Songlines for the soul between Montagu and Gamkapoort
The back road to the little known Gamkapoort Dam is lined with flowers after the spring rains
Wanderlust is certainly secreted into a strand of my DNA. Numbers of my ancestors were seamen, while the earliest Yells from the Shetlands were descended from the roaming and marauding Vikings who settled there. Bruce Chatwin, author of The Songlines and other refreshingly told travelogues, believed he was similarly afflicted by ancestors who were “horizon-struck wanderers who had scattered their bones in every corner of the earth.”
The “songlines” Chatwin wrote of pertain to the ancient and idiosyncratic tracks of the aborigines’ ancestors that criss-cross Australia; tracks which give physical and mental succour to the traveller walking them, and in turn, need the traveller to “sing” them back into life by performing age-old rituals along their courses. Apparently, the need to partake in this symbiotic relationship often comes suddenly upon Australia’s first peoples. A fact which later made itself known to their farmer settler employers when their employees’ work overalls were found hung over a paddock fence and they wouldn’t be seen again for weeks.
While it’s presumptuous to compare this sacred practice to my thrumming along hundreds of thousands of kilometres of SA’s dirt tracks on an adventure motorcycle over the past 20 years, it’s also the only way I can sing my restless soul to rest. It’s a calling I’ve been lucky to fund through travel writing.
I’m thinking this as I ride along the Ouberg Pass dirt track between Montagu and Ladismith. It’s one I’ve ridden many times before and though I never tire of the scenery or the meditative mien it creates, I realise I’m also restoring ley lines between past experiences, destinations and old riding buddies, who have either emigrated or hung up their helmets.
The scenery is not at all bad either. The normally brown and crusty roadsides are covered with fluorescent-pink vygies (mesembryanthemums) after the spring rains and punctuated with outcrops of endemic Chinese lantern trees (Nymania capensis). Stretches of the elevated plateau also reward with rocky kloofs and narrow verdant valleys, and never out of sight for long are the blue peaks of the Klein Swartberg mountains on the horizon.
Not long after passing the Anysberg Nature Reserve, I stop for lunch in a sheer-sided kloof. With a natural rockery populated with spekboom (Portulacaria afra), vygies and koeispene (Glottiphyllum regium) at my back and cliffs of stacked rock strata in front of me, I enjoy a sandwich while watching rock martins streak down the mountainside of my roadside diner.
My destination is the little known Gamkapoort Dam. There, on top of a lopped-off hill between a pair of rocky slopes, lies one of my favourite cottages in all of SA. It’s one of five rustic options constructed when the dam was built in the late 1960s. “My cottage” is nearest the dam and commands the best views. I can’t wait to get there.
But ahead of me still lies 39km of the well graded R323 — the main route to Ladismith from Laingsburg via the dramatic Seweweekspoort — and a further 25km of more challenging gravel, which includes the epic Bosluiskloof Pass.
En route I’m flagged down by a number of promising new signboards announcing the Dirt Road Café up ahead. Soon, I pull up outside a dilapidated hacienda next to an empty old plaasdammetjie, more out of curiosity than thirst or hunger.
André Theron welcomes me and dispatches his son, Ethan, to reboot the Wi-Fi so I can post a few Instagram pictures. Turns out André, originally from Cape Town, promised himself he would settle in the Koup Karoo once it had received decent rains. And over the past 18 months these arid climes have probably seen more rain than they have for the previous decade.
Over a cup of moerkoffie in an enamel mug, I hear how André’s dream and the travails to get it started gained him a precariously poised business venture, but lost him his wife. It’s a bold move he’s made following his country café dream, one at least his son seems to share in, and with a little more finessing and support from passing motorists, it may well flourish.
At the top of Bosluiskloof Pass, once known as the gateway to the Koup Karoo, I pause to take in one of the most enchanting views in all of the Karoo. It’s one that lends itself to purple prose, an affectation more acceptable in 1868 when geologist Dr William Atherstone and Thomas Bain passed this way en route to Prince Albert.
