coffin. Bedtime was sublime: we were divided into roadwork tents and retired caravans while a few lucky ones slept in the homes that belonged to ‘kloof families such as Marais, Cordier and the like.

Figuring that the showers would be occupied long before sunrise the next morning, I chose to soap the sour spots that same night. In a makeshift stable, I stripped to the bone and, with my mini maglight clenched between my teeth, stacked my stuff on the poles around me. The red tap was just for show? or a joke. So, already starkers and freezing, I thrust myself under the blue tap? uttering a few less than ladylike words. I actually needed a shave too, but with goose-bumps from a gale sweeping in from the south, I would’ve skinned myself alive in the process. In retrospect

I wish I had shaved, since I lost my razor somewhere in the darkness on the way back to the tent. My reward? Being able to merely wipe my face with a Johnson’s quickie in the morning, followed by my three-step make-up routine before facing fellow campers.

Embracing the new day in my jeans (tarantula legs, remember?), yet another string top and my Salomons, I joined the women – all perfectly groomed by 6am. Mrs. Pajero looked as if she never slept: perfect hair, flawless make-up, white linen suit and sandals. Tannie Cathy looked just as posh. And so did, well, most of them.

Before breakfast I snapped away at the miserably rusted Morris 8 that had been carried into The Hell by eight men and four donkeys in 1958. I also got some nice shots of the only original Klower son who still lives and works in the valley, with his wife. On the way back up the steep pass it was back to Oom Zannie and fellow travellers’ quirky remarks, sassy comments and fervent knowledge-sharing of rock formations and plant species, over the radio.

The rest of the day was dedicated to navigating down a narrow “Pappa-passop-die-kant, Pappa-passop-daai-kant” road in the Swartberg Nature Reserve. This specific road is closed to the public and only used by nature conservationists collecting data. But thanks to Francois’ connections we were able to see some of South Africa’s most beautiful rock formations (a story on its own) as well as fossilized mussels and rooi aas (red bait). According to a geologist who travelled with us, the entire area was once under the sea and Oudsthoorn itself was a gigantic inland lake, many millennia ago. While the more senior and sensitive drivers turned back, the rest of us pushed through to Botha’s Hoek, a little house built for bosbouers (foresters) that’s currently used as hikers’ accommodation. Much further along, at another hikers’ hut (called Gouekrans and with the most amazing view) we called it a day, turned the 28 or so cars around and headed back along the same route.

Dinner was arranged at Kobus se Gat, on the Robinson Pass on the way to De Hoek Mountain Resort. Kobus turned out to be as memora
ble a man as his gat and his menu. Despite there not being time to do all three S’s before dinner, our ladies arrived with summer dresses, blingy tops and freshly touched up faces. I was still in my jeans. Different top, fresh blush and gloss at least (and admittedly fresher after a Billion-Dollar-Man Portuguese-shower).
In stark contradiction to the previous nights, I had a flat and a shower, lights, a room with a door, an en suite, sound-proof toilet cubicle and? wait for this: a full length mirror. Dead tired after the day’s travelling and the great food, wine and company at Kobus se Gat, I plonked into the double bed, vowing to shower and shampoo in the morning. Murphy woke me up. A power failure.

The cold shower was okay, but by now my hair had really had it.

Luckily for our ladies, Daddy’s SUV had sockets for hairdryers and little lights for make-up. So, rocking up at the Cango Caves for breakfast, most of our group looked like hotel tourists. The last day’s driving was over the old Ossewapad to Bonniedale, a privately-owned farm forming part of the Attakwas Nature Conservancy area. The history and scenery remedied my hair-distress.

We saw the remnants of the double-storey, five-star Bonthuys Hotel dating back to 1797 – the horse-care facilities adjacent to it, a beautiful old watermill and the ruins of a few toll-houses where travellers from Calitzdorp and Oudthoorn paid to use the road. In 1835 an astonishing 4 280 ossewaens came this way.

We visited Bloubaard Swanepoel’s house and grave. He was the last man to be hanged in public in George, in 1863. A savage murderer, he killed many people who bought livestock from him.

Just as they paid and left, he’d set his vicious dogs free to kill them and bring back the animals. Rumour has it that a body preserved in brandy was found in a vat under his house.

Bonniedale itself was beautiful with lots to do and experience, but since time was catching up with us we headed to Hartenbos for our last night’s stay and dinner in good ole’ know-what-to-expect Spur. At long last I washed my hair under a steaming hot shower, blow dried it, and did my make-up in a clearly-lit mirror. Heaven.

As could be expected, all the tannies and almost-tannies glammed up for the last supper – one of camaraderie and recollection. Leaving with Francois in the Fortuner the next morning I had but one mission: telling my sisters there’s no need to diminish to damduiker-status when going on a RSG 4×4 Klub trip. You needn’t be a Rough Ruth or Butch Betty. Dainty Dina’s and FienietjieĀ  Fiona’s do just fine. Come as you are and bring your Estee Lauder and MAC along.

Admittedly my experience was a bit more savage due to the lack of a partner (to at least hold my torch and razor) and my own SUV fitted with all the goods, but as Mrs. Pajero, tannie Cathy and a few others proved, there’s no need to swop your Nine Wests and Jenna Cliffords for Hi-Tecs and army socks. Consensus on my first trip? Fantabulous! Any regrets? Leaving my “Rooi-rok-bokkie” dress and silver sandals back home.