Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Shangri-La in the Karoo


CAPE ARGUS – 1939, March 4
“When tigers roamed our valley, 
there were tigers roaming all over South Africa; when ‘voortrekker’ clothing was worn here, 
it was fashionable in the outside world, too. 
We live in isolation but not in the wilderness; 
we may be remote from the rest of the world 
but we are not uncivilized.”
So spoke an inhabitant of South Africa’s most isolated community, known to outsiders as “Hell,” to the dwellers merely as Gamka Valley. There seemed something of a rebuke in the words, a rebuke which perhaps we merited. We had heard strange tales of half-wild mountain folk living a life apart in this valley lost among the dark kloofs of the Swartberg mountains; so when, after hours of toiling over rocks and sand, crossing and recrossing a mountain torrent, we at last came upon the first of the dwellings, we were prepared for a meeting with real “Hill Billies.” We were forced to alter our opinions regarding the people; the tales had in no way exaggerated the isolation and inaccessibility of the valley.
WILD AND RUGGED RANGE
The Swartberg mountains contribute much to the beauty of the Cape scenery. It is a wild and rugged range, capped by such peaks as the seldom scaled Towerkop, and pierced by the tortuous rifts of Seven Weeks and Meiring’s Poort. Pink granite crags, densely wooded valleys and brawling streams; to the traveler from the dusty Karoo the shady mountain passes offer relief and contrast. And stories of a “forgotten valley,” deep in the heart of the range, cannot fail to fire the imagination of the most fantastic tales about this region seem plausible; the dim chasms, sun-lit for only a brief hour or two, the sharp peaks and pinnacles, piercing the blue Karoo sky, inspire the atmosphere of a Rider Haggard romance. Even the mountains of outer Mongolia could make no better or more romantic surroundings for a Shangri-La, that refuge from the world sought by so many.
Little is known about this valley. People living less than 40 miles from its narrow entrance are ignorant of its very existence. Even in the towns of Prince Albert, Ladismith and Calitzdorp, which surround it, information regarding it is scanty and inaccurate. And few, very few have visited it, for there is no road, not even a footpath.
“HELL DOES EXIST”
By devious means I had heard of this community. Vague bits of information that placed this almost fabulous valley somewhere in the neighbourhood of Prince Albert. These rumours were intriguing but nebulous. An inquiry addressed to the magistrate of that town produced more concrete data; a cordial letter containing detailed information. “Hell does actually exist…. A very isolated spot, and the access thereto is most difficult. Any vehicle could only be used to the entrance of the valley; from there one has to go on foot … for nine miles … The place is indeed unique and well worth a visit.”
So, the dawn of a summer day found us reluctantly abandoning our car 28 miles beyond Prince Albert on the Ladismith road. Despite the lack of a path, we were bound for “Hell.” Clad in shorts, we were prepared for the rough going about which we had been warned. The Gamka and the Dwika rivers unite before entering the mountains through a narrow gap; following the stony banks of the muddy stream, we were soon in the gloom of a narrow mountain defile. On either side of us rose sheer cliffs, unscalable, even to the most agile of mountain goats. Many hundreds of feet above us was a narrow ribbon of blue sky in which we caught an occasional glimpse of a hovering eagle. As we scrambled over the rough ground in single file, we found ourselves talking in subdued tones… if we raised our voices we were mocked by the echoes. To shout in that valley was to arouse a thousand devils. The atmosphere was eerie, almost frightening.
The kloof makes many turns. Often, we had to half wade, half swim across the shallow river, for the walls are sheer, sometimes 100 yards apart, sometimes less, never more. Always the going is heavy. Sometimes we were clambering over great rocks, sometimes toiling through sand and over round river stones. And constantly with us was the unpleasant feeling of being “hemmed in.” One of us had tactlessly remarked that Karoo rivers have a habit of coming down without warning… our position in that eventuality, we felt, would be much the same as rats caught in a server. 
A MOUNTAIN PARADISE
The sun had crossed our orbit of sky when we at last emerged at right angles to our narrow road; and as we came out of the gloom into the sunny vale we all agreed that only the approach was “Hellish.” Paradise would have been a better name for that mountain-encircled domain. The Gamka Valley is a sheltered mountain paradise. Many almost unknown varieties of indigenous trees grow on the slopes, little fields of lush Lucerne are hedged with fig trees. Clumps of banana palms add an exotic air and vouch for the temperateness of the climate. Few houses are to be seen. Most of them nestle in little side valleys, shaded by giant pear trees. Twenty families inhabit this fertile mountain valley. The Le Cordeurs, the Mosterts, the Marais’s, and one or two others; over a hundred simple, hard-working people make up this almost self-contained community. Most of them own their own farms; probably none of them have much money, yet their standard of living is high. Their houses are rough, but well built, their meals better than those of most town-dwellers – canned food forms no part of their diet. Sugar and coffee are the only real necessities for which they are dependent on the outer world. Yet these people are not the ignorant “Hill Billies” that we had been led to expect. They have a community school, once a month they are visited by the “Predikant” from Prins Albert. Occasionally they are visited by a police patrol, but this has developed into a mere social call. Crime of any sort is quite unknown. The communal spirit is well developed in the Gamka Valley. There is but one wagon there; it was carried in piecemeal. All helped to lug it over the stones; now all take turns in using it for harvesting. Even in Hell money is necessary; taxes have to be paid, clothes to be bought. Fruit, Lucerne, even grain, is loaded on to donkeys and sold in the outside world. But the path down the river is arduous; donkeys, sure-footed as they are, have to be helped over the rocks, so at “export” time neighbourly help is called in, and is given freely.
£12 a VISIT
The District Surgeon pays periodical visits to the valley; but like those of the policeman, his visits too are mere formality; the community has a singularly clean bill of health. Children there are brought into the world without medical aid; it is seldom thought necessary to pay a fee of twelve pounds – for that is what doctors charge per visit! There are two other ways of entering the valley, but both are more difficult than the route chosen by us, which is the only one that can be negotiated by pack animals. One way is by following the kloof which the river takes after it leaves the valley and flows towards Calitzdorp, the other by scaling the mountains on the Laingsburg side, by a route known as “The Ladders.” For the river route, one has to be a champion swimmer as well as an Alpine climber; the title of the other speaks for itself. It is a three-mile climb over crags.
The Mosterts and the Le Cordeurs are the pioneers of this valley; families of Marais and Botes, too, have been there for two or three generations. There has been no intermarriage; the young people of both sexes usually seek mates beyond the mountain barrier. Colonel Deneys Reitz describes, in his book “Commando” a visit to the valley while being harried by British troops. Cordeur and his family were then the only inhabitants. We met his son, winnowing his crop; he clearly remembers, as a boy of ten, leading the colonel to safety by a secret path. “They never caught him,” he told us, “although the whole world was “yellow with khakis.”
Simple, hospitable people, these dwellers of the valley. And lucky people, even if they themselves do not realise it. Life must be very peaceful and even in that forgotten valley there are no motorcars or radio sets. It seemed to us that here was an ideal escape from the turmoil and strife of modern life … almost reluctantly we entered the dim poort on our long homeward trek, carrying away with us memories and a suppressed desire to share this life of isolation in a valley protected from all outside influences by the grim cliffs of the Swartbergen.
With aching muscles, we came into the outer world, and as we emerged from the poort, we knew that we had been privileged to gain a glimpse of a real “Shangri-La.” Our visit was timely, too; soon a dam wall is to be built across the Gates of hell; an irrigation furrow, followed by a road, will invade the valley … then, well “The lonesome trail won’t be lonely anymore!”




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