By PG Jonker

How it happened

Over a cup of coffee Pieter let it slip that he had a caravan site booked at the Calitzdorp Spa.  I did not know that Calitzdorp had a Spa.  Actually, I did not even know where Calitzdorp was.  Nevertheless, I then promptly booked a site for my family as well.  After all, we had a brand new second hand tent that had to be taken for a test drive.


Packing for a tour is not per definition ‘touring’.  However, in this case the packing requires some comments.  See, this new tent of ours was a rip stop dome with a “diner / extension”.   Apart from the day that I took delivery of it and pitched it just to check that everything was there, this tent had not been camping with us before. 

Given the size of the tent with extension, though, it was clear from the outset that there would not be space for our fold out mattresses.  In fact, there would not even be space for the “diner / extension” if we do not take a trailer along which we did not have.  Out of curiosity I weighed the equipment, only to find that the whole package weighed a cool 70kg’s!

Standing back to inspect after packing our stuff the Friday evening before our departure, it appeared that I might, with a bit of rescheduling, get that diner/extension in as well.  So the packing started all over again.  Everything had to come out of the double cab again.  Rather proud of myself I managed to get the complete tent with the extension in.  After all, the whole idea was to see if we could get this right before the upcoming tour to the Kgalagadi Park a few months later.  All that remained was that “last few things” that comes in the morning of our departure.  Experience have taught me, though, that this “last few things” often gets very near to breaking the camel’s back!

Calitzdorp spa

We departed early Saturday morning.  Twice.  At Kraaifontein, about 10km’s away from home, we had to turn around the switch off an electrical appliance.  The second attempt was more successful. 

Calitzdorp is far from Durbanville, especially if you later find that your eyes have become watery because of a need to visit the restroom.  To make matters worse, the road signs did not play along at all.  By the time we should have reached Calitzdorp, the road sign said it was still 10km’s away.  When we eventually reached Calitzdorp, we learnt that the Spa was still 20km’s off.  And when we eventually reached the turnoff to the Spa, there was yet another sign indicating the Spa to be still 7km’s away!  Paah!  Eventually, though, we got there.

Pitching tent

It took a while to pitch the tent.  Quite a while.  No. Let me rephrase.  It took a ^&*($@# long time!  By the time the last tent peg was in, it was 15h00 – just in time to go find a TV to watch the Tri-Nations rugby test between South Africa and Australia.  The test, I am happy to report, was won by South Africa, albeit with a small margin.

It was a wonderfully quiet full moon night.  However, by 21h00 one got the feeling that your denims are just too cold against your skin for comfort.  Pieter warned that it became rather chilly the previous night – they came a day earlier.  Now how cold exactly, we asked.  Quite cold, reckoned Pieter. 

It turned out to be -1 ° Celsius.  Cold, man.  Like in Kimberley-in-the-army-in-winter kind of cold.  Eish!  You can put more clothes on, but it only prolonged the process of the cold eventually getting into your bones – it cannot prevent it.  This is not, let me tell you, my idea of camping. 

During the course of the night my wife did her rendition of Racheltjie de Beer , checking on the kids every now and then to see if everyone is still alive.  And every time she finds yet another garment from a bag to throw over us.  By 05h00 the next morning we were fighting against the awake.  We did notice to our relief that and could not be too long before the sun would be out.


Getting started – literally

Sunday morning eventually broke.  The plan was to go over the Swartbergpas [‘Black Mountain pass”] and to visit Die Hel.  [“The Hell”].  But first we needed to get the kids out of bed. 

Some of them were crying because it was so cold.  I could relate to that – I pretty much felt the same.  Everything in your body hurts because of the cold.   The windscreen of the Mazda was frosted up.  I chose not to use warm water to improve things for fear of cracking the windscreen.  So I decided to rather get the engine running and to drive through the caravan park whilst getting the heater to defrost the windscreen.  However, because of the cold the remote control would not work.  So I had to unlock the door with the key.  As expected, the quietness of the early Sunday morning was shattered by the wailing of the alarm.  It took a while to get that deactivated.

Because of the fact that the choke of the bakkie [for those not from SA, a bakkie is a light pick-up truck, or a utility vehicle in Ozz] was giving me problems, I had that made inactive some time before.  I will not take you through the process, but suffice to say that it took some convincing to get that 3.4 litre petrol engine started without a choke in sub zero temperatures.