Atherstone wrote: “A scene burst upon us I shall not forget in a hurry. Breathless I gazed down the valley on the boundless sea of blue mountains, cones and peaks, table tops and jagged lines of hillocks, tingled with the faint blush of early morn ... What a wild charm thrown over the distant labyrinth of hills in the soft glow of early morn!”
The pass was built by Adam de Smidt (Bain’s brother-in-law) and completed in 1862. Before the Gamkapoort Dam was built (1969) at the confluence of the Dwyka and Gamka rivers, this pass was one of the main conduits of goods and people to and from Prince Albert and Die Hel. Today it’s a cul-de sac, terminating at the Gamkapoort Dam.
It’s time to leave the magnetic view behind and begin the most engaging part of today’s ride. While not that steep, the 7.6km pass, with its sheer and unguarded drop-offs, as well its drifts, rough surfaces and 60 bends, certainly makes for engaging riding.
The entrance to the dam precinct is 11km from the bottom and flows through antelope-rich terrain. It’s accessed by a more gently undulating and smoother gravel track and it soon conducts me to the front door of nature lover, baboon whisperer and paddler supremo, Fox Ledeboer, honorary water bailiff and general custodian of the dam for the past 30 years.
The next day Fox asks me to assist him in checking some things out at the bottom of the dam wall, a 200-step journey he’s battling to make after a recent hip replacement. On the way to the wall he points out the resident fish eagle in the distance, then a pair of black eagles (Verreaux’s) circling a krans, and finally two klipspringers on top of a koppie.
Entering the dam wall’s main chamber I feel dwarfed by its dystopian cathedral-like proportions. At the top of the stairwell this Lilliputian sensation is enhanced when I stumble across a bolt twice the length of my foot, and then have to descend down the dank, dark and seemingly fathomless stairway to complete my observations at the bottom.
After doing so, I make my way to the edge of the dam’s outflow and look into the beginning of the Gamkapoort Canyon. It used to be a popular hiking trail into Die Hel, but Fox and others got tired of rescuing people from this perilous route and the trail is now closed.
It’s close to sunset when I’m ensconced in the wicker chair on my cottage’s stoep, scrolling through the natural anecdotes Fox loaded my mind with earlier. But when the fiery-orange light show begins and the dam’s surface greatly amplifies it, all other thoughts are eclipsed.
Tomorrow I’ll wind my way along another set of cathartic dirt tracks on the way home, the first of which will lead me through the magical Seweweekspoort. Who knows, perhaps a first sighting of a leopard atop the tangled strata will further charge this “songline” for me.
Where it is and how to get there: The Gamkapoort Dam sits at the northern entrance to the Gamkapoort Canyon (just north of Gamkaskloof, aka Die Hel) and is 95km (64km dirt) from Laingsburg and 66km (44km dirt) from Ladismith. If like me you want more of an adventure drive to get there, follow this route: From Montagu, head east out of town (on the R62 towards Barrydale) and after about 500m turn left onto a tar road. After a further 500m take another left onto a dirt track. Follow this road for 109km and at the Laingsburg-Ladismith T-junction, turn left. After 49km, turn right towards Vleiland (R323) and 48km later, turn left just before Seweweekspoort and you’ll have 25km to go to the dam.
Adventure drive distance from Montagu to Gamkapoort Dam: 232km (222km on dirt).
What sort of vehicle will get me there: A high clearance SUV, preferably 4WD, especially in wet weather, or any adventure motorcycle you choose.
What it has to offer: The Gamkapoort Dam and the surrounding reserve is the ideal place to walk or mountain bike, canoe or kayak (bring your own), swim, stargaze and bird-watch.
What you need to take with you: All provisions; a Slingsby’s Swartberg & Klein Karoo map; swimming costume; hiking shoes; camera; binoculars, books and puncture repair kit.
Best time of year to go: April to October
Rates: Accommodation (electricity only from 6pm-9pm/no Wi-Fi) is charged at R300 per person per night.
Contact: Fox Ledeboer on 072 925 8421 (WhatsApp only).
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