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A visit to “Die Hel” August 7, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history.
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Slopes near Swartberg Pass. Photo by Winfried Bruenken.

It was late October or early November 1901. A group of seven Boers had become separated from the commando of General Jan Smuts as it fought its way across the hostile Cape Colony, doing what damage it could to the pursuing British columns, trying to obtain necessary supplies of food, clothing, and ammunition along the way. One of the group of seven, Deneys Reitz, had lost his companions during a shootout at an English farm (in other words, the farm owner was of English descent and loyal to the British, unlike many Cape Afrikaners sympathetic with the Boers). His pony had been shot from under him, and after a long night of hiding from the soldiers and then walking for hours before dawn, he recognized the particular hoofprints of the pony of one of his companions. Miraculously, he was able to follow it and find his friends. They still hoped to rejoin the larger commando.

In this episode, the seven men, led by Willem Conradi, travel from the valley of the Caminassi River, not far from Oudtshoorn, northward across the Swartberg mountains. They encounter a strange little settlement tucked into the mountains, known as “Die Hel” (now also called Gamkaskloof)—located off the present R328 south of Prince Albert.

The people they met in the valley told them Smuts’ commando was making its way west, maybe a few days ahead, but several thousand mounted troops were nipping at the commando’s heels. Smuts had left behind territory of the detested Scobell, but now he was pursued by Colonel Crabbe’s column. When Crabbe’s men and horses became exhausted, Colonel Kavanaugh took up the chase. But the English never caught up, since as usual they were encumbered by their heavy supply wagons. Smuts wrote in his journal that the clumsy convoys moved “like a wounded snake, winding their slow length along.”*

Jan Smuts in the Boer War

Willem Conradi’s men could see towering clouds of dust miles ahead that were raised by the convoys. At times they heard the boom of artillery. But the real trouble was that bands of troopers kept riding past to join the columns ahead. Each time, they had to hide themselves away, sometimes for hours on end.

Conradi at length proposed that the group would be better off crossing back to the north of the Swartbergen and continuing west on a parallel, less populated route. They’d have to get up the near side, which was infested with cliff bands, but the far slope was gentler. That would put them back into the Karoo.

Rock in Swartberg Pass. Photo by Winfried Bruenken.

So they headed north again toward the looming blue barrier of the mountains. It took them several days to reach the foot of the Swartbergen. One of those nights, they had a fine celebration. They had (somehow or other) obtained a goat, slaughtered it, and brought it along in pieces on the horses. That evening they stayed up till late, eating roast goat around a roaring fire, singing and telling stories. Albertus van Rooyen, who had a fine voice, sang a full program of English songs, and the others took up the choruses and filled the night air with their music.

They reached the Swartbergen near the pass of the Seven Weeks Gorge. But the road through the pass was garrisoned and patrols were buzzing about, as usual. They made directly for the scraggy top of the mountain, climbing steeply. A cold, heavy rain began to fall. The sky turned purple, then black, as they reached the crest of the first ridge. They dropped down a bit on the other side, hoping to find shelter, but they ended up sitting huddled in the dismal chill until dawn.

In the morning the shivering men found themselves wrapped in dense fog. They picked their way down an invisible slope. In the afternoon they finally got down beneath the clouds. Below the mist, which boiled off the rocks in changing, streaming formations, they beheld a remarkable hidden canyon closed in snugly by cliffs on three sides. At the bottom, a thousand feet below, they made out some small, primitive buildings. They scrambled down through a gap in the cliffs.

They had stumbled upon a strange little settlement known as “Die Hel,” inaccessible except by a rough path on the Seven Weeks Gorge side. It had been settled by a small group of trekboers who’d turned their backs on the outside world and developed their own peculiar dialect of Dutch. The Boers had always been fond of creating their own little isolated kingdoms, but this one was likely the most inaccessible of all.

A tall, wild-looking man dressed in goatskins came out to greet them. His name was Cordier, and it was his valley. He lived there with his wife and children in perfect isolation. He’d been expecting Conradi’s group. His son had heard them up on the ridge, crept up and spied on them without their knowing it, and reported back to his father.

Cordier was eager for news of the outside world. No English had reached this valley, and Conradi’s men were the first Boers to do so in a very long time. He had heard of the war—it had been going on for more than two years now—but his knowledge of it was sparse. He served them a meal of goat’s meat, milk, and wild honey. They stayed up late around a fire, roasting goat chops and talking. He was so interested in every thing they had to tell him that he wouldn’t let them sleep. His son climbed a long distance to be with them, too, arriving in the middle of the night to join the visiting Transvaalers.

Every night Deneys had been sleeping curled up tight in the Standers’ grainbag, but now Cordier’s wife gave him a nice heavy blanket, “so I could almost pass as a well-to-do man once more.”# That night in Die Hel, Cordier stayed out with them. Deneys realized how tough he’d become when mountain-man Cordier started complaining about the cold and the rain, while Deneys didn’t find it cold at all.

In the morning the visitors were not allowed to depart. Cordier produced, as if from nowhere, two buckets of honey beer that he thrust upon his guests. No matter that it was early in the day. They spent several jolly hours before the men got to their feet with a bit of a wobble and insisted they must move on toward their destination. Smuts would be getting far ahead. Cordier and a couple of his sons led them up through the rock labyrinth and stayed with them through another night, guiding them out the next morning to where they had a view to the vast hot plains to the north.

*  *  *

Adapted from my book about the Boer War, Transvaal Citizen.

*Jan Smuts, Memoirs of the Boer War. Edited by Spies/Nattrass. Jonathan Ball, Cape Town, 1997.

# Deneys Reitz, Memoirs of the English War, 1899-1902. Translated by Michael Reitz.  Unpublished manuscript, Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg.

Swartberg Pass. Photo by Winfried Bruenken.