I took Chris-Jan, then 17 months old then, with me in the bakkie.  At least it was mos supposed to be warmer inside the bakkie than outside.  Not so.  With the frost on the windscreen I had no choice but to wind down the window and hang out of the window to see where I was going.  So, whereas in theory it was supposed to be nice and warm inside, it took an inordinately long time before that point was reached.  In the meantime Chris-Jan and I had to contend with what I believe the weather station would call a “fresh breeze”.

Eventually we got underway to Oudtshoorn, and from there we took the Prins Albert road to the Swartbergpas.  Thomas Bain really understood this thing of building mountain passes.  It is a beautiful and scenic pass, with the road still untarred. 

We made the classical mistake of using the first possible opportunity to stop and take pictures of the scenery. 

Later, though, we got to a place where they could just as well put up a sign that says “good photo spot”.  Only thing is, parking there seemed dangerous to the point of life threatening, so we missed out on the good photo spot. 

The road to Die Hel

Shortly after leaving the Swartbergpas one finds the turn off we were looking for.  The road sign read:  GAMKASKLOOF   –   “Die Hel”  –  50km = 2 hours.   

We took that road.  A short distance on that road there was another road sign warning you that there was no fuel further on that road, and also no cell phone reception. 

After some 5km’s we stopped for a picnic lunch.  Pieter took out his rather fancy aluminium fold up table, and I got out my rusted gas bottle for coffee water.  We actually make a good team, I thought. 

From there the road deteriorated further.  At times you could see the road stretching ahead in a zigzag pattern, only to disappear in the distance.   At 30km/h or slower it takes a while to travel the 50km’s. 


It is a nice road to travel.  The scenery is beautiful and green.  After some 35km’s the road goes down the mountain with some very sharp bends in the road.  So sharp that it caused me to have to do three-point turns.  However, I soon realised that I can fix the problem simply by disengaging four wheel drive.  The road did not really require four wheel drive.  I engaged it simply as a precaution.  This causes heavy understeer on the Mazda. 

Halfway down the mountain we encountered a vehicle coming from the opposite direction.  The oncoming vehicle chose a spot where the road was slightly wider, and pulled up against the rock face on the wrong side of the road, leaving it to me to pass him on the edge of the precipice.  I did that.  Slowly.


Eventually we reached the end of the road where the gentleman from Nature Conservation, Zackie van der Walt, and his wife stayed.  Zackie invited everyone there for coffee.  Given the number of vehicles that passed us on the road, he must have been dishing out coffee by the buckets on that day.


I noticed that the tailpipe of my bakkie’s exhaust was close to breaking off completely.  I got my brand new Chinese made Australian survival knife out to use this to cut off the remaining bit of the exhaust.  In the process I bent the knife into unserviceable proportions.  So I decided to break the tail pipe off with my hands. 

Should you need to do this exercise, do consider waiting for the tail pipe to cool down sufficiently before attempting this.  I ended up with burnt hands, and landing in a thorn bush on my backside – but with the offending tailpipe duly dislodged.

Just before 18h00 that evening we arrived back at Oudtshoorn and aimed for the Steers restaurant. They had heaters running.  I was trying to work out a plan to sommer  stay there all night.  Oh, that heat….

Back at Calitzdorp spa

I always considered going to a spa in summer to be a silly idea. After all, who wants to be in hot water when the temperature outside is also hot.  No, winter is the time for this exercise.  However, back at the spa I realised that a pre-condition to getting into that nice hot water was to first take off your clothes.  And there was no way I was taking off anything in this cold!

However, we did find an indoor hot bath.  So hot, in fact, that they were pumping cold water in it, and still you could barely get in the water.  Eventually you actually want to go run outside in the cold without your clothes!

This warm bath made a rather dramatic difference the first hour or so of the night, with our bodies glowing from the warm water.  But as the Chinese wise men said:  “This too shall pass.”  Eventually the cold got to us again!  Fortunately Pieter had a spare electric blanket that we could use, which also made a huge difference to our comfort. 

Mission accomplished

But OK, the primary goal of the exercise we managed successfully:  to test our new tent.  I worked.  Now we were ready for a tour to the Kgalagadi!

 PGJ – July 2003


One Response to “TO HELL AND BACK”

  • My response to Hell and Back. It reminds me of the Cascades here in Britisch Columbia..We had one adventure, where the rear end of our car broke down, because of the roughness of the mountain pads.A well organized person must have been in place, to have made this adventure a succes. Very impressive. And highly recommended.At last but not least, the tent survived. Sorina Jonker