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Duiwelskloof: A hiker’s heaven

When Duiwelskloof beckoned, JACQUES MARAIS couldn’t resist. He tried one of the many micro-adventures that the Stellenbosch environs offer and, he says, fresh air has never tasted so good.

Karyn Marais stands at the top of the main waterfall at the entrance to the top section of Duiwelskloof. Pictures by Jacques Marais

Your backyard: when last did you take a good look at it? Many South Africans live in close proximity to nature and with easy access to the ocean, mountains and wide-sky spaces that grace our country, yet we often spend obscene amounts of money on that next overseas trip.

So stop. Go stand on your stoep (or balcony or back steps). Take a deep breath and observe. Chances are, there’s a mountain range somewhere on that horizon; or plains unfurling towards the skyline; perhaps verdant plantations or indigenous woodlands blanketing far-off ridges; maybe an ocean shoreline meandering nearby …

Have you thought about the many trails traversing those wilderness spaces? Or considered lacing up your boots or trail shoes and going feral for the day, exploring that ‘Church of the Great Outdoors’ and revelling in its glory?

Well, let me tell you one thing: if I lived in Stellenbosch, I don’t think I’d ever be indoors. The Winelands town rates as one of the Western Cape’s top trail destinations, with runners, mountain bikers and hikers from round the world tripping over themselves to experience its routes.

I’ve adventured into ‘the Bosch’ surrounds many a time and on every visit I discover another must-do trail. The most recent of these is a gem by the name of Duiwelskloof, hidden deep within the remote and rugged ridges of the Banhoek Conservancy.

Karyn and Grace on the scree slope, with Devil’s Tooth in the background, crossing the gnarly rock fields.

Expecting an easy little toddle up a ravine, my wife Karyn and I decided to turn the outing into a family affair. The initial hike from the Kylemore Gate into Banhoek is along marked trails – used mostly by mountain bikers – with the quickest route snaking along the bottom edge of the rugged Drakenstein Mountain ridges.

Fortunately, the various trails are well marked but it would be advisable to download the Trailforks app, which we found to be a very helpful navigational aid. Aim to get onto the Digbos and Bethlehem MTB segments, as they will be your quickest handrail up to the entrance into Duiwelskloof. Keep in mind that there is no signal once you’re in the kloof, so download the map beforehand.

At the entrance, the trail’s character kicks up a notch or two. Rugged cliffs wrap around soon after you’ve entered the winding kloof, with imposing red alder and Cape beech trees towering along the meandering mountain stream. Less than a kilometre in, you reach your first waterfall. This makes for an idyllic picnic spot and, if you’re adventurous enough, there’s a small grotto to explore behind the crystal-clear cascade tumbling amid moss-covered rocks and verdant ferns.

But don’t dawdle too long because things are about to get interesting… Watch out for stone cairns indicating the correct route and tramp onwards into the convoluted kloof. Your next obstacle is a daunting scree slope that’s dotted with car-sized boulders and demands a fair bit of scrambling.

Take time to stop and marvel at the view: below you, the formidable Devil’s Tooth, a hugely impressive rock pinnacle, rears up from the maw of the kloof to spear into the blue sky. Further away, Hutchinson’s, Hussar and Drakenstein peaks rise in all their rugged glory, really giving you that ‘big mountain’ feel.

Cooling off in one of the many small waterfalls.

Duiwelskloof by numbers

6.3km

Trail distance (to Afrikaskop)

1,155m

Accumulated ascent (to Afrikaskop)

12.6km

Return route (to big waterfall)

17.8km

One-way hike (to Van Riebeeck Road,
Berg River Dam)

R50 per person

Banhoek day permit (you can use Zapper)

R500

One-year access (to all trails) 

24/7

Security at Kylemore Gate
(your car will be safe) 

The lower section of Duiwelskloof is an indigenous forest haven and cool even during the midsummer heat.

Follow the meandering gorge as it opens up beyond the scree slope, leading down to the base of the big waterfall. This angled, 20m cascade is the turnaround point for many hikers on the Duiwelskloof Route, as the exposed clamber up the side of the waterfall will test those with a fear of heights. 

Don’t let this put you off, though, as the best is yet to come. Climb to the top of the falls and then keep right through the jumble of rocks, following the route to the right of a smaller cascade and on to where clear mountain pools and small rapids delineate the river’s course towards the high point of the ravine.

The trail effectively ends at Afrikaskop after 6.3km, and many outdoor-minded folk either camp here on the plateau or in the cave overhang when doing the route overnight. This is also the junction where the route joins the 5.8km Berg River Dam path, which winds all the way down to Franschhoek if you prefer a one-way hike.

Remember Duiwelskloof itself is very remote and not for first-time hikers. Our kids did join us but they are used to technical scrambling and long days out. It’s best to prepare for any eventualities and take all the necessary precautions that you would for a wilderness hike. Allow at least 6–8 hours if you’re planning the return route to the big waterfall and back. If you’re camping, choose a site far enough away from a steep cliff to avoid a possible rock fall, and pack a small medical kit and emergency ankle brace, just in case.

There was ample water in the stream when we hiked and it was wonderful to drink, but the presence of water depends on rainfall and you should plan your hydration accordingly. That should cover the general T&Cs, so now you should be ready to boot up and get acquainted with this delightful devil. 

Visit Banhoek Conservancy online for more.


The extreme option

I recently chatted to Alfred Thorpe, a well-known Stellenbosch outdoor photographer, and here’s his take on an add-on option for those in search of serious endorphins. Note that this route is off-limits if you’re not a member of the Mountain Club of South Africa.

Volstruiskloof  

Where: Banhoek Conservancy

Distance: Approximately 5–6km (12 hours)

Grading: Expert mountaineers only

Description: The Great Drakenstein mountains are wild and largely unexplored, although some peaks are accessible via Banhoek. “This will be a long day if you explore beyond the manicured trails,” explains Alfred. Many adventurers have spent the night in Duiwelskloof cave, some dreaming up a new way to descend the mountain… “This is where Volstruiskloof comes into the picture: this full-day adventure includes multiple abseils, the longest of which is a double-pitch 120m drop,” he says. “It’s hard to explain to people how magnificent these peaks truly are when they only ever see them from a wine farm, with a glass of Chardonnay in hand.”