The black eagle lay motionless in the road ahead, yet it still radiated an aura of majesty. Nick Yell and his travelling partner, Raimund, felt obligated to move it out of the road, and laid it to rest at the foot of a rock in the Karoo scrub
Text and photography: Nick Yell
We were left a little unsettled by our expertience with the dead eagle. A black cat crossing your path is one thing, but having a recently deceased black eagle block your way seemed heavily portentous. It was as if we were being cautioned to expect more weird occurrences in the days ahead.
But it had been a long day, and our nerves were probably a little jangled by the exacting 350km drive from Bot River to Gamkaspoort Dam, most of it on gravel.
Our state of mind had nothing to do with the performance of the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado 3.0 VX Diesel Auto 4×4. It handled the rally-like conditions comfortably. The problem was the time pressure we’d put ourselves under by setting off later than planned. Trying to leave town when managing your own building site will do that to you.
Yet, after settling into our simple cottage high above the Gamkaspoort Dam, we soon tossed any nagging superstitions to the wind and discussed the next day’s 4×4 outing.
The cottage is normally reserved for the exclusive use of paying guests, but Boschluys Kloof Private Nature Reserve’s owner, Gerhard Rademeyer, had kindly agreed that we could test the Prado on their “To Hell ‘n Gone” trail the next day. And even though this 2.5 graded, 20km trail (return) is the softest of his three options, we were still keen to see how the Prado’s “automatic” off-road systems, such as Multi-terrain Select (MTS), would handle the conditions.
The trail is so named because it leads you to the western edge of Die Hel, otherwise known as Gamkaskloof (Valley of the Lions). In the days before the Otto du Plessis Pass into Gamkaskloof was completed in 1962, klowers, as the hardy and often eccentric residents of this isolated valley were known, used one of four challenging routes out of the kloof to access the markets, goods and services of the surrounding towns. One of these was the vertiginous climb found at the kloof’s western end, aptly known as Die Leer (The Ladder). We hoped to picnic at the view site and turnaround point next day.
The view from the top of the dolerite-ridged koppie above our cottage was breathtaking. I’d woken up early and was keen to get acquainted with our surroundings. Walking outside in my pyjamas and takkies, I decided to get a better view of the dam by heading a short way up the hill. By the time I’d found the best photographic vantage point, I was so near the top I just kept on going.
En route to the starting point of our 4×4 trail, I put the Prado’s Multi-terrain ABS braking system to good use when a large kudu bull faced us when we crested a blind rise. He stood resolutely in the middle of the road, acting as guardian while his harem and their young crossed over. Then the whole herd melted into the adjacent knot of acacia trees.
We reached the start of the 4×4 trail some 14km up the Bosluiskloof Pass. Noticing the challenging-looking condition of the road ahead — there were a number of reasonably deep gullies and high, uneven ridges — I flipped the low-range switch, selected the higher suspension setting and engaged the “Rock and Dirt” mode on the Multi-terrain Selector. Most of these adjustments were probably unnecessary, but when you have the toys you want to play with them. Besides, I was in a mellow mood and decided the Prado could shoulder most of the responsibility for the ride quality.
With the camera monitor giving us a close-up view of the obstacles ahead, we navigated the course with ease. In fact, a few kilometres farther on we were a little sorry we’d not taken the more difficult trail, but were soon mollified by the views that unfolded as we crested a ridge and saw the trail meandering through the fynbos plateau to the Swartberge and the gates of Die Hel some 7km distant.
At Wedersiens (“Till we meet again” — the place where klowers used to exchange their produce with merchants) we went looking for the fountain in the adjacent Houwaterkloof described in the trail’s handbook. When we got there, Raimund took to walking further down the kloof while I was content to sit on a rock for a while, close my eyes and be serenaded by the gurgling stream.
Back on the trail, we were soon experiencing some mildly challenging loose rock and sandy conditions. With the MTS dialled into the most appropriate setting, the Prado again took these minor obstacles in its stride. Yet, a little farther on, the tight turns of a small kloof required me to do some careful navigating before we descended into a lower-lying plateau.
We decided to take the muddied trenches through a short vlei crossing at speed. On the back roads journey from Bot River, we’d crossed enough full drifts to know that the Prado’s wading depth of 700mm was more than ample to handle most water crossings; so apart from giving the A-TRAC (Active Traction Control) a bit of a testing through the slush, which it passed with hardly a shudder, we did this mainly for the sheer fun of it.
The descent to the viewing point at the start of Die Leer hiking trail into Die Hel is fairly steep. To manage the vehicle’s speed of descent, I engaged the Crawl Control function and let the Prado’s various braking systems ease us down the hill while we took in the view.
The green swathe that coats this narrow valley is remarkable to see. It’s as far removed from hell as night is from day. But for Piet Botha, the livestock inspector in the 1920s who had to make many trips up and down the route on a donkey to dip sheep infected with scabies, the experience was excruciating enough for him to label the valley “Die Hel” — a name which was picked up by locals and has stuck to this day.
Why go: It’s a relaxing 4×4 trail through the mountains and fynbos plateaus, with historical interest and pristine nature to appreciate along the way.
Trail name: “To Hell ‘n Gone” – Boschluys Kloof Private Nature Reserve.
Trail type: Self-guided or guided.
Trail length: About 20km.
Time required: allow at least two-and-a-half to three hours.
Type of vehicle required: 4×4 with good ground clearance.
Trail surface: Mainly tweespoor gravel, some rocky outcrops and tight manoeuvring to overcome, plus a few short sections of loose rock and sand.
Trail grading: Overall 2.5, but mostly between 1 and 2, in my view.
Facilities along the way: Nothing to speak of. Fresh water at the Wedersiens spring, plus a bench and table at the Die Leer view site, so take everything you need.
Best time of year to go: April to December.
Getting there: From Bot River, we took 350km of back roads via Robertson, Montagu and Ouberg Pass. But the fastest way would be from the N1 at Laingsburg and then the 80km into the kloof.
Accommodation: Although we stayed at the Gamkaspoort Dam cottages (very reasonable and pleasant, but rustic) you will need to stay at the Boschluys Kloof Private Nature Reserve in order to access the trails. Tel 023-581-5046; email [email protected] or visit their website at www.boschluyskloof.co.za
Costs of trail: R250 per vehicle.