[mappress mapid=”2″ alignment=”right”]
It was in 1910 that the Cape Director of Irrigation, FE Kanthack, visited the valley and called it “the most favourable part of the Union.” The Gamtoos Valley is known for its rich, fertile soils, its fresh water and its agricultural bounty. It is a conservative farming area — agritourism hasn’t moved centrestage and the Valley hasn’t embraced tourism fully yet — that is focused on farming: citrus and vegetables.
It is the eastern gateway to the Baviaanskloof World Heritage Site but hasn’t seen as much benefit from that as has Willowmore on the western side, which has made a concerted effort to clean up the town and encourage tourism offerings. But then, Willowmore has a DA-run municipality.
Gamtoos Valley’s two main towns, Hankey and Patensie, are still basic farming towns with little attention to environmental quality. Patensie does, however, have two tourist stops at Tolbos Country Shop & Restaurant on the eastern end and Padlangs Restaurant on the western outskirts of the town. Both get the tourist experience spot on. Patensie’s Ripple Hill Hotel is a typical country town hotel where the bar is where to go if you want to meet locals. But the biggest suprise in the Valley was The Milkhouse Farmhouse Bar and Guesthouse just outside Hankey — read about our visit there.
If you’re not into farming, the main attraction will be the scenery, which is breathtaking — both the views across the orchards and the backdrop of the mountains.
I explored the Klein River Road north from Hankey; east on the R331 to Patensie 12km away, and on to Kouga Dam and Baviaanskloof, which is particularly dramatic and full of surprises. Like this rock outcrop which someone identified as having Queen Victoria’s profile.
Had I driven this alone, I would have just passed it by, but I had Kobus Kok of Tia Ghee Gwarri Safari as my tour guide. He knows the area very well — its history, the farms and farmers — and provides deep insights. He took me off the beaten track en route to the Kouga Dam and the Baviaanskloof Interpretive Centre. (Read more on the scandal of that Centre here.)
Dam building must be one of the pinnacles of civil engineering, and Kouga Dam was an award-winning dam in 1970 for its double curvature wall. I am fascinated by dams!
Also interesting is the fact the the wall incorporates two hydroelectric turbines which ceased operation many years ago “because they are not viable.” Surely with Eskom’s woes today, they are more than viable and would be sufficient to power the whole Valley?
Visiting the Kouga Dam made me think of how the 1960s and 70s was the era of dam building and massive irrigation schemes around the country. Valleys like Gamtoos and Robertson would be a pale shadow of what they are today without them.
Irrigation schemes have been part of the Valley’s history since settlements began.
Hankey, established at the confluence of the Gamtoos and Klein rivers in 1826, is Gamtoos Valley’s oldest town. It was named after the Rev. William Alers Hankey, the secretary of the London Missionary Society which founded the mission station there in 1822.
The first irrigation scheme on the Klein Rivier was completed in 1830. Part of this irrigation scheme can still be seen today on the Hankey Golf Course.
Hankey’s second irrigation scheme on the Gamtoos River is now a provincial heritage site. A 228m tunnel was dug using pick and shovel and wheelbarrows. Construction was very slow — about 1 to 2 feet a day. It was started in April 1843 and completed 15 months later. It was in use from April 1845 to 1970 and was the very first ever tunnel scheme in SA.
And then on into the mountains… to Baviaanskloof, which will be another whole story on its own.
Gamtoos Valley is a fascinating area with some of the most dramatic scenery in South Africa.
It’s on the brink of entering tourism in a far bigger way. There is so much potential here. Hankey is only 73km from Port Elizabeth and 42km from Jeffreys Bay. (Franschhoek, by comparison, is 99km from Cape Town.